Our sermon series during this season of Lent has been on the Apostles’ Creed. In the ancient church Lent was the final period of instruction for those seeking baptism, and we express that catechetical nature of the season each year by focusing on some portion of the catechism: the Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism and Holy Communion.
Between two worlds
Those baptisms at Easter occurred at the end of a prayer vigil – after spending the night in prayer, fasting and scripture. As dawn broke on Easter morning, the candidates would face the darkness in the west and renounce whatever gods they had served. They would then turn toward the dawn and profess their allegiance to God, Christ and the Holy Spirit in the words of the Creed. They would strip off their clothes and leave them behind. They were anointed with oil as a way of exorcising any evil spirits from the gods they had served. They would go down into the pool of water to be baptized. They would rise up the far end of the pool and be clothed in a new white garment. They were anointed again with oil that marked the giving of the Holy Spirit and they were escorted into the inner portions of the house to share with the community in the Holy Communion.
The Easter Vigil that we celebrate on the Saturday evening is a radically shortened form of that ancient rite, but it contains the same elements of prayer and scripture and walking from the realm of darkness into the realm of light. At the center of that service is the rite of baptism – and a renewal of our baptism – and it culminates in the sharing of the Lord’s Table.
The drama of walking from one world into the next, of walking from darkness into light, of walking through the waters like Israel coming through the Red Sea from slavery into freedom, of journeying with Christ into tomb and rising into newness of life…all this is a very powerful expression of the fundamental reality of Christian life: We have left our dying world behind and entered into the new creation. We have left the world of war and violence and entered into the kingdom of peace. We have left the world of revenge and “getting even” and entered into the world of forgiveness. We have left the world of sorrow and death and entered the realm of joy and life.
We are a people who stand between two worlds. We are bound to this world and yet we have tasted the world to come. We live in this world but live by the values of the world to come.
And just to be clear, when we speak of the world to come we don’t mean heaven as opposed to earth, but the world made whole, the world as it will be when it is healed of its sin and sorrow, a world made radiant by the glory of God.
God has made this world. Christ has redeemed it. And now the Spirit gets us ready for it.
The work of the Spirit
My nephew, Christopher, Paul’s son, has been accepted in the Rotary exchange program and will go this summer to spend a year in Sweden. He is very excited; this is where he hoped to go. But having heard that he was accepted to go to Sweden, now he has to learn Swedish. So on top of all his regular schoolwork and college search and college applications, he’s staying up late at night studying Swedish.
It is the Holy Spirit’s job to teach us the language of heaven.
But Christopher has to learn much more than just how to speak Swedish. So there are training events between now and when he leaves that will talk about what he should expect and how he should behave when he is in Sweden.
The Holy Spirit’s job is to teach us more than the language of the age to come – the Holy Spirit’s job is to teach us what we should expect and how we should behave. The Holy Spirit’s work is to teach us compassion and generosity and forgiveness. The Spirit’s work is to teach us how to hold our tongue, and welcome the stranger, and love our neighbor as ourselves. The Holy Spirit’s job is to teach us joy, peace and hope.
The church word for this process of learning the language and life of the age to come is “sanctification.” Luther, in the Large Catechism, says that the work of the Holy Spirit is to make us holy. I’m not sure most of us think of holiness as a good thing. We have a rather twisted notion of holiness that shows up in the epithet “holier than thou.” The holiness we tend to think of is a goody-two-shoes rather than being a whole and healthy and vital and loving human being.
The Holy Spirit wants to make us whole. The Holy Spirit wants to make us like Adam and Eve before their rebellion – people who live in harmony with God and one another. The Holy Spirit wants to free us from guilt and shame, pride and privilege, anger and addiction, anything that restricts, binds, imprisons or diminishes us as human beings – which means, also, to free us from anything we think or do that restricts, binds, imprisons or diminishes our neighbor.
What restricts, binds, imprisons or diminishes our neighbor also restricts, binds, imprisons and diminishes us. This is the thing to remember about Passover and the Exodus from Egypt. It is not only Israel that is in bondage; it is Egypt. God’s purpose is to not only liberate Israel from slavery but to liberate Egypt from slaveholding.
What restricts, binds, imprisons or diminishes our neighbor also restricts, binds, imprisons and diminishes us. Does our attitude to other religions restrict, bind, imprison or diminish them? If it does, it also restricts, binds, imprisons and diminishes us. Does our attitude to other peoples, nations and races restrict, bind, imprison or diminish them? If it does, it also restricts, binds, imprisons and diminishes us.
Does our anger restrict, bind, imprison or diminish us? Does jealousy restrict, bind, imprison or diminish us? Do our possessions restrict, bind, imprison or diminish us? Does alcohol restrict, bind, imprison or diminish us? What about grief? Or fear? Or selfishness? What about hardness of heart? Or gossip? Gossip destroys the gossiper as well as the gossiped about. And we haven’t even touched yet on the ways that war, hunger, fear, poverty, lack of education, lack of health care, lack of work restricts, binds, imprisons and diminishes our neighbor.
The work of the Holy Spirit is to make us whole, to make us the creatures we were meant to be before Adam and Eve turned away: people who live in harmony with God and one another. The work of the Spirit is to make the whole human community what it was meant to be before Cain rose up against Abel. It is a tall order. There is a lot within us to heal. But that is the Spirit’s work.
And the place where God works this healing is the church, the community of believers where God’s grace is preached and God’s gifts given.
I was tempted to say that the church is a hospital, but hospitals are for critical illnesses and no one really wants to go there – and the whole point is to get well enough to leave the hospital! So then I thought the better image might be the church as a rehab unit, a place where truth is spoken, where sins are acknowledged, where a new life is learned. But a rehab unit, too, is a temporary thing. The real metaphor for church is the AA meeting, where people come together to strengthen and encourage and watch for one another on their journey to wholeness.
Our problem is that we think about the church as a kind of club. It’s like the Garden Club or the Library Society or Rotary. It’s something we choose to participate in because we enjoy it, because our friends are there, or because it’s a place to volunteer. We have learned to think this way partly because we don’t have a state church in this country; your religious life is voluntary. It’s a matter of your free choice – just like the Garden Club.
But if all we see in the church is some kind of religious Rotary club, then we will miss the truly profound thing about a Christian community. For at the center of this community is this book and this table and that font. And at the center of this book and this table and that font is Christ. At the center of our life together is a message about God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a message that you are created, that you have been redeemed, and that the Spirit is active within you and within the world to heal and renew and reshape our hearts that we might live as a citizens of the age to come.
The church is not a club; it is a font of grace. Here the Word of God is spoken to us. Here Christ is given in bread and wine. Here the Spirit is poured out in the water. Here our hearts are tuned to praise. Here our lives are shaped by God’s grace and love. Here we are made citizens of the New Jerusalem.