4These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground—7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
25Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish.
One day Jesus gathered all his disciples around him, and he said to John, his beloved disciple, “Come forth and receive the Holy Spirit.” But John came in fifth, and so all he got was a lousy toaster oven.
In the first week of this sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed, we talked about God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. Then we spent the next three weeks on the longest section of the Creed, the part about Jesus Christ. Today we come to the final section in the Apostle’s Creed, the section that talks about the Holy Spirit.
“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.” We’re actually going to split that up into two parts, so today we’re going to talk about the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, and the communion of saints, and then next week will be the “grand finale” for this sermon series.
I Believe in the Holy Spirit
Let’s begin with the last word, spirit. What is a spirit, let alone a “only” one? In Greek and Hebrew, the two languages in which the Bible is written, the words for spirit, breath, air, and wind are all interchangeable.
In Genesis chapter 2, “God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” Breath and breathe (Hebrew: רוּחַ – ruach) are the same word used elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures for the spirit of God.
In Acts chapter 2, on the day of Pentecost, the followers of Jesus hear the sound of a “mighty rushing wind” and that word in Greek is πνεῦμα (pneuma), the same word that is used for the Spirit that comes over them on that day.
When the Bible is translated from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, both of those words (ruach and pneuma) are translated as Spiritus, which comes from the Latin word “Spiro” meaning, to breath. We still have this connection in the English words respiration (meaning to breathe), expiration (when breath runs out!) and inspiration (when you are filled with a spirit).
For ancient peoples, breath is life; it’s what separates the living creatures from dead ones. You take it in (inspiration) then send it out (expiration). In nature, as wind, you can hear it and feel it, but you can’t see it. It moves the waters and the waves as well as the grass and the trees. Thus it is the animating force for people and things. It is no wonder that people came to think of breath and wind as the manifestation of God in the world, and within each one of us.
In a modern sense, my friend and mentor, Rev. Bill Schlesinger, likes to think of “spirit” as context or situation. There’s a German word for this, Zeitgeist. Zeit means time and geist means ghost, so the “ghost of the times” or the “Spirit of the age.” The thing that’s in the air, the mood of the people, or the shared sentiment in a particular place and time. I like that understanding.
What then, is the “Holy” Spirit? Classical Christianity has long taught that the Holy Spirit is the third person of the trinity, an aspect or personification of the divine that is fully God, yet somehow distinct from God the Father and God the Son. If God the Father created the world, and Jesus the son redeemed (or saved) the world, then the Holy Spirit is the one at work in the world (and in us) today, sustaining, inspiring, unseen (like the wind) but heard and felt.
Or, to use Bill Schlesinger’s idea, the “Holy” Spirit is the “Holy” context, the embodiment of all the “good” that is in any place, time, situation, or group of people.
To say “I believe in the Holy Spirit” is not merely to say, “I believe in the existence of a Holy Spirit.” It is rather to say, I trust (or have confidence) that some hidden, yet powerful force for good is at work in the world, and in us, whether you call that the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Age, or simply the “Holy” Spirit.
The Holy Catholic Church
I believe in the holy catholic church. Let’s first zoom in on that word “catholic.” If you ask most people in El Paso (or anywhere else today) what the word catholic means, they’ll start talking about the Roman Catholic Church, which is a denomination, like Presbyterian, Greek Orthodox, or Baptist. But long before it meant that, it was simply a Greek word (καθολικὴν) that meant “with wholeness” or universal. In other words, the church in the larger sense that all Christians belong to and no one owns, the church that consists of anyone and everyone who claims Jesus as Lord and savior. That’s what we mean when we say “catholic” in the creed.
But what about the “Holy” part? If you read or watch much news, you know that churches (of whatever kind) do a lot of unholy things. That’s because they’re made up of imperfect, fallible people like you and me.
We believe the church is considered holy, not based on how good (or how bad) it is, but based on who claims it—and the person who claims it is Jesus. In Ephesians chapter 5, we read that Jesus loved the church just like a bridegroom loves his bride, and that he gave up his life for her (the church) in order to make her holy.
This is a great analogy. I love my wife, Amy. She is my beloved (in fact, that’s literally what her name means). She doesn’t cease being my beloved whenever she has a bad day, or even a bad week. In fact, her “belovedness” is not even based on anything she does or doesn’t do—instead it is based on a promise I made to her almost 20 years ago.
In that same way, the church (all churches, in all times and places) are holy not because of any good or bad or stupid things they do, but because God loves them, promises himself to them, and calls them his own.
The Communion of Saints
This phrase is a little bit odd to people who didn’t grow up hearing it in church (and maybe even to a few who did!). When I heard this phrase growing up, I used to imagine an old painting of people with halos (saints) sitting around a table eating bread and drinking wine (communion, or the Lord’s Supper). But that’s not at all what those words mean in this context.
The word translated as “communion” here is the Greek word κοινωνία (koinonia) which means “fellowship” or “participation.” It gets translated into Latin as “communionem” which is also where we get words like “common” and “community.” It has the sense of a gathering of people who share things in common, like meals, resources, and beliefs. That’s actually where our word “communion” for the Lord’s supper comes from—it’s a shared or common practice that we do each month, together, as a community.
Let’s talk about saints. In the popular imagination, a “saint” is what we call a person who has lived an exemplary life, someone who is almost perfect. In the Roman Catholic church, to be declared a “saint” involves a rigorous process that can take years, or centuries, after a person dies. But that’s not at all what the earliest Christians meant by “saints.” When the Apostle Paul writes letters to his churches in Ephesus, Corinth, Galatia, and others, he addresses everyone in the church as “dear saints”…right before he rips into them for all the really horrible things they’re doing to each other. Clearly, for Paul, “saint” is not a title you earn by being good.
For Paul and the earliest Christians, you get to be a saint because of who loves you, because of who you belong to…and once again, that’s God. Because we are God’s people, all of us are saints. We are the community, the fellowship, of people whom God claims and calls precious, despite our flaws and failures and imperfections.
Putting it All Together
So what do the holy catholic church and the communion of saints have to do with the Holy Spirit? Why are they included in this section? That’s a great question; I’m so glad you asked!
Listen to this line from the Creed in Latin—there’s a word that’s repeated three different times:
Credo in Spiritum Sanctum,sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam, sanctorum communionem. The word is “Sanctu.”
Now listen in Greek for the same thing—a word repeated three times: Πιστεύω εἰς τò πνεῦμα τò ἅγιον, ἁγίαν καθολικὴν ἐκκλησίαν, ἁγίων κοινωνίαν. The word is ἅγιος. Sanctum and ἅγιος both mean “Holy” and it’s repeated in all three parts. So literally, Holy Spirit, Holy Church, Holy People.
Now, there’s something about the word “Holy” in the English language. It comes from the same root as the word “whole” as in “entire” or “holistic.” Something that is “holy” is something that is “whole” or complete. That’s something we really need to hear in a world full of divisions—political division, religious division, economic division, class division. The Spirit of God—or the spirit, the ethos, of all that is good in our midst, is Holy, holistic, complete, a force for unification, calling us to be whole again. The church—the gathering of God’s people in all times and places is holy; it includes and invites everyone. This is actually a *double* whole—holy catholic, and remember catholic (kath holos) means universal, so the church is “wholly holistic.” And the people who are claimed and loved by God, are most whole, most complete, when they are most gathered together in fellowship and community.
God is in the business of making broken, flawed, incomplete people whole again. How? Through the work, through the breath, through the inspiration of a spirit, a zeitgeist, a context, a community, which is the church. Yes, the church itself is a broken, flawed, incomplete community, just like the people who form it. But together (or taken holistically) we are more than the sum of our parts, and that’s because God’s spirit (and God’s love) is in the mix.
And so I believe (with all my heart, and with all my hope) in the Holy Spirit, this all-encompassing context where goodness and kindness are always at work somewhere…if you just look hard enough for them;
I believe (I trust) in the holy, holistic church that welcomes and embraces all people, all the time, that finds that goodness and kindness, that spirit, at work in the world and joins in it whenever and however it can;
And I believe (I have full confidence) in the holy people—saints and sinners all at once—who gather together and keep gathering, day after day, and week after week because we are loved, and because we want to share that love with more and more people until this broken, imperfect world is made whole—is made holy!—once more.