I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints; the forgiveness of sins;
The Articles for Advent
The Spirit Who Works Among Us
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Normally Advent is a three week series of midweek services. This year we have four weeks, so I have divided the Third Article into two sermons - this one about the work of the Spirit among us now, and the one for next week on the eschatological works of the Spirit - what He does at the end of time and in eternity. Our theme tonight, as we focus on the first part of the Third Article is, The Spirit Who Works Among Us.
The words we want to focus on tonight are these: I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints; the forgiveness of sins;
The Holy Ghost is the third Person of the Trinity. He is the quiet one, in that the Spirit never draws attention to Himself all that much. His work is to bring all glory to God the Father through Jesus Christ. We call Him the Holy Ghost or the Holy Spirit, depending on how we are using the worlds and what strikes us first. The words mean precisely the same thing. There was a time in the church where people were concerned that as we used the word, "ghost", people would think of Casper the Friendly Ghost, or some other Halloween type character. They preferred Spirit, and argued until people gave in and started using "Spirit" almost exclusively. In recent years, the word "Spirit" has taken on some occult and mystical meanings with unpleasant connotations for some, and so the use of the word "ghost" is often seen as a better choice. In theology as everywhere else in human existence, the pendulum swings back and forth. I like the words I grew up reciting, so I stick with "ghost" where I learned "ghost" and "spirit" where I learned "spirit".
The third Person of the Trinity is the one who directly inspired the Scriptures. He is the Comforter, promised and sent by Christ, who made such a big stir on Pentecost all those years ago. He is the Person who works faith in us by Baptism and the preaching of the Word. He is promised as the "earnest of salvation". That means that when we come to faith, the Spirit is given to us and He dwells within us and keeps us in faith and guides us by the preaching of the Word and by influencing our thinking, when we are not meditating on evil and sin. He is also our guarantee that God will not abandon us - for if He does, His Holy Spirit goes with us.
It is the Holy Spirit that gathers the Church around Word and Sacrament and works in us and through us. It is His authority which powers the absolution and cleanses us from our sins, by virtue of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He intercedes for us for our blessing and brings our prayers also before the Father. Now most of the things I have said about the Spirit could also be said about Jesus. That is because of the nature of the Trinity. We can talk about the Trinity, and distinguish, intellectually, between the Persons, but that is for the teaching of doctrine. In the this-world experience of the Trinity, what theologians would call the economy of the Trinity, we cannot distinguish. Where one Person works, all three are present and active. You may remember the Latin phrase I have used - opera ad extra indivisus sunt - You cannot divide the works of God that He does outside of Himself. The distinctions we make are for pedagogical - or teaching - purposes. Scripture teaches what we teach, but sometimes these are distinctions without any real difference that we can observe here and now.
We confess each member of the Trinity in the Creed as an article of the faith. We do so not because we can clearly see each at work in some separate fashion, but because the Scriptures reveal all of this about God. The only way to clearly identify the true God, in distinction from the myriad of false deities out there, is by confessing God as He has revealed Himself, As the hymn says, "Human reason, though it ponder, cannot fathom this great wonder." - And, though that specific hymn is speaking of the mystery of the Real Presence in Lord's Supper, the words are true also of the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
We confess, along with confessing the Spirit, the works which Scripture ascribes specifically to the Holy Spirit. Chief among those works is the Church itself. The Apostles Creed calls it "the Holy Christian Church", while the Nicene Creed waxes eloquent with "the one, holy, Christian, and Apostolic Church." Since the time of Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit has involved gathering the Church together. In this time, between the coming of Christ on the earth and the end of all things of this age, the Holy Ghost calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the Church in Christ Jesus. It is called "holy" because it is made holy by the forgiveness of sins, which is poured out on us by the Holy Ghost through and by means of the Word. We call it "one" because all those that believe are members (body parts) of this one Church. That unity cannot always be seen because we cannot see who truly believes and which ones are hypocrites, and because of the divisions in the Church caused by denominations and by false doctrines taught in one place or another, and so we confess that this church exists and that includes all those that believe, without regard for the labels that they bear in this world. The Church is an article of faith, not of sight.
The Church is Christian because it is founded upon the cornerstone of Christ, with the teachings of the Apostles and the Prophets filling in the foundation. Christ is the Source and He is the Savior. We together are His body. Any that are ashamed of Jesus have no part in this Church regardless of what they may claim. You don't get to be part of the Church because you want to or because you say so, but because the Holy Spirit has made you a part of the Church by true faith in Jesus Christ.
The Apostles Creed continues by confessing "the Communion of Saints". Controversy has arisen about to what those words are meant to refer. Luther, and the Lutheran Confessions, say that those words mean the fellowship of Saints, or holy people, which is the Church. Because we are Lutherans, and confess that the Confessions are entirely Biblical, that should settle it, but it hasn't for many people. Others like to say that what is being spoken of there is Holy Communion, as in the Sacrament. They say that because the original Latin of the Creed can be translated "the communion (or sharing) or holy things", since the Latin word for holy (or saints) is "sanctorum" - although the communion part is where the translation allows for the interpretation of Holy Communion, or merely the fellowship. Since I am a Lutheran, and the history of the entire Church is behind me, I agree with Luther, and see this expression as confirming and confessing the Fellowship of the One Holy Christian and Apostolic Church.
And finally, for tonight, we confess the forgiveness of sins. This is a Third Article thing because the Holy Spirit brings us this forgiveness through Word and Sacrament in the Church. The Father has planned our salvation, and the Son has purchased our forgiveness, but the Holy Spirit brings it to us and makes us holy by the forgiveness of sins through the preaching of the Word, through the Sacrament of Baptism, through the holy absolution, and through the Lord's Supper which brings us the forgiveness which is the heart and core of our Gospel.
These are not a shopping list of things, mind you, that the Spirit does individually, but together are all one. We simply distinguish them in order to talk about them and teach on each aspect of the work of the Spirit. He works faith in us and through that faith He imparts the forgiveness, life and salvation by means of the Word preached, the Word of grace in the Absolution, and the Word present in and with the Sacraments. He does all of that in connection with the Church. It is said in truth that apart from the Church, there is no faith, and there is no forgiveness, and there is no salvation. Men will imagine that they can have it individually and personally, without the need for the Church, but that would be like having life and health without the need for the body. The Church is not merely the place, but it is part of the work of the Holy Ghost. In fact, the place, "church", derives its name from the Church which uses the place. Just as you cannot have life without breath, you cannot have forgiveness without the Spirit whose work is the Church, and through which Church He creates and maintains the fellowship of the body of Christ, and imparts the gifts of salvation by means of Word and Sacraments.
All of this is gift and Gospel, which we confess when we speak the words of the Creed. This work of the Spirit is the present-day part of the Gospel, and of our Advent celebration. He was promised, He came, and today He still comes in the work of the Holy Spirit. And this is sufficient for tonight. Next week we will consider the Work of the Holy Ghost and the final coming of our Lord, as we confess it each time we speak the words of the Apostles Creed and confess the Spirit who works among us today.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due.
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