The Creed: The Holy Ghost

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost.

John 14:15-19, 25-26

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. …

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 

1 Corinthians 12:1-13

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

***

I have to admit I don’t remember much from the sermons I heard in my childhood. But there is one story that I can still hear in my mind clear as day, right down to the inflection. It was a story told by my pastor, the Rev. Dean Lindsey, about growing up as a church kid. While he and his brother waited for their parents to finish up a meeting or choir practice or prayer session, they would chase each other around the church, trying to get out of sight of each other. Then they’d circle back to jump out at each other from behind a wall or pillar. “Boo!” they’d yell. “I’m the Holy Ghost!”

I’m not sure why this story has stuck with me so strongly, this silly little child’s misunderstanding of a phrase in the Apostles’ Creed. I think perhaps it was because it was the first glimpse I got, even slantwise, that good church people could enjoy God. That God could be surprising, sneaky, even silly. That God could be a playmate as much as a master and king. 

This week we return to our journey through the Apostles’ Creed, and to what it says about the Holy Ghost, which is this:

I believe in the Holy Ghost. 

That’s it. That’s all the Apostle’s Creed says about the third member of the trinity, after devoting most of its space to Jesus Christ. I believe in the Holy Ghost. 

Now, to clear up another misconception I’ve heard from kids, the Holy Ghost is not Jesus’ ghost. The word ghost used to be used much more broadly to talk about anything that was “there and not there,” anything that was a spiritual but not physical presence. And so in modern language we’ve updated the Holy Ghost to the Holy Spirit, because the spirit is not evidence of death but evidence of life.

The words for spirit—ruach in Hebrew, and pneuma in Greek—show up about 500 times across the two testaments of our Bible. Both words mean something like breath or wind, a beautiful metaphor about what the spirit is like—invisible, intangible, but strong enough to cause tsunamis and erode canyons and break oaks, and gentle and vibrant enough to give and sustain the life in our lungs. In the very first verses of Genesis, God’s spirit sweeps over the waters of chaos like a wind stirring them into creation, and God puts breath into the lungs of humans, made in God’s image. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the Spirit of God falls on men and women to give them “superhuman strength, wisdom, and leadership”—some military leaders, some artists, some priests, but mostly prophets, prophets who are compelled to speak God’s word as if the galeforce of God’s wind was pushing them to it. 

I say all this to remind us that Christians did not “invent” the Holy Spirit, but we do see the Spirit, not just as power emanating from God, but as God, God within and amongst us. 

The scenes of the Spirit from the gospels are memorable: the Spirit descending as a dove on Jesus at his baptism, Christ promising his Spirit to the disciples after his death and resurrection, the Spirit raging as fire and wind at Pentecost. Still, it’s the letters that invoke the spirit most frequently, when Paul and his colleagues write to little fledgling churches across the Roman empire, reminding them that they are not alone in trying to carry on Christ’s legacy on earth. 

Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson sees two aspects to the Holy Spirit: the Spirit is both a power and a person.[1] The spirit is a power, a power promised to the disciples by Jesus, enlivening, sustaining, inspiring, and emboldening them. But it is not an impersonal power like electricity or calories. The Spirit has its own will, its own direction, its own knowledge. The Spirit gives us power, but has a purpose in mind for us to use that power towards. 

Jesus promised power to his disciples, but not the power that they might have expected. Johnson notes that “the first believers were not suddenly given military, economic, political, or other material forms of power, but had been touched and transformed in their own spirits—that is, in their capacities for knowing and loving—and from this transformation derived new capacities to embody that spiritual power. because their spirits were changed, they recognized the power of change as itself spirit.”[2] 

It is that Spirit that “powers us up” with different gifts—teaching, wisdom, discernment, encouraging—even while breaking down the superficial differences we cling to. It is that Spirit that “powers up” our very faith—as Corinthians says, no one can say Jesus is Lord without the Spirit to help open the path between our heads and our hearts. 

The power of the Holy Spirit within us is rarely the kind of power that puts people on the front page of the paper. Yet when I think of the most powerful people I know, really know, it is the friend who has just the right words to say; the friend who can discern when I need encouragement; the friend whose compassion is undimmed by the stark realities of humanities’ suffering; the friend who keeps saying yes when the whole world says no. These are the people who change the world, because they are plugged into the Holy Spirit’s will and work for them. It’s a sneaky, extraordinary power, and it is given to all of us. 

You all have heard me talk often about the spirit as fire, breath, power, gift, dove. I am drawn to these images of the Spirit in my own personal faith, perhaps because they surprise and delight me, which I think is a hallmark of the spirit. I am less drawn to the image Jesus offers in the gospel of John that we read today. I think that is because that word—Advocate in the NRSV, Paraclete in the Greek—just sounds so dry compared to all the other glimpses of the spirit in the world. But I think I am coming around. 

The bit of John’s gospel we read this morning takes place right before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. It is his last evening with his disciples, because while he will of course be resurrected and while he will pop up in unexpected places after Easter morning, he won’t come back to them in that steady, everyday way he’d been with them before. And while we all know that it is much more comforting to know a loved one is alive then dead, there is still a loss when they are gone—even if only from our lives, and not from the world. 

And so Jesus promises the disciples that they won’t become orphans when he is gone back to heaven. Instead, he’ll send a Paraclete in his place. Paraclete is from two Greek words that mean to be called alongside. It was a legal term in the ancient world, the person who stood in court with the accused and defended them; it was also the word used for those who mourned with the grieving, one who comforted with their presence and their empathy. For three years, Jesus had been the disciples’ advocate, their comforter, their companion, the one called to walk alongside them. Now that work will fall upon the spirit. Theologian Justo Gonzalez notes the miracle of the spirit; that “because of the presence of this Advocate, the disciples would he able to live in joy even at the time of the physical absence of Jesus. Because of the presence of this same Spirit, we today can joyfully proclaim that Jesus ascended, sits at the right hand of God, and will come again. Though he is not physically with us, he is present in the Spirit.”[3]

Last year I had the honor of officiating a funeral for a dear, feisty, former member of this community. She had spent the better part of her more than a century on this earth advocating for her son, whose brain and body do not easily navigate our society. It was not easy, decades before there were schools for special needs children or programs for adults with disabilities. Her love for her son made her fierce and focused, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. 

At her funeral, this woman’s granddaughter spoke. The granddaughter has a special needs child of her own, five or six years old, who came to the funeral in a wheelchair, shrieking with confusion when her mom left her side, and joy when her mom returned again. Through tears, the granddaughter said that her grandmother was not the kind of grandmother you baked cookies with or hugged goodnight. But one night, at a family reunion, the granddaughter found herself sitting inside with her daughter, trying to soothe her, trying to avert the meltdown of a long day of unfamiliarity and stress. And suddenly there was the grandmother by her side. 

They sat for a minute in silence. Then the grandmother said. “You know, being an advocate for your kid can be the most exhausting, hardest, most miserable job in the world. It never ends, and you have to be tough as nails. But it’s what you and I were made to do. To make this world a place where our children can live. Not just survive, but live. You’re doing alright.”

In that moment I think I saw the Paraclete, the Spirit our Advocate, in that grandmother and granddaughter. The spirit, too, loves us with a fierceness that can make her tough as nails. The spirit, too, must be exhausted at times by how hard we push back against her way. The spirit, too, will stop at nothing to make this world a place where God’s children can live. Not just survive, but live. 

The spirit will never stop working on our behalf, tirelessly, lovingly, fiercely, fighting through us and for us for a world where everyone knows the intimate presence of God. 

I believe in the Holy Ghost.

As I said earlier, the Spirit only gets one dedicated line in the Apostle’s creed, but there is actually a second mention. Pastor and teacher Adam Hamilton points out that the creed has already explicitly told believers that “Jesus “was conceived by the Holy Spirit.” Because of that line,” he continues, “you could say that everything stated about Jesus in the Creed is possible because of the Spirit’s work. You might also say that everything that follows the confession of belief in the Holy Spirit—the church, forgiveness, the Resurrection—is made possible by the Spirit’s work.”[4]

The Holy Ghost is not a throwaway within the Apostle’s Creed. She is the lynchpin, infusing all of the Creator God’s work on this earth, invigorating out ability to believe at all. 

And so I think back to that silly children’s game my pastor played with his brother, jumping out with a Boo! I’m the Holy Ghost. And maybe I love that story because more often than not that ishow the Spirit shows up in my life, jumping out at me from unexpected people and in unexpected places, surprising me, sometimes even scaring me with her boldness, beckoning me to play with the God who delights in my very being, beckoning me to chase her right back, and surprise her with the very gifts she gave me from the start. 

Dove and fire, playmate and advocate, comforter and earthquake, whisper and shout, breath and gale wind, nudge from within and love from all around us: this is the Spirit. 

Praise be to God. 

Amen. 


[1] Johnson, Luke T. The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters. New York: Doubleday, 2003. Print, p. 221.

[2] ibid, p. 220.

[3] González, Justo L. The Apostles’ Creed for Today. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007. Kindle edition.

[4] Hamilton, Adam. Creed: What Christians Believe and Why : Exploring the Apostles’ Creed. , 2016. Kindle edition.

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