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Deeper understandings Holy Spirit

God’s gracious presence in our midst, ever available, for everyone

Editor’s note: This series is intended to be a public conversa- tion among teaching theologians of the ELCA on various themes of our faith and the challenging issues of our day. It invites readers to engage in dialogue by posting comments online at the end of each article at The series is edited by Philip

D.W. Krey, president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadel- phia, on behalf of the presidents of the eight ELCA seminaries.

By Nelson Rivera and Kirsi Stjerna

Kirsi Stjerna: When I think of the words “Holy Spirit,” I remember being told as a (Lutheran) teen that it isn’t enough for a Christian to be baptized with water, or even to “say yes to Jesus,” but that I needed also to be baptized by the Spirit to be holy and saved. What kind of experience would that be exactly?

In my search for a personal and unmistakable experience of the Spirit, I witnessed some people so struck by God’s Spirit that it made them cry, sing, speak in tongues, prophesy, repent and fall on their knees. Some spoke of the Spirit with fondness and passion, as someone they knew. I wondered whether we could invoke the Spirit to enter our lives—and how we would know when it happened.

Nelson Rivera: Like you, I was told of the need to experience the Spirit personally, whether through a new “baptism” or through a life of sanc- tity, performing many good works and doing lots of prayer. I began to think differently about the Spirit only after listening to Lutheran preaching and then read- ing Martin Luther by myself. It was primarily the emphasis on the basic inseparability of the word of God and the Spirit of God that did it for me. The Spirit makes the word effec- tive or truly present in one’s mind and heart. Therefore, thinking of the Spirit as the power of the word (as gospel, as proclamation) to convince, to change minds and hearts, was among my earliest convictions as a (new) Lutheran.

Stjerna: It was with great relief that I came to learn from Luther on these matters.

Rivera Stjerna

Rivera is associate professor of systematic theol- ogy and Hispanic ministry and director, Latino concentration, at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. Stjerna is professor of Reformation church history and director of the Institute for Luther Studies, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (Pa.).

In his catechism, Luther con- fessed that he could not by his own understanding or strength believe in Jesus as his Savior any more than he could try to meet the expectations of God the Creator. It was the Spirit that called him, gave him faith and made him holy.

18 The Lutheran •

I also came to believe that it was only through the Spirit that any of us could become God’s own or have the kind of faith that saves and car- ries us through thick and thin. The experience of the Spirit would be that of forgiveness and hope—a “life giving” experience for daily life. The assurance would be in God’s own word, not in how I felt or how good I tried to become.

Rivera: Faith is the work of the Spirit through the word. In and with the word, the Spirit is God’s gracious presence in our midst, ever available, for everyone. Where the word is, the Spirit is there also. We could say that the Spirit comes as a living word for us. It is like saying: God the Spirit is here and near, actually at hand, in a concrete and communicative way. At the same time, it is this dimen- sion of the presence and availability of the Spirit that I also find challeng- ing—not because it’s difficult to understand, but because it’s hard to actually know the extension and con- sequence of that presence.

Stjerna: Luther writes in his cat- echism how the word and the Spirit together work in us, and for us, bringing us to the experience of for- giveness and evoking, creating and nurturing in us faith that we need to get by. He is confident that when the word is read, heard, spoken, used, interpreted, struggled with, needed for, there is the Spirit already at work for us.

Rivera: I like how specific Luther can be when speaking of the Spirit’s actions for and among us. Many peo-

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