Religious but not Spiritual?
If you read my Sunshine piece this week, you know that I like to play golf.
I am not a very good golfer, but I still like to play.
A couple of weeks ago, I played in a golf outing that benefited the Baptist Homes Foundation, a part of Baptist Senior Services where I serve as Board Chair.
The golf outing was at Southpointe Golf Club.
It is a beautiful golf course.
But for my meager skills it is virtually unplayable.
The fairways are narrow, the greens are uneven and fast, the rough is deep and if the ball goes beyond the rough, it will never be seen again.
Many of the holes have blind approaches to the greens.
Most have hazards between the tee box and the fairway and the fairway and the green.
Basically, you must hit the ball accurately in both direction and distance.
I have trouble with both of those.
So, unless the Foundation has their outing there again, I never intend to play that course again.
It’s just too hard.
Golf is hard enough to play, so why would someone design a course that only a select few could play with any hope of success?
I mean, what is the point of it?
Just 18 holes of frustration and lost balls.
Not much fun.
I prefer a more genteel form of golf.
It took me a while to figure it out.
Play easier courses.
Play the gold (senior) tees.
Use mulligans (do-overs for you non golfers).
And most importantly:
Don’t keep score.
Then golf is not “a good walk spoiled” as it has been referred to by many over the years.
It is a chance to get outside, walk around some pretty scenery, hang out with a couple friends, and occasionally get the swing right so you hit a great shot or long put.
Much more fun.
All these things are what bring me back to play again.
What does this have to do with the Apostles’ Creed?
If we take the Creed to be a list of things we must believe in order to be “Christian”, it might look to some to be just too hard.
That’s why we have been talking about the Creed for the last few weeks.
This is particularly true when we affirm our belief in the “holy catholic church”.
A lot of people find that too hard.
What does it mean to believe in that?
What if that is one of the holes on the course that makes Christianity too hard to play?
Well, while we might think it’s too hard, it really isn’t.
And once we understand that, we might keep coming back.
Which brings us to our scripture reading.
Acts 11: 1-18Peter’s Report to the Church at Jerusalem
11Now the apostles and the believers* who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers* criticized him, 3saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 8But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me [by Cornelius] from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.* These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’
We need a bit of background on this passage.
Our text is Peter’s description to the Apostles in Jerusalem of his visit with a fellow named Cornelius.
This is the second time Luke tells this story.
The full story takes all of chapter 10 of Acts.
This second telling takes up the first half of chapter 11.
This must be a very important story!
And it is.
It would be hard to overstate the impact of Peter’s visit with Cornelius on the spread of Christianity.
It resulted in the transformation of a small local Jewish sect into the Christian faith community we see today.
Peter followed the leading of the Holy Spirit and did something profoundly against everything he had been taught as a Jew.
He visited a gentile.
And Cornelius was not just any gentile.
He was a Roman Soldier from Italy.
He was a foreign enemy conqueror.
He had large family and household in what was once Israel.
He had been there for a while and planed on staying for some time.
To Jews, Cornelius was unclean and profane.
But there is a nugget about Cornelius that should not be ignored.
Luke describes him as a God-fearer.
What is a God-fearer?
Today we might call such person a “seeker”.
Or maybe “spiritual but not religious”.
Someone who is looking for an encounter with God.
Not looking for a set of religious tenets.
So, Peter goes to him, says a few words to Cornelius and his household and then … the Holy Spirit lights up their heads with fire.
Just like the Apostles at Pentecost.
Peter didn’t see that coming!
And when Peter sees what the Spirit does, he remembers something Jesus said.
16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’
Cornelius and his household had been touched by the Holy Spirit.
Just like the Apostles at Pentecost!
So, Peter understands for the first time that God sends the Holy Spirit all humanity, not just the Jews.
What does this have to do with the Apostles’ Creed affirmation that we believe in the “holy catholic church”?
We know that the Apostles’ Creed is written in three sections.
Father – creator.
Son – redeemer.
Holy Spirit – sustainer.
Each stanza has a few items in it that describe what we are to believe about that particular subject.
The third section is about the Holy Spirit.
We believe in the Holy Spirit.
And immediately after that, we say we believe in the “holy catholic church”.
This means we believe that the holy catholic church is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Which makes sense because the church was born on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the heads of the disciples.
They spoke in tongues and 3,000 people became disciples that day.
So, that was the church that was “born” on Pentecost.
It was the Apostles and 3,000 new disciples.
Not a building.
The Greek word we translate as “church” is ekklesia.
Ekklesia simply means a gathering of people assembled for a particular purpose.
The purpose of the Christian ekklesia is to worship God.
What do we need to believe about that?
That the Holy Spirit inspires the assembly.
In the context of the Creed, it means an assembly of Christians gathered for worship with the expectation that the Holy Spirit is present and active.
This is one of the ways we commune with God.
That is what the early church thought the Holy Spirit did when the people gathered.
And it added to the ekklesia.
But that thinking did not last.
It seemed the Spirit was pushed to the sidelines of the church.
As Reeves and Chester say in their book, “Why the Reformation Still Matters”:
Where did the Spirit go in late medieval Roman Catholicism? That is no easy question to answer, since for most of the Roman Church the sacramental system and the clergy seemed effectively to replace the Spirit. God’s grace was a blessing accessed through the … seven sacraments … . And the clergy were the ones who turned those taps on and off. With such a hermetically sealed plumbing system for grace, the Spirit was left with nothing to do.
Is that the church we claim to believe in when we recite the Creed?
Sure, we say we believe in the holy catholic ekklesia, but we don’t mean the Roman Catholic Church.
The Greek word we translate as “catholic” is katholikos which means universal or whole.
So, we are actually saying we believe in the universal or whole assembly of Christians.
Why is it holy?
Because that assembly is a product of the Holy Spirit.
So, what does this have to do with our text?
The Holy Spirit gave birth to the universal assembly of disciples of Jesus and is inspired by the actions of the Holy Spirit.
That is what we believe.
3,000 members on Pentecost.
Why did those folks sign up?
They witnessed the actions of the Holy Spirit.
They, themselves, experienced the divine.
They all had an encounter with God.
It was spiritual.
But the spirituality of the event was sidelined pretty quickly.
Because the Apostles were Jews.
And the Jews were a people of the Law.
The Law of Moses.
They took the position that to be a Christian, one must first become a Jew and follow the Law.
They were religious, but not spiritual.
Don’t get me wrong; there is nothing wrong with religious tenets or polity.
Remember, I was the Stated Clerk of Pittsburgh Presbytery and responsible for the interpretation of our Book of Order.
All part of that “religion” thing.
But we have to be careful when we lean too far into religiosity.
When we do that, we tend to push the Holy Spirit to the sideline.
That is the challenge the Apostles had.
They were “religious”.
You want to be part of the assembly of disciples?
Follow the law.
But then something happened that changed all that.
Peter’s baptism of Cornelius.
Entirely a spiritual thing.
Yet, Peter is scolded.
You did what?
You ate with the unclean?
You baptized them?
Then Peter told the story.
About his meeting with Cornelius.
And the fact that the Holy Spirit was who did the baptizing.
The power of the story silenced Peter’s critics.
They stopped scolding Peter and praised God.
They praised God because God turned out to be more merciful than they could ever have imagined.
Even gentiles were welcome.
Why is this important?
It’s important because churches sometimes tend to focus on the religious but not spiritual.
We list tenets of the faith and tell people that they must believe them to be part of the ekklesia.
That is what happened in Rome.
And for some affirming all that becomes really hard.
They want to be spiritual.
And they miss the experience of the divine because they are worrying about what they have to believe.
And maybe they don’t come back.
That was not happening when the ekklesia was growing in the first century.
People were not showing up to be circumcised.
They were showing up to be in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
They were showing up to encounter God!
That is what they found.
We need to find that, too.
So, when we say we believe in the holy catholic church, we are talking about the ekklesia of the Holy Spirit!
A place where we expect to experience the divine and encounter God!
So, what might it look like to have an encounter with God.
Such experiences are different for everyone.
I’ve had a couple.
I would guess many here have, too.
Some have had them right here at JMPC.
It might surprise you.
It might happen in the music.
It might happen in the liturgy.
It might happen in the prayers.
It might even happen in the sermon!
It’s a spiritual thing.
Not a religious thing.
When you become spiritual, not just religious, you will most definitely come back.