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Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, October 25, 2009.  This is the eighth in a 13-week series titled “Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed.” Today we look at the Holy Spirit.

I Believe in The Holy Spirit

25“All this I have spoken while still with you. 26But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.  — John 14:25-27

The Third Person in The Creed

I had the opportunity to speak to students at Duke Divinity School this past week, and to meet Dr. Curtis Freeman, who is the director of The Baptist House at Duke.  Dr. Freeman and I had a chance to chat later in the afternoon.  In the course of our conversation, my sermon series on The Apostles’ Creed came up, and Dr. Freeman was curious as to how that was going.  He had read about my intention to preach on the Creed this summer, and emailed me that he was going to be speaking at a conference in Alabama at Samford’s Beeson Divinity School — a Baptist university — on the Nicene Creed.  So, creeds seem to be more and more popular in Baptist life, not because we are in danger of adopting one officially, but because we believe the statements in the great creeds of Christianity.  He also told me that Duke Divinity was hosting Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright, distinguished professor in systematic theology.  Dr. Freeman told me that Wainwright uses The Apostles’ Creed as his outline for his sytematic theology lectures.  Of course, he’s a Methodist, which explains a lot, but nevertheless, I’m not so far out in doing this series after all.

So, let’s get down to business today.  The Apostles’ Creed could be easily divided into three main sections:

  1. The section affirming belief in “God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”
  2. The second second on our affirmation in “Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,”
  3. And, the third section, stating simply, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

Two powerful lines in the Creed are devoted to God, and ten lines are devoted to Jesus.  The two lines about God use high content titles to describe God — Father, Almighty, Creator.   Those three words describe our relationship to God; God’s own pre-eminence over everything; and, God’s creative act.

The ten lines about Jesus walk us through his life from his relationship to God, to his conception, birth, suffering, crucifixion, death, burial, descent into hell, resurrection, ascension back into heaven, his position at the right hand of God, and his sure return to judge the living and the dead.  Those ten lines cover a lot of territory, but they also tell a story familiar to us, and a story that forms the heart of the Christian faith.

At first glance, one might look at The Creed and think that there is only one line devoted to the Holy Spirit, and that line is not very descriptive — “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”  Period.  End of sentence.  But actually, a semicolon resides at the end of that phrase, connecting the Person of the Holy Spirit to that which follows.

In other words, our belief in the Holy Spirit acknowledges that it is the Holy Spirit who empowers the church, unites the saints, regenerates sinners, breathes resurrection life into transformed bodies, and sustains us in the life everlasting.

So, while we are going to talk about each of those things — the church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting — when we do, we will also be talking about the work of the Spirit.

So, the Holy Spirit is not getting short shrift in the Creed, or in our attention in this series.  But today, we’re going to stop at the very short, but powerful phrase — “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”

Who is The Holy Spirit, and How Did He (or She) Get Here?

Who, then is the Holy Spirit?  Well, if you read the popular work of inspirational fiction, The Shack, you remember that the author portrayed the Holy Spirit as a blithe female persona, flitting here and there in the blink of an eye.

We may not be ready to call the Holy Spirit “she” today, but by all means we should not call the Spirit “it.”  The classic understanding of the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, or any of the other names the Spirit is identified by is that the Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Divine Trinity.

There is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit has always existed as co-eternal with God, of the same essence as Father and Son, and yet with unique ministry.

We encounter the Holy Spirit first in the first verses of Genesis, where the Spirit of God broods over the unformed earth.  The image there is one of a hen brooding over her chicks to bring them safely and carefully into full maturity.

“But,” you say, “I thought God the Father, Almighty was the creator of heaven and earth?”  God was, and here is where all this gets a little tricky.  It is very easy for us to talk about the Trinity, but very hard for us to explain the Trinity.

Perhaps this will help:  The Holy Spirit is the Person of the Trinity who encounters humankind here on earth.

  • So, when God creates the earth, and everything else, The Holy Spirit is the one who shows up to do the work.
  • When God sends his only Son to earth, The Holy Spirit is the Person of the Trinity who moves miraculously in Mary’s life so that she conceives Jesus.
  • When at Jesus’ baptism, God the Father says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased,” it is the Spirit who descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove.
  • When God resurrects Jesus from the dead, it is the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit who breathes the breath of life into Jesus’ transformed body.

And, so the Holy Spirit is now God with us, and that is exactly what Jesus says to his disciples in the passage we read today.

Just as God sends Jesus to the earth, to humankind, so God the Father and God the Son send the Holy Spirit to earth to be God’s continuing presence with those early disciples and with us today.

Our Problem With The Holy Spirit

But, we are often like the believers in Ephesus.  When Paul arrived there for the first time, he asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit since they believed.  Their reply was, “We haven’t even heard if there is a Holy Spirit.”  And here’s why 21st century Christians in America sometimes act that way:  we’re not sure we want the Holy Spirit.

That’s right, we’re just not sure we want to go there.  We as Baptists are pretty sure we don’t want to do weird stuff, like speak in tongues, heal the sick, and jump pews.  We’ll leave all of that to our Pentecostal friends, thank you very much.  So, the first problem we have with the Holy Spirit is a problem of weirdness.

And, there is a lot of weirdness that takes place when the Holy Spirit is around.  On the Day of Pentecost, weird things happened — the sound of a rushing wind filled the place where the apostles were staying.  Flames of fire appeared over their heads, and they spoke in languages they had never learned.  So, what was that about?

Well, while it sounds weird, several things were going on at once.  For the Feast of Pentecost, Jews from all over the known-world had stayed in Jerusalem since the Passover.  They came from a variety of cities, nations, and tongues.  And, so the speaking in “unknown tongues” was a reversal of The Tower of Babel story.  Once, as recorded in the Book of Genesis, man had tried to make a name for himself and build a ziggurat that reached into the throne room of God.  But God frustrated that effort by confusing their language, mixing up their speech so that they could not understand one another and could not finish the project.

But at Pentecost, God unscrambles that confusion by giving Peter and the other apostles the ability to preach in languages they had not learned, so that everyone who was there, no matter where they were from, understood and heard the story of Jesus.  So, when God does weird stuff, it always has a purpose.

But, that doesn’t mean we want to be weird, and besides the Day of Pentecost has come and gone.

Which brings me to our real problem with the Holy Spirit:  we think that the Holy Spirit only does the weird, the miraculous, or the extraordinary.

But Jesus calls the Holy Spirit “the Comforter.”  That doesn’t sound too weird, or even miraculous.  Jesus said to the disciples that the Holy Spirit was “with you, and shall be in you.”  The Holy Spirit is the abiding presence of God in our lives.

I have often heard people remark during or after a particularly difficult time, “I don’t know how people who don’t believe in God are able to get through what I’ve just been through.”  That’s the work of the Holy Spirit, comforting, strengthening, caring, and guiding.  That’s not weird at all.

But whether we are comfortable talking about the Holy Spirit or not, the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives and the lives of all believers.

Get Used to The Holy Spirit Because He’s Our Down Payment on The Resurrection

Paul said that the Holy Spirit is the earnest money, the down payment on our own resurrection.  In 2 Corinthians 1:21-22, Paul says:

21Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

The Spirit is the guarantee, the down payment, of what is to come.  God gives us himself as personal guarantee of the fidelity of His promises, His saving grace, and our eternal place with Him.

So, it would seem like we need to know something of the Holy Spirit, because after all, the Holy Spirit is our guarantee of life everlasting.

The Holy Spirit Equips The Church

One of the primary purposes of the Holy Spirit is to give gifts to each follower of Christ.  Of course, the greatest gift is God’s gift of salvation, but there is more to being a follower of Jesus than just eternal life.  There’s life here in the body of Christ called the church.

Paul said that Christ is the head of the body, but that the Holy Spirit gives each of us gifts to fit into the body.  Some have supernatural gifts, some have more everyday type gifts, but none of us is overlooked in the gift-giving of the Holy Spirit.

If I were to suggest to you today that we could do what Jesus did, some of you would think that I was either speaking rhetorically, or I was exaggerating.  But that’s exactly what Paul, and Jesus himself, said.  The key to that, though, is we don’t do it alone.  By bringing our gifts, and using them in concert with the gifts of others, the body of Christ carries out the work and ministry of Christ in this world today.  Feeding people, healing people, announcing the good news, befriending the friendless, demonstrating kingdom values — all these things are only possible if we live in the Spirit, and express the gifts the Spirit of God has given to each of us.

The Spirit Also Wages Spiritual Battle

But, let’s not kid ourselves.  This world is a long way off from being what God intends for it to be.  The Lord’s Prayer asks for God’s will “to be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”  We are not close to having that prayer answered universally yet.

As a matter of fact, the Spirit is also fighting for us and the kingdom of God.  Now, we know how the story will end because Jesus has already defeated sin and death.  But have you ever watched those “nature-at-its-wildest” shows?  I saw a new one the other day called “Monsters of the River” or something like that.  The star was trying to catch some gigantic fish that lived in the Amazon, or a river pretty much like it.

The one thing they always say after they catch the gator, or croc, or in this case a fish that looked to me like the world’s largest catfish — the one thing they always say is, “Okay, be careful when we put him back in the water, because his tail can be deadly.”

And, that’s where we are today.  Satan is a defeated foe, the church knows its going to be victorious, but in his death throes, Satan’s tail can be deadly.

Paul said, “10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” — Eph 6:10-18 NIV

We’re in a spiritual battle, we’re to take the sword of the Spirit, we’re to pray in the Spirit — sounds like the Holy Spirit is doing a lot for us in the realm of the unseen world, that we need to know about.

I am reading David Augsburger’s book, Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures.  Augsburger is primarily speaking to those who will offer pastoral care and counseling to persons from cultures other than their own.  He told this story to illustrate the power of a world known to other cultures, if unknown to us:

In Indonesia, a man converted to Christianity from Islam.  He was troubled by a talisman — a gold coin — visible just below the surface of his skin, on the underside of his forearm.  He said that this talisman has brought him good luck, success, prosperity, and power in the past.

But when you examine his arm closely, you notice there is not scar or visible sign of how the gold coin got under his skin.  He says that a Muslim priest, a shaman of sorts, placed the coin on his arm, and then the shaman covered the coin with his own hand.  When he removed his hand, the coin was imbedded under the man’s skin.

The young man came forward during a worship service at his new church, asking the pastor for prayer for this talisman.  The pastor showed the young man’s arm, with the gold coin imbedded in it, to the congregation and asked them to pray that the power of the coin would be broken.

As the congregation prayed, the pastor placed his hand over the embedded gold coin, just as the Muslim priest had done.  As they prayed, the pastor removed his hand from the man’s arm.

The coin was no longer under the young man’s skin.  His arm is clear, scarless, and with no sign of the coin.  The pastor held up the coin in his hand as visible evidence to the congregation that the power of God was greater than the power of the coin.

That is a true story, and if we do not understand it, it is because the Holy Spirit works in ways beyond our comprehension or culture.

We do believe in the Holy Spirit for every time we weather a storm, bear a burden, survive a difficulty, or need comfort, the Spirit is there.  He is at work in our world, continuing the ministry of Jesus, at work in our lives through each assembly of believers called the church, and at work in the unseen world where the struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, and powers, and rulers of darkness.

Sweet, Holy Spirit, sweet heavenly dove,
Stay right here with us,
filling us with your love.
And for these blessings
we lift our hearts in praise,
Without a doubt we’ll know that we have been revived,
When we shall leave this place.