Spirit, Spirit Who's Got the Spirit
"Button, Button who's got the button" is a fun childhood game. It's anyone's guess where the button is. To some, it's a guessing game as to where the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit is for them today. To some the question is "Spirit, Spirit, who's got the Spirit." Our text which takes place Easter evening answers that question.
First let there be no doubts about it. We desperately need the Spirit. God's people have always needed Him. God gave His Spirit to Moses, to Moses' 70 helpers, and then to Joshua in order to lead and judge the Old Testament Church. God's Spirit came upon Gideon to give Him courage and Samson to give him strength. God's Spirit was taken from Saul, leaving him at the mercy of evil spirits, and given to David to equip him to lead God's people. God's Spirit gave Solomon his wisdom and Ezekiel, Isaiah and other prophets the Word of the Lord.
God's people need God's Spirit or they cease to be the people of God. St. Paul tells us in I Corinthians 12, "No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit." No one can believe in Christ or confess His name unless the Holy Spirit is first given to him. On our own our hearts are stone not flesh. On our own our mouths will not confess Jesus to be Lord. On our own we cannot persevere in the faith. Without the Lord's Spirit to keep us in the one, true faith we will most certainly fall away. To sum up how desperately we need the Holy Spirit let me say this: There is no physical or spiritual life apart from the Holy Spirit. You and I die physically apart from the Spirit of God breathed into us, and you and I die spiritually apart from the Spirit of God breathed into us.
Having said that we die physically without God's Spirit being breathed into us, where did God do this? We find God first breathing His Spirit into man to make him a living being in Genesis 2. "Then the Lord God formed man out of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being." God "breathed" into Adam and he became physically alive. That is how life was fist given to man, but that does not explain how this physical life comes down to us. Nowhere do we read that God ever breathed into anyone else physical life.
The Spirit of life that God breathed into Adam is passed into us through Adam and Eve. Adam became a living being capable of passing on life through his wife, whom he named Eve, because she was the mother of all the living. The Spirit of life, the Spirit that gives physical life starts with God, is passed to Adam, from Adam to Eve, and then from Adam and Eve to everyone else through their parents.
Of course, the Spirit giving physical life is not enough. Because of the fall into sin, physical life declines and decays till their is death. Because of sin mankind has been separated from the God who is life itself. Humanity needs not just physical life but spiritual life too. Where does God put His eternal, life giving Spirit?
In Genesis we read how God breathed into man His Spirit of life. Thousands of years go by before God ever breathes on anyone again. It wasn't till Easter evening. It wasn't till Jesus had borne our sins on the cross on Good Friday. It wasn't till Jesus paid for every single sin that ever had been committed or would be committed. Then all of a sudden, on the night Jesus arose from the dead, He appears in the upper room where the apostles are and lo and behold, God breathes on men again. "He breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."
Admit it. This has always been strange to you. Jesus didn't go around breathing on people, did He? And what's with breathing on them and saying that thereby they have received the Holy Spirit? It is only understandable in light of Genesis, a book that St. John wants us to be thinking of. John begins his Gospel with, "In the beginning" using the identical Greek words that the Greek Book of Genesis starts with. Likewise, the Greek word for breathe John uses is identical to the one found in Genesis.
John means for us to connect the two. As the only way for the man to get the life giving Spirit is for God to breathe it into Him, so the only way for men to get the eternal life giving Spirit is for God Himself to breathe it into them. No one could get the life giving Spirit except through being born from Adam and Eve. So no one could get the eternal life giving Spirit except through being born again by the apostolic preaching and teaching of the forgiveness of sins for Jesus' sake. Just as God put physical human life on earth through Adam and Eve, so God put spiritual life on earth through the apostles. Just as it is foolish and dangerous to look for physical life apart from men and women producing it, so it is foolish and dangerous to look for spiritual life apart from the apostolic preaching and teaching of the forgiveness of sins.
I know what you're going to ask. You're wondering how I know that the "them" Jesus breathed on was the apostles. I am just going by our Lutheran Confessions which say in the Augsburg Confession Article 28:6, On Ecclesiastical Powers, "For Christ sent out the apostles with this command, 'As the Father has sent Me, even so I send you.'" The apostles were the ones breathed on. They had the Spirit and they were charged with spreading Him by means of the forgiveness of sins. Wherever, you find sins being forgiven for Jesus' sake there you find the Holy Spirit. That's what we confess in the Third Article of the Creed, isn't it? Where the Holy Spirit is there you find the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the life everlasting and the resurrection of the dead.
Okay, so God breathed His eternal life giving Spirit into the apostles who in turn spread Him through forgiving people their sins. But where do you get that Spirit today? How do you know you have Him? How do some church groups answer these questions? You get the Spirit today from someone baptizing you with the Holy Spirit by laying hands on you. You know you have the Holy Spirit if you babble in unintelligible tongues. You know where the Holy Spirit is when you see signs and powers and healing going on. You know where the Holy Spirit is where you can feel Him working inside you and others.
Where does the liturgy confess the Holy Spirit to be working? Three times in the service the pastor says, "The Lord be with you," and you respond, "And with thy spirit." Isn't that a strange versicle and response? Haven't you ever wondered why we say this three times? And isn't it particularly weird that you say the Lord is with my spirit? If you look in my explanation to the liturgy, you will find that I trace the versicle, "The Lord be with you" to the Book of Ruth. But where does your response, "And with Thy spirit" come from? We have copies of liturgies dating to at least 215 AD and possibly to 165 with this response. In some of these liturgies, the pastor's part varies, but never the response, "And with thy spirit."
Three times you tell the pastor the Lord is with his spirit. Right before he prays the Collect for the Church, reads the Word of the Lord, and preaches the forgiveness of sins to you in the sermon. Then right before he celebrates the meal of the Lord being present with His Body and Blood for the forgiveness of you sins you again assure the pastor the Lord is with his spirit. And finally right before the pastor speaks the benediction of peace the Lord first commanded Aaron to put on His Church, you once more say, "And with thy spirit."
Every time the pastor does something that no mortal, sinful man ought dare to do: speak in the place of the Lord Jesus; forgive the sins of people; celebrate the meal of Christ's Body and Blood taking them into his hands to give to you, and right before he puts the thrice Holy Name of God on you, you assure him that the Lord is with his spirit in a special way. The Lord is with his spirit so that when he deals with you it is no less than the Spirit of the Lord Himself doing it. No sinful man ought to try to do these things unless the spirit of the Lord is with him.
Our liturgy didn't come about recently. It was handed down by God's people over a millennia before us. Our liturgy goes back to the time before there was even a Lutheran Church, so it is not Lutheran per say. What did those people mean by this rather strange phrase, "And with thy spirit?"
St. John Chysostom (380 AD) explains it this way, "If the Holy Spirit were not in this your common father and teacher [i.e. your pastor], when he ascended the holy chair and wished you all peace, you would not immediately have cried out with one accord: "And with thy spirit." Yet you do cry out to him [your pastor], not only when he ascends his throne [the pulpit] or when he speaks to you and prays for you, but also when he stands at the holy altar...He does not touch that which lies on the altar before wishing you the grace of our Lord and before you have replied to him: "And with thy spirit." By this cry you are reminded that he who stands at the altar does nothing, and that the gifts that rest there are not the merits of a man, but the grace of the Holy Spirit is present and coming down on all..We indeed see a man. But it is God who acts through him. Nothing human takes place at this holy altar."
Lest you think this is just some early church opinion. Dr. Nagel of our St. Louis seminary says that the response "and with thy spirit" is not just a friendly greeting. The congregation is addressing the pastor and recognizing him as the Lord's man to do what has been given him to do.
Where is the Holy Spirit for you today? Not just when you see spiritual looking things. Thank God for that because what you see is not just weak things like Water, Words, Bread and Wine and a sinful man, but bad things. You see sickness, suffering and death. But there is more here than what you see. The Lord's Spirit is here sanctifying what is bad, painful and weak. The Lord's Spirit is here through Word and Sacrament to make the words of a pastor able to destroy sin, death and the devil. The Lord's Spirit is here to make the waters of Baptism a life giving water rich in grace. The Lord's Spirit is here to make bread and wine more than what you see, more than what anyone could dare imagine, the Body and Blood of Christ given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. The Lord's Spirit is here to put God's name on you.
Where is the Lord's Spirit for you today? Not in what you feel. Thank God for that because how often do you feel without the Spirit? Thanks be to God you are not sentenced to your feelings. The Holy Spirit is not with you only according to how much you feel Him. No, He is there with you whenever you go to your Baptism; there you are renewed by Him regardless of how you feel. The Holy Spirit is present when your sins are forgiven, and He forgives regardless of how unforgiven you feel. And the Holy Spirit is there in Communion with the forgiveness of sins, everlasting life and the resurrection of the dead even though you might feel sinful and dead.
Spirit, Spirit whose got the Spirit? Whoever has the ministry of the Spirit in Baptism, Absolution, and the Holy Communion. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Easter II (4-22-01) John 20: 19-31