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Sunday, March 26, 2017

“The Communion of Saints”

A Sermon Based Upon  Ephesians 4:11-24
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
March 26th, 2017, Series: Apostles Creed 13/15)

I think most of you would agree that last year was one of the ugliest years for American politics.   But at the same time somewhere wallowing in the filthy political pig pens of American life,  there were also other people,  heroes we might call them; most of them unknown, unsung, and unnoticed, who rose to the occasion to do, not only the right thing, but often the most exceptional thing.

Right in the middle of all that political and personal ‘mud-slinging’, the editors of USA Today  reminded their readers how everyone is not like that, and some of us, are still great examples for all the rest of us.   They told of the fatal shooting of 49 in an Orlando nightclub, and how a bouncer there,  24 year old former US Marine, Imran Yousuf,  “just reacted,” leaping up and putting himself at risk of being shot to open the door and get people out.   In another moment last year, Kyle Carpenter, a 21-year-old Marine private in Afghanistan, jumped on a grenade and saved the life of a fellow Marine.  Carpenter survived, though with terrible, life-altering injuries.  He became the youngest living Medal of Honor recipient.  Finally, in another unforgettable moment, after a man waiting on a Subway in New York City collapsed and fell on to the tracks,  David Tirado, a security guard on his way home from work, even hearing a train coming only two stations away,  jump down toward the man, and with the help of some others, pulled the man back up on the platform, saving his life just before the train came.

In addition to these, there are those ‘unsung heroes’ we all remember from the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, or others we learn about almost daily, on the Evening News.   And of course, closest to us, there are our own ‘home grown’ heroes who have freely sacrificed, and given themselves for us; like parents, aunts, uncles, friends, health care professionals, and of course, the very people you and I depend upon in this church. 

We all know that a people, a country, a church, and our civilized world, would not be able to survive very long, if everyone decided only to live selfishly, self-focused, and self-centered lives.  Our world desperately needs heroes.   In a culture that ‘throbs with celebrities, glamorizing wealth, beauty, muscle, and sex’, who, as James Howell writes, ‘seduce us away from God, thin us into superficial people, feed our narcissism, our hedonism, and our hollow existence,’ we are always in need of heroes who will call us to become better, bolder, and greater than we thought we could be.  We need heroes who will help us get rid of the excuse of: “I’m only human,” who push us into living our life more courageously, and even more Christlike, so that we reveal the righteousness and holiness of God. 
Pointing directly ‘heroes’ who had died as witnesses (martyrs) by living and dying with daring, emboldened faith, the writer of Hebrews wrote: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.  For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2 NET).   Here, we don’t have the word “hero”, but we do have the word ‘witness’.   The witness is not the person who talks about their faith, but it’s the heroic person whose life and death becomes an example for the rest of us to live by.   Another word we have in the Bible, which might even bring us a closer to what it means to be heroic in living ‘better,’ ‘greater’ and more boldly, is the word ‘saint’.   If there is any underused word in the church today it is this word.

Today, as come to where the Apostle’s Creed says, “the communion of saints,” we don’t just point to those who are rare or exceptional among us, but we are pointing to the kinds of heroes, who are supposed to make up and keep building the church.   Did you know that in the New Testament the word ‘saint’ is always ‘saints’; it is always found in the plural, perhaps because you can’t be a ‘saint’ all on your own.  

It is this ‘communion’ or ‘fellowship of saints’ that makes the church or community of Jesus Christ ‘real’ and ‘realized in the world.   You will the word ‘saints’ used often in the New Testament.   Many of the Letters of Paul begin by addressing all the members  of the church as either ‘saints’  at least, people who are ‘called to be saints’ (Rom. 1:7, 1 Cor 1:2).   In English, ‘Saints’ comes straight out of the Latin word for holy, sanctus, referring us back to the biblical ‘hagois’, which is Greek for ‘holy ones’ (cp NAS).  

But the question we want to consider today follows most naturally: “What does it mean to become one of the saints?”  We normally think of Saint Paul, or Saint Peter, and the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church, of course talks about others who have been saints in the past, but have you ever thought about a ‘fellowship of saints’ being people like you or me; people who actually make up  and keep building the church where we are right now?  What does it mean to say or we believe the church is a ‘communion of saints?’

The Presbyterian writer, Frederick Buechner once wrote, “God occasionally drops a pocket handkerchief.  These handkerchiefs are called ‘saints’.   That’s a beautiful writing, but not exactly what the Bible means when it speaks of ‘saints’.  Right here in our text for today, the apostle Paul uses the word ‘saints’ to signify WHO we should become too, as the ‘called out’ ones, the church, the body of Christ, who are all ‘called to be saints’.    

This whole process of ‘becoming’ saints goes back to the ‘gifts’ that were released into the world when Jesus died, was raised, and ascended on high.   “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of the gift of Christ.  Therefore, it says, “When he ascended on high he made captivity a captive; he gave gifts to people” (Eph. 4: 7-8).  These ‘gifts’ are expounded further to begin with “apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers” who were given as ‘gifts’ from Christ ‘to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ” (4:12).’   What Paul means is that when the ‘saints’ are equipped to do ‘the work of the ministry’ the ‘body of Christ’ becomes what it is supposed to be so that it can do what it is supposed to do.   And the goal of this ministry is not just to care for people, but it is to create a community of people who care about God.   These ‘saints’ are ‘equipped for the work of the ministry’ so that the church is built up until all are ‘mature’ and reach ‘the measure of the full STATURE OF CHRIST’—that is, become Christlike.

Now, becoming saints who are measured by their maturity in Christ sounds rather daunting doesn’t it?  Who would want to ‘measure’ themselves by standing up beside of Jesus?  Aren’t we saved by grace, through faith?  Why should we in the church be concerned about being mature in our faith, or being measured by our Christlikeness?   Well, Paul goes on to tell us what happens when a person settles for less than ‘Christ’ in their lives.  They are ‘tossed to and fro…blown by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery…by craftiness in deceitful scheming’ (Eph. 4:14).   That’s certainly a ‘mouthful’, but if you think about it, one thing harder than being saints, is to be part of a culture where everyone is pulling in all kinds of different directions, where the major concerns are about keeping everybody happy, and where people are always arguing only for their own ideas or opinions, with little regard for that which must be bigger than us all. 

Nothing seems worse, than to be stuck in a culture or even a church culture, where the focus is more on ‘what people want’ than ‘who’ people are supposed to be’?    That kind of culture gets very ugly and becomes difficult very, very fast.  But a people whose overarching goal is to live for ‘who’ we should be, not ‘what’ we think or what we ‘want’—that is, to be ‘Christlike’, well, this is what we call church.   And these people, whose heart’s desire is to live like Christ, even though they are not yet perfect at it, well these are the very people we should call ‘saints’.  They are those who are constantly hungry for ‘communion’ and ‘fellowship’ with God, and with each other, because they are ‘saints’ who want to be ‘equipped‘work of the ministry’ to bring ‘salt’ and ‘light’ and abundant ‘life’ into this dark and deadly world.

When I served as pastor of a small German Baptist congregation in eastern Germany,  right next door to our city, was a small village called “Neuzelle”.   It was once a small monastery for men and women who dedicated themselves to God.  Once, while leading a tour of Americans in the beautiful baroque chapel,  I met a young German teacher and we got into a conversation about German culture, and particularly culture in the Prussian state of Brandenburg, where Berlin is located.  You see, Brandenburg was the only state, of all German states, where there is no religious education in the school system, but there is only ethics education.  That approach is to try to teach youth to live a moral understanding of life, without the mention of the Christian faith, which is still the ‘state’ religion of Germany.   How does that work in Brandenburg, I asked the young teacher.  It doesn’t work, he answered abruptly.  You just can teach young people to lead moral, humane, ethical lives, without giving them the greatest human example of ‘who’ they should become.  

But ‘how’ do we become the ‘who’ God ‘called’ us to be?   Within this wonderful text from Ephesians, and many other New Testament texts, we can see two definite angles on ‘how’ the ‘gifts’ given by Christ to the church, this ‘work of ministry’ by saints in the church, show us how to become a ‘community’ or ‘communion of saints’.

First of all, Paul clearly says in here, that to ‘grow up’, to ‘mature’, ‘into him who is Christ’, we must first ‘put away the former way of life, the old self, corrupted and deluded by its deceitful desires (NET).’   In the very say way that Jesus called his disciples to ‘deny themselves’ and ‘to take up his cross’, the writer of Ephesians, tells us that the church is always called upon to take a different path.   Instead of living a life only to fulfill one’s own desires, which can so easily become corrupted by selfishness and sin,  those who are ‘called to be saints’ are encouraged to ‘put off’ or ‘put away’ this ‘person they once were’ (CEB). 

This is the first ‘effort’ of becoming Christian, and staying Christian; to determine and decide what is unnecessary for life, and to discover what may even be damaging or destructive in our lives.   In most of Paul’s letters, including here in Ephesians, we are not left to wonder about what is damaging or destructive to life, especially to the life of a person ‘called to be holy, as God is holy’.  The major destructive behavior’s Paul mentions here are, “falsehood”, “anger”, “stealing”, or “evil talk” that  which Paul says, ‘grieve the Holy Spirit of God’ who has ‘marked us for redemption’ rather than destruction.

Other New Testament passages, especially Colossians (3:1ff) add to this list of ‘negative’ or ‘destructive’ behaviors that Christians must decide to ‘put away’ or ‘put off’ in order to be the kind of people God has called us to be;.  But perhaps the most important point for us today, is what kinds of behaviors do we ‘put on’ or ‘clothe ourselves’ with when answer the ‘call’ of God to be his holy people, set apart as the church, called to be Christ’s body and ‘saints’ in this world?   What I think is most revealing about Ephesians 4, is that it speaks with two very powerful images we must ‘grow up’ and ‘into’ to become Christlike ‘saints.’  

The first new behavior or skill that a church must learn together, in order to create a community of saints, is a community that learns to ‘speak the truth in love’.   This is certainly a difficult, demanding, but life-changing skill for the church to learn.   Especially in this day of ‘political correctness’, we are most ready to ‘speak a lie’ in order to be nice.  While the church is called to be ‘kind’ and ‘loving’, it is still called to ‘speak the truth’, but to speak it in love.  This is exactly what Paul is doing in his letters; speaking truth in love.   Recently, when they opened the Smithsonian Institute’s African American History Museum,  John Lewis, the named godfather of the exhibited, said that when he was involved in the Civil Rights movement, he was not afraid, because he was called to ‘speak the truth to power’.   He was did this with ‘truth’, truth spoken in protest, but also truth spoken in love.   This is a ‘skill’ that the nation always needs, but the church must also have, if it is going to ‘build up the body with love’.   We must ‘speak …in love’ and we must ‘build…with love’ to be a communion of saints.
The whole calling to be church can be reduced to how we talk to each other and how we walk with each other.

 I will never forget how a young girl in our neighbor German Baptist congregation was sitting beside the pastor, when we had luncheon with that congregation on a special Sunday service.  When I recognized that the pastor’s wife was sitting on the other side, I asked someone: “Who Is that Lady.”   Oh, a member informed me, that lady is going through a terrible divorce.  She sits at the head table alongside of the pastor, because she needs the church’s special care, prayers and attention.”   Wow, I thought.  Most people would be so ashamed when something like that happens, they wouldn’t dare be exposed publicly at church.   But here is a church that exposes the truth, so that the church can give her special care and most of all love.  What a different, redeeming, if not saving way to deal with the heartbreak and despair of divorce; not blame or shame, but grace, mercy, and compassion.   Doesn’t it remind you of what it means to be a ‘communion of saints’?

In another church, a Sunday School teacher was teaching on the sacredness of life, encouraging adoption rather than abortion.    All the class went along in agreement, shaking their heads, commenting how terrible and horrible a decision to abort would be.   They just could did not understand how anyone could do that to their unborn child.   Not long after that,  one girl starts to weep,  announcing that years ago, when she was young, she had made that bad decision.   You could feel the shock come over the group; but immediately, rather than being judgmental,  they became sympathetic,  putting their arms around her,  encouraging her, forgiving her, and announcing the gospel truth in love; that God forgives,  so we must also forgive each other, and most of all, forgive ourselves.    Isn’t that again, what it means to become a ‘communion of saints’ , not to be perfect in life, but to be perfect in speaking the truth, but also speaking it in love?

The WHY:  “You must no longer live as the Gentiles live (Eph. 4:17 NRS)
Of course, the big question is can we really live like this?   Can we become saints who delicately, but also decisively, live the truth and ‘speak the truth in love’ to ‘build up the body with love’?  Paul speaks once more, directly to this very human, flawed, and imperfect, but perfectly forgiven church, based not on who the church is, but based upon the ‘power’ of the Christ who came to redeem and give his life for and to the church.  Jesus came to call us, in the power of the Holy Spirit to become a ‘communion of saints’ who, as Paul says, ‘no longer live as the Gentile live…’  (Eph. 4:17).   Now, these saints, shown in Christ ‘who’ saints are to be, and now explained by Paul ‘how’ we to be saints, are finally instructed ‘why’ we must become saints.  

Answering ‘why’ we are to become saints, Christ’s holy people, consider many the qualities Paul writes about in the rest of his letter.  These qualities make us a community of holy people—saints’ who differ from the world around them/us (Gentiles=unbelievers):
WE MUST no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine….. (Eph. 4:14 NRS).  
WE MUST not be  darkened in (our) understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart…    
WE MUST not lose ‘all sensitivity, abandoning ourselves …to practice every kind of impurity. (Eph. 4:18-19 NRS).  
WE MUST ‘put away our old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts (EPH. 4:22 NRS)…We must put away falsehood, speaking the truth to our neighbors….
WE MUST not sin in our anger sin;...not make room for the devil.
WE MUST labor and work honestly our own hands…to have something to share with the needy.  
WE MUST not: …”Let evil talk come out of our mouths, but only what is useful for building up, and ….not grieving the Holy Spirit of God.
WE MUST… Put away all bitterness and wrath,  wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
WE MUST…. Live as children of light--for the light is found in all that is good and right and true (15).
WE MUST:  Be careful then how we live, not as unwise people but as wise,  making the most of the time, because the days are evil….
And finally, WE MUST: not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is, and not get drunk with wine,….but be filled with the Spirit, (Eph. 4:25-5:18 NRS).

While these many ‘musts’ sound daunting, we need to remember again that the communion of saints are people who live, not by their own strength, but by the power of the Spirit, because the Spirit of Christ has brought God’s rule and into our lives.  We are able to put off the old person , and put on the new person because Christ is in us, the Spirit is leading us, and, as Hebrews says, ‘….we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,”. This is why we are able to ‘ lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with perseverance the race..set before us, as we also look to Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,… (Heb. 12:1-2).

Why do we surround ourselves with so witnesses (or a communion) to hold us accountable to each other so we as ordinary people feel called to live such holy lives?  There is only one reason why:  We are salt and light for the world.  In other words; the church, you and me—those who are part of the redeemed, are here for this purpose---to be lights pointing to this world’s only hope for redemption—Jesus Christ. 

Recently,  when the comedic writer and actor Gene Wilder died of complications from Alzheimer's  disease, people wondered why they had not know of his condition.  Wilder was well known, especially for his role as Willy Wonka, in the much beloved children’s movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.   It was because of his popularity with children that he did not reveal his condition. Gene Wilder said; “I don’t want to see a child lose a smile”.

It is said that ‘it takes a village to raise a child” In the same way it takes a community of saints to save a child.  Who wants to see the children lose their future hope because we did not live holy lives before them?  Isn't that good enough reason to believe and to become a communion of saints?    Amen.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

“I Believe in the Church”

A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 16:13-20
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
March 19th, 2017, Series: Apostles Creed 12/15)

While out visiting with a deacon, we came to the home of some delinquent members who had not been in church for a long while.  When we knocked, they opened the door, but did not invite us in.  After I introduced myself, I explained that we missed them and would love to have them back with us in worship. They answered,  “They now worshiped through their TV each Sunday.”   The church on TV had become their church.

I tried to counter this ridiculous notion by reminding them that Scripture tells us not to forsake assembling together. What my German church would have encouraged me to do would have been to inform them, that if they did return, they would be put on probation.  After six months to a year of not attending, church leadership would have then requested to the congregation to have their membership expunged, unless they renewed their commitment to participation in Christ’s church.  I'm not sure such a warning like this would be welcomed or appreciated in most American churches.

So, what attitude should we have toward the church?  We certainly don't take our church or church covenants that serious today.  Most understand participation in a church as just another volunteer organization.  We attend when we feel like it, and we participate when we want. Over half of those who were baptized and still have their names on church membership rolls, don't attend at all;  nor do they move or remove their membership. In many ways, church does not have the meaning it used too, nor does the church have any elevated place in our lives, unless we were to tamper with those membership rolls.

“I Will Build My Church”
Is the church in decline in our western culture?  Certainly the traditional church that has been a part of the established way of live in western culture is.  So are most other institutions in the west too.  As folk song writer Bob Dylan sings, “The times, they are a changing.”

Late last summer, CBS Morning News was interviewing two smart, young, entrepreneurial-types; one had dropped out of Harvard, and the other left MIT.  They left their respective schools to start a new kind of online financial website, allowing businesses and individuals to hold,  loan, borrow,  and exchange money, without the need of a bank, and sometimes even without the need of money itself.  Along with this they had also designed software that gave financial advice, replacing the need for bank tellers, financial advisors, or any kind of human interaction.  They explained, “Millennials don't like to go to banks, don't care to write checks, don't like using ATMs, and most would not know what to say if they went up to a teller.” Now that is moving a long ways into a ‘brave’, or should I say, not-so-brave, new world.
In out text today, Simon Peter was very brave.  He was brave enough to become the very first person to openly declare his faith in Jesus as the Christ, the long-promised and expected Messiah and redeemer of Israel. Hearing Peter’s confession of faith, Jesus responds: “I will build my church”; my ekklessia, assembly, or this meant literally: my ‘called out ones.’

Called out of what, for what?  What is the ‘holy catholic church’, as it is named in the creed, called to become?   Now, we must first understand that this word ‘catholic’ does not mean Roman Catholic, but catholic simply reflects the Greek word for universal.  It means, as the gospel says, that the church of Jesus is supposed to extend it ministry, message, and mission into the whole world. 

What it most basically means to be called out to be “church” is expressed most beautifully in the most catholic and universal epistle; the letter to the Ephesians.  Expressing why the church came (or was called out), about Paul: “…Although you were dead in your transgressions and sins…God, being rich in mercy because of his great love…made us alive together with Christ—by grace are you saved! (Eph. 2: 1-5). That the “why” of the church and the “how” of it comes next, in words meant for people like us:  You (Gentiles, without the Messiah)…having no hope and without God in the world” (2:12), …who used to be far away, have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v.13). Now, pay attention to how he concludes:  “…YOU HAVE BEEN BUILT on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with CHRIST himself as the cornerstone…in whom YOU ARE BEING BUILT TOGETHER into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (v.20-22).   

Don’t miss the specific image of “building” being used.   It goes back to what Jesus says in our text, when he responded to Simon Peter, “On this Rock, I will build my church!   Paul actually saw this ‘church’ being ‘built’ and becoming reality.   As Paul wrote: ‘Because of God’s great love’...those having no hope and without God in the world’ were being ‘built’ to become the ‘building’  and ‘a holy temple in the Lord’ (v. 21). Paul goes on to set the tone for the rest of his letter, which he writes from his prison in Rome:  “... I urge you to live worthily of the calling with which you have been called….” (NET, 4:1). This very calling is to be the ‘building’ and ‘the body’ of Christ (Col. 1.24, Rom. 7:4; 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:12; Eph. 3.6). It is to be the people called out to become the “dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (v.22).

Several years ago, Teresa visited Turkey.  We didn’t get to see very much of what is now, modern Turkey, but we did get to see the remarkable remains of that great, ancient Roman city called Ephesus.  Interestingly, Ephesus used to be a port city, but now the Sea is 2 miles away.  That’s reflects just how long ago it was and how things have changed.   Still, many foundations of those ancient structures and buildings once standing in the city, still remain.  I got to see where Paul preached in an old outdoor amphitheater, still there.  We saw remains of aqueducts and of Roman baths, all designed with some of the very first plumbing.   We also saw the Gate of Augustus, the grand old Library of Celsus, and several other old foundations, still there after 2,000 years.  But do you know what we did not see there?  We did not see any remains of a church building. And do you know why?  The church was not, has never been, and can never actually be reduced to being ‘a building’.   The church is made up of the people, whom Paul addressed in this great letter to the Ephesians, as ‘the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus’ (Eph. 1:1).

We need to be reminded, first of all, that the Church Jesus ‘built’ was not a building, nor was it originally an institution.  Faith in Jesus gave birth to the church, but that faith was not officially institutionalize until about 250 years later.  That happened when the Roman Emperor Constantine was said to have been converted.  He then made Christianity the accepted, official religion of the Roman Empire.  It is only then, almost 300 years after Jesus that the people called ‘church’ began to move out of homes to worship in buildings.

Ever since those days, the Church has had an established presence in Western Society. However, what we see happening today, in our own time, is that institutional church is facing great challenge and unprecedented changed. Some even dare to suggest that this increasingly ‘anti-establishment’ culture of ours, will either change everything, including the church. 

The real question that remains for the church to answer is not; how will we continue to keep people coming to our old, historical, church buildings and forms of worship?  No, the better question to ask is, rather, will there be a faithful people, who are still being ‘called out’ to become, as Peter said in his letter: ‘living stones,…built up as a spiritual house to be a holy priesthoodoffering spiritual sacrifices…to proclaim the virtues of the one who called (us) out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Then Peter adds so eloquently, echoing Paul: Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.  Once you were shown no mercy, but now you have received mercy” (v.10).   

Peter’s words should remind us of something else.  Because the church is not a building, but is a people, it must continue being built in every generation.  This means the church is always on the edge of life or death. In each generation, somebody has to come to know and realize “God’s mercy”.  Someone has to come ‘out of darkness into his marvelous light’.  If this is happening, the church always has vitality, life, and energy.  IF this does not happen; and if we fail to pass on this ‘merciful’ faith of light and life; or if we the people, lose our faith; or can’t see the value of it; fail to live out the importance of it---then, we, in this generation, or any generation, become the terminal generation of a church, and the church where we live, will die.  While the church can’t die in God’s heart, it is capable of dying in our hearts.  This is always possible because the church is not, in its essence, a building nor institution.  The church is a people.  So, to have life in this generation, or the next, the church must be an answering, responsive people to the redeeming love of God. 

“Upon this Rock I Will Build My Church”
It is exactly this kind of living, ‘responsive,’ redeemed people Jesus meant when he said, “ON THIS ROCK, I will build my Church.”  Even though Jesus nicknamed Peter “Rocky,” the ‘rock’ Jesus was referring to was not merely Peter himself.  The ‘rock’ was Peter’s response of faith, which pointed directly to Jesus as the God’s chosen Messiah, the Christ.  And like Peter, we too are ‘called out’ to keep building the church by pointing to Jesus, becoming ‘living stones’ that build the church through our own rock-solid confessions. 

But what kind of confession is “rock-solid” enough to point to Jesus and build the church for today?  Jesus underscored the kind of confession it takes to build, and to keep building his church, when he told the simple parable of comparing a house build on the sand verses a house built on a rock.  A house build on sand crumbles when the storms come, but a house built upon the rock stands.  What kind of rock-solid faith did Jesus mean?  Jesus went on to declare that a confession of faith based only upon words, (words without actions), builds a faith-house that crumbles.  Only those who ‘do the will of the father’ build a house that stands and survives (Matt. 7: 24-27).

THE CHURCH IS ONE:  Perhaps the most classic text on what it actually means, in nuts and
bolts terms, to build a church that not only says it believes, but also behaves as a church
should, so that we keep building the church, also comes from the letter to the Ephesians, in
 the fourth chapter, where Paul speaks clearly about ‘living worthily of the calling with which
you’ve been called’ (4:1, NET).  His main focus here is what it takes to build a church, or make
 a church, which is an understanding and commitment of ‘unity’ or ‘oneness’.  Make every
effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…(4:4ff).  Paul goes on to remind the
 Ephesians that there is ONE body…ONE Spirit.. ONE HopeONE Lord, ONE faith, ONE
 Baptism, ONE God and Father of all…   A confession of faith that builds, and keeps building
 the church is a confession that lives a commitment to ‘oneness’ in God’s Spirit.   Scholars of
 the Church call this the first ‘mark of the church’.

THE CHURCH IS HOLY:  The next ‘mark’ that builds and keeps building the church is a
commitment to growing into holiness.   Paul says that by living a new, different, ‘way of
righteousness and holiness’ (4:30).   “Be Holy, for I am Holy” goes all the back to God’s call to
 Israel  (Lev 11:44; 19:22, Isa 35:8), but continues in the New Testament call to be the church. 
As Peter wrote,  “…like the Holy One who called you, become holy yourselves in all of your
conduct  (1 Pet. 1:15).  What is important to understand here is that by calling the church to
be holy, Paul is does not mean living morally perfect lives, but he means living our lives based
a desire to grow spiritual, and to develop morally, but more than anything else, to live our lives
as a people who are called to lead lives that answer God’s call and purpose.   Listen to how
Peter puts in the most classic terms of what it means to be holy as God’s people, the church: 
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that
 you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous
 light” (1 Pet 2:9).  Here, the point is not moral perfection, but God’s choice to have a ‘people
of his own’ or as the KJV says, to have ‘a peculiar people’.   When we say that we should strive
to be ‘holy as the Lord is holy’, it is about being willing to grow and be used of God, and want
to be Christ-like in how we live and want we do with our lives.
THE CHURCH IS CATHOLIC:  When the creed uses the word ‘holy catholic church’, it means that
the true church of Jesus Christ has a concern and heart for the world.  While the church begins
with a ‘local’ vision of ministry and mission, that local vision must also include a world vision,
so that the local church attempts to answer the great commission of Jesus ‘to go into all the
world’ (KJV) or ‘make disciples of all nations’ (NET).  The church is to differ from the world,
but it is also ‘in the world’ and is ‘the light of the world’ and to be responsible ‘to go the
 world’ with the good news of the gospel.  This ‘world-wide’ concern also means that we
 should work with and relate to others Christians and even non-Christians who are also trying
to do good works in the world.

THE CHURCH IS APOSTOLIC:  In our Baptist churches, we would probably not use the word
 catholic’, but we should live what it means.  The final major ‘mark’ of a faithful church is, not
 in the Creed, but should be lived out by us, as it is very biblical.  The church today, if it wants
to be a Church that is faithful to the best traditions and teachings of the church, must work to
 also be a ‘biblical’ church that constantly goes back to, and builds upon the original ‘apostle’s
teaching’ (Acts 2:42-47).  Today, we consider the original ‘apostle’s teaching’ or ‘apostolic
 faith’ to be to work to be ‘biblical’ in justifying our church’s faith, ministry and mission.  It
remaining faithful to things like weekly worship, daily prayer, fellowship, discipleship, ministry
in the community and mission to the world.  These are the kinds of actions and activities we
must not just believe in, but also engage in, and practice, to keep building the church for our
own time.   When we fail to be church, the church puts itself at great risk.

But as we conclude, the question comes back to what that couple meant, when I visited their door and they answered, ‘TV is our Church’.   What they were in fact saying, was that the actual, living, active, and faithful body of people called the church, where I live, where I participate and who Christ embodies doesn’t really matter.  That is what Christians say when they don’t participate in a church that impacts the very community in which they live. 

Of course, our society is much more influenced by the ‘ways of the world’ than the ‘calling of Jesus’ and the ‘call to be church’.   So, what does this matter?  What does it matter if we live by our ‘options’ rather than live for God’s purposes?   To live by God’s purposes means that we build the church as a ‘holy’ people who become a local body of believers who living, fellowshipping, serving, ministering and worshiping right in the middle of the community where they live?  Our modern and very mobile world offers us all other ways, options, and choices to be church.  But those are all ‘our’ choices!  What about God’s choice, God’s purpose, and God’s plan for the church?  What about his call for us to be ‘salt and light’ and to offer Christ’s ‘salvation’ and ‘ministry’ to our ‘neighbor’?   For you see, when Jesus ‘blessed’ Peter’s faith as true foundation of the church, he also gave that church ‘the keys to the kingdom’ and he gave the  authority that be ‘binding, not only influencing the outcome of what happens ‘on earth’ but also having the ‘power’ to impact what happens ‘in heaven’ (Matt. 16:19).   What does this mean for the church to have ‘the keys to the kingdom’?
Back in 1992, Germany was going through incredible changes as East and West reunited.  As you can imagine, there was a lot of social unrest, based on insecurity, change and fear.  Even ‘good’ changes invite unrest.   That was also the time we moved into eastern Germany to serve a small Baptist group as pastor and missionaries.  Our very first week in the apartment in our city, we heard crowds marching and bombs going off not too far in the distant.  Then one day is abruptly and suddenly stopped.  Later we discovered that our located in our city was a home for refugees.  It was a place where people would come from other countries seeking safety from political or religious persecution.   Neo-Nazis and Skin Heads, that is the ‘Republikaner’ party were gathering to protest the presence of the refugees and were trying to frighten them into going back home by throwing ‘fire bombs’ over the fence that enclosed the facility.  The night the bombings stopped, was the night the local Lutheran Church organized itself, and marched straight into the middle of those ‘skin heads’ with a large cross, calling for peace, love and a halt to the hate. 

This is exactly how I still visualize what it means to be church.  You cannot go up against the evil, sickness, and ugliness of this world without a ‘people’ who will pick up the cross, and put their own life on the line for the sake of “God’s love” for the world.   The church is not perfect, but it is ‘perfected’ by being faithful to Jesus’ call to ‘take up the cross and to follow’ by serving as a witness to Jesus Christ, as his saving power that can still save the world, through the calling and work of the church, as his Christ’s body that is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.  You just can’t serve the world by watching church on TV.  You have to ‘take up the cross’ and be the church in the world.   Amen.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

“I Believe in the Holy Spirit”

A Sermon Based Upon Romans 8: 9-17
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
March 12th, 2017, Series: Apostles Creed 11/15)

Today, have come to where the Apostle Creed says, “I Believe in the Holy Spirit”.   This short line reminds us that if you call yourself Christian---a part of the original, main flow, of Christianity---you must somehow surrender to this very mysterious, unexplainable, complicated, but also very original understanding, which says: At the same time we say God is one, we also say that God is revealed to us, as in the hymn:  “In Three Persons, Blessed Trinity.”  

Several years ago, a Jehovah’s Witness showed up at my front door.  He was somewhat aggressive in his approach.  Even after I informed that I was a Baptist preacher, which normally would make someone want to leave, he still wanted to convert me from ‘my faulty belief about the Trinity’.  
      “The “Trinity” was only established in the 4th century AD”, he said. 
       My rebuttal began by saying that he was right to say that the Trinity did not become ‘official’ teaching of the church until the 4th century, but there was no ‘official’ teaching of the church at all until that time.  I went on to remind him that even though the Trinity had only been around 1600 years, Jehovah’s Witnesses had only been around less than 100 years.   If authenticity was based on how long the teaching had been around, Jehovah’s Witnesses would lose against the Trinity, hands down!   Finally, after I got his attention, I explained that the teaching about the Trinity was never an attempt to create a ‘new’ doctrine about God, but it was the attempt of the early church to come to grips with their experience of Jesus Christ and the coming of the Spirit that that gave birth to the church. 

What makes this Trinitarian faith even more incredible than any argument is the fact that such a brain-teasing expression all started with unlearned, humble, ordinary fishermen who grew up as devout Jews, praying daily: “Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is one.”  These are the very same people who gave the church the experience of faith in ‘one God’ who is also ‘three in one’.   We also can see how this Trinitarian faith was developing very early in Christian writings.  Notice how differently Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians concluded from his first letter.  His first letter concluded very simply, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.”  (1 Cor. 1:16).  A much more Trinitarian benediction had developed by his second letter: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. (2 Cor. 13:13 NRS)Paul, along with the whole church, were putting into words not just what, but ‘who’ they had experienced by having faith in God, knowing Jesus as the Christ, and now, living their lives ‘with the Holy Spirit and power’ (Acts 10:38).

While there are many Scriptures giving us instruction about what it means to ‘believe’ in the Holy Spirit as part of a ‘Triune God’ (The Trinity), Paul’s letter repeats the necessity of the Trinity in a very natural conversational way, telling the Roman Christians:  ‘But you are not in the flesh: you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.  Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.  But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, THE SPIRIT IS LIFE BECAUSE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS (Rom. 8:9-10).”

GIVING LIFE:  There is, of course, a broader discussion going on here, expressing Paul’s understanding of the relationship between living under the Law and now, living this ‘new life of the Spirit’ (7:6).   Paul’s discussion of the Holy Spirit in Romans is greatly theological.  However, it is not meant to be theoretical, but is most practical.   Paul is talking about how we have life—full life.   Paul is talking about how God, who has fully revealed himself in Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection (6:4) has now given believers ‘the free gift’ (5:16) of ‘grace’ and ‘righteousness’ (5:17) to be appropriated by ‘the law of the Spirit of life’.  It is through Jesus, that God has ‘set (us) free from the law of sin and death’ (8:2) in the ‘flesh’ (8:6).   Through Jesus, God ‘did what the law could not do’ (8:3) and now, through the Spirit, that is the Spirit of Christ, God ‘will give LIFE to (our) mortal bodies’ as we live ‘through his Spirit’ (8:11).

The coming of the Holy Spirit, then, is a story about ‘newness of life’ (Rom 6.4) both in the individual, and in the church; in this present life, and in the life to come (1 Tim 4:8).  The ‘newness of life’ was established through the life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son and was released into the world in the promised coming of the Holy Spirit.   In John’s gospel, Jesus says to his disciples: “…because I live, you also will live” (Jn. 14:19).  Jesus continues: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth….” (John 16:13).    Or in Acts, Jesus says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses… (Acts 1:8).   On the day of Pentecost the ‘promise of the Holy Spirit’ was ‘poured out’ (Acts. 2.33) to give birth and life to the church.   Those who experienced the Spirit in the preaching of Simon Peter were told to ‘repent, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” so they would have their ‘sins…forgiven’ and in that same moment, ‘receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts. 2:38).   This coming of Holy Spirit into the hearts and lives of believers was one of the ‘good gifts’ Jesus’ told his followers they should pray for: “If you…, who are evil, know how to give good gifts…, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 12:11:13).

WHO IS THIS SPIRIT?   Clearly, this “Spirit” who descended upon Jesus at his baptism (Mark 1.10) is the same “Holy Spirit” being promised to Christ’s followers by John the Baptist: “I baptize you with water; but he will baptize you with the “Holy Spirit” (Mk. 1:8).  The coming of the “Holy Spirit” upon anyone who believes was the fulfillment of the ‘the day of the Lord’ envisioned by the prophets, especially as expressed by the prophet Joel, who said that one day God would ‘pour out (his) spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (Joel 2:1, 28-29).  Joel’s prophecy is still being fulfilled every time anyone opens their own heart, agreeing to participate in God’s own life, experiencing God’s love as they ‘receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’.

LIVING IN THE SPIRIT:  One of the greatest imperatives of all the Bible comes in the the book of Ephesians, where it encourages believers, ‘not to be drunk with wine,…but be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18).    This is not any kind of encouragement to be an intensely religious person.  To be ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ is the encouragement of the believer to ‘live the life they have been called’ (Eph. 4:1ff)—the life of a Jesus-follower.   This Spirit-filled life is a ‘life’ lived and enabled by the gospel--- as Ephesians says, living ‘in one Spirit’ (4:4), not ‘grieving the Spirit’ (Eph. 4:30), but ‘being careful how you live…making most of the time…, understanding what the will of the Lord is…(Eph. 5:15-17),  singing…, giving thanks to God and living your life ‘in the name of Jesus’ (See Eph. 5:18-20).    Living in the Spirit following a new ‘law of the Spirit’ to gain ‘newness of life’ through Jesus Christ.

It is this same Spirit-inspired, Spirit-led, and Spirit empowered life that we are talking about when we say, ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit’.   To believe in the Holy Spirit is not to add anything else to God, but when we say God is Holy Spirit, we are saying something very  personal (holy) and practical (life-giving) about God and what it means to for us to allow his holy, loving, healing, and redeeming spiritual power into us.   When we are ‘led by the Spirit’ (8:14), Paul says, we ‘have received a spirit of adoption’ (8:15), which means that we have become ‘children of God’ (8:14).   Paul writes: ‘When we cry Abba! Father! It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,….heirs…,” which means ‘we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him’(8:17).  

I don’t think that there is any more spiritual, spirit-filled, spiritually alive people and place than the Ministry of L’Arche in Ontario, Canada.   L’Arche is a home for people with severe mental limitations.  It is a ministry that serves as a pure example, on the highest scale, of what it means to be a person who is filled with the Spirit, who at first, appears to have no life, no value, and no reason to live.  That is how most of us would view the people at L’Arche.  Most of us would not want go there, but according to those who have been there, and have worked there, that place is one of most lively and joy-filled ‘home places’ on earth.

The Ministry of L’Arche was created by Jean Vanier, a Canadian who had volunteered for the Navy is World War II.  After the war he felt lost.  A French priest told him to take care of two older men who were suffering from different kinds of disability.  That’s how L’Arche got started, as a home established for the mentally handicapped to ensure they would receive adequate care.  But the home is much more than a ‘care home’, but it is uniquely home that cares; it is a home that creates home, a home place where these who would be nobody to the world, are adopted, become friends, family and people living in the Spirit of Christ.   Jean Vanier explained his inspiration from the Gospel:  In John 14, the Spirit is ‘given to those who are lonely, in need of a friend; to those who are poor in spirit and cry out to God.’  The Holy Spirit lives in us to give us strength for each other.  This ‘Spirit’ inspires ‘nothing but love, to do the works of God by giving us friends who can help us do what we have been called to do.’  The practice of the commandments of love, to serve one another, to be in communion with one another, not to judge or condemn, but be ready to forgive.  This is how the Spirit lives in us, and gives life to and through us (Jean Vanier, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John (New York: Paulist, 2004, p. 260-263).

We invite and allow God’s life (Spirit) into us when we ‘lead a life worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called with all humility, gentleness, patience, bearing one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Eph 4:1b-3).  We allow God’s goodness and grace into our lives because we have been ‘blessed’ with ‘the love of the Spirit (Rom. 15:29, 30) through each other.  It is this ‘love of the Spirit’ that fills us with ‘the Spirit of Jesus’ (Phil 1:19) and/or the ‘Spirit of God’ (Phil 3:3) and makes us God’s sons and daughters who are family with God and with each other.   The Holy Spirit, put simply, is about God the Father giving himself to us freely and lovingly through Jesus the Son, so that we can freely and lovingly, give ourselves back to God, who is our Father in Heaven.  This life lived in the constant communion of fellowship, love and grace mediated by the Holy Spirit, enables us to live our lives with new power and hope.

Beyond what Paul says about the ‘life-giving’ Spirit, in the gospel of John, written after Paul’s death,  we have John’s account of Jesus promising the coming of God’s abiding ‘presence’ who named, Comforter (KJV), Helper (ESV), Advocate (NRSV, NIV), Counselor (RSV), or Companion (CEB).   These are some of the many attempts that have been made to translate the multidimensional meaning of New Testament name for the Spirit (Paraclete).  When I attempted to type this word on my computer, the spell checker came up with the correction, “Parakeet”.  Actually, that is not a bad mistake, because parakeet is a small parrot, which is a bird that can ‘talk’.  The German translation for ‘Paraclete’ is ‘Fursprecher’---that is, someone who speaks for you; an advocate who speaks in your behalf.    This life-giving ‘gift’ was realized by having God’s voice or presence to continue to be with, and for the disciples. 

This promised, abiding and advocating ‘presence’ is exactly what Jesus meant when he said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate (Fursprecher) to be with you forever…  (John 14: 16).  “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (John 14:18).  Jesus even dares to say, before his death: “….I tell you…it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you…. (John 16:7)…He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you….(16: 14).  Then, the most hopeful words of all are spoken by Jesus to his disciples: “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me” (16:16).   This is the kind of saying that confused the disciples at first (16:17-19), until the Spirit came (Acts 2.33) and the church became the spiritual body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:17) in the world.

What it means for us, now, to have God’s promised spiritual ‘presence’ giving us the power for living our lives, no matter what we face, or are up against, is perhaps best understood in the simplest name ‘Helper’ (ESV).  As Paul writes again in Romans 8, “Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray…. (v. 26), so, he continues:  ”….that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words  (v.27).  In this graphic, but very spiritual or mystical image Paul paints is to show us how God’s Spirit communicates with God’s Spirit who abides in us, answering our need to have ‘hope’ and ‘patience’  so we will keep waiting (v. 25) and working for what is not yet seen (v.24-25).

DO YOU HAVE HOPE, NO MATTER WHAT IS HAPPENING TO YOU IN THIS MOMENT?   It is the Spirit of God, God’s presence in us, working within our spirit, counseling, comforting, advocating, and giving us the help we need to keep up hope.   With hope Paul says, ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed…. (v. 18).  Then, right after this, Paul paints the most astounding, hopeful and helpful picture in this whole passage.  He says that the ‘creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God (v.19).   Stop and think?  What is the ‘creation’ waiting for?  What are we all waiting for?   Are we waiting on God?  Yes, but this text also says that God is waiting on us; on the ‘revealing of the children of God….(v.19) which gives hope of the coming ‘freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (v.21) already being revealed to us, and in us, ‘who have the first fruits of the Spirit’ (v. 23). 

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Freedom’ already (2 Cor. 3.17).   Even while we don’t have full freedom or full redemption yet, we are alreadyseeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed…from one glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18).  When Paul says ‘we wait….for the redemption of our bodies’ (v.23), he means that we wait in a ‘hope’ through the ‘first fruits of the Spirit’ (v. 23) which is already being to us, as we, by the power of living our life in the Spirit, overcome the ‘works of the flesh’ (Gal. 5:19) to live these ‘first fruits’ as ‘the fruit of the Spirit’, which is; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).  And I love how the King James Version concludes: “Against which there is no law” (KJV).  This is what it means to have the Spirit or to be guided by the Spirit:  It is to ‘crucify the flesh’ and ‘live by the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:24-25) so that God’s presence, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1.27, KJV) is alive in us now; this is what brings us hope, no matter what we face while we all must wait for that which is still to come.

In that great Hymn in “Love Divine, All Love Excelling”,  Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church,  wrote the brother’s strongly held belief, that the church of Jesus Christ should be more hopeful, even enthusiastically hopeful, because God’s ‘divine’ loving, gift-giving presence can be in God’s people now.   They first called the Methodist movement, the holiness movement, emphasizing the spiritual work of ‘perfection’ based upon human cooperation with the divine spiritual work of sanctification in our lives.  That great hymn is in our Baptist hymnal too, but most Methodist and Baptist sing right through it, not realizing what hopeful phrases are being sung, such as the last line concludes:  “Finish, then, thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be. 
Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee;
changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.”

What is being expressed in Charles Wesley’s great hymn is the same spiritual truth Paul is expressing in Romans 8.   The Spirit that comes to us is a life-giving Spirit, bringing God’s very life to us.  By giving us God’s living presence, revealed in us, through the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ (8.23) which is alive in us from the inside out, we possess a hope-giving presence; ‘Christ in (us), the hope of glory’ (Col. 1.27).   But now, Paul comes to what this life power, and hopeful presence means not only today, but tomorrow.  He expresses it some of the most memorable, comforting words of the Bible: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose (KJV, 8:28). 

This comforting word is perhaps the most spiritually empowered words we could ever hear.  Put simply, it means that no matter what happens to us, because God’s Holy Spirit is at work in us,  God’s love for us, and our love for God,  with our heart’s desire to answer God’s call and live into God’s purposes, means that everything will ‘work…for good’.   This, of course, does not meant that everything that happens is good, nor is everything that happens something God has planned for us in the short run of things.  But it does mean that in the long run and long view of things, ‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him’ (NIV).   

Retired Methodist professor at Duke Divinity, Stanley Hauerwas, tells that he worships often with a congregation whose baptistery is in the form of a large cross.  This makes possible a baptism by immersion.  To be under the water in baptism intimates death because in that moment, we are unable to breathe.  That kind of Baptism signifies all of the mystery of God’s saving work in us, as we die to the world and come alive in Christ, no matter what method of baptism.   Even more interestingly, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit,  that church has determined that when a member of the congregation dies, the body is brought to the church the day before the funeral and the coffin is placed on the baptistery.  Members of the church then stay with the body through the day and night before the funeral.  This prayerful and loving action of abiding presence, makes concrete the spiritual truth that death does not defeat us.  Even as God brought us through the waters of baptism to life in Christ, so shall we be brought through the waters of death. Through the Spirit, even when our life ends, we have been made part of God’s purpose.  Hauerwas, Stanley. The Holy Spirit (Kindle Locations 1142-1150). Abingdon Press.
This all testifies to what John Wesley himself said in hope, and love:  “Our people die well.”

That God ‘works for the good’ and accomplishes his loving purpose for us, is what I only came to understand through my own suffering, hurt, and struggles in my own life.  That God loves and that God is at work ‘in all things’ is not something I take lightly, or quote flippantly.   It is not a blanket statement that helps me explain everything, but it is a faith statement; a confession of faith made in light of the life-long relationship of knowing the goodness and grace of God’s love as revealed to me in Jesus Christ and made known through his ‘the love of the Spirit’.  

Only in ‘the LORD Jesus’ and through ‘the love of the Spirit’ (Rom. 15:30) would Paul have ever dared to make this promise that ‘all things work for the good of those who love God’.   In other words, only because, only when, and only if, everything in this life finally moves in God’s love and toward God’s grace, mercy, and justice can we be sure that there is a ‘purpose’ in everything that happens.   This is exactly where Paul is headed, when he makes his final point, which ends up at the same place he started by saying, ‘There is therefore, now, no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus…. (Rom. 8:1).  Now he ends:  “If God be for us, who can be against us? (v. 31)…  “Who is the one who will condemn? (v.34)…”Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will trouble, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword (v. 35)? …No… For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers,  nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”(Rom. 8:38-39 NET).

This is perhaps, the most concrete expression of what it means to believe in the Holy Spirit, as it relates to the practical living of our daily lives.  In the face of human suffering, unanswered questions, and in the eventually approach of our own death,  “Nothing will separate us from the love of Christ!”   How can we know this?  How can we be sure of this?  We can only know this because the Holy Spirit is giving us life now, giving us his hopeful presence now,  and giving us his unconditional, purposeful love, now.   This is how we know that is “God is for us, nothing is against us!”

Most interestingly, the Holy Spirit will end his work, right where he began.   In the opening moments of the creation story, we read that ‘the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water (Gen. 1:2, NET).  When Jesus was baptized and came up out of the water,  he saw ‘the Spirit descending on him like a dove’ (Mark 1:10).  When the church was born, we read how ‘…Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind...(and)… All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit….(Acts 2:4).   And finally, in the closing verses of John’s vision of Revelation,  ‘The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”  And let every who hears say, “Come.”  And let everyone who is thirsty come.  Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift (Rev. 22:17, NRS).  All this means that the life in the Bible is the eternal, everlasting life being offered to you, and to me, through God’s Spirit, that rested on the earth, descended upon Jesus, set a wind of fire in the church, and now, finally invites us all to ‘drink’ from God’s gift of ‘the water of life’.   This Spirit over the water is the same Spirit in the water, when we ‘come’ to receive ‘the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rev. 22:21).   If you say you believe in the Holy Spirit, and now that you know that the Spirit is thirsty for finding a body, a person, or a place to indwell and rest, will you ‘come’?  Will you open your heart to this power, this presence and this loving purpose, that is only found in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit?  Will you come, gain God’s power, know God’s presence, and join in God’s purpose, by letting the Spirit come to rest in you?  The Spirit and Bride still say come!  Amen.