During the Pentecost season of the church year, Christians direct their attention to the important role that the person and work of the Holy Spirit plays in their own lives and in their life together as the church. Thus, in recent columns during this season we have been taking special note of the several dimensions of the Spirit’s work in the church. Each dimension reflects a unique aspect of what Christians are confessing each Sunday morning when they declare together the six words of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” In this week’s column we focus on the Spirit’s work of protecting the church until the day Jesus returns to take her home to live with him forever, safe and secure.
Let’s face it: This world is no friend to Jesus Christ. Nor is it any friendlier to Jesus’ followers. Satan unleashes his most violent furies, his deadliest attacks, against those whose aim is to live with, like, and for Jesus, their Savior and Lord.
Aware of the evil one’s power marshaled against them and also of their own weakness to withstand his malignant, diabolical attacks, Christians (must) plead to God continually for help to withstand their deadly enemy. Regularly they (must) cry out to God with such words as are found in the venerable Heidelberg Catechism, a sixteenth-century confession of faith:
By ourselves we are too weak
to hold our own even for a moment.
And our sworn enemies—
the devil, the world, and our own flesh—
never stop attacking us.
And so, Lord,
uphold us and make us strong
with the strength of your Holy Spirit,
so that we may not go down to defeat
in this spiritual struggle,
but may firmly resist our enemies
until we finally win the complete victory.
(Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 127)
But Christians do not endure Satan’s attacks only as individual believers. The entire community of Christ, Jesus’ dearly loved bride, his church, also finds herself under relentless threat from a “world with devils filled” whose chief sworn purpose is to “undo” her. “Nowhere is the power of hell more strongly aimed than against the church where the aroma of Christian holiness fills the air,” to paraphrase St. Hereticus. Thus, the church, too, stands in urgent need of a strong shield to protect her, a fortress so sturdy and impregnable that only God can build and provide it.
Here the Spirit of the resurrected Jesus comes to the rescue. It is the Spirit who erects an armor and defense around believers and around the church. Thus, no matter how ferociously and relentlessly Satan keeps mounting assaults against Christians and the church, Jesus’ Spirit keeps them safe. The bride of Christ is secure from anything that can do her harm, from anyone bent on defiling her and tearing her away from him who cherishes her.
Knowing they are safe, Jesus’ followers can have steadiness of spirit. The words of St. Cyprian, third-century bishop of Carthage who was martyred for his faith, reflect the poise with which Christians of every age have been able to face heavy oppression:
This seems a cheerful world, Donatus, when I view it from this fair garden, under the shadow of these vines. But if I climbed some great mountain and looked out over the wide land, you know very well what I would see. Brigands on the highways, pirates on the seas; in the amphitheatres men murdered to please the applauding crowds; under all roofs misery and selfishness. It is really a bad world, Donatus, an incredibly bad world. Yet in the midst of it, I have found a quiet and holy people. They have discovered a joy, which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of this sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They have overcome the world. These people, Donatus, are the Christians … and I am one of them.
The source of this sturdy confidence, this quiet tranquility and hope? It is anchored in the confident trust Jesus’ community puts in his promise to them: “Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”
Each Sunday when the Christian community gathers to worship God and to fellowship with one another, it hears that promise declared again. It listens anew to Jesus’ invitation to believe his promise. When believers reckon their lives—and their life together as a church—upon the trustworthiness of that promise, they discover that the fiercest, most hellish torments of the evil one are nothing. His rages cannot tear them from the Spirit’s strong embrace, nor banish them from their secure, Spirit-given sanctuary.
Having thus received weekly assurance from their Lord on Sunday morning, Jesus’ followers find hitherto undiscovered, untapped sources of strength to live boldly in the world. They discover anew, as they make their way through frequently confusing, often ominous and threatening happenings during the week, that he is holding them fast. They receive power to live out the bold words William Temple, then Archbishop of Canterbury, declared during the darkest days of World War II to his fellow believers:
When we worship God and serve him, Christ reigns;
When we know success or taste defeat, Christ reigns.
When we live, when we die, Christ reigns.
When history goes, and time shall be no more, Christ is king forever and ever.
And all of this because, until Jesus returns, his Spirit is serving as the church’s Protector, her Safety and her Strength.