Toorak Uniting Church

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I believe in the Holy Spirit

Apostolic Creed (3)
Deuteronomy 34   Luke 4: 14 – 30
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
10:15am, 21 October 2007
Apostolic Creed (1)   The Name of God     Apostolic Creed  (2)  A changeable God

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.

Today we come to the third part of our series on the Apostolic Creed. A part that is as challenging as the first two. Once again I found myself wrestling with ideas and concepts that could easily have provided material for 10 sermons and the daunting task to condense them into one, short (we are celebrating communion and we don’t want to be here all day) sermon. There is too much to cover and too little time to do it in!

Having said that, I believe the first two sermons in this series have proven interesting and exciting exactly because they endeavoured to condense very rich and multi facetted theology into short and fairly simple sermons. Giving us the chance to grasp some of the bigger picture without losing ourselves in the detail of it. And so we continue on. With broad strokes and big steps ignoring the finer detail and deeper issues, and seeking the connection to us here and now through the figures of Jesus and Moses, rather than immerse ourselves in the theological debate of the ages. Does this old creed still have value for us today and if so, what is it telling us that is worth considering 14 centuries after it came into being? What does talking about the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life ever lasting mean to us, Christians of this day and age, in Toorak?

The Holy Spirit is that part of the trinity that refers to the moving power of God. After we have spoken about God the Father, the almighty Creator as the foundation and source of all that is, and about Jesus as God personified, we come to God the Spirit as that aspect of God that is mysterious and profound beyond our understanding and at the same time close and within the realm of our immediate experience, tangible and intangible at the same time. It is how we God encounter in peak experiences or feel him as the gentlest push towards serving our neighbour or getting involved in anything that will promote wholeness, justice and peace in this world. It is the ongoing work of Christ. It draws us and our world towards the Kingdom, towards a new and different order, and seeks to change us into people more like Jesus every day.
This Spirit is holy, meaning it is of God. Saying that we believe in the Holy Spirit means that we put our trust, put our money and our life on the Spirit of God rather than any other spirit or power that is at work in the world.
Scripture uses many images for Spirit, the image of wind, of fire, of breath, of a force or energy, a power that will move, liberate, set free and bring change. It is the breath of God that is breathed into humanity at the beginning of creation, breathes life into to dead bones in Ezekiel and is breathed onto the disciples after the resurrection. It is the fire that comes down at mount Sinai at the giving of the law and again at Pentecost, writing the law of love upon the hearts of Jesus followers after the resurrection. It is the power which descends on the prophets in the First Testament and on Jesus after his baptism imbuing them with zeal for God’s Kingdom. The fruits of this Spirit are listed in Galatians 5 as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.

When we talk about God as something we can point our finger at, something we can see at work in the world and experience in our lives. At the same time it refers to something as invisible and intangible as wind, breath, moving where it will, beyond our understanding, outside our grasp.
The Holy Spirit is that part of God we ramble on about, because there are no words to adequately describe it, but at the same time needs describing because it is there where God touches us most intimately.

From the Holy Spirit we move on to the Holy Catholic Church and the Holy Community of Saints (in the Latin and the Greek). Holy again referring to being "of God", of being separate and different from the usual, day to day, we encounter in this world. Catholic doesn’t mean anything more or less than "General". We don’t say we believe in the Church, because we don’t. The Church is a result of what we talked about before, she is the movement of the followers of Christ, born out of Israel, heading towards the Kingdom. The Church is no aim in itself, it has no claim to existence other than to be a community where those who are called by Jesus Christ and moved by the Spirit can find encouragement and hope in their worship and witness and grow in faith and service to God and to the world. The Church is Holy in the sense that it finds its origin in what is off God and not in human endeavour or power. It starts with God, in Jesus Christ, calling people to be part of a community that embodies Christ in this world.

That community is intimately connected with another community. The holy community of saints. The saints are those who constitute the Church through the ages. Not because they are particularly pious or extraordinarily holy, but because they have kept the teachings of the gospel, broken the bread and praised the Lord through thick and thin, in good times and in bad, keeping the journey of people with God open en going in their care for each other and their standing up for wholeness, justice and peace in the world.
This community is not based on human bonds or preference but on the call of God to become the body of Christ. It is an ecumenical community that keenly feels the pain wherever that body is torn apart by division, wherever the life of the Church and of the saints falls short of the ideal of the Kingdom where peace and justice will bring the world to at-one-ment.

At the basis of this community lies the forgiveness. God’s forgiveness to us and our forgiveness of each other. Forgiveness liberates us from what is behind us, from what may have happened, from being crippling by the times we have fallen short of our own or God’s ideals and dreams. The gospel tells us that God is prepared and longing to meet us, no matter what we may be or may have been.
Believing in the forgiveness of sin is believing that God is prepared to restore our relationship with him whenever we have taken ourselves outside that relationship by what we have done or by what we have failed to do. It is at the same time accepting it as the basis of our life in faith together. Only where we can let relationships that have sustained damage be healed (by giving ànd receiving forgiveness) we will come closer to God’s vision of what the Church, what the communion of Saints should be. Only through deliberate, purposeful acts of healing not only from God’s side towards us, but also from us towards each other, do we grow closer towards the wholeness of God’s Kingdom.

Immediately after the forgiveness of sins we find the resurrection of the flesh. What this means is hard to put into words, but it certainly refers to something far more profound and complicated than the bodily resurrection of people at some time in the future.

For the Jews of Jesus day the afterlife was a rather vague notion. For them the here and now and how to live in it were much more important, than the answer to the question what would happen in the hereafter. The Greeks on the other hand held that the body was a prison and that the soul would and could only really come into its own after escaping this prison at death. The notion of heaven as it later developed in Christianity as a great big palace where we would eat from golden plates, came more from Germanic idea of the afterlife as the court of the heavenly King.
All those ideas about the afterlife are found in one way or other in scripture, reflecting the many ways in which we, as humans, try to cope with death as the last and impenetrable boundary of what we know and understand. Death is beyond us, literally.

There are two images I find helpful: When Paul talks about death and resurrection he talks about the grain that dies, growing into a plant that has no resemblance to the seed but is still the same.
In the funeral liturgy we affirm the Christian Conviction that we believe that while death is the end of human life, it marks a new beginning in our relationship with God. What that relationship is and how it will take shape we can only leave to God, trusting that we will not fall from his love, even after we have crossed that last barrier.

When the creed speaks about resurrection of the flesh and life everlasting, it is not responding to the question if there is life after death and what that life will be like.
It was, at the time of its conception addressing other issues that had come up and have kept coming up through the ages. It takes a stand against the notion that salvation is through death, rather than life and love, against us escaping into another life. It affirms that God is not only interested in our souls, but is interested and involved in the whole of creation, body and all. That what we should be longing for is not another life, but this life transformed.

When Jesus says, in the synagogue in Nazareth that the Kingdom is now, he is saying that in another way: We are not waiting for this life, this world to pass. God’s Kingdom is reality here and now where eternal life is lived and God takes flesh in our reality. Eternal life is not some far away future, but a quality of life that can start to happen in the here and now.

This works both ways. Like Moses on the mountain we glimpse it while there is still a fair way to go. At the same time, like Jesus in the synagogue we can point and say: Kingdom is here, now. Like Moses we may be encouraged and comforted by what we see in the distance, like Jesus we are inspired and propelled forward by what we experience of it in the here and now.
Eternal life happens where we live like Moses, with our eyes on a distant land and a promise not yet fulfilled. But it also happens where the Kingdom happens where we are, in word and deed, in witness to the gospel and the sharing of bread and wine. It starts where we chose to let our life become part of the life of Christ.

To paraphrase St. Francis: This instant is eternity; eternity is now.

What this last part of the creed refers to is that what is of God, that what is eternal and holy takes shape in the here and now. A force, a quality, a power for good that has been in the world from eternity and will be in it until eternity and is in it now works towards the kingdom, draws us to Christ, calls us to become part of a movement that is inspired by the Holy Spirit and lives and breathes peace, justice and wholeness in every fibre of her being. Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2007

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