Come, Holy Ghost: A Wesleyan perspective on the Spirit

While most United Methodists can articulate what they believe about Jesus and are reasonably comfortable talking about God, our confidence might waver when talking about the Holy Spirit.

Maybe that is because we can relate to Jesus as a human being and understand God through personified imagery like "Heavenly Father."

Pentecost, depicted in this icon, is the day the Church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit. Photo by МЕЛЕТИЙ ВЕЛЧЕВ, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Pentecost, depicted in this icon, is the day the Church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit. Photo by МЕЛЕТИЙ ВЕЛЧЕВ, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The symbols we use to talk about the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, are far less human. At Pentecost we read about the Spirit as fire and wind. In Baptism, we recognize the work of the Spirit through water and a dove. Not to mention the confusion caused by referring to the Spirit as the Holy Ghost.

Additionally, cultural understandings talk of specific work attributed to the Spirit like ecstatic utterances and other highly emotive responses. While we do not discount those experiences, many of us have not had them and wonder about the Holy Spirit's role in our lives.

An old sermon and hymn may be able to help.

John Gambold, an original member of John and Charles Wesley's Holy Club at Oxford (from which would grow the Methodist movement), wrote the unimaginatively titled sermon "On the Holy Spirit." The sermon, which appears in the 1872 edition of The Sermons of John Wesley, was found in John Wesley's papers after his death and closely matches his own understanding of the Holy Spirit.

In the sermon, Gambold chooses not to address the "particularly extraordinary gifts" of the Spirit, but "what the Holy Spirit is to every believer."

Hymn writer Charles Wesley, brother of John, wrote a song known to many United Methodist congregations even today. "Come, Holy Ghost, Our Hearts Inspire" (The United Methodist Hymnal 603) shares many of the same themes as the sermon. Together, these two documents help us better understand the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Harbinger of Day of Resurrection

Gambold writes of the Holy Spirit as the fullness of God at work in our broken world.

The "sin of Adam," as the events of Genesis 3 are described in the sermon, distanced human beings from the image of God we were created to be. Addressing Adam's desire to cover up after sinning, the sermon states, "Well might Adam now find himself naked; nothing less than God was departed from him."

In Jesus, God has bridged this separation by overcoming sin. "[W]hat we lost in Adam," the sermon reads, "we might receive in Christ Jesus."

While that process of reconciliation begins when we put our trust in Jesus, it will not be complete until the Day of Resurrection to come. The Holy Spirit is a harbinger of that future.

Spiritual Gifts

Every child of God is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, specially gifted to play a unique and valued role in the body of Christ.

Fountain of love

From the earliest days of the Methodist movement, John Wesley sought to help Christians live faithfully in the midst of their ordinary lives of family, friends, work, bills, and more. He encouraged the Methodists to participate in what he called the "means of grace," which include acts of piety like worship and prayer, along with acts of service like feeding the hungry and giving to the poor.

These acts are gifts strengthening us to live into the two-fold nature of discipleship: loving God and our neighbors.

In his hymn, Charles invites the Holy Ghost to strengthen us to live our faith daily.

Come, Holy Ghost, our hearts inspire, let us thine influence prove;
source of the old prophetic fire, fountain of life and love.

Revealer of truth

John Wesley often called himself a "man of one book." That book, of course, is the Bible.

As an ardent student of the Scriptures, Wesley knew that the same Spirit that inspired the authors would also move in the hearts of readers centuries later, revealing God's truth to us. Gambold's sermon refelcts this, stating that the Holy Spirit is "a light to discern the fallacies of flesh and blood, [and] to reject the irreligious maxims of the world."

In the second verse of "Come, Holy Ghost, Our Hearts Inspire," Charles prayerfully asks the Holy Ghost to reveal God's word to us.

Come, Holy Ghost (for moved by thee the prophets wrote and spoke),
unlock the truth, thyself the key, unseal the sacred book.

Bearer of New Creation

Having the Holy Spirit among us, a sign of that future day of restoration, also gives us the ability to live as people of that future now. Through the Spirit we see the world not only as it is, but also as it will be, and are invited to participate in the work of reconciliation.

In Gambold's sermon we read that the Holy Spirit "is some portion of, as well as preparation for, a life in God, which we are to enjoy hereafter. The gift of the Holy Spirit looks full to the resurrection; for then is the life of God completed in us."

When we sing verse 3 of Charles' hymn, we pray for that day to come. Using an allusion to the presence of God's Spirit moving over the face of the deep before the first day of Creation (see Genesis 1:2), we long for the new creation.

Expand thy wings, celestial Dove, brood o'er our nature's night;
on our disordered spirits move, and let there now be light.

Assurance of salvation

If you have ever wondered if you are really saved, you are not alone. Many Christians, including John Wesley, have gone through seasons of similar struggles. This sermon points to evidence of our salvation in the gifts present in our lives.

In "On the Holy Spirit" we read, "[W]here that divine Guest enters, the laws of another world must be observed." The Spirit shifts our priorities. Where we once were primarily concerned about ourselves, the Spirit enables us to focus on our love of God and others.

In verse four of "Come, Holy Ghost, Our Hearts Inspire," Charles Wesley writes how love flowing through us is evidence of the Spirit living in us.

God, through the Spirit we shall know if thou within us shine,
and sound, with all thy saints below, the depths of love divine.

It may be difficult for some of us to articulate a relationship with one described as fire, water, wind, or a dove. What we need to know is that the Spirit is the presence of the Holy in and around us each day, enabling us to live into the people God created us to be and will be restored to one day.

Learn more about the spiritual gifts described in the New Testament, and take an online assessment to help you discover and cultivate your gifts.

This story was originally published on May 20, 2015.

*Joe Iovino works for at United Methodist Communications. Contact him at [email protected].