7/24/16: I Believe in the Spirit-Anointed Church, Romans 12:8-14
I Believe in the Spirit-Anointed Church
First Lesson: John 20:19-23
Second Lesson: Romans 12:9-18
Over these Sundays in July we’re taking a look at what we might call “the basics” of Christian faith, using the Apostles’ Creed as our guide, this ancient statement of faith that tells in very concise and precise language, the Christian story. We started two weeks ago with the first statement of the creed: I believe in God, and last we looked at the second statement: I believe in Jesus Christ.
This week we turn to the third major statement of the creed, I believe in the Holy Spirit. But to talk about the Holy Spirit, we really need to also talk about the line that follows it in the creed: I believe in the holy catholic and apostolic church, because in the story of our faith, these two—the Holy Spirit and the church—are inseparable.
But before we get into that, we need to say a word or two more about the creed in general.
As I’ve admitted each of these weeks, this approach is a bit odd for a Baptist church, since unlike most Protestants, and really most Christians in general, Baptists have traditionally not used the Apostles’ Creed—or any creed for that matter—in worship, or as part of any kind of measure of faith. And there are different reasons for this, but the main reason, traditionally, has been the Baptist concern that at different points in Christian history, creeds have been given equal status in the church as Holy Scripture, which Baptists claim to be altogether different and singular. In fact, this has been a rallying cry for Baptists in arguing against the use of creeds: that the New Testament itself should be our only creed. Others have said that we need “no creed but Christ” as the measure of our faith. (1)
Another reason Baptists have traditionally resisted creeds is similar: the belief that to require a person to claim a creed would be to violate their “liberty of conscience,” the freedom and responsibility for each individual believer to come to terms with his or her own faith before God. Baptists have made a point that faith or belief can’t be something done for you; it’s something you must come to for yourself.
But before we puff out our chests too much, we also need to remember that while our tradition has tended to reject universal creeds of the Church, we have a long history of local congregations crafting their own statements of faith, which they tended to call “confessions.” What’s the difference between and creed and a confession, you may ask? Truth is, not very much! To look at it one way, the Baptist objection to creeds is not simply the idea of having a creed, but being forced to accept someone else’s creed.
And another important note to point out is that no Baptist confession that I know of has ever objected to the content of the Apostles’ Creed. Now, if I were a cynical Baptist (if there was such a thing), I would say this sounds an awful lot like an exchange that Audrey and I have with Billy routinely. We’ll say something like, Billy, here’s your milk.
And he’ll say, I don’t want milk!
And we’ll say, Okay, son, what would you like to drink?
And he’ll say, I want some milk.
Far be it from me to compare the Baptist way to that of a two-year old, but be that as it may, even if Baptists have chosen not to claim the creed as a measure of faith, it doesn’t mean we haven’t claimed its content to be true. But it does mean that we think it’s important, essential even, to come to terms with how it is true for us—and in a way this is actually something the creed affirms. Saying the creed makes you take ownership of the story. It’s set in the first person: I believe these things. But the risk of our baptist way of stressing the individual nature of faith is that we might wind up with a faith that extends no further than the limits of our own minds.
Yes, we must claim our faith for ourselves, and if we’re thoughtful about it, the faith we claim will be unique. But if it’s not grounded in a community, in the shared experience of fellow believers—not just in the here and now, but throughout the generations of the church—then we run the risk of confusing the mind of Christ for our own, imperfect conscience.
Having a shared or common faith isn’t diametrically opposed to personal faith. When done right, they’re like good dance partners: the tension between them is creative andeven necessary—it makes them both better and something entirely new. Faith is like a dance—this is true in a lot of ways. It’s a dance between what you know and don’t know; what you hope and what you see. But it’s also a dance between your experience, what you have come to believe from your own life, and the shared experience of others—what they’ve come to believe from their lives. Both are stronger when they dance together. In fact, without out the other, there is no dance.
Which brings us to the Holy Spirit and the church—the choir thought I’d forgotten.
To believe in the Holy Spirit is to believe in the dance.
To believe in the Holy Spirit is to believe that faith requires a dance partner—we could say conversation partner, but faith is about more than talking, amen? We talk too much about faith; we should be dancing more.
Did you know this is how the eastern church speaks of the Holy Trinity? They call the “work” of the Trinity perichoresis, which literally means “dancing around.” There are paintings, ancient paintings, of the Trinity as three people dancing together—movement, creation, play, joy; what if these were the things we most associated with God? In other images, the Holy Spirit is imagined to be the dance partner who invites us into the dance.
So in a sense, to believe in the Holy Spirit is to believe that dance is still happening—that the movement or action of God didn’t end with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, that God is still moving, still working, still dancing in the world—at times when we look around, this is hard to believe, but it’s what we claim: that God is still up to something.
But to believe in the Holy Spirit is also to believe that we’re invited into this dance.
We often speak of the church as an extension of Christ—as the continued incarnate presence of Christ in the world. Paul speaks of the church as “the body of Christ,” for instance, and we often take this to mean that we are Christ’s incarnate presence in the world. But this takes it a little too far. To think of the church as an extension of Christ runs the risk of collapsing Christ and the church into one, so that Christ and the church are one and the same—which we all know isn’t true, though at times the church forgets.
It makes me think to last fall when we had the first of our congregational conversations as part of the visioning process, and we were talking about when we as a church had lived out our mission well and we asked a few folks to come and share some of their memories. The last person to come and share was Buddy Shurden, and I won’t forget what he said. He said that when he sat down and started to write this list of “Good Decisions made by the First Baptist Church of Christ,” he accidentally wrote, “God decisions of the First Baptist Church of Christ.” But he said he quickly erased the word God and made it “Good Decisions.” He said we can never assume the decisions we make as a church are God’s decisions. We can hope they’re in line with what God wants, but we must do so in humility.
The church isn't Christ. Only Christ is Christ.
Some have suggested that it’s better to think of the church instead as a community who has been anointed with the same Spirit as Christ. (2) And this is more like what we find in Scripture. The passage in John we heard earlier: the risen Christ appears to the disciples and tells them Peace be with you, and breathes on them, giving them the breath of the Holy Spirit, the breath of God. Breath and spirit are the same word in Hebrew. A kind of spiritual anointing, if you will; giving them the same power that he was anointed with at baptism. Or to keep with our metaphor, the Spirit is our master dance partner, who invites us into the dance. Teaches us the steps. Guides us, directs us.
But to believe in the Holy Spirit is also to believe that we’re not invited into this divine dance party by ourselves. We have to dance with others. And this is where it gets tricky. To believe in the Holy Spirit is also to believe in the church—the holy catholic and apostolic church as it says in the creed—and that’s catholic with a small “c,” which just means “universal,” of “entire church” and apostolic means the church that’s the spiritual ancestors of those first apostles, which is you, and everyone else who would claim that ancestry.
This might be the trickiest part of the dance. There are times when it would surely be much easier to just follow Christ as best you know how and not give much thought to what others are doing. But Scripture makes it very clear that the Holy Spirit isn’t reserved for this person or that person, but falls on each of us and calls us to each other. The community together is called to work with the Holy Spirit to discern a way forward, trusting that when we do, the Kingdom of God is somewhere among us—that this community is generative and creative, that we’re strengthened and refined by others.
At the New Baptist Covenant Summit last year we heard a fantastic sermon by Rapheal Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezar Baptist Church in Atlanta. And he talked about Jesus' image of the pearl of great price. He said that pearls are created when an irritant gets inside a mollusk, maybe a piece of sand or something, and the mollusk tries to work this irritant out. It works and works until finally this piece of irritant turns into a beautiful pearl. He said that in church we need to get close enough to irritate each other, because it's only through irritating each other and working it out that we create pearls.
And it’s hard! That’s why the bulk of Paul’s letters, which means the bulk of the New Testament after the gospels, has to do with teaching churches how to do it, how to live in community with each other. It’s hard. But it’s absolutely essential to following Christ faithfully. And I believe it’s absolutely what the world needs.
Where else these days does church happen? Where else do people gather to celebrate and worship something outside of themselves? Where else do we set time aside to consider the needs of others, to remember the hurting, the ill, the grieving, the lonely? Where else to we confess our sins? Where else do we come to think critically about what it means to live well, to live in such a way that honors the value of all life, not just our own life or the lives of our family or those like us, but all life? Where else to we celebrate things like kindness and generosity? Where else do people sing together? Where else do we rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep?
You certainly won't hear it out there in the world right now in this election cycle. In fact, you're more likely to hear the opposite of these things.
Where else are you given so many opportunities to touch someone’s life, and have your life be touched? Sometimes these touches are obvious and direct, but other times they will be in smaller ways, ways that you could never expect.
I’ve told this story before, but it’s been a while, but as some of you know, Audrey and I grew up at church together back in North Carolina. And both of our families are very active, so we were encouraged to invite a good number of people from church to our wedding. Well the wedding was a big one and all of our parents’ closest friends were there. In all honesty it was beautiful and in the end we wouldn’t have it any other way.
That next summer, we happened to be back home and staying with Audrey’s parents for a while, and we received a message on their answering machine. It was from John Spikes—known to most simply as Spike, the lovable, if not eccentric distance runner who was one of these dear church members who had attended our wedding just a year before. In the message he said he had heard we were back in town and was calling to wish us well on our anniversary. But then he paused and said something we didn’t expect. He said he wanted to thank us for inviting he and his wife, Yvonne, to our wedding.
You see, Yvonne, who had been our first grade Sunday school teacher years ago, passed away not long after our wedding after a long and difficult struggle with cancer. He said he wanted to thank us for all the memories we had given him. It turned out that our wedding was the last time he and his wife appeared together in public. It was the last time they had their picture taken together, and our reception was the last time they danced.
And here we were thinking our wedding was just about us.
I believe in the Holy Spirit.
This is a much riskier statement to make than saying I believe in God or Jesus Christ, because it involves you. It means that God is still working, moving, dancing in the world and you’re invited to join in. It means that not all was decided in the life of Jesus, that there are new decisions to be made, new paths forward to be revealed and taken in this ever-changing, complicated, terrible and beautiful world. Paths made in light of the life of Christ and with the help of the Holy Spirit, but paths that we must make together—the church has been doing this since Jesus was lifted up into heaven and someone asked the question: Well, now what?
But the riskier statement still is the one that follows: I believe in the church.
This is the riskiest statement in the entire creed: I believe in the church. For all it’s shortcomings and failures and eccentric personalities—the church wouldn’t be the church without a few personalities. To say I believe in this. I believe in you, I believe in us. This is a risky thing.
But I believe it. I really do. And I hope you do too. I know at times it’s difficult, and there are a thousand reasons not to. But I hope that when they’re held up against all the other things: all the light you’ve seen, the love you’ve felt and received and shared. The hope, the joy, the community. I hope when the balance comes down you believe in the church, you believe in yourself. Because God believes in you. Amen.
(1) Curtis Freeman, Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists, 101-102
(2) Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz, Public Faith In Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity, 12-13