This is my sermon for the Day of Pentecost, Sunday 24 May 2015, at Grace Anglican Church, preceding the Baptism of William Brench. “We believe in the Holy Spirit; the Lord, the Giver of Life.”
Who is the Holy Spirit?
We’ve made it to Pentecost, the day we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit! It is a day we’re prompted to revisit the question, “Who is the Holy Spirit?” The Nicene Creed gives us a precise answer. The Holy Spirit is the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son He is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the prophets. This means that the Holy Spirit is, first of all, God. Specifically, the Spirit is the power of God at work in creation, sent forth from God the Father, causing the Word of God to come to pass. When we worship God the Father and Jesus, we are also implicitly worshiping the Holy Spirit. And when we read the Bible, we are benefiting from the work of the Holy Spirit in ages past, who spoke through the many human authors of Scripture. The Creed is an important place to start; we get all these nice grandiose statements about the Holy Spirit that way. For, too often, we reduce the Holy Spirit just to his gifts & fruits, which are the results of his work in us. Or worse, sometimes people have reduced the ministry of the Holy Spirit to New-Agey inspirational garbage, as if the Spirit is some sort of mystical force that can be tapped into, channeled, and controlled. He is not about parlor tricks, he is God!
The Giver of Life
The aspect of the Holy Spirit that I’d like us to focus on today is his attribute as the “Giver of Life.” This is always the best starting point for understanding the Holy Spirit, in my estimation, because when we jump straight to the “fruit of the Spirit” (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc.) or to the “gifts of Spirit” (be they supernatural or otherwise), we end up gravitating toward a self-centered understanding of the Holy Spirit. Rather than asking who he is, we are tempted to ask “who he is to me.” So let’s begin who he is as the Giver of Life. We see this image of God’s life-giving Spirit, or wind, or breath, all over the Bible. In Genesis 1 the Spirit of God is hovering over the waters, about to blow life into creation. After the great flood in Noah’s time, Genesis 8 tells us that God “made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided,” thus restoring life to the world. In Job 33:4 we hear “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” Psalm 104 praises God because “When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.” Several times in Romans 8, just before where today’s Epistle reading picked up, we see Paul referring to the Spirit of Life who has set us free in Christ from sin and death, so that to set our mind on the Spirit is life, that the Spirit is life because of righteousness, and that the Spirit who gave resurrection life to Jesus also gives new life to us. These are just a few examples of the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit. And as we’ve already begun to hear from Romans 8, the Holy Spirit is not just in the business of making the Old Creation, but also in making the New Creation.
The Work of the New Creation
Although the Holy Spirit is the chief worker in both cases, the Old Creation is different from the New. In the beginning, God created ex nihilo, he made the universe from nothing. First, nothing but God existed; then, something else existed. That was the work of the Old Creation. The New Creation, however, is worked out quite differently. Rather than starting from scratch, God is transforming the Old into the New. This is attested to throughout the Bible. Our epistle reading from Romans 8 describes this transformation from Old into New: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” There, not only are people being born again into Christ, but the entire universe is going through childbirth. “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” When Christ died and rose again, he was not only bringing about the salvation of those who turn to him in faith, but the whole of creation with them! After all, God’s redeemed people will need a redeemed world in which to live! We see this in the book of Revelation as well: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”” This work of “making all things new” is precisely what the Holy Spirit is doing.
Discerning the New Creation
Now the question that probably comes to mind is “What does this look like?” If we say that the work of New Creation began with Christ’s victory on the cross, and the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit, how do we see this renewal of creation at work? We’re used to talking about believers being “born again” or “born from above,” but how does this apply to the rest of creation? Well, just as the New Creation of a person’s spiritual birth is only discernible spiritually, so is the New Creation of other things only discernible spiritually. It might sound like a cop-out, saying that the New Creation is basically invisible, but we’ve got to remember that spiritual realities are just as real as physical realities. After all, God himself is invisible, yet we don’t consider him any less real than ourselves! And in the few special times that God did make himself visible to people, it was always in the form of a physical reality so that they could relate to him somehow. Discerning the New Creation is exactly the same: we look through a physical reality to behold a spiritual reality. There are many different examples of how this looks, but I’ll just give three big examples for today. First, there’s the Bible. Take a look at it. It’s a book. It looks like a book, smells like a book. When I tap on it, it sounds like a book. When you open it up, it’s got ink on a page, just like any other book. The Bible is a book, plain and simple. But wait, you say; the Bible isn’t just a book, it’s the Word of God! How can you tell? There is no way of knowing, according to my human senses, that there is anything special about this book. Only when we engage with this book spiritually can we find it to be God’s Word. It’s an inward spiritual reality hidden behind its outward physical reality. A word that the Church has long used to describe this phenomenon is “sacramental.” Through an outward physical thing, we find an inward spiritual thing at work. Second example: Holy Communion. It’s bread and wine, plain and simple. You can smell it, feel it, taste it; it’s bread and wine. But at the same time, when Jesus spoke of it, he said, “This is my body.” And when St. Paul wrote of it, he said, “the bread that we break is the communion of the Body of Christ.” We see an outward physical sign that points us to an inward spiritual reality beyond it. When we approach the Altar, it isn’t ordinary physical bread we seek, but the Bread of Life which is Christ himself. Thus we partake of spiritual food to sustain our spiritual life. Third example, is the water of Baptism. As St. Peter wrote, “Baptism now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” As far as we can see, at a baptism, a person gets wet. But we look through that physical reality, through that water, to discern the spiritual reality: the power and presence of the Holy Spirit washing away a person’s sin. Just as ink on a page in the Bible communicates God’s Word, or as the bread and wine of Holy Communion communicate Christ’s Body and Blood, so too do the waters of baptism communicate the washing work of the Holy Spirit. Let’s expand on this topic of Baptism, since that is what we are preparing to do, in just a few minutes. In the Bible there are two distinct types of baptism described: one from St. John the Baptist, and one from his cousin, our Lord, Jesus.
John’s Baptism of Repentance
St. Luke (in chapter 3 of his Gospel book) gives us the most detail about John’s preaching and ministry. There, we find that John was sent by God to administer a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” This meant that he would preach the Gospel – the impending arrival of Christ – and call people to repent from their sins. They were then to be baptized as a sign of their repentance, and thus also know that they’ve receive God’s forgiveness. It was, in short, a ministry of preparation, helping people to recognize Jesus when he arrived so that they’d listen to him and follow him as Christ and Lord. This is important to recognize as a ministry of preparation, because John himself attested that “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). In short, his baptism of repentance was not going to be enough; when Jesus arrives, he’ll give you what you really need.
Christ’s Baptism of the Holy Spirit
What is it that Jesus added to John’s baptism of repentance? The Holy Spirit! As the Church grew, the Apostles encountered people who’d been baptized by John, but had never heard of the Holy Spirit. You can find one of these stories in Acts 19. Their response was to teach them the Gospel of Christ “more accurately,” and then baptize them with Jesus’ baptism: in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The New Testament makes the link between Baptism and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit clear in several places. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter preached, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul tells us “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” In Titus 3, Paul reminds us that God “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Christian Baptism, therefore, is the work of the Holy Spirit to give us new life in Christ!
Abiding in the New Baptismal Life
This brings us to an important and final point: after baptism, it is up to us to “abide in Christ.” This is a fancy way of saying that we’ve got to stick with it. New birth into a new life is just the beginning. When you look at a newborn and say “he’s perfect!” you don’t mean that they ought to remain exactly as they are. They do still need to grow up and live the life they’ve been given. So whether the one being baptized is an infant, a child, a teen, or an adult, we do not claim that they have reached perfect faith, fully attained salvation, or are now exactly as they ought to be. It is always up to them to abide in Christ, feed on Him in their hearts by faith, and read His holy Word. Can anyone do these things on their own strength? Absolutely not! Paul explicitly denies this: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3) The point is, again, that Baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit are only the beginning of the Christian life. The Holy Spirit then ministers to us as we grow and mature in Christ. Additionally, Paul is writing here in the plural, addressing a group of people. Not only do we need the Holy Spirit within us individually to help us grow, but we need the community of believers – the local Church – to be a place where the Spirit can do his work. Thus, when we perform a baptism, the whole congregation pledges to help their new brethren to grow. So as we go through this baptismal liturgy now, I want you to pray these prayers with me in your hearts. And when you speak, speak with conviction. We do not make promises before God flippantly; we stand witness to the Lord, the Giver of Life, at work!