Sunday, August 18, 2013

We Believe in the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:1-7,11-16)

If you are just joining us for the first time today, we are in the middle of a series of messages called, “What Do We Believe, Anyway?”  This is a four-part series of messages, and today is the third in the series.  I invite you to take out your sermon notes from your bulletin and grab a pen or a pencil so that you can jot down anything of interest to you.  If you want to go back and take a look at this or any other sermon, I post them online each week, and you can see where on the top of your sermon notes.

All along, in talking about believing, we have maintained that believing in something is more than having certain thoughts or opinions about it – rather, believing is a matter of trusting it and leaning into the convictions that are most critical and crucial to the life of faith.

We began by affirming our belief in God the Father.  The Scriptures clearly teach “God is love” (1 John 4), and so we begin with the belief that God is much more of a loving parent than a strict judge, and that no matter who we are or what we’ve done, God loves us unconditionally because that’s simply who God is – God is love, Amen?  Last week, we affirmed our belief in Jesus Christ, who we said is the perfect embodiment of God’s love on earth.  Jesus is the love of God with a human face, and we who believe in him are to believe in him so much that we become like him, Amen?

That may sound all well and good, but maybe you’re sitting there thinking, “Be like Jesus?  How is that even possible?” Not only is it possible, but in John 14, Jesus tells us that we will do even greater things than he did when we receive the Holy Spirit, who is God’s active presence in our lives.  Whatever God wants to do in the world, whatever God wants to do in and through us happens through the Holy Spirit.  Believing in the Holy Spirit is so important because that’s where the power is.

I have a friend who is also a United Methodist pastor, and one day he was receiving some good-natured ribbing from some Pentecostal friends, who were wondering out loud if the Holy Spirit showed up at a Methodist church, would we even know it?  My friend replied, “The Holy Spirit, does, in fact show up at the Methodist church; he just knows to mind his manners when he’s here.”

The most common place we hear about the Holy Spirit is in the story of Pentecost, in Acts 2.  Pentecost takes place 50 days after Easter Sunday, and it commemorates the story of the Holy Spirit being poured out on the first disciples of Jesus, such that they became bold witnesses of all that God had done in Jesus Christ, going outside themselves, outside their comfort zone, out into the world to share the good news of God’s salvation, inviting people into new life in Christ. 

One of the ways the Holy Spirit showed up that day was as a mighty, rushing, violent wind.  In Hebrew, the words for Spirit, wind, and breath are nearly the same. The same is true in Greek. In trying to describe God's activity among them, the Biblical writers were saying that the Holy Spirit is like God's breath, like a holy wind. It could not be seen or held: "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes" (John 3:8). But the effect of God's Spirit, like the wind, could be felt and known.

Wind can be a powerful force.  The many wind storms we’ve witnessed just this summer remind us of that!  At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit showed up among the first followers of Jesus as the rushing sound of a violent wind.  Not a gentle breeze, not a pleasant zephyr - but a violent, hurricane, tornado, typhoon sort of wind.  The Holy Spirit is not a slight stirring of air that makes the windchimes on the back porch sing on a summer evening; the Holy Spirit is a mighty, powerful, take the roof off and blow your shed into the neighbor’s pool kind of wind.  And when the Holy Spirit blows into our lives, it is strong enough to rearrange our priorities and line up our will with God’s will, empowering us to bear witness to the love of God in this world.

We say the church was born on Pentecost – this movement of Jesus followers was spun into existence through the wind-powered testimony of witnesses who were filled with the Holy Spirit, and on that first day alone, the fledgling church grew from 120 people to over 3000.  But the Holy Spirit wasn’t done in one day; The Holy Spirit is still guiding, growing, and gifting the church. 

The scripture we’ve read today from Ephesians tells us that perhaps the most distinguishing and recognizable aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work is that the Holy Spirit is always a unifying spirit.  If God is love, and if the Holy Spirit is God’s enduring presence among us, does it not follow that the Holy Spirit’s prerogative is to unite us in love?  When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, God’s love just radiates from us, spilling out of us in every possible direction, our behaviors and attitudes reflecting those of Christ our Lord. 

Funny story on that.  I was preaching on the Holy Spirit one Sunday, especially how the Holy Spirit works and transforms our hearts to make us more Christlike, and a lady came out with a scowl on her face.  Nothing newsworthy there – she usually had a scowl on her face, being a rather sour, disagreeable person, with a reputation for a quick temper and even sharper tongue – let’s just say “Christlike” is not the first descriptor that came to mind about her.  She said, “I don’t believe in all that Holy Spirit business,” and it took every ounce of self-control I could muster to not say, “Lady, tell me something I didn’t know.”

Friends, it’s not hard to tell if someone has the Holy Spirit in their lives.  If something is truly of God, it will build people up and draw us closer in God’s love, not tear others down and split us apart in fear and hostility.

Today’s text from Ephesians is a reminder that the Holy Spirit is always a unifying spirit.  To be clear here: unity is not the same as uniformity. So, there are differences and there will be differences.  But, being filled with the Holy Spirit ushers us into a reality where the ligaments of love and peace that unite us in Christ are strong enough that we not only withstand, but embrace our diversity, celebrating the many ways in which we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, put it this way: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”

God’s design is not to make us all exactly the same, but that the Holy Spirit unite us with the ligaments of love and peace.

Here’s a question to consider: how many churches are there in the world?  If you were to add up all the congregations of every denomination and non-denomination, what would be the total number of churches – any guesses?  There would be exactly one.  There is only one church.  The one church expresses itself in a variety of ways, but through the Holy Spirit, we believe in the unity of God’s church – that there is only one.  It’s one of the things we affirm in the Apostles’ Creed.

You know that line, where we say we believe in the holy catholic church?  I’ve known some folks who crinkle up their nose and cross their arms and say, “I don’t say that part because I don’t believe in that,” which only goes to show that this is perhaps the most misunderstood line in the creed, at least among Protestant Christians.

A lot of Protestants don’t understand what the word “catholic” means.  They think it refers to the Roman Catholic Church, that Christian body headquartered in Rome headed by the pope.  It only means that if we use the word “Catholic” with a big “C.”  However, when we use the word “catholic” with a small “c,” as the Apostles’ Creed does, it means something altogether different.  The word “catholic” with a small “c” means “universal,” describing a church that is comprised of all believers, of every time and place, a church that is bigger than any one nation or tradition or denomination.  The church of Jesus Christ bridges all of those potential divisions.  The unity of the Spirit is a bond that’s stronger than all those differences – it’s something I believe because I’ve experienced it.

During my seminary years, my greatest support system was a group of 11 of us who met every Wednesday morning for breakfast, Scripture study, prayer, reflection, and accountability.  The members of our group were United Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Roman Catholic.  Every Wednesday, I experienced God at work in my life through these friends, and the Holy Spirit bore witness with my spirit that we were, all of us, united to each other because we were united to Christ.  The body of Christ, the church universal that is bigger than each of our respective tradition, was built and strengthened in love.

The Captain and Tennille were on to something when they sang, “Love will keep us together.”  Perhaps a teaching on Christian unity is not quite what they had in mind, but the sentiment is still applicable to us as people of faith – the bonds that hold us together are ligaments of love, and we believe that we are held together in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Why is it, then, that so many Christians are prone to argue with each other?  Can you imagine such a thing?  Christians – church people arguing, even fighting about something!  In your wildest imagination, could you ever believe such a thing to be possible?

Here’s what I have come to realize – 99.9% of the arguments that Christians have amongst ourselves are over things that don’t really matter.  Amen?  Most disagreements between Christians are not over essential beliefs, but over personal preference.  I will go so far as to say that the things that divided Christians into one denomination or another, fights between Catholics and Protestants, East and West, conservative and liberal, issues that have splintered congregations, whatever – all the ink and blood Christians have spilt back and forth in wars both actual and ideological has been a colossal waste of time and energy.  Further, such divisions have testified something about God that is quite the opposite from the unifying bonds of peace and love to which we, as people of Christian faith, are called.  If the effort that has gone into winning fights had instead gone into loving others, how much better off might our world be?  If we believe what our faith claims, if what we say is true, if grace really is so amazing, then Christians need to be the ones leading the way in love and peace and reconciliation, not the ones creating dissent and division, Amen?  Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?

We believe in the Holy Spirit.  Today we give witness to the reality that the Holy Spirit is a unifying spirit.  The Holy Spirit equips and empowers us to share God’s love with the world, starting with each other. 

Supplemental Material

When We Say the Apostles’ Creed, what are we really saying?

The third clause of the Apostles’ Creed says, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.  Amen.”

The Holy Spirit
Along with the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit is one of three persons who make up the Trinity, or God.  We have already said that God the Father loves us unconditionally: no matter who we are, what we’ve done, or where we’ve been.  God in Jesus Christ embodies unconditional love on earth; Jesus is the love of God with a human face, and we who believe in him are expected to follow him so closely that we become like him.  But how can we do that?  The Holy Spirit: God’s enduring presence on earth.  The Holy Spirit empowers every believer for Christlike living – being full of the love of God and neighbor.

Everything that follows?  The Holy Spirit is the agent that makes all of that possible:

The holy catholic church
This is probably the most mis-understood aspect of the creed among Protestant Christians, and it has to do with the word “catholic.” Did you know, “catholic” with a small “c” means “universal?”  It reminds us that there is only one Church – comprised of all Christians regardless of denomination.  When “Catholic” is used with a big “C,” it refers specifically to the Roman Catholic Church – that Christian body headquartered in Rome led by the pope.  In the creed, we affirm our belief in the small “c” catholic (universal) church – meaning we believe that, regardless of denominational expression, there is only one Church, and Jesus is the head of it.

When Jesus prayed in the garden on the night before his crucifixion, his prayer was that his followers would all be one (John 17).  Being filled with the Holy Spirit, naturally breaks down our suspicion and mistrust of other individuals, congregations, and denominations.  The Holy Spirit helps us look for and recognize the activity of God in places and traditions that are different from our own.  When you find yourself suspicious or untrusting, pray for a fuller measure of the Holy Spirit.

The communion of saints
In the New Testament, “saint” is simply one of many ways of referring to a Christian believer.  “If anyone is in Christ, new creation!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).  Certainly, anyone who is in Christ, anyone who is participating in God’s new creation, is a saint.

Death is not the end of the story; even death shall not separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39). Death shall not separate the saints, who are in Christ, from each other.  We have unity (communion) with the whole body of Christ, whether saints on earth or saints who have gone on to the Church Triumphant.

The forgiveness of sins
The Bible, in its broadest terms, describes sin as a “condition of separation from God.”  The early church fathers described our human will as curvatas, meaning curved away from God.  This is our sin condition, which leads us to commit “sins” – things that are damaging to our relationship with God others, and ourselves.  The Greek word often translated “sin” is hamartia, meaning “to miss the mark.” You can see that a sin is way of missing the mark.

The Holy Spirit makes possible the forgiveness of sins.  “Forgive” means to make things right, to restore, to reconcile.  The Holy Spirit first corrects our curvatas and lines our will back up with God’s will.  The result is that we no longer miss the mark because our lives are lined up with God.

The resurrection of the body
This has less to do with believing in the resurrection of Christ than in the firm conviction that what God did in the lifeless body of Jesus, God will do in us, as well.  We serve a resurrected Lord, and we are called to live resurrected lives.  We expect the Holy Spirit to work a real change within us, to transform something of us from death into life, from despair into hope, from a dead-end into a brand-new beginning.

The life everlasting
It is a myth, a popular one but a myth nonetheless, that eternal life begins at death.  The truth is you don’t have to wait that long.  Jesus said he came that we might have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10).  Full, abundant, rich, glorious, eternal, everlasting life is available now, and it begins when the Holy Spirit comes in and dwells within us, re-arranges the furniture of our hearts (our priorities), and begins the process of transformation at the depth of our being to make us more like Christ, living lives that forever reflect the glory of God.

One last word on the Apostles’ Creed, and it’s actually the last word of the Creed.  “Amen.”  We say this word all the time, but did you ever think about the word means?  It’s a declaration of affirmation, it literally means, “so be it.”  When you say, “Amen,” you are signing your name for all to see, offering your will for God to do whatever God wants with you and in you and through you.  You should take saying the word “Amen” as seriously as you do before you sign your name to a contract.  God will assume you meant it, and place the Holy Spirit within you to further align your will with God’s heart of unconditional love, to empower you for Christlike living in the world, and to continue the work of transformation that only the Holy Spirit can do.  Amen, and Amen!

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