What the Holy Spirit Really Looks Like

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Have you ever seen the Holy Spirit? (No, that’s not a trick question.) Seriously, then: have you seen the Spirit? No, of course not. The best we get in the Bible are descriptions of tongues of flame (Acts 2) or a freely blowing breeze (John 3). I think that’s what makes preaching on — or for that matter even talking about — the Holy Spirit so difficult. We don’t know what the Spirit looks like.


Except that in this week’s reading we get two insanely helpful clues that, together, offer a pretty good picture of just what the Holy Spirit looks like.

Clue #1: the Holy Spirit looks like an Advocate –the one who stands up for you when you need it; the one who speaks on your behalf; the one who lends you a helping hand, takes your side, and won’t leave you while you’re down.

Clue #2: the Holy Spirit looks like Jesus. The Spirit is “another advocate” because Jesus is the first. The Spirit, Jesus goes on to say, will abide with us just as Jesus the Word made flesh has abided with us. The Spirit is sent in Jesus’ name and reminds us of what he taught (14:25). In a very real way, the Spirit mediates Jesus presence and helps to keep his promise that he will not leave us orphaned and will come to us.

In summary, then: the Holy Spirit is an advocate that looks a whole lot like Jesus. Which means that we’ve actually seen the Spirit lots of times. Anytime, in fact, someone stands up for another…  Anytime someone acts like Jesus… Anytime someone bears the love of Christ to another… we’ve seen the Holy Spirit.

No wonder, then, that Jesus says, “you know him.” Because, as it turns out, the Holy Spirit at one time or another has probably looked a lot like you, even a lot like me, and definitely a lot like each and all of us when we do these things.

So what would it be like, Working Preacher, if after you spent a few minutes describing John’s take on the Holy Spirit, you told your congregation that the Holy Spirit looks a lot like them when they stand up for others, try to be more like Jesus, and bear Christ’s love into the world. Maybe you could even hold up a mirror and hold it up for them. Or, if you really want to make the point, maybe you could get a full-length mirror and hang it on one of the doors leading out of the sanctuary so that you can tell everyone to look in it on their way out the door and see the Spirit going out into the world.

Or, what would it be like to get your congregation musing, and then maybe writing or talking about where they’ve seen this Holy Spirit in the world this week, either through the good they’ve been blessed to do for others or the good they’ve been blessed to receive from others.

Or what would it be like to email everyone ahead of time with this kind of description of the Holy Spirit and invite them to send you where they are actually seeing — right now! — the work and presence of the Holy Spirit in the world.

Or what would it be like….

Okay, you get the picture. What would it be like? Well, it’d be like we were able to take one of those huge, indescribable, rather amorphous theological concepts and make it down to earth, concrete, even seriously imaginable. And maybe, just maybe, folks would leave church this Sunday morning and actually keep thinking about how the Holy Spirit is at work in them and through them for us and all the world.

Now that would be cool. Actually, that would be a work of the Holy Spirit!

Thanks so much for your faithful ministry, Working Preacher, because whether you know it or not, the Holy Spirit is not only working through you but also looks a lot like you, right now, as you prepare to bear witness to Jesus. Very, very cool.

Yours in Christ,