“...The Holy Spirit…The Communion of Saints...” - Reservoir Church
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Becoming Christian: (Re)Interpreting the Apostles Creed and the Christian Faith for Our Times

“…The Holy Spirit…The Communion of Saints…”

Steve Watson

Aug 08, 2021

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

God matters to me; I matter to me; you matter to me; and we all matter to God.

God matters to me; I matter to me; you matter to me; and we all matter to God.

That’s the creed a church in Atlanta used to say weekly. Let’s get there, and if you like, you can say it with me at the end of this time. 

Grace and I sent our daughter off to college last year, several states away. What a weird year to send your kid out into the world, right? 

I mean, we’re really proud of her. She finished her year, got good grades, made friends, learned things about herself and her interests, on and on. We’re really proud of her. But what a weird year to be sent out into the world on your own for the first time. You’re told make new friends, have adventures, you’re in the prime of your life, but also, don’t hang out indoors, don’t leave campus, don’t touch anyone, wear a mask or two.

You’re told you’re here for the most powerful learning experiences you can imagine, to find your passions, find a career, learn to make a difference in the world. And that’ll happen somehow by taking classes online from your closet-sized room where you sit with your computer and your thoughts, all by yourself

It was a pretty lonely and scary year to be a brand new young adult.

It was a pretty lonely and scary year to be a lot of us. I spent a lot of time on the phone this past year, more time on the phone than ever in my life, or at least ever since I was a teenager. And I heard a lot of stories about fear and loneliness. 

Even with the governor. A few of us from GBIO, our interfaith justice organizing group, had a call with the governor to advocate for some justice and mercy measures during the pandemic. But as people of faith, we started out by asking him how he was doing and how we could pray for him. He was clearly under a lot of stress and pressure at the time, and it struck us how lonely his work had become, how he missed the handshakes and hugs and human contact that are big parts of his life in regular times. Even one of the richest, most powerful people in our state gets lonely and scared during a pandemic. 

Some of us discovered during the pandemic that with the help of God and friends, we can face hard times and do well. We found we had each other and we were not alone. 

But some of us found that we were a lot more alone than we wanted to be. And maybe we wonder what to do about that. 

And some of us are realizing that it’s not easy to shake off our fears. There’s plenty of scary news, COVID and otherwise, that’s still part of our lives – private and public – and we wonder how we can be less afraid. If we can be less afraid.

Today I want to explore a little how a person of faith can be connected and feel less alone and maybe even a little less afraid. 

I’ve been teaching through the Apostles’ Creed this summer, one of the shortest and oldest summaries of the Christian faith. And I’ve had my reasons for doing this, as I’ve talked about – as I’ve both affirmed and quibbled with the language of this creed, trying to suggest ways to bring it up to date with our science and experiences and faith and doubt we have in our era.

But with today’s section, I want to just enjoy the holy resources it points us to to be less afraid and less alone in the world. 

So I’ll read the parts of the creed I’ve taught the past six weeks I’ve preached and then today’s section as well.

I believe in God the father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, 

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, 

Who Was Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,

Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was Crucified, Dead and Buried. He descended into hell.

On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints…

So this part of the creed has this holy, holy, holy trifecta. Holy Spirit, holy church, communion of saints, which literally just means holy people. Same root. I believe in holy spirit, holy church, holy people. What does that sound like to you? 

Holy means beautiful and different and awesome all bound together. It’s what we sense or experience that evokes wonder – like the power of the waves at the seashore, or the intimacy of sex with a beloved partner, or the sense you have if you believe in God that there is a spirit of perfect love and wisdom that knows our name and smiles at the thought of us. 

Wholly holy…

My daughter and I have been watching the new Aretha Franklin series from National Geographic and listening to a voice like hers, or hearing Cynthia Erivo, the actress cover her songs, I mean the unworldly power and soul of a voice like that doing its thing, that’s holy.

The creed invites us to believe that God’s presence with us, God’s spirit, is holy. And that the ways God is with us, the means of God’s presence are holy too. In particular, the ways we are here for each other, the universal church that gathers in the name of Jesus, the communion of people who love Jesus, scattered across place and time, that’s holy too. 

There’s an irony for some of us in that many of us have seen versions of the Christian church or experienced versions of Christian community that have been anything but holy – that have been hollow or empty or shaming or dysfunctional or abusive – not the kind of stuff that fills us with beauty and wonder and awe and love at all. 

I think of Aretha Franklin’s life herself – a woman born into a family and a faith full of love and liberation and beauty and strength. But also a family and a faith that was scrapping for survival and that was abusive and hypocritical too.

Not wholly holy. 

So perhaps the creed isn’t telling us the whole story of how it always is but calling us to possibility –to the way things can be or should be. Maybe it’s inviting us to look for the ways God can be with us through God’s church and God’s people, to believe in and lean into the ways we can be less scared and less alone, and more whole, in this community and in this faith. 

This week, this hope reminded me of a little beginning in one of the New Testament’s little letters. Most of the letters in the New Testament are written to communities of faith, but this one called II Timothy is written to a person of faith, to a very young pastor of a community. And the beginning has these words. 

II Timothy 1:3-7 (Common English Bible)

3 I’m grateful to God, whom I serve with a good conscience as my ancestors did. I constantly remember you in my prayers day and night.

4 When I remember your tears, I long to see you so that I can be filled with happiness.

5 I’m reminded of your authentic faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice. I’m sure that this faith is also inside you.

6 Because of this, I’m reminding you to revive God’s gift that is in you through the laying on of my hands.

7 God didn’t give us a spirit that is timid but one that is powerful, loving, and self-controlled.

The writer is telling Timothy to remember God is with you, through many means. Timothy’s been sad, and like most leaders, he’s probably been lonely sometimes. There is mention of tears. Like most young leaders, most leaders period to be real, he’s been scared sometimes. There’s mention of this “spirit that is timid or afraid” that Timothy wants to find his way past. 

But the writer – we’ll go with the tradition for a moment, and call him Paul – Paul tells Timothy God is within you. God is in you. And God’s gift to you isn’t money or status or any other kind of stuff, it’s just all that is holy God. It’s the internal love and dynamism of God within you, and it’s the self-control, the self-leadership that can empower. 

Paul doesn’t just tell Timothy to stop crying and stop being timid and buck up and be strong. And he doesn’t tell his mentee to just have more faith in this God who is with him by God’s Holy Spirit. 

What he does do is remind a young leader that God’s presence is there through many means and that God’s presence invites noticing. Faith in God doesn’t just occur, it needs some paying attention and tending and reviving; it needs leaning into. 

Thankfully, there are many means by which this faith in God with us can be stirred. 

Here are just a few of the means Paul mentions for knowing God’s loving, empowering presence. 

There are the holy ancestors. Paul writes this letter of encouragement not just by himself but in the faith and the strength of ancestors who preceded him. And he encourages Timothy not just as a solitary person alone in the world, but as a young person whose mother and grandmother were people of love and faith.

Timothy’s line probably wasn’t all goodness and light to him, just like our families and ancestors aren’t either. Maybe Timothy’s dad was absent, physically or emotionally. Maybe his brother was mean, maybe his sister did him wrong, maybe his other grandmother was cruel. But he has ancestors, as do Paul, maybe biological, maybe unrelated by people of his faith or his culture or his community who preceded them and whose strength and love and faith is gifted to them across generations. Holy ancestors are means of God’s loving, empowering presence to us all.

There are the holy prayers. Paul prays for Timothy, his mentee, whenever he thinks of him. And that’s a means of loving encouragement. None of us know precisely how prayer works, but when we become part of a church, people start praying for us. I know this because I pray for you all when I think of you. Often very short prayers, but pastors do this, pray for people whose names and lives greet us in memories and meetings and emails and texts. And I co-lead two community groups in this church and just about every week we meet, just about each person is prayed for by name. And God’s listening, and we’re listening, and this is another way we know God’s loving, empowering presence to us all. 

There are holy, vulnerable and authentic relationships. Paul and Timothy know each other well enough, they’ve been real enough, trustworthy and safe enough with each other that tears have been shed in one another’s presence, and they know the names of each other’s family. In our emotionally distant, shut down culture, how many men are open enough, close enough that they’ve cried in each other’s presence. In our transitory world, who knows the names of our family? Whose family names do we know? Holy friendship, that just offers non-judgmental presence, safety, encouragement, openness, this is a big way we get less alone in the world. 

There is the holy spirit of God within us Paul says Timothy, don’t forget. It’s there. And there are holy memories. The memory of people who you love and who love you. The memories of key moments where God seemed real and good, like for Timothy, that time Paul put his hands on his shoulders in front of the little church and commissioned him to lead with love and humility and wisdom and faithfulness. 

Our lives are full of troubles and fears and lonely corners of the life that aren’t quite the ones we want. All that’s real. But we have memories too, memories of experiences that told us we’d be OK, and we are seen and loved and we are not alone. And these holy memories are means of knowing how holy God sees and loves us. 

And there is lastly the holiness of reunion. Paul says

I long to see you. I long to see you.

The longing to see the one we cannot see was real to us all this past year and a half. And sometimes the longing is all we’ve got, and longing can be holy too, even the wanting of togetherness can make us feel a little less alone and a little more alive.

But then there’s the leaning in when it’s possible too, the leaning into togetherness. The premade decision to keep showing up for your neighbors or your friends or your church community group, because in the keep showing up, you know you’ll be a holy encouragement to someone else, and in the keeping showing up, you’ll put in the time that lets others start to be holy encouragement to you too. 

Now let me say again, in all these things I’m talking about – in ancestors, in families, in faith traditions, in churches and memories and prayers and togetherness, there can be so much that is not holy. That keeps distance, that judges, that shames, that uses, that leaves one another empty and emptied and cold and sometimes even more scared and more alone than we were in the first place.

Most of the best things in life, when they lack love and kindness and safety, can be some of the worst things too. That’s real. The means by which we can know God is with us, and be left feeling more love and power internally, only work when we’re safe and kind and lean into non judgemental, loving presence. That’s just a truth of life. 

But with these things, church can be holy, and knowing we are part of a communion of holy people – imperfect, messy, authentic, beautiful, loving, wise, encouraging people, both living and dead, can make us feel God is with us, and help us feel less scared and less alone. 

As people of faith, that have some kind of connection to this church – whether it’s your community, or you’re passing through, or you’re checking it out and figuring out how involved or uninvolved or involved you want to be –  this is the best possibility of this place, or some other place like it. 

The holy church, and holy communion of people helping make present and real an experience of the holy, loving God. 

How do we lean in? How do we give and receive this experience? How do we practice the RADICAL RELATIONALITY of this faith in Jesus? 

How can we experience belonging and mattering? Community, shared purpose, accountability and transformation – personally and socially? 

How can we be a communion of saints to one another?

Let me highlight, underscore again, three of the ways.

One is through our own memory and attention. Many of the things we’ve talked about today are things we can remember and pay attention to or that we can forget, ignore, take for granted, or miss. Last week, in the spiritual practice I led in our in-person service, we practiced the examen prayer, the first half of which is to notice where we’ve found life in the past day and to express gratitude. I’ve been doing this more or less daily, or at least intending to, for 3 or 4 years. It’s changed me.

For the second time in my life, I’m doing this #100daysofgratitude thing on my Instagram and Facebook. Noticing each day and sharing it publicly a person or memory or experience I’m grateful for, remembering and paying attention to ancestors and people who love me and I love, and delights and learning experiences and everything that is holy, holy, holy and reminds me I’m not alone and God is good. 

I don’t do this because I’m a naturally grateful person. Kind of the opposite. I’m not a naturally grateful and attentive person. I have to lean into this intentionally. 

But doing so gets me in touch with the truth that I’m loved by God and that through the communion of saints and the holy church, Holy Spirit is with me, inviting me to hope and joy and greater life. This makes me a less resentful person, a less anxious person, a more content person. And that feels good to me. 

That’s personal. You can do that first one by yourself. The next two need other people. They need the whole communion of saints. 

We practice the radical relationality of this faith through authentic togetherness. There’s no other way. Faith in a loving God, experience of a Spirit who is with you is not a solo sport but a team sport. That’s the cheesiest line ever, but it’s also true. 

To be less alone and less scared and to have the goodness of all the holy, holy, holy, we need each other. Saturday mornings, I gather with 5, 10, 15 or you just about every week. We study the Bible, and have a really interesting time of that, but beforehand, we hear how we’re finding life or how our lives could be better and we offer listening ears and supportive prayers. People keep it pretty real, and I always end feeling more connected and less alone.

I do this other places too – in a Thursday night group, with a couple pastor buddies I meet up with every 2 weeks, and a couple Grace and I talk to on the phone a lot. And then I live with 4 other people too, at least parts of the year now.

But as we found during pandemic, living with other people is no guarantee that those relationships will be means to be less scared and alone and get the beauty and power and strength of love in your life. It all depends, doesn’t it? It depends on whether we can show up for one another with that non-judgmental presence, safety, encouragement, and openness. In my household, we’re all still a mixed bag on this front. 

So we each try our best. I try to be a more curious, attentive, nonjudgemental person. The kind of person it would be safer to cry around, the kind of person someone would long to be with when we’re apart. I pray for help from God in this. My housemates, in my case family, have their own stories in this too, which are up to them, and I think we all mostly try our best. But me, I only control me, right, just like all of us? And that helps this thing along too.

Lastly, I believe that to get the holy, holy, holy community that helps us know the power and fellowship of a holy God, we need to hang in with a tradition. 

We need living people we aren’t related to or wouldn’t naturally just meet as friends. 

We need people much older than us and much younger than us, which faith communities are unusually good at helping us connect with, if we’re willing.

We need dead people – memories of our own ancestors, sure, but also the best wisdom of traditions that span back centuries and more. 

We need rituals and worship and songs and prayers and scriptures that help us think about and experience the transcendent source of life, truth, beauty, and love.

In my case, I firmly believe that I need the teaching and practice and life and ongoing living presence of Jesus Christ, who shows us what God looks like and offers us guidance toward abundant life. 

It’s hard to invent a whole religion. It’s hard to get all these things without hanging in with a tradition and a faith and a faith community – even if it’s got sore spots that need healing and broken spots that need mending and wrong things and outdated things that need updating and righting. 

This is obviously very much the mission of Reservoir Church –  to walk faithfully in the ancient faith tradition of the God revealed in Jesus Christ and to keep innovating and involving and growing so that faith can guide and serve 21st century people who believe in making a more just and loving world. 

Our tradition keeps doing simple and beautiful things, like this old creed we’re exploring this summer that invites us to lean in toward holy God through holy church and holy people. And like this new creed we started with, penned by Dr. Kathi Martin, a queer, Black, disabled minister who founded the God, Self, Neighbor community in Atlanta. 

It goes like this again:

God matters to me; I matter to me; you matter to me; and we all matter to God.

Say it with me if you like.

God matters to me; I matter to me; you matter to me; and we all matter to God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.