How the Holy Spirit works within us

Those of you who know the story of Harry Potter will know that it is about someone discovering the power that lies within. In that sense, it is a very Christian message, for although we sometimes pray “Come Holy Spirit”, as if the Holy Spirit is outside us, the truth is quite the opposite. St John makes this clear in the Gospel today (John 20:19-23) where he shows that when the Day of Pentecost arrived, as described in our 1st Reading, (Acts 2:1-11) the Holy Spirit was already within them. Why? Because the risen Lord Jesus had already breathed on them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Yet this doesn’t tell the whole story, because Jesus knows that what he is giving them is something they already have deep within.

How do we know this? Well the answer is that wherever there is life, the Holy Spirit is present. That is why Christians call God the Holy Spirit the Giver of Life, (as in the Creed) pointing back to the very beginning of the Bible where God says that his Spirit lives in all of us whilst we are alive. (Genesis 6:3) Later on, we are taught that all that we do to construct useful or beautiful things, can only be done by those who have the Holy Spirit within them. (Exodus 31:2-4)

The problem for us, as for the disciples of Jesus on the Day of Pentecost, is that the fact that the power of God’s Holy Spirit is there deep within us, is not easy to realise, even for people who are Christians.  There the disciples were, having met the risen Jesus a number of times, but still frightened to go out and risk their lives by sharing his message with the world. Yes, they were meeting and praying together; and taking and breaking and blessing the bread together, just as Jesus had told them to.  They also knew that at some point they had to get out there and start talking, for the risen Jesus had said to them as we heard in last week’s “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matt 28:19-20) Yet they still had not yet found the courage to do this.

Often it is when we know we have a special task to do, that the Holy Spirit suddenly wells up in us, to give us the courage and strength to do it. Maybe you know the story of the mother who was looking out the window at her son mending his car when the jack gave way and the car came down on him. She was out of that door and grabbing hold of that car and lifting it, so he could slide out, almost before she realised that she was not strong enough to lift it alone. Yet she did. And there are many other stories of people doing impossible things when faced with a crisis ; and in each case we know that they can only do such things because the Holy Spirit was working within them.

But the disciples of Jesus were more like us. There was no immediate crisis to trigger the power they needed. It appears to have happened to them simply because they were faithful, and God needed to use them. So there is no Harry Potter spell to make the Holy Spirit work in us. We just have to be faithful and believe that God is within us. This is why we often speak of the Holy Spirit as the breath of life, or the breath of God. Most of the time we breathe in and out without even noticing it, and it’s only when we have to make some extreme physical effort, and end up breathing hard, that we realise how important breath is. Yet the breath is there supporting us whether we feel it or not, and it is the same with the Holy Spirit.

Some of the Christians in Corinth (as in our 2nd Reading : 1 Cor 12) were trying to show off, and say that they could do marvellous and dramatic things because they had the Holy Spirit, whilst others didn’t. St Paul is very firm with them. The Holy Spirit, he says, works in all sorts of ways. Some people may be used in powerful ways, but they must know that this power must always be used for the common good, not just to show off.  They must also know that those who are weaker members of the Church are just as important and spirit-filled as they are. (1 Cor 12:23)  And he goes on to say in a famous text from the Bible, “If you speak with the tongues of men or of angels, but have not love, then you are nothing.” (1 Cor 13:1)

The message is clear. God’s Holy Spirit is available to all of us, and will work in us in all sorts of different ways. What we need to do is pray that we will be guided in life to do what we have to do, however special or however ordinary that is, and know that whatever these things are, God will be around us as God the Father, alongside us as God the Son, and within us as God the Holy Spirit.