The Creeds, part 4: I believe in God the Holy Spirit (Parish Eucharist)
Sermon series: The Creeds
The Holy Spirit
1 Cor 12.1-11; John 14.15-17; 25-26
May the Holy Spirit guide the words of my mouth and the discernment of your hearts. In the name of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
“Mack followed Sarayu as best he could” but “To walk behind such a being was like tracking a sunbeam. Light seemed to radiate through her and then reflect her presence in multiple places at once. Her nature was rather ethereal, full of dynamic shades and hues of colour and motion. ‘No wonder so many people are a little unnerved at relating to her’, Mack thought. ‘She obviously is not a being who is predictable’.” “[S]he wafted around like a playful eddying wind and he never quite knew which way she was blowing.” Like the wind he thought he could see her path, the plants bending in turn as if in worship.”
So Wm Paul Young describes the Holy Spirit in “The Shack”, an imaginative and creative book in which a man in crisis has a transformative encounter with the Holy Trinity. God is a black woman, Jesus is, well, Jesus, and Sarayu is his name for the Holy Spirit, taken from the Sanskrit meaning “wind” and “to flow”, which is very close to the Biblical term for the spirit, the ruach, the Hebrew for breath. Mack has Jesus say of Sarayu, “she is creativity; she is Action; she is the Breathing of Life; she is much more. She is my Spirit”.
So that’s an example of how fiction can be used to convey the Holy Spirit. What about art? Well, the Holy Spirit is often conveyed in terms of something elemental: wind, fire, water, or more concretely, as a dove, or present in oil, which is used for anointing. The subject has inspired many artists, including, famously, El Greco. (Show slides) You might say, it covers the whole animal, vegetable, mineral range. And indeed that would be appropriate, for the Holy Spirit infuses not just us, but the whole of creation. But I’m getting ahead of myself because I still need to look at another way of communicating the nature of the HS, that is of particular importance to us, and that is the Creeds. (Slide)
So how have the Creeds conveyed this third person of the Trinity? The earliest creed, the Apostles creed, the first reference to which is in a letter dated AD390, puts it very simply: “I believe in the Holy Spirit”. (Slide) It allows us space to use our imaginations to fill this out in the kind of images I have just described.
Perhaps this is helpful to us today, in an age when we are inclined to associate the creeds with dogmatism and “unthinking conformity”, something we moderns and post-moderns wish to avoid, in favour of the individual spiritual journey. Perhaps this is a creed we can readily say, as it’s the opposite of nanny state, or rather, nanny church.
However, unfortunately this space largely produced arguments in the early church so Emperor Constantine called a no-coffee meeting for the Church leaders and told them they couldn’t leave until they agreed on one interpretation.
One controversy was over the nature of the Son, whether he was similar to God in what became known as the Arian heresy, or the same. Another was whether the Holy Spirit was fully God, the Macedonians denying that. So, the longer Nicene creed was hammered out, over several Councils, not trying to capture the imagination, but instead, rather the opposite, to close down on leaps of fancy and produce orthodoxy. It was an attempt to explain God as revealed by Christ, with our rational minds.
In the Nicene Creed the Holy Spirit is elaborated, not as much as the Son is, but still, more than before, as (slide) “the Lord, the giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son”.
Well this caused further arguments as the Eastern church didn’t hold with that, they believed the Spirit came from the Father alone, through the Son, not from the Son, so they split off in 1054. Ending dissension wasn’t that easy it seems…
“Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified”, the Nicene Creed continues, undaunted – in this we see that the HS is fully God and God is fully Trinitarian.
“Who spake by the Prophets” – this acknowledges the operation of the Spirit in the Hebrew Scriptures, so the Spirit didn’t originate with Jesus. Rather, as the Creator breathed on the face of the void, so the Spirit emanated in wordless response, and brooded on the waters. What Jesus did, however, was make this Spirit available to everyone, made it personal, and he also gave it ethical content.
While the arguments that led to the creeds may seem to us today like arguing how many angels can stand on the head of a pin, what we can connect with is the passionate desire to comprehend - and communicate - the Godhead. And reciting the creeds connects us with Christians in ages gone past who have cared about this as much as us. And the content of the creeds is none other than the Holy Trinity, the heart of our faith.
But in the end, it is through our imagination and our hearts that we are able to encounter the HS, and it is through this encounter that we really get a purchase on what she is about.
And how do we encounter her? Through her action in us and for us. She is the Paraclete, the comforter - the advocate, John tells us - the friend in need, who teaches us everything and abides with and in us. Most of all, she is love. She is the love that inevitably flows between the Creator and the Word which the Creator has spoken and into which we are invited to join. She is the love of God, that pours out of God and into all created things, and that leads us to aspire lovingly to God, to become one with the Godhead in love.
And the thing about love, it isn’t always easy, it doesn’t always choose the easy route. This is the love that will lead us into all truth, into the very Godhead. It is the love that drove Jesus out into the wilderness to confront who he was. It is the love that came to us all out of the most intense suffering of that same Jesus, a suffering onto death. It is no sentimental, smooth-everything-over kind of love. No wonder this love is portrayed as fire.
Are we ready for this encounter? Can we accept the love that guides us into all truth, no matter how demanding that is? When God drives us into the wilderness, to confront us with who we need to be, will we respond?
The wonderful thing is, no matter how much we resist and are fearful, the HS herself prays within us and asks for what we need. She is our critical friend, but she is our friend. And her power is the love that is greater than fear; her power defeats death. Each week, when we acknowledge her in the Creeds, we are saying Yes, a yes to God and a yes to encounter.
Thanks be to God.