Updated: Jan 31
In the Nicene Creed, or the Apostles’ Creed, which we recite each week, we all avow that God has spoken through the prophets.
In the breakdown of that creed, as our profession of faith, the first part states our belief in God. The second part states out belief in Christ; and the third part states our belief in the Holy Spirit.
Thus, we state, “We believe in the Holy Spirit … who proceeds from the Father and the Son, with whom [the Holy Spirit] is worshipped and glorified.”
This means we believe that the Holy Spirit has spoken through the prophets.
From the Holy Spirit having been within other human beings – Christianity began with the Apostles of Christ and spread outward – we believe in one holy catholic [meaning universal] and apostolic [meaning those having the same characteristics as the Apostles, having received the Holy Spirit] Church [with a capital “C,” meaning an organized body that continuously promotes the spread of Christianity].
We are here today because we believe in One Assembly – One Gathering – One Congregation – One Ekklesia – One Church of people dedicated to Christ. Thus, we believe that ordinary people have been filled with the Holy Spirit over the past two millennia, in growing numbers.
There are no longer any school for prophets, for those who were born of a lineage of prophets. That ceased with the fall of Israel and Judah.
In the words of Joel, we believe people who prophesy have the spirit of God poured out upon their flesh. In the words of Paul, prophets of that nature have influenced others to continue the flow of faith, by allowing themselves to pour out as a libation, the wine of God and Christ, through the Holy Spirit.
It is important to realize that our profession of faith maintains this belief.
We exist as a denomination church [the Episcopal / Anglican Church], which is only a part of the grander Church that is the whole body of faithful who are dedicated to the One God. As Episcopalians, in particular, we are part of a universal Church that believes in the One God, which also believes in the holiness of Jesus as Christ.
The commonality of our belief then links the universal Church of Christ to all denominations such that we all seek to be Apostles, as “one Apostolic Church.” As Apostles, we should be promoting individual holiness through having received the Holy Spirit into each one of our hearts, so we can be guided in our actions and encourage those who are still seeking this state.
People have been reciting this statement of faith, in one version or another, since the First Council of Constantinople in 381.
In 397 AD, at the Council of Carthage, the Book of the Revelation was accepted as a faithful example of God speaking through a prophet named John.
In 419 AD, The Apocalypse [its Greek title] was added into the canon. It is a book that prophesies, presumably by the Apostle John – the Beloved – while he was in exile at Patmos.
The Book of the Apocalypse is not part of the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
It was said by Martin Luther to be “neither apostolic nor prophetic,” in the 16th century.
In short, despite statements of faith, we often place mind over heart. Instead, we believe we have the right to deny prophecy, before we believe God has spoken through people who some “church officials” do not recognize as “legal tender.”
We believe in the axiom, shoot first, ask questions later.
We believe it is safer to kill the messenger, than it is to open the gates and welcome a Trojan Horse.
We nail those who think they are Christ to the cross almost everyday, in a never ending play, where we raise our hands and scream out, “Please! Let me play a Pharisee, a high temple priest, or one of the Roman guards whipping Jesus!”
After all, Jesus was a prophet, and we know full well those are best served OVER THERE, not here, not among us normal folk, not where Jesus lives – his hometown within our hearts.
Is that faith or doubt? Is that playing Master or servant? Will God be the one to enlighten us about false prophets, or will scholars have that distinction?
We read so much about “false prophets” that we often find it is easy to be confused and misled. I imagine Peter was confused after Jesus was arrested. He found it best to deny Jesus, and then hide behind a locked door, than to stand by Jesus with the women and relatives. Sometimes we are like Peter, without realizing it.
Joel is called a “minor prophet,” one of twelve at the end of the Old Testament. The designation of “minor” must be realized as being relative to the length of the prophecy written, and not to the validity of the prophecy. Thus, we believe Joel was a prophet through which the Holy Spirit spoke the word of God.
Joel wrote the words of the LORD, saying, “Then afterward I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh.” He then said, “your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”
That sounds like a lot of ordinary people will become prophets. The prophets God told Joel about would not be born as the children of prophets, as all the schools of prophets will have ceased being. Instead, they will be people like Amos – a self-proclaimed sheep herder and sycamore fig farmer. Several of the “minor prophets” can be seen as fitting this description prophesied by Joel.
So, we believe Joel, who Peter quoted to Jewish pilgrims entering Jerusalem for the Festival of Weeks, which begins on the Day of Pentecost – “the 50th Day.”
Many heard them “speaking in foreign tongues” and thought the disciples were drunk at 9:00 AM on the Day of Pentecost. “No, no!”, said Peter. “We’re not drunk. We are filled with the Holy Spirit, like Joel said would happen.”
It is so easy to not believe. It is so easy to not be filled with the Holy Spirit. It takes faith to listen to someone you think is speaking drunken foolishness, and then be converted to belief in Christ by what is being said – because it comes from the Holy Spirit and is Truth.
Paul summed up what being filled with the Holy Spirit means. He said It means being able to say, before one’s time on earth ends, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” The reward for having received the Holy Spirit, and having then poured it out to others – as a libation of fine wine – is a reserved crown of righteousness.
In the Gospel reading for today, we read of Jesus telling the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (or Publican). We read the conclusion stated by Jesus, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
It all seems simple enough – live a humble life and go to heaven – but is life ever that simple?
How easy is it to be humble? We need to look at this selected Gospel reading through the lens of the Joel passage, with a tint from Paul’s letter to Timothy.
As is the case with all of Jesus’ parables, we are not innocent bystanders – lambs hearing a story about someone else. We are both of these characters, in some way or another. We are the Pharisee and we are the tax collector. We are more justified in some things and we are less justified in other things. We are humble, but we also see ourselves as exalted, as Christians.
With that understood, look at our beliefs again, in respect to the statement that “We believe God has spoken through the prophets, via the Holy Spirit.”
Neither the Pharisee, nor the tax collector was a vehicle for the Word of God. Neither was a prophet filled with the Holy Spirit.
They were both people who believed they were the children of the One God, with expectations placed upon them, in order to receive special recognition as God’s Chosen Ones. One expectation was that they should go to the synagogue or Temple on the Sabbath, for the purpose of praying to God for forgiveness. In a sense, they were forced by Law to humble themselves.
We continue this tradition in our reciting of the Confession of Sins. We recognize that sin can manifest through thought, word, and/or deed, and acts done, and those not done. We state we are truly sorry and we repent from a humbled position of guilt.
In the parable today, one prayed from a perspective of self-righteousness. The other prayed from a perspective of self-dishonor. One was blind to his own sins. One was afraid of his desire for goodness, because being good would mean losing everything he had.
Neither saw himself truthfully, thus neither welcomed in the Holy Spirit.
Paul wrote in his letter to Timothy, “the Lord stood by me and gave me strength.” When the Holy Spirit manifests itself within us, we cease to be the most important person in our lives. We sin by ignoring our thoughts telling us to do good acts, instead acting in ways we know are wrong.
When the Holy Spirit is within us – when it is welcomed by us to be within us – when we receive the spirit of Christ and allow the LORD to pour out his spirit upon our flesh – then we are truly righteous. From that position of strength, we are rescued from the lion’s mouth and rescued from every evil attack.
To receive the spirit, we must recognize how easily sin devours us. We must recognize the shame that was felt by the tax collector – the shame of not having the Holy Spirit within us – when we profess to have that faith.
In Greek, the word that translates as “justified” is rooted in the verb that means, “to be deemed righteous,” “to defend the cause of,” or “to be vindicated.” Therefore, the tax collector, by emotionally admitting his sins before God and asking for forgiveness, was more righteous than was the one who thought he already was righteous, and happy he was not someone obviously filled with evil, like the tax collector.
More righteous is better than not righteous, but more righteous is not the same as righteous.
In the prophecy that so many love to avoid believing – The Revelation of John – that book begins with the spirit of Christ telling John, “Write a letter and send it to the seven churches.”
That was an instruction to send a message, via the Holy Spirit, to the branches of the one universal and apostolic Church, of which the Episcopal Church is a part. As such, John wrote The Revelation to us, as members of a Christian church.
Do we believe a letter many have never fully read? Do we believe a letter most do not fully understand? Some say the seven churches were nothing more than long since vanished outposts established by the early Apostles, not relevant since the Muslims took control of Turkey. Is any prophecy ever that literal that it cannot be metaphorically naming our church today, using some ancient name?
In that letter, John was told to write about how each church did some good things, but each church also did evil deeds.
Each of the seven churches had sins they were in denial about, but just as Luke prefaced today’s Gospel, “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”
Do you think the Pharisee in the temple had a clue that he had some flaws he was blind to and unable to see, as he thanked God for his wonderful life?
The message of the letter the Holy Spirit dictated to John said, in a paraphrase, “God does not want to hear your prayers about how good you are. Let me hear some emotional confessions and promises to do better.”
God then added, “Let me see the evil deeds ceased. To do that you will need my Son’s Advocate to make you strong enough to stop sinning.”
Do that, then there will be a crown of righteousness waiting for you in heaven.
You can believe that.
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