Article for the June edition of The Hillside Messenger
“The presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church today.”
How is the Holy Spirit active in the life of the Church today?
This is a question which can be answered in a variety of ways, as the Church has various traditions which differ in their perceptions of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. For example, Pentecostal churches emphasize an individual experience of the Holy Spirit and His charisms, whereas Anglicanism contains charismatic, evangelical and Anglo-Catholic traditions of worship, doctrine and mission, all of which might or might not be found in any congregation at any given time.
In what follows, I aim to discuss some of the ways in which the Holy Spirit’s ministry is evident in the life of the Church today.
First of all, the Holy Spirit is at work through the word of God as it is read, studied, preached, taught and practiced. Whenever a Christian reads or hears someone reading a passage from the Bible, the Holy Spirit enlightens the mind of the reader or listener. Whenever an ordained clergyman preaches a sermon on a passage or text from the Bible, the Holy Spirit speaks both through the text itself and the preacher’s sermon on it. Similarly, when a Sunday School teacher teaches, the Holy Spirit speaks through both the passage and the lesson based on it. It is a Christian’s duty, to ponder, meditate on and apply to his life, God’s written word as illuminated by the Holy Spirit through the preaching and teaching of the Church.
We must expect the Holy Spirit to speak through the ordained ministers of his word, especially through the bishops, who guard the purity of the Church’s apostolic doctrine and in the Church today represent the authority of the Apostles and Prophets. It is by listening to their teaching, and to that of the priests and deacons, to whom bishops through the Sacrament of Ordination have committed some of this preaching and teaching authority, that Christians will grow to maturity in their understanding of the Bible. In this way, the Holy Spirit edifies each individual through the wider ministry of the Church.
The Holy Spirit also speaks prophetically at times through any other Christian to any of us, by warning us against a certain course of action, by encouraging us to do what is right, or by speaking out against anything sinful that the leaders of a country, church, or community may be doing. Since God chose to reprove Balaam through his donkey (Numbers 22:22-33), he can sovereignly choose to speak in any fashion through any messenger to anyone. Each of us must be willing to listen to the message the Holy Spirit gives a messenger to tell us, whether that messenger is an angel, or a bishop, or a layman. This really is one of the most wonderful facets of God’s communication with his people, that his Spirit can relay his message through anyone he chooses, both using and overriding their fallibilities in the process.
One of the greatest ways in which the Holy Spirit is active in the Church and the world today is through evangelism, whenever the Gospel is shared, whether by preaching, teaching, personal testimony, deeds of kindness, mission to the unsaved, and unchurched, or by any combination of these. How greatly the people of this world need to repent of all their sin and come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and to follow him all their life! Whenever an ordinary Christian shares his faith, explains his faith and uses God’s word to reach out to others to bring them to Christ, there the Holy Spirit is at work! How often do Christians pray for the unsaved and the lost in this world, that they may come to Christ? Whenever we are tempted to wonder why the Holy Spirit has been given to the Church, let us remember Acts 1 and 2, the perseverance in prayer that preceded the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and other disciples at Pentecost, and the effect of the Holy Spirit on the boldness of the Church to testify to the Lord Jesus Christ, even to the point, in some cases, of martyrdom.
At a time when in some churches the number of fervent believers has dwindled, we should rejoice in the Holy Spirit’s wisdom in bringing to this land people from various different nations, Christians and Christian missionaries among them, that by such intermingling our faith should be refined, purified, strengthened and renewed, so that the Church’s essential universal nature and purpose might become all the more apparent. People of all nations are on our doorstep, and the Holy Spirit is calling us to share the love of Christ with them. New worshipping communities will need to be planted, and at times, services held in different languages to meet people’s immediate needs.
The Holy Spirit is creatively at work in the seven Sacraments of the Church, especially the Sacraments of the Gospel, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. In Holy Baptism, a new Christian is grafted into the Church, and the power of the Holy Spirit begins to increase that person’s awareness of God and communion with Him. By means of the Holy Spirit and the waters of Baptism, a person is born again, or born from above. In Holy Communion, the Holy Spirit, through the Real Presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, strengthens a Christian’s relationship with God, deepens his fellowship with his fellow believers in the Church, and cleanses him from sin (1 John 1:7). In Confirmation, through the Church’s and the Bishop’s prayer for the Holy Spirit and the Bishop’s laying on of hands, a Christian is empowered with the Holy Spirit to be victorious in his fight against the Devil, the pride of the world and the sinful desires of the flesh, to live life wisely, and to bear witness to Christ effectively. In the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, the bride and the bridegroom are joined together in a lifelong union by the Holy Spirit, and the words of our Lord, “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mark 10:9; p. 303, Book of Common Prayer, 1928) quoted in the wedding service express the creative act of God in joining bride and groom together. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or private Confession to a priest, the Holy Spirit reconciles the penitent to God on the basis of his confession and firm intention to repent, as well as his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and through the priest assures the penitent of the forgiveness of his sins. In the Sacrament of Holy Orders, by prayer and the laying on of hands by the Bishop (or Bishops, in the case of a bishop’s consecration), men being ordained deacons, priests or bishops, receive from the Holy Spirit and the Church both the authority to fulfill their ministry and the grace and spiritual gifts needed for it. In the Sacrament of Holy Unction, by a priest’s prayer and anointing with holy oil, the Holy Spirit ministers to the sick person, bringing healing grace, and in the case of the dying, a healing that helps him transition to eternal life with Christ in heaven. Of course, in Anglican belief, all these Sacraments do not automatically convey God’s grace, but the believer must bring to the Sacrament a good intention and a prayerful willingness to receive God’s grace and a determination to cooperate with the Holy Spirit at work in him.
According to 1 Corinthians 12, the Holy Spirit gives and distributes the spiritual gifts (charismata) to each one as He wills. All the spiritual gifts are manifestations of the Holy Spirit, and we must rejoice to see the Holy Spirit working powerfully through the gifts he has given to Christians, for the diversity of these gifts is a richness of the Spirit’s life and activity. Greater than all these gifts is the virtue of divine love (agape, 1 Corinthians 13), which is also the first among the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). The Holy Spirit is revealed not only through the spiritual gifts and ministries of the Church, but also through the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. All of us need to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in letting Him produce this fruit, this harvest, in our lives, especially that divine love that leads us even to the point of laying down our lives for one another.
Finally, the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work through the worship, prayers and intercessions of the Church. When we don’t know what to pray for others, or how we ought to pray, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us “with groanings that cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26), so that in the lives of all the saints, all the people of God, all things work together for their good (Romans 8:28). Continuing in praise, thanksgiving and prayer is the way to be filled with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18-20). The more we all do this, while obeying the Spirit in all things, the more we shall see the Church living the life of the Spirit and growing to maturity until it comes to the fullness of God’s kingdom.