The Apostles' Creed
In the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church
Read : Acts 2:1-4; John 14:25-26
The Holy Spirit. A mighty wind. Tongues of fire. And there are many other beautiful metaphors to describe the Holy Spirit and his, or her, actions - running water, anointing oil, cloud and light, a dove. Each one is a key to understanding the complexities of the Holy Spirit, surely one of God's greatest gifts to us, if not the greatest. But the metaphor that means most to me is the one that Jesus himself used as he was addressing the disciples in the upper room. A Counsellor.
A Counsellor is an advisor. Someone who can provide advice when you need it. Someone who can persuade you to do something. Someone who can help you adjust to or deal with personal problems, by enabling you to discover for yourself the solution to these problems. Someone who offers sympathetic attention, but at the same time pushes you to take action so that you overcome your problems.
But it goes beyond that. It's no accident that the Apostles creed places the statement of belief in the Holy Catholic (or universal) church immediately after the statement of belief in the Holy Spirit. For I believe it is the Holy Spirit that gives meaning and mission to our collective efforts to live our lives as Christ would have us do - what we commonly call our Church. It also give us the means and the authority to undertake this mission and to speak in his name. The Holy Spirit's unifying role is well described in the words of Cyril of Alexandria, one of the Early Church fathers, words that apply just as much when I read them last week as they did in the 5th Century when he wrote them. "All of us who have received the one and the same Spirit, that is the Holy Spirit, are in a sense merged together with one another and with God. We are God's community - God's church."
1500 years later, John Stott, a contemporary theologian, expressed similar sentiments. "Before Christ sent the church into the world, God sent the Spirit into the church. The same order must still be observed today."
It's a shrewd observation. For unless the church is filled with the Holy Spirit, it cannot fulfil its function. Unless the church - that is, us, - have the fire of Christ's passion for justice for everyone, then how can we be a living growing body? Unless we have the breath of Christ's life in us, unless we open wide our doors and allow the power of God to blow through our Church refreshing and renewing it, empowering it to speak his word in the world, then we cannot speak with authority. Unless we not only receive, but recognise that we have received, the power of the Holy Spirit, then not only is the Word lifeless and dead, so is the Church.
But what is the Holy Spirit saying to us today about the Holy Catholic Church? Well I don't know about you, but I know what it's saying to me. I believe in a Catholic church - it's a great concept. But has there ever been such a body? Has there ever been such as thing as a unified church? Certainly not in the early days of Christianity, as biblical studies demonstrate. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, recognises that the Church there was rife with internal tensions and disagreements. But he makes the point forcibly that he will do anything and everything in his power to share the gospel blessings with everyone. That was his focus. That was the universality he sought.
So we must be careful not to confuse the workings of the Holy Spirit with the more human aspects of our communal existence in the Church - things that always grow out of human interaction, things like intolerance of other people's views, a tendency to concentrate on trivial issues that inevitably divide us, a certainty that our version of religious orthodoxy is the right one, how many ministers we need, whether each parish needs its own minister, how we should worship, what sacraments we should observe, what model of governance we should assume, and so on. The Holy Spirit challenges us to move beyond these comfort zones. That's what Peter and the apostles had to do after Pentecost, and the church - or rather churches - they built were vibrant, challenging, debating, full of disagreement, challenging of authority, and so on, but also full of agreement that Jesus was a living example of humanity entered into God
I listen in despair to Christian leaders who think they can bring unity by imposing propositional truth on all people, or to leaders who are willing to sacrifice truth in order to achieve unity. I think the Holy Spirit is telling us that being faithful to a long term goal is always more important than being unified. The older I get the more I think that what most people call orthodoxy in religious belief is little more than the imposed authority of some part of the Christian faith. The claim that a belief is fundamental is not to acknowledge a point of view that is necessarily true, but only the point of view that has prevailed. Many churches have simply frozen their version of fundamental doctrines at sometimes primitive levels. There has never been a single unified Holy Catholic Church to which we must now seek to return. Rather it's something we must constantly aspire to - and we're heading into the unknown! But we have a Counsellor.
I see Christianity as a continuously evolving movement. What should mark us out is a willingness to listen to our Counsellor - the Holy Spirit - and continually seek truth through the Christian story or through the Christian lens. I believe in the Holy Spirit. And I also believe in a Holy Catholic Church as a goal - which is why I will continue to seek that long term unity through a focus on what unites us, rather than what divides us. The Holy Spirit is telling me that true Christianity should be always evolving into what it can be - a unity of believers prepared to constantly seek truth through reflection on the life of Jesus Christ - and not just protecting what it has been.
So at this time of year, as we celebrate Pentecost, I would suggest that our role in this Church - or whatever church we belong to - is to be agents of change, constantly seeking truth through the Christian story, constantly challenging the status quo in the name of respect and justice for all, always seeking to reflect on what Jesus would do if faced with our problems, always helping our fellow men and women to be all that they can be in Christ. Our job as Christians today is not to conquer or to dominate the world, but to give the world a new quality - the life of Jesus. We should be the light shining in both the darkness of the world and of the church. We should be the seasoning that makes the soup tasty or the leavening agent that causes the loaf to rise. And remember we're not alone in this. We have a Counsellor.
At Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit and its vision of a Holy Catholic Church, we should celebrate the fact that God has entered humanity, and recognise that his desire is for a universal brotherhood of believers, united in living as Jesus taught us. But also recognise that being faithful to that as a long term goal - and working towards it - is always more important than being unified in some other way in the short term. I leave you with a thought - maybe it is better to see a church divided today than to see it united in false gods such as mammon, slavery, misogyny, patriarchy, racism, or, dare I mention it, homophobia.
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