In the Nicene Creed we confess: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.”
What does it mean that the Spirit “proceeds” from the Father and the Son? To proceed means to come from or be sent by. Listen to Jesus in John 15, “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth.” Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit, the “Counselor.” Jesus, the Son of God, sends the Spirit, the Spirit who comes from the Father. Many read these words as promises of events that took place in the next few days.
Jesus spoke these words in the upper room on the night He was betrayed. Three days later, on Easter Sunday, John tells us that Jesus breathed on the apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Likewise, Luke reports that Jesus “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” This fits the description of the Spirit’s work in John 14: “The Holy Spirit…will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
About seven weeks later, on Pentecost, Jesus’ promise came true again. Acts 2 describes how the Holy Spirit called attention to His presence: the sound of violent wind, the tongues of fire, and then “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”
On Easter Sunday and on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit proceeded from, came from, and was sent by the Father and the Son onto the apostles to equip them and prepare them for their ministry. The good news is that that’s not the last time the Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son. Far from it, actually. The Holy Spirit still proceeds from the Father and the Son.
To be fair, Jesus was probably talking about Easter and Pentecost when He told His disciples about the Counselor coming and testifying about Him. And yet, tucked away in the Greek is an extraordinary extension of the promise. Jesus didn’t simply say, “When the Spirit comes,” and by that only mean when the Spirit comes on Easter and Pentecost. Jesus actually said, “Whenever the Spirit would come,” or “As often as the Spirit would come,” or “As long as the Spirit would come.”
Jesus speaks with some indefiniteness, but it’s a good indefiniteness. It’s the indefiniteness of Christmas and birthdays. You know those will be good days, you just don’t know exactly how yet, because the presents are still wrapped, the cake still uneaten, the friends and family still unarrived. But they’re coming.
And so is the Spirit. After Jesus’ indefinite statement, “Whenever the Spirit would come,” He speaks only in definites: “[The Spirit] whom I will send…He will testify about me.” When and how often? Unknown. What will He do when He comes? Known. He will testify about Jesus.
Now we think about the Third Article of the Apostles Creed that these confirmands spent three years studying. In the Third Article we talk about the Spirit’s work. We discover an explanation of the “whenever” Jesus promises in John 15. The Spirit didn’t just proceed from the Father and the Son when He opened their minds on Easter, or came upon them on Pentecost, or helped them with the writing of the God-breathed Scriptures. No, the Spirit still proceeds from the Father and the Son and still testifies about Jesus.
Think through the Third Article with me. Luther writes that the Holy Spirit “calls me by the Gospel.” The Spirit witnesses to the words and works of Christ, what Christ did for you, which is the Gospel, the good news. The Spirit called our five confirmands, and many of you here, already just days after birth, when the water of Baptism anointed you and placed you in Christ’s tomb so that you are dead to sin and alive to God.
Some of you, perhaps, heard it first before you felt the watery gift, but no worries. “Faith comes from hearing the message and the message is heard through the Word of Christ.” In that word we put our hope because that word endures forever, the word that we have been justified by faith in Christ and have peace with God. And really that’s just Baptism from another direction, for as Revelation 21 says, it’s the water of life, this Word of Christ, a water that helps us to fly like eagles, renewed in our youth, reborn even.
But the Spirit didn’t stop proceeding when He called you into the faith. Luther again: “He calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.” The Spirit keeps us in the faith. He didn’t just blow once in your life and leave you at that. He keeps on coming from the Father and the Son to keep you in the faith. He comes to you today in Word and Sermon and liturgy, testifying about Christ, again, because you need it, again! And today He also comes to you in those sacred signs, the bread and the wine that are the body and blood of Christ, and the Spirit speaks that so beautiful “for you” – “This body, for you; this blood, for you.” The Spirit speaks the forgiveness you need because you still sin daily. And will sin daily. And daily does the Spirit come and keep you in the true faith, in Christ.
Because, as Luther said, “In this Christian Church He daily and fully forgives all sins to me and all believers.” This simple sentence draws a sharp line between the Lutheran Church and many of the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches in our country. They accuse us of ignoring and forgetting the Holy Spirit. And perhaps we’re guilty of not talking clearly enough or often enough about His work and explicitly giving the Spirit credit. But we certainly don’t ignore Him. The Evangelicals and Pentecostals bear that guilt. They seek the Spirit mostly in miracles, signs, and wonders. Some of them say you’re only really saved if you’ve spoken in tongues. They want you to hear God talking to you, literally. And they do it apart from the ways in which God says He does speak: His Word and Sacramants, which means they do it apart from forgiveness, and so in those churches we see another sad Tower of Babel experience: a bunch of gobbledy-gook that no one can understand. It leaves you dangling, wondering where God is and what God says, and if He said it to you.
The Spirit, on the other hand, as He proceeds from the Father and the Son, brings us the one thing we need: forgiveness. He speaks it ever so clearly, not in tongues that need interpreting. Don’t be misled, my young confirmands, you are not done with Jesus and his forgiveness. Nor are any of you out there, whether confirmed or soon to be confirmed. This stands behind the so-called confirmation syndrome, the idea that you know it all and are satisfied with what you have, you’re done with Jesus and the Spirit’s work. When you think you are, then hell is your home. But note those words “daily and fully.” They come up in the catechism later: Baptism means that the old Adam in us should be drowned by daily contrition and repentance.” Daily. Daily we sin. Daily we put ourselves outside of Jesus’ love, outside of Jesus’ Church, and daily the Spirit forgives, fully the Spirit forgives…me.
Thank God, then, for Jesus’ “whenever,” as in, “Whenever the Counselor would come.” If I could only bank on one or two comings, or a few, then I’d be lost, damned, despairing. But Jesus promises to send out the Spirit whenever, as in, whenever I need Him. Or, in Paul’s words, “Whenever you eat this bread or drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” Thank the Lord. Because I need the Lord’s death every day. So do you confirmands.
We still haven’t exhausted the Spirit’s proceeding. Get back to Luther’s explanation: “And on the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.” Jesus’ “whenever” culminates in another indefinite time: Judgment Day, the day of all days when we hope to not be alone. Jesus promises that you’re not, as Paul told Titus: “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” Not Tower of Babel gobbledy-gook, rather, clear testimony that you can hang your hat on.
Which means when I ask our confirmands to make some open ended promises, they do can so confidently. I will ask you, confirmands, “Do you intend to continue steadfast in this teaching and to endure all things, even death, rather than fall away from it?” And you’ll answer, “I do, and I ask God to help me.” Then I’ll ask, “Do you intend faithfully to conform all your life to the teachings of God’s Word, to be faithful in the use of the Word and sacrament, and in faith and action remain true to God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – as long as you live?” And you’ll answer, “I do, and I ask God to help me.”
To death, you’ll say. As long as you live, you’ll say. And you can, you must, because Jesus promises and delivers the Holy Spirit. The Spirit who breathed out the Scriptures, who carried along the prophets, who blew violently on Pentecost, who hovered over the waters at creation, that Spirit Jesus promises and delivers to you. He is your Counselor, your Helper, your Advocate, your Mediator, your Encourager, your Assistant. He pleads your cause to the Father. He prays the words you can’t express. Most vitally, He brought you to the faith you confess at your confirmation and keeps you in it.
What a comfort it is to know that “whenever” is now, here, among us, among you. The Spirit has brought and will continue to bring you the purifying blood of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, as often as you need it, for the rest of your life. Amen!