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The Holy Spirit

with Rev. Alex Lang

March 26, 2023

We hear about the Holy Spirit all the time in the Christian church, but what exactly is it? Where did the Holy Spirit come from and why is it so important? Come on Sunday to find out as we continue our series on the Apostles’ Creed.

The Scripture

1 Corinthians 12:3-11

Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

Mark 1:9-11

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

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During Lent, we’re doing a sermon series called Credo: The Apostle’s Creed Then and Now. Each week, we will be examining a line from the Apostles’ Creed and asking the question: What did this line of the creed mean to the people who wrote it and what does it mean to us today?

I’ll explain the traditional beliefs surrounding a statement from the Apostles’ Creed and, then, I’m going to provide a modern interpretation of that belief for those who might be a little skeptical. Whether you resonate with the traditional interpretation or with the modern interpretation, my goal is to demonstrate that the Apostles’ Creed has the flexibility to speak to both audiences.

Last week we discussed the line from the creed: [Jesus] will come again to judge the living and the dead. This week we are discussing the next line in the creed, which very simply states: I believe in the Holy Spirit. Now before we dive into this line from the creed, I would like to start with a poem from one of my favorite poets, Padraig O Tuama. This is a poem about prayer, which is going to figure in heavily to our discussion. This poem is called Oremus, which in Latin means let us pray.

Finish reading

Now, we’re going to come back to this poem a little bit later, but for now I want to go back to the creed. I’ve always found it fascinating that the Holy Spirit gets its own line in the Apostles’ Creed. In fact, what’s interesting is that the creed functionally starts over again with the Holy Spirit. The term Credo, meaning I Believe, appears in two places in the Apostles’ Creed: The very beginning and right before the Holy Spirit. In other words, whoever wrote the creed wanted special emphasis to be placed on the Holy Spirit, which begs a number of questions: What is the Holy Spirit? Where does it come from and why is it so important?

Let’s start off with the what. What is the Holy Spirit? Well, the Christian Bible contains an Old Testament and New Testament. In the Old Testament, the terms ruacḥ qodshəka רוּחַ קָדְשְׁךָ refers to the spirit of Yahweh. It comes from the opening chapters of Genesis when God breathes life into Adam’s body which has been formed from the clay of the earth. The idea being that God’s spirit is the breath of life in all creation that animates, not just the bodies of humans, but the bodies of all living creatures.

So in the Old Testament, when we’re talking about the Holy Spirit, it is literally the breath of God in all things. The New Testament inherits this idea, but then expands on it. Although it depends on which gospel you read, generally speaking, the first time we are introduced to the Holy Spirit is at Jesus’ baptism. As Jesus is coming up from the water, he sees the heavens torn apart and the Holy Spirit descending down on him like a dove.

At the same time, Jesus hears a voice from heaven where God says to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” So what we can see in Jesus’ baptism is a very specific correlation—the Holy Spirit is a force that tethers a person to God. The more in touch you are with the Holy Spirit, the more in touch you are with God.

And Paul, he picks up on this idea and takes it a step further. He says the Holy Spirit is also responsible for wisdom, knowledge, gifts of healing, the working of miracles, prophecy, even speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues. I think this is the point where most modern people who are steeped in the scientific method would become skeptical. Sure, wisdom and knowledge are not always learned, but healing, miracles, prophecy, speaking in tongues—for many modern people that list enters us into the realm of magic.

Now I’m not trying to say that if you believe those things are possible through the Holy Spirit you’re wrong. What I’m trying to say is that, with the world we live in today, you don’t generally see these things except in a religious context. If I want to be healed, I go to a doctor who has studied the science of medicine. Miracles, like the parting of the Red Sea or Jesus walking on water, I, nor anyone I know, has experienced anything like that. I hear a lot of people on television trying to predict the future, but I wouldn’t call them prophets. They’re just as clueless as everyone else. Finally, the only people I’ve experienced who speak in tongues are Pentecostal Christians.

So if you have a rationalist view of the world, then these claims Paul makes become very hard to believe. That said, I want to talk about why I think the concept of the Holy Spirit is actually really important for our understanding of God. Many of you are probably already aware that the reason why the Holy Spirit is highlighted in the Apostles’ Creed is because it’s the third member of the trinity. There’s the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit. These are said to be three in one, one in three.

Not that this will come as a shock to you, but I have personally always struggled with the Trinity. Not because I don’t understand the concept, but because there’s something about it that doesn’t quite make sense to me. The first member of the Trinity, is God the Father. Now, we talked about this back on Ash Wednesday when I started this series, but the word Father is a very human word.

Every human on this planet has a father, so when you envision God the Father sitting up in heaven, what comes to mind? I’ll tell you what comes to mind for me: Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel. What do you see? A white dude with beard up in the sky. Just so we’re clear, for thousands of years, that’s how people have envisioned God the Father. And I’m not going to lie, for a long time, this is how I envisioned God the Father, particularly when I was young.

However, my thoughts have evolved over time. I went from thinking of God as bearded guy in the sky to a spiritual being. In the last 15 years, I have begun to envision God as a spiritual force of love that is infused in everything. In other words, the only way I can comprehend God is as a spirit, kind of like what the Jews mean when they say ruacḥ qodshəka—the spiritual force that gives life to all things. Therefore, in my mind, I really do believe in the Holy Spirit, because it’s the only way I can really envision God at all.

This is why you will often hear me say that God is everything. You, me, the air, the grass, the trees, the river—God is in and a part of all things. However, even more importantly, God’s spirit is the glue that connects us together. And this glue is actually pretty incredible because, even though I’ve never experienced the Holy Spirit healing me or causing miracles or causing me to speak in tongues, I have experienced incredible moments of being in the right place at the right time.

I know many of you have had those same incredible moments because you’ve told me about them. No matter the circumstances of the event, the story always ends with, “What are odds? What are the chances? It’s as if it was meant to be.” A lot of Christians will say that moments like this are when God is executing a plan for their lives. I struggle with this explanation because, if God has a plan for me and good things happen, then God also has a plan for those who suffer incredibly. I simply cannot accept that kind of God.

Even though I don’t believe in God having an individual plan for our lives, I do believe that God’s spirit is involved in those moments. A lot of people talk about moments of coincidence. I prefer to think of them as synchronicity. The term synchronicity was originally coined by the analytical psychologist Carl G. Jung “to describe circumstances that appear meaningfully related yet lack a causal connection.”

In his practice as a psychologist, Jung observed that these seemingly improbable events happen so often to so many people that Jung felt the universe seemed designed to facilitate these connections. Jung suggested that one possible reason for these synchronous events transpiring is that humans are connected on a metaphysical level.

A great example of this connection is the synchronicity found in our dreams. Have you ever had a dream about someone from your past who lives in another part of the world and the dream is so vivid that you take it upon yourself to contact that person? On occasion, when I have made contact with the person from my dream, they will say, “You know, it’s so strange that you reached out to me, because I was thinking about you the other day,” or even more perplexing, “Wow, what a coincidence! You were in my dream last night as well.”

The question becomes, how can that happen? How can two people who lives thousands of miles apart have the same thought at the same time? Well, I believe that God’s spirit, the Holy Spirit, that life-force that is inside of all of us, is like a network that connects us all together. The more in touch you are with God’s spirit, the more likely those moments of synchronicity become.

But perhaps you’re skeptical. You’re thinking to yourself, “Sure, Alex, that’s happened to me as well. But couldn’t that just be a strange coincidence. We happened to be thinking of each other at the same time. I don’t think that has anything to do with God?” But the same thing has happened with ideas. Throughout history there have been these amazing cognitive leaps that have happened at the same time in completely different parts of the world.

For example, human art emerged at the same time in completely different parts of the world. The assumption for a long time was that these types of paintings originated in Europe. However, the recent discoveries of cave paintings on the Indonesian Island of Sulawesi have called this logic into question. There is no way that humans in Europe could have migrated to Sulawesi (or vice versa) to teach this skill. Somehow, humans began painting in caves at the exact same time in opposite parts of the world.

The same synchronicity occurred with machine driven flight. The Wright brothers were the first to achieve flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903, but the race was tight with Gustave Whitehead and Alberto Santos-Dumont developing the technology in tandem, thousands of miles apart. The fact that these technological leaps tend to happen relatively close together in geographically disparate areas of the world is evidence of how we are all connected via the Holy Spirit.

Again, I would say that the more in touch you are with the Holy Spirit, the more likely you are to experience these events of synchronicity, which raises an important question: How do we get in touch with the Holy Spirit? Well, perhaps one of the best ways to get in touch with God’s spirit that is infused in all things is through prayer, which brings us back to Padraig’s poem: Oremus.

I love this poem because I feel like it is one of the best descriptions of prayer I have ever read. I think so often as Christians we think of prayer as being a very specific formulation. If we don’t pray with these words in this building at the right time, then God won’t hear our prayers. But that’s not true. Prayer is simply a conversation with God and there’s no right way to have that conversation. As Padraig says: prayer changes, it adapts, it varies from the canon, it sings, it even swears.

Generally, we think of prayers as being composed of words, but prayers are not simply words. Prayer is something that comes from deep within our hearts. Prayers can be emotions: feelings of joy, groans of pain, tears of sadness. Prayers can be images in our minds. Strings of thoughts with no discernable pattern. When I pray for people in Ukraine, I conjure images of men, women and children who I’ve seen in the news. I don’t bother narrating words over those images because my intentions are clear—I don’t want those people to suffer any longer.

In this way, I am picking up the stones over which we stumble—violence, poverty, starvation, prejudice, abuse—and I build an altar where in my mind I tell these people that I see them; that I care for them; that I want a better world for them. My hope is that by praying for them, the connective tissue of God’s Spirit would join us together so that those people can feel my love and support emanating from thousands of miles away.

The more I pray, the more I realize that prayer has this unique ability to wake us up and make us feel alive. When I spend time in prayer, I find that my senses are more alert and I am more in touch with my environment. I see the world through a different lens. This is what the second half of Padraig’s poem is really getting at: Let us listen to the sounds of our own voices, of our own names, of our own fears. Let us name the harsh light and soft darkness that surround us. Let’s claw ourselves out from the graves we’ve dug.

This is such a powerful image for me. Even though we live in a world full of people, we are so disconnected from each other that it’s as if we dug a grave for ourselves and we’re laying on the ground staring at the sky. All we can see is the dirt walls of the hole and we’re missing everything that matters. But when we pray and we connect with God’s spirit, it’s like we are clawing ourselves out from the grave to finally see and experience the world in all its splendor, allowing us to establish a connection with humanity.

So how I want to challenge you. I want you to spend some time in meditation and prayer, trying to connect with God’s spirit in your life. I’m interested to hear about what happens to you. Are there strange coincidences, moments of synchronicity that start to happen more frequently? If you’re willing to commit to connecting with the Holy Spirit, I would love to hear about all the encounters you have. After a week or two, write and let me know what happens, because I guarantee you, if you invest in connecting with the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit will return the favor.

So to end, a number of years ago, because I love this poem so much, I did something special and put together a film that, in my opinion, really brings Padraig’s poem to life. I hope it stays with you and inspires you to seek out the connection that comes from prayer and God’s spirit. Amen.