The Holy Spirit contemporizes, reveals, and imparts our redemption here and now. Sadly for us preachers, the Holy Spirit seems to be the most neglected person of the Trinity in contemporary theology. We preachers need a robust conviction of the Holy Spirit’s work because we, unlike most academic interpreters of the Christian faith or of Scripture, must stand up and speak a word to God’s people, here, now. The Holy Spirit is the power of God, empowering humanity to know God. The Holy Spirit is God’s agency in preaching, that which makes a sermon work.
The Holy Spirit is not some impersonal force, not some vague sense, but rather has a distinct personality, as portrayed in Scripture. I would characterize that personality as dynamic, difficult, destructive, life-giving, creative but disruptively creative (Genesis 1; Acts 2). In the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus told us to pray for the coming of God’s reign and to not lose heart (Matt 6:10). But not because God was holding something back. It was now but not yet. It is not fully here, not only because a nonviolent God refuses to force or to coerce that reign upon us. (We may still turn away and reject, refuse, and decline.) Yet the Kingdom also seemed distant, even as Jesus stood beside us, because it was Jesus who stood beside us. The nearness of the Kingdom, in Jesus, gave us a close look into what God’s kingdom was really like. Jesus made us pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” now, here as it will be then, there.
Confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome all of our self-imposed resistance, to construct true Christians out of the stuff of us sinners, makes the work of the Holy Spirit the engine that drives all Wesleyan theology. The Holy Spirit is not exotic, optional equipment for a Christian. We depend on the Holy Spirit as much as we depend on air. In fact, John Wesley spoke of “spiritual respiration” to emphasize the necessity of being constantly connected to the Holy Spirit. (See Sermon 45, “The New Birth,” §II.4.) Like air filling our lungs, the spirit of God fills our lives, making us refreshed and ready to do God’s work. Stop breathing God and our spiritual lives wilt. Because our spiritual respiration is not involuntary, unlike our natural breathing, we must concentrate on being receptive to the Holy Spirit through prayer and the sacraments, Bible study, and other spiritual practices that assist us in cultivating life in the Spirit.
It is the nature of the Holy Spirit to work through a multitude of means to make God present to us, to give us not only the presence of God to us but also the power of God working in us.
Thus I met two older women who have begun and sustained a ministry within one of our local jails for youthful offenders. They visit twice a week and volunteer to teach literacy courses to the inmates. They also make sure that every young man’s birthday is celebrated with a cake and presents provided by local United Methodist churches.
“I have really surprised myself,” said one of the women. “I’ve always been a rather shy person, not the type to venture out and attempt new things. Can you believe what God has done for these young men through someone like me?”
It was, for me, a wonderfully Wesleyan testimonial to the effects of the Holy Spirit. I guess the wild story in Acts 2 is true.
From The Best of Will Willimon (Abingdon, 2012. Check out Will’s novel, Incorporation, a wild ride through the contemporary church – satire and slapstick with serious theological intent. Available from Cascade Press https://wipfandstock.com/store/incorporation.