Thursday, 8 May 2008

Receiving the Spirit

What does it mean to receive the Spirit? Pentecost Sunday is the celebration of the Spirit, when we remember and celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit.[1] There is some confusion as to the fundamental meaning of ‘receiving the Spirit’. Some in the Pentecostal movement have twisted it to become a means of excluding those unlike them[2], while the charismatic movement (rightly) focuses on spiritual gifts[3], but this focus has the tendency to obscure the fundamental meaning (and experience) of the Spirit. The Christian tradition affirms over and over that the Spirit enables us to join in the relationship Jesus enjoys with God. In traditional language, the Holy Spirit is the personal bond of love between the Father and Son, and through the gift of the Spirit we are ‘adopted’ as children of God, enjoying the same loving intimacy with God as Jesus the beloved Son.[4] This puts the Christian experience of the Spirit in a little more perspective and retrieves ‘receiving the Holy Spirit’ from some of the excesses of Pentecostalism.

First, it means that there is something going on in us as people of faith that is more important and deeper than we usually realise. Jesus is God in the flesh, the co-equal Son of God, enjoying the closest possible intimacy with God the Father; an intimacy of complete union. We share in that intimacy through receiving the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus. This is an intimacy beyond what is natural to our humanity. Through Christ and the Spirit we actually enter the very life of God, the love of the Father and the Son.

Second, this intimacy is not individual, as though it were just about each of us individually and God. We share an unimaginable intimacy with God that will be completely realised eternally, but we enjoy this intimacy together. The Father and the Son share their love (the Spirit) to enable us to join them in their community/communion of love. Intimacy is not individual.

Third, a primary sign of the presence of the Spirit in our lives is Christian community echoing the communion/community of the Father, Son and Spirit. This is Paul’s point in 1Corinthians 12, especially verses 1, 4-7, 27. All other manifestations and gifts of the Spirit do not contradict this first principle.

Fourth, when bad things occur this bond of love with the Father and Son through the Spirit remains. Even when it feels like we are deserted. Even Jesus experienced this[5], but the bond of love remained, and bridged the godforsakenness of the cross[6] and even hell itself.[7]

[1] See Acts 2:1-11; 10:44-48; John 20:19-23.

[2] They love Mark 16:17 and these signs become a proof of faith. See note 3 for Paul’s own rejoinder to their misreading of Mark 16:17. Also 1Cor 14:1-19.

[3] See 1Cor 12:4-13. Note also 1Cor 12:27-31, where the answer to the rhetorical questions is ‘No’, not all receive the same gifts. And the still more excellent way he mentions is love. (1Cor 13:1-13).

[4] For example, Jn 14:18-21; Rom 8:14-17; Ephes 2:17-18. For Jesus the beloved, see Matt 3:17.

[5] Matt 26:36-46

[6] Matt 27:46

[7] 1Pet 3:18-20


  1. I sort of get the point of this intimacy business when you say this intimacy is not individual, as though it were just about each of us individually and God
    I wonder if it better said that this intimacy is not only individual ie. that it isn't just some narrow personal experience.
    But if intimacy is not appropriated by the individual is it really intimate!
    Haven't thought this through yet, but I think this needs to be included

  2. Quite right. The word 'person' encompasses what you say. As an example, the Father is who he is because of the relationship with the Son - relationship and 'individuality' are not inversely related. (Without the Son God is not Father, that is, he would lose his personal identity.)