Recognizing the Holy Spirit

Meghan Larissa Good is teaching pastor at Trinity Mennonite Church, Glendale, Arizona, and author of “The Bible Unwrapped: Making Sense of Scripture Today.” Meghan is a worship speaker for MennoCon19. She recently completed a D.Min. at Portland Seminary, where she received the Buechner Award for Excellence in Preaching. Her doctoral research focused on the nature of biblical authority and the way the Western church’s relationship with Scripture has shifted through different historical eras. In Meghan’s free time she likes to write and travel around the country helping people rediscover the dazzling story of God. Meghan loves stories. And Jesus. And stories about Jesus. Also dinosaurs.

There’s an old Chinese proverb that says, “If you want to know about water, the last one to ask is a fish.” I think of this proverb often when I talk to Mennonites about the Spirit. Mennonites could — and do — talk all day about Jesus. We are generally conversant in God’s mysterious ways. But mention the Spirit and many of us are apt to get a bit squirmy: “You mean that thing that makes other Christians talk funny and even occasionally dance in church?”

The fact is, asking a Christian about the Holy Spirit is very much like asking a fish about water.

The problem for many of us is not that we haven’t met the Spirit; the problem is we’ve been too close for too long to clearly perceive what we’re swimming in.

Take a deep breath in and out. Now another one. For a moment turn your awareness to the air moving in and out of your lungs. The Hebrew word for Spirit (ruach) and the Greek word for Spirit (pneuma) are both the same word commonly used for breath. You don’t have to know you are breathing to breath — that’s why sleeping works as well as it does. In similar fashion, you don’t have to know the Spirit is working for the Spirit to have been intimately present and active in your life for a very long time.

Paul writes in Romans 8:9, “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.” For Paul, to be a Christian by definition is to be one who has the Spirit. The Spirit’s presence encompasses all the things we take for granted, the conditions that make the Christian life possible. Beneath every selfless act, every offering of forgiveness, every timely word, every impulse to generosity, every soul-deep prayer, the Spirit is at work. The Spirit mediates our connection to God and through God to each other.

It’s been my experience that Mennonites are often tempted to talk about the Christian life in ways that appear to reduce it to two simple steps: (1) figure out what Jesus did, and (2) follow his example by trying really, really hard. It’s a straightforward two-part sequence of seeing, then imitating.

You might be thinking, “Well, yeah, that sounds about right.” But here’s the thing — simply reading a story about what Jesus did and then going out to attempt to do the same is sort of like being a first-year art student who tries to imitate a Monet after looking at a photograph in a book. Best case scenario, what you probably end up with is a shabby, barely reminiscent echo of the original masterpiece. More likely the result just looks like a toddler tripped over the dye cups from this year’s Easter eggs. Simply having an idea of what the master does doesn’t create the capacity to credibly imitate or participate in his work.

The good news of the Christian faith is not simply that we’ve been given a perfect example to follow.

The good news is that God has given us the Spirit — the same Spirit which descended upon Jesus himself at his baptism.

In the gospel of John, Jesus promised his disciples that after he went away, he would send the Spirit to them, and they would do what they saw him doing and even greater things. The Spirit which empowered the ministry of Christ now empowers the ministry of Christ’s people.

As Christians, the Spirit of Christ lives within us. This is a level of intimate relationship with God that the disciples still could not imagine even while standing in the presence of the risen Jesus himself. It’s not just Jesus “out there” in the world anymore; it’s Jesus “in here.” The Spirit working within us transforms our minds, changes our vision, remakes our desires, inspires our imagination, and empowers our actions so that we are not just mimicking Christ any longer but actually becoming an extension of his body.

Through the Spirit, Jesus actually continues to live his life out in us. He is painting his artwork through our hands. We are no longer mere “imitators”; we are indwelled by the Spirit of the Master. When we engage in ministry as the church, when we step up to creation with a brush in our hands, we do not simply follow the example of Jesus but in some very real way carry the presence and power of Christ with us to the canvas. We are in-spired and empowered by the transforming breath of God.

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