Monthly Archives: July 2011
We’re two months through a three-month series on the Holy Spirit. This was our subject last Sunday morning, but it was an all-age worship service, where we couldn’t go into much depth. Normally we have an evening service on the same day where we take that morning’s them deeper. However, this time that service got delayed by a week, and so here is the adult sermon for tomorrow night based on last week’s theme. You’ll see the odd reference back to last week in this text. Longstanding readers will also notice one or two favourite old sermon illustrations coming back into play.
Are we united? Are we one as Christians? As Methodists? As worshippers at KMC? To listen to some Christians, you would think that the whole matter of unity was simple. Someone in a previous circuit once glibly told me that Methodists and Catholics believed the same things. Er, no we don’t. And after the recent episode where Liverpool’s Roman Catholic cathedral withdrew permission for a Methodist ordination service to take place there, it’s clear the Catholics don’t think we believe the same.
Or is it right what I heard in a prophecy at an ecumenical renewal gathering many years ago: “Weep, for my Body is broken”? Yet on the other hand, there is so much we have in common.
So which is true: are Christians united, or not?
The answer, surely, is both. Yes and no. And in the two passages we have different answers. As Jesus prays for all who will believe in him, he assumes his disciples are not united and prays for the Father to make them one. As Paul writes to the Ephesians, he assumes that the church is one in the Holy Spirit, and so his concern is not to make them united but that they maintain it. Both will be a challenge to us. Let us explore them in turn.
Firstly, we are not united. Jesus prays that all who believe in him may be as united as he and the Father are united, and that this unity will be a missionary witness to the world (John 17:20-23).
One of my previous churches had what I thought was a rather tacky letterhead for official correspondence. The logo was an outline drawing of the church building. I objected that the church was not the building, but the people. I asked that we have a new logo, showing some people gathering around the Cross. Because that was the church.
Did I get my way? No.
But I think I was right. I believe Jesus came to form a community, centred on him, even if it was in continuity with Israel. The New Testament word ekklesia literally means, ‘those called out’, and it originally referred to the assembly of people who made decisions in a Greek city. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it renders a Hebrew word qahal, which also means assembly: it refers to the assembly of Israel in the wilderness, when she was called out of Egypt. We are ‘called out’ to be an assembly of people. No special buildings existed for a long time.
We become one, then, when we are drawn to the Father through the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Our unity is based on the Father’s love, the atoning work of Jesus and the enabling of the Holy Spirit. So deeply do we share in what God has done for us that we become one.
And we become one, not only in the sense that we have these things in common, but that God binds us together and makes us into one body. We are not isolated individuals who share a common interest: God binds us into a new community, because his purposes were always bigger than just saving individuals. Human beings were created as social creatures, and society needs a model of a new community. That is God’s great purpose for the church.
So our witness is seen when we so live for Christ and for one another, that we put God and one another ahead of our own desires. This is what speaks powerfully to the world. They will not be impressed by a mutual love of Wesley hymns, or a preference to hear different preachers every week. Solid, binding love in the company of Jesus will make an impression. Nothing less.
What will not give a good witness is when we major on minors, when we behave as if we can live without each other, when we gossip or when we tear each other to shreds. There is more than enough of that in the world. It does not need the Church to add to it. Of course, we shall have conflict, but our task then is not to pretend that the conflict does not exist, but to model a path of love, grace and truth towards resolving it. We have the same differences as human beings as the rest of the world, but what Christ has done for us gives us the resources to work through those tensions and be a model of harmony.
So we do not have unity without God giving it to us in Christ, but the fact that he has leads on to the second half of our thoughts, where Paul says we are united. He builds on what God has done for us in Christ, and which the Holy Spirit makes real and present. Now we do have the gift of unity, our task is to maintain it.
And so before we ever get to all the protracted and apparently fruitless discussions between denominations about formal unity, Paul gives us some basic tasks in our relationships that will enable us to maintain the unity of the Spirit:
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. (Ephesians 4:2)
I wonder if you remember the four sets of contrasts I set up between different types of people in the all age worship last Sunday morning? Some of us are such opposites that it requires these very qualities of humility, gentleness, patience and bearing with one another in order to maintain our unity. We need to deploy these qualities so that we appreciate the different gifts other people can bring, rather than being frustrated by them.
So the person who loves being in crowds mustn’t tell the one who loves solitude that he is not a people person, and the one who appreciates solitude must not say that a sociable person is shallow. The person who uses her five senses and has an eye for fine detail can be a gift to the man who operates by a sixth sense and only sees the big picture. The man concerned for the truth and the woman who cares for harmony and love both have essential gifts for the church. The one who plans and the one who is spontaneous need patience to avoid winding each other up, when in fact each of them has a useful contribution to make.
I’ve not always found it easy to believe that the church can exhibit this kind of unity in the Spirit. I’ve been in gatherings where we’ve sung Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘All praise to our redeeming Lord’, and we’ve come to verse four and found it hard to sing:
E’en now we think and speak the same
And cordially agree;
Concentred all, through Jesu’s name,
In perfect harmony.
Because my experience has not been of cordial agreement, but of rabid disagreement, sometimes on the most fundamental areas of Christian faith, sometimes because people were not prepared to have a generous spirit towards those whose personalities or cultural tastes were vastly different. It made it agony to be a Christian in those circumstances. I can think of one or two churches and religious institutions to which I would happily never return.
However, the challenge is clear, and the elements of healing and peace present when you encounter Christian communities and congregations that are committed to the humble, gentle, patient love that the unity of the Spirit entails make such places like iced water on a hot day. In fact, more than that, a community that exhibits these qualities can be a powerful witness to God’s love in the world.
And that leaves me with just a couple of closing questions. One is, how can we be like this? It seems to me that this is a basic issue of Christian holiness. And like all other matters of holiness, the New Testament holds two things in tension: one is that we are called to obey, and the other is that we need the Spirit’s empowering. I put these together and say that holiness is active co-operation with the Holy Spirit. Therefore we need to hear God’s call to this unity of the Spirit and be prepared to obey with the humility it requires to put it into action, but to do so in reliance upon the Holy Spirit. We say ‘yes’ to the Father, and at the same time seek the Spirit’s help.
My other question is this. It’s all very well saying that a Christian community living in the unity of the Spirit can be a powerful witness, but how will that be seen by the world? It isn’t much good if the only way this is experienced is within the inner confines of the church family. And seeing as most of the population don’t come much into contact with who are, what we are like and what we do, isn’t that all a bit hopeless?
I would suggest that this therefore comes down to another of those issues of where we need to reimagine church. Just as I’ve emphasised since coming here that mission is a primary function of the church, so we must carry that through to all areas of church life. One such area would be our small groups, where the love and unity is often best experienced. We need to think of our small groups as more than Bible study, fellowship and prayer for each other. We need to see them as cells for mission.
I have no time tonight to go into the details of what has become known as the ‘cell church movement’, but Graham Horsley, who is coming to preach at our Missions Sunday on 9th October, is a Methodist expert on that subject. But essentially, we can see small groups as the church in microcosm. They follow what has become known as the ‘Four ‘W’s’: welcome, worship, word, witness. In ‘welcome’, they get to know one another better. In ‘worship’, they worship in a form appropriate to the group size and members. In ‘word’, they study the Bible, but with an emphasis on practical application. And in ‘witness’, they pray for people who need God’s love and they plan outreach activities of all sorts. With that stress on witness, the cell group has a great opportunity to demonstrate the unity of the Spirit as it interacts with the world.
So the challenge of unity in the Spirit is clear and important. We have no unity save that in Christ, but what unity that is. It is to be guarded and maintained. If we do that with the humility that entails, and depending on the Holy Spirit and in the presence of the world, then we have a gift for those we live among, a missional gift of God’s love.
May it be so.
Amy Winehouse & Daniella Westbrook. Both were young and famous. Both had serious drug addictions. One died, the other survived and has been clean for ten years. One is dead, the other is born again. That’s the reality of faith in the Lord Jesus.
While I share Christian faith with Dave I would put it slightly differently, since Westbrook had been clean for drugs for about eight years before she found faith in Christ. However, there is certainly a poignant contrast to be made between these two famous young women who consumed vast quantities of narcotics. In addition to Dave’s words, I received this afternoon the weekly email from The Word Magazine, in which the lead quote was from Winehouse:
I don’t need help because if I can’t help myself I can’t be helped.
How tragic is that? Westbrook sought help – first to be rid of her addiction, second in faith. Winehouse ruled out the possibility. Some criticise Christianity for being a ‘crutch’, but what if we all have broken legs, so to speak? While there are certain forms of dependency that are immature, to deny the need of dependence upon others is dangerously foolish, as Winehouse’s words show.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not writing this to join in some pious post-mortem condemnation of Winehouse. I hope and pray that whatever went on in her final hours and days, the God of mercy was reaching out to her. But perhaps an age that talks of either not needing help or only of self-help needs to hear again that a true mark of maturity is knowing when and where to seek help.
Life and eternity depends on it.
Yesterday evening, reports appeared on the web that John Stott had passed away yesterday afternoon at the age of 90. (This search will take you to about two hundred stories in Google News at the time of typing.) Obituaries cover his evangelism, his leadership of All Souls, Langham Place, his key place with Billy Graham in the Lausanne Movement, his commitment to social action as core to evangelical understandings of mission, his clear Bible teaching, his concern for the Majority World, his love of birdwatching and much more. I particularly recommend Christianity Today’s obituary.
More concisely, Maggi Dawn has described him this morning on Twitter as
The most compassionate, sane evangelical Christian I ever met.
I have read many of his books. Favourites of mine include his expositions of Acts and Ephesians (the latter is particularly worn and battered). However, I only heard him preach once. I was training for the ministry in Manchester at the time, and he came to preach one evening at the local Anglican church, which had a large student ministry. Dr Stott agreed to stay behind afterwards and field questions.
I attended that meeting. I was engaged in my postgraduate research in Theology, specialising in ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church. I asked him a question. Why did he think Archbishop Robert Runcie had chided evangelical Anglicans at the third National Evangelical Anglican Congress in 1987 that
‘If the current evangelical renewal in the Church of England is to have a lasting impact, then there must be more explicit attention given to the doctrine of the church’?
Dr Stott gently batted the question back at me, with quiet grace and a faintly sparkling smile. “Why do you think he did?”
I had no sense that he was trying to dodge the question. Rather, like Jesus, he knew that questions could be more deeply explored by asking further questions. He wasn’t short of answers himself, and for those who want to know, it is worth reading his book The Living Church.
Farewell, then, in this life, to one of the most gracious, compassionate and hard-thinking evangelical Christians to have come to prominence in the last century. May more of us in that tradition seek to emulate his example.
Former EastEnders soap star and notorious cocaine addict Danniella Westbrook has become a Christian. Read this interview in The Mirror, which is utterly devoid of the cynicism Christians often expect from the press. Not so the Daily Mail, often the self-proclaimed defender of Christian values, from the snide title of its piece to the snarky comments about finance. Is this a class thing? Westbrook more neatly fits the Mirror’s demographic, yet that section of society generally has a lower attachment to Christianity.
Blogging has been light here recently, with only sermons posted for a few weeks. Even then there wasn’t even a sermon last week, due to taking an all age service, and for the same reason there isn’t one this week, either. I’ve been under huge pressure workwise, much of it involving tragedies, and to be honest I’m exhausted.
Since one of the major things I’ve been involved with in recent weeks is funerals, I thought I might post some advice regarding them from a minister’s perspective. Here are some of the things I have learned in nineteen years as a minister, much of it by trial and error.
Often a call from a funeral director comes out of the blue, but occasionally you are expecting it, because you know someone from the church has died. In most cases, I find the date and time for the cremation has already been set. Try to fit in with this if at all possible. Only decline or ask for a rearrangement if there is no alternative. A death is a priority. If you get the chance to negotiate the date, though, all the better.
Here is the information you should obtain from the undertaker:
Full name of deceased
Date and location of death
Cause of death
Any church connections (in my case, Methodist) – and is there any particular reason the family wants a Christian minister to take the service?
Name, address and phone number of contact person (who is usually but not always the next of kin and/or chief mourner)
Any music requests made by the family, such as hymns or entry and exit music
Does the family want gifts to go to a particular good cause in their loved one’s memory? (You may be announcing this at the funeral.)
Anything else the undertaker thinks is relevant
The funeral director may well ask you about your fee. My working policy is never to charge where there is a church family connection, because people have been contributing towards my stipend through the offering. If I am being called in as an outsider, though, I generally don’t mind taking a fee. My stock response to the undertaker in those circumstances is, ‘Pay me the same as you would pay an Anglican.’ That saves me the embarrassment of setting a fee. And if I were to set my own fee and out of charity make it lower than the C of E’s standard fee, it can cause bad ecumenical feeling, because the Anglicans can then think you are undercutting them in order to gain more business. We’re not in competition, even if they are in the dominant position.
Because a death is a priority, do not wait long before phoning the contact person given to you by the funeral director. It may well be they were with the funeral arranger when you took the original phone call, so sometimes you can allow them time to get home, but do not waste time. You need to see them as soon as possible, because you may not get everything about the service tied up in one visit. They may need to ask questions of other family members before resolving some details.
When you phone the contact person, explain who you are (they may well already have your name, though) and say you are sorry these are the circumstances in which your paths cross. Then simply say that you think it would be helpful if you could visit to discuss their loved one’s life and to plan the service. Let them have your phone number, just in case the arrangement needs to be changed.
At the meeting, after a preliminary conversation where you may be asking about the circumstances that led to the deceased passing away, offer to take them through an outline of a typical funeral service as a guide. I tell them I am not imposing a formula on them, because I want it to be personal for them. At the same time, experience tells me I need to be sure of certain minimum standards. Very occasionally a family will get pushy and think that I am simply there to follow their commands. However, you don’t pay a car mechanic and tell them what to do: if you are wise, you normally take the mecahnic’s advice.
In running through the service, I explain that I will be at the crematorium before they arrive to check that everything is ready in the chapel. When they arrive and we are ready to begin the service, we need to know whether they wish to follow the coffin into the chapel or be seated first. I don’t mind which they do, but I strongly advise they should make up their minds before the day, rather than be faced with that question just as they are trying to compose themselves for the service.
If they are going to use music on CD for any part of the service, a crem will typically appreciate having that music two working days beforehand, in order to check it will play on their system. Not all will gurantee to play computer-burned CDs. If you do have to have that, the best advice is to stick to CD-Rs, not CD-RWs, and to ensure that the music is in a standard lossless format such as WAV, not in a compressed format such as MP3, WMA or M4A/AAC, let alone more obscure formats like Ogg Vorbis, Apple Lossless or FLAC.
After running through the service, we discuss the deceased’s life. Over the years, I have developed a short series of questions or categories that help to put together the material for a eulogy:
Birth, siblings, school and early life
Marriage, relationships and family (take note of children’s and grandchildren’s names)
Hobbies, interests and pastimes
Character and personality
I find it important to end with that last one. It’s the area of the deceased’s life that will unite everyone who gathers to mourn their passing. Whether they knew the person as a family member, a friend, a neighbour or a colleague, all will recognise certain personality traits.
If family members are going to participate, either by giving the eulogy, reading a poem or in some other way, ask to have a copy of what they are going to say. This is not in order to be censorious, but so you can be ready to step in, should their emotions overcome them on the day.
In all the planning, be aware of the particular time limits at the crem. Twenty-five minutes is typical. Some expect you to be done and dusted in twenty. Some even impose financial penalties for over-running. So two hymns maximum; eulogy, five minutes.
Before I close the visit, I explain that I shall not write the eulogy until the day before the service. Why? Because occasionally I find that people think of other stories or facets of their loved one’s life that need to be included. And very occasionally they tell me that something they have mentioned needs to be omitted, because Aunt Bertha is coming, and if I talk about that particular incident, it will cause upset. You may tell the contact person that other family members can get in touch with you, if they want to add their own thoughts.
My other parting comment is to invite them to ring me or email me with any questions they have about the service. No question is too silly or trivial. If it makes them anxious, I can put their minds at rest.
Increasingly, families ask for a printed order of service. Funeral directors often provide or facilitate a printer to do this. Try to be involved in the proofing and approval process. More and more printers put PDF drafts on a secure website. It can be invaluable if you are allowed to be one of the reviewers who comments on a draft. Elements of the service can be accidentally omitted. Words of hymns can be wrong. And I have had a few occasions where the family has changed the content of the service without consulting me.
I hope someone will find these thoughts helpful. I am sure too that the moment I click ‘publish’ I will think of other tips and reflections! But if these limited thoughts are useful, I will be pleased. Feel free to add your own thoughts and ideas in the comments below.
I will try in the next few days to add a further post or posts about preparing for the service, and the conduct of the service itself.
You are having coffee after the service, and chatting with friends. In the corner of your vision, you notice a church steward approaching you.
“I wonder if you’ve ever considered that vacancy for a Property Steward that’s been in the notice sheet for a few weeks.”
Uh-oh. Now you know why you attracted the interest.
Fortunately, you can play your spiritual ‘Get out of jail free’ card: “I’ll pray about it.”
And the steward walks away, knowing that “I’ll pray about it” is church code for “No”.
Vacancies: finding someone to take on a job is a bane of church life. The constitution says certain vacancies must be filled, or more positively a specific need is identified and we need someone to head up that new initiative. When several people turn down the opportunity, and we finally discover someone who is willing to have their arm twisted, we breathe a sigh of relief. Thus it is that we can sometimes end up with the wrong people doing things they were never suited to in the church.
There’s an urgent need in the early church. In an age devoid of social security, Greek widows are missing out on food distribution, whereas Hebrew widows aren’t. There is no question of ignoring this: caring for the poor is fundamental to the life of the church. This must be done.
But the apostles have too much on their hands. And important as feeding the widows is, you can’t take them away from their primary calling. So the hunt is on for people to do the job.
So far, so similar to us.
But from here on, their story departs from ours. Their approach to finding people to serve is not the campaign of desperation we are used to mounting. Unlike us, they don’t scratch their heads and say, “Who on earth can we approach this time?” Instead, the apostles know the criteria:
Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. (Verse 3)
‘Full of the Spirit and wisdom.’ It’s the first of three statements in this story of Stephen and these early servants, possibly the prototypes of later deacons, that references the Holy Spirit as key to Christian service. This story would tell us one important fact in a number of ways: to take on any form of service for Jesus Christ, from the most spectacular to the most humbling, we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
I suppose you think I could stop there? I would be happy if we all caught that message: all Christian service requires the Holy Spirit.
But I need to earn my crust, so I want to explore those three statements in the reading about the Holy Spirit’ association with serving. Each time, the work of the Spirit is associated with another spiritual quality. And it’s no accident, because each time that quality associated with the Spirit is vital for the Christian life in general and for acts of service in particular.
We’ve heard the first on already: ‘full of the Holy Spirit and … wisdom’. Wisdom, according to Isaiah, is a gift of the Spirit. But what is wisdom? Is it intellect? No. Anyone can have the spiritual gift of wisdom, regardless of their academic abilities.
Is it the experience someone accumulates at ‘the university of life’? No, not really. That can be helpful, but it can be no more than folksy and it can just be hokum and old wives’ tales.
The Spirit’s gift of wisdom is different. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf knew what wisdom was. In the third part, The Return of the King, he said:
All you have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to you.
Wisdom, then, is a moral quality. It is not about cleverness. It is not necessarily about experience. It is about knowing the right thing to do, and the right way to use our time and resources.
And that quality will be essential when we take on acts of Christian service. It’s not just the extreme situations. Those of you with memories long enough to recall Michael Buerk’s original report on the Ethiopian famine in 1984, the report that led Bob Geldof to put together Band Aid and Live Aid, may remember it featured a nurse who had to decide which children could receive food and live, and which children would die. How do you make decisions like that?
But in the more mundane, we need the wisdom of the Spirit. We need to know the way to go that is consistent with the way of Christ. We may need to know how to use our limited resources. Where might we focus our energies, time, talents and money? Let there be no mistaking: to serve Jesus Christ, we need to be ‘full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom’.
What does this mean practically? It means soaking even the apparently obvious, routine decisions we make in prayer. A criterion of good discipleship in the Old Testament is whether a person ‘enquired of the Lord’. To be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, we need to seek that wisdom from God. Yes, of course we can use our common sense as we dedicate it to the Lord, but we shall make serious errors if we don’t make a conscious choice to seek the wisdom of the Spirit.
In my home circuit, there was once an occasion where a person turned up a few minutes late to a church business meeting. “Have I missed anything?” he asked quietly, as he slipped in at the back.
“No,” came the reply, “we’re only on the opening devotions.”
That, I suggest to you, was an approach that betrayed a failure to understand the need to seek God’s wisdom through the Holy Spirit. Never let opening devotions or prayer for guidance shrink to a formality.
The second and third comments about the Holy Spirit are linked specifically to Stephen. The second is that he was ‘a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit’ (verse 5).
Again, ‘faith’ can be a gift of the Holy Spirit – not simply saving faith in Jesus, but special faith to trust God and see remarkable things happen. I think faith like that was present here, because the outcome of the decision to appoint the seven men as servants of the Greek widows was
So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. (Verse 7)
Some might think all that is needed for Christian service is just to get on with the required task. There is an element of truth in that, in the sense that sometimes people need to get their hands dirty, rather than wait around for something super-spiritual to happen.
But we should not overlook the Spirit’s gift of faith. What happens when you take amazing risks in Christ’s name by serving people? Quite surprising and astonishing things, actually.
Take the story of one Christian initiative that I came across the other day. In 1999, a young family in Southport turned up at a church, desperate, because they were homeless. The church had spent the previous two years offering shelter to homeless people in their church building. However, they had learned that this was illegal. Two people in the church felt prompted to take a big risk in faith: they ploughed their considerable savings into the task of buying two flats. Three years later, the venture became a not-for-profit limited company. Now, with the help of churches all over the country, some two hundred and forty previously homeless people are being housed. Here is what the pastor who founded the company says:
We have seen some amazing changes in people just because we have been able to give them a key to their own home. Alcoholics are now free from their alcohol addiction; drug addicts are now free from their drug addiction; unemployed young people with life skills problems are now working. Mothers who had been brutally beaten are now housed with their children in secure accommodation; people with mental health problems are housed and cared for. But most wonderful of all is the number of people who have come to Christ, not through our preaching of the Gospel, but by our doing the Gospel.
How wonderful is that? Christians saw a social need. The willingness to take great risks in faith has made an eternal difference to needy people.
Therefore, never see the call to a servant rôle as something mundane. Ask the Holy Spirit for the gift of faith. Is the Spirit of God asking us to imagine a different future in a certain situation? What risks would it take to bring it into being? Is the Holy Spirit daring us into acts of faith as we serve the needy that will bring transformation in the name of Jesus Christ?
The third and final reference doesn’t explicitly talk about the Holy Spirit, but I believe the Spirit is to be understood as necessarily implicit in the words. It’s the description of Stephen that led to opposition and his arrest:
Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people (Verse 8)
‘Full of God’s grace and power.’ I think the word ‘power’ references the Holy Spirit, who would have empowered the ‘great wonders and signs’ Luke speaks about. If so, then here we see the power of the Spirit associated with grace. The Spirit’s work of grace takes Stephen beyond just serving the needy in the Christian community to demonstrating that grace in the wider community.
And furthermore, the Christian who is serving in the power of the Holy Spirit will demonstrate grace and speak grace, because grace is at the heart of God’s kingdom. That is why yesterday the Chertsey churches held what they called the Grace Café at the annual Chertsey Black Cherry Fair. They gave away a thousand drinks, nearly a thousand slices of cake and painted the faces of three hundred children, all free of charge. It’s why next week at the Knaphill Village Show, we as a church will have a free lucky dip on our stall. These are just small parables of the Gospel. One of my previous churches held an annual family fun day on a Saturday each summer. We always insisted it was free. Well-intentioned parents who brought their children along often asked how much it cost or where to leave a donation. We had the pleasure of replying, no, it’s on us, because this is the kind of God we believe in.
But this isn’t simply the sort of public stunt a church can do in the ways I’ve described. The Spirit leads individual Christians into acts of grace as signs of God’s love. It may be that opportunities will come to speak about that love, but the important point is that we allow the Spirit to show us where we might demonstrate grace.
Bill Hybels recounts one such example in his book ‘The Power of a Whisper’. Bev and her husband owned a property in the United States, which their daughter and her family once rented from them for a holiday. While they were there, some children were throwing mud balls. One smashed the front window. Bev’s daughter discovered the miscreant, and spoke to his mother about replacing the glass. However, she couldn’t afford to pay. She and her husband were both out of work. Bev and her husband paid for the repair.
Several months later, with no word from the young man’s mother, Bev decided to phone her, a couple of days before Thanksgiving, just as she was preparing to do the final grocery shopping for that important American holiday. However, when she got through to the mother, instead of pressurising her for the money she owed, she found herself saying, “I was just heading out to the grocery store. May I bring you a Thanksgiving meal?” Bev then went and purchased double the quantities she had planned to buy, and joyfully delivered a parcel to the unemployed mother.
That’s what grace does. How would it be if this is what Christians were known for, rather than for self-righteous judgmentalism?
Can we see now why serving is not something to do in our own strength, but in the power of the Holy Spirit? We need the Spirit’s gift of wisdom in order to serve well. We need the Spirit’s gift of faith to lead us into extraordinary adventures that will end up bringing more of God’s love to people than would otherwise have happened.
Once again, then, we find ourselves praying: Come, Holy Spirit.
Lately, Mark has become quite interested in the need to consume five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. He and Rebekah ask if various things count towards their ‘five a day’. Although Mark doesn’t have his sister’s obsession with sweets, he is rather more reluctant to eat things such as salad – well, apart from a few slices of cucumber. But even if his practice hasn’t caught up with his learning from school at this stage, he has at least appreciated that ‘five a day’ is important.
And so it is in the Christian life, too. Except you could say it’s nine a day. Three with one syllable – love, joy, peace. Three with two syllables – patience, kindness, goodness. And three with three syllables – faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Well, what decent person wouldn’t want to aspire to these qualities? And if you took them as a pen portrait of Jesus’ character, they make complete sense. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – yes, they all sound like Jesus.
Don’t we want to be like this? More like this? Like Jesus? Then Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit is for us. It’s certainly challenging, but maybe not in the ways we might immediately assume. As we explore this theme, we shall not only found challenge, we shall also find encouragement.
So come with me as we look at the fruit of the Spirit using the images of soil, fruit and growth.
Firstly, we need to examine the soil. When we moved to Chelmsford, we noticed that a number of people who moved there suffered from an increased amount of coughs or chest infections. A popular explanation for this was that Chelmsford was built on London clay. If the theory were true, then the contents of the soil had an adverse effect on people’s health.
Something like that is going on in Galatia. Paul is addressing a problem of bad soil. There are problems with the Galatian Christians’ spiritual growth, because their soil is bad. Instead of being bedded in with the soil of the Holy Spirit, full of nutrients, they have got bedded in with unhealthy soil, the spiritual equivalent of London clay. Good fruit won’t grow in the soil they are intent on using.
What was this soil? It was a reliance upon keeping religious rules. Specifically, the Jewish Law. Yet they had found Christ not through the Law but through faith. They had seen miracles wrought not by keeping that Law but by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet they had believed some false teachers who said they needed to keep the rules in order to be right with God, and to be part of the in-crowd. The Cross, God’s grace and the miracle of faith are all in danger of being discarded.
Now you might think that is just an academic lecture from history, but it is very relevant to us. We might not be tempted to follow the ancient Jewish ritual law, but we can slip into a similar attitude. When we say that someone will go to heaven because they are good, then we are saying that it’s rule-keeping that gets you in with God. However, Paul points out in Galatians that no-one can keep all the rules, and that makes all of us rule-breakers. We are all sinners, in other words. The moment we start talking about someone going to heaven because they are good, we are saying to God, we don’t need your grace. We are saying to Jesus, you didn’t need to die on the Cross. We are like the passers-by at Calvary who spat at Jesus and told him to get himself down from the Cross.
Or what about the times when we think that certain people aren’t really acceptable in church? Their etiquette doesn’t fit in. There’s something odd or eccentric about them. They haven’t got it all together. They don’t look right. They don’t know our way of doing things. In other words, the soil we live in is one we’ve created that is made up of our unwritten rules.
But God’s soil, the soil in which the spiritual life grows, is made of his grace and mercy, his unconditional sacrificial love as seen at the Cross. It is made of his Holy Spirit. That is a soil that gives life. When we create a soil of human rules, all we do is choke the life out of people. If we want to grow more Christlike – if we want the fruit of the Spirit – we need to choose the right soil, soil filled with grace and Cross-centred love.
Secondly, let us think about the kind of fruit we want to grow. Let me ask you a question: how many fruit in the fruit of the Spirit? Listen again:
the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (verses 22-23a)
Nine? Are you sure? Did you count ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ and make nine? I’m saying you’re wrong.
But there are nine, you insist. However, if you say that, you missed one important piece of evidence. It comes immediately before the list of nine qualities. Paul says, ‘the fruit of the Spirit is’. One fruit! Fruit, not fruits, is, not are. It’s a myth to talk about ‘the fruits of the Spirit’. If you’ve listened closely, I’ve consistently talked about ‘the fruit of the Spirit’. It’s all one fruit!
If you remember a fruit juice drink called Five Alive you’ll get the idea. It was one drink, made up of five different flavours. So it is with the fruit of the Spirit. There is one fruit, but there are nine flavours.
And that means the Holy Spirit wants to develop all nine qualities in every one of us. It is not that the Spirit wants to give love to one person, joy to a second and peace to a third. There is no picking and choosing. The nine qualities indicate the amount of transformation the Holy Spirit wants to grow in all of us. I can’t choose to say that I’d rather continue to indulge my grumpiness, rather than learning patience. I can’t say I’ll just keep on keeping on with my favourite sins, rather than allowing self-control to grow in my life.
This one fruit with nine flavours shows us that the Holy Spirit has a big agenda for our lives. Salvation goes way beyond a ticket to heaven. It goes miles past the idea of just being ‘nice’. No: when the Holy Spirit’s work of revealing Christ to us gets to the point where we say ‘yes’ to Jesus, put our trust in him and commit to following him, then at that stage the Spirit of God sets up camp in our lives and gets ready for the long haul. The work has only just begun. It will continue on until glory.
When I trained for the ministry in Manchester, the city centre always seemed to be full of roadworks. For all three of my years there, something was going on somewhere in the centre that involved cones, bollards and men wearing hard hats and ear defenders. A friend of mine who was a bit of a wag commented, “Manchester will be a nice place when it’s finished.”
What was it about? Mainly, they were reintroducing trams to the city. The first ones came into service just before I left. But it was a long haul to get to that point.
So it is with the fruit of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit has a big picture of where our lives are heading – it involves love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. It’s a big job. It will take all our lives. We are not to rest on our laurels. Because the Spirit won’t.
Well – we’ve talked about the importance of the right kind of soil: grace, cross-shaped love and faith, and the work of the Holy Spirit, in contrast to the wrong kind of soil, namely living by respectable rules. We’ve talked about how the fruit itself indicates what a big, long-term project the Holy Spirit has for our lives. Thirdly and finally, we need to talk about the growth itself.
In my late teens, a woman in my home circuit who showed a special interest in the young Christians recommended to us a book by an Argentinean pastor called Juan Carlos Ortiz. It was called ‘Disciple’. There are a number of striking stories in it, but to this day there is one I find particularly memorable.
When he was eight years old, Ortiz was impressed by the fact that all the best visiting preachers to his family’s church had beards. If this was what a good Christian had, then he wanted a beard, too. So, at the age of eight, he started praying that God would give him a beard. God didn’t answer his prayer. So not only did he pray for a beard, he fasted for a beard. However, even his earnest fasting did not provide a spiritual breakthrough. Despite great faith at the age of eight, God did not give Juan Carlos a beard.
When he was sixteen, it was all different. Thus he realised that beards do not come instantly and miraculously, they come as a result of human growth and maturing.
I want to say that the fruit of the Spirit is rather like that. We may want those qualities to appear almost instantly, even to the point of being unwittingly comical about it – “Lord, give me patience, and I want it now!” However, it is fruit we are talking about, and fruit takes a long time to grow. Some things may come instantly, even sometimes in the spiritual life, but fruit doesn’t. Seeds have to be planted, shoots have to be tended and eventually the fruit appears and matures.
You get a feel for this in some other translations of the Bible. The New English Bible refers not to the fruit of the Spirit, but to the harvest of the Spirit. We know a harvest doesn’t come overnight. It’s an idea that the hymn writer Fred Pratt Green picked up on when he wrote his harvest festival hymn, ‘For the fruits of his creation’. The final verse gives thanks ‘For the harvests of the Spirit’.
Expect these qualities to take time to grow, then. That isn’t a reason for complacency, because the way the growth happens is by our active co-operation with the Holy Spirit. As we hear the gentle voice of God leading us and do what he says, so in the process he changes us. It’s not a matter of slavishly following rules: there is no joy and life in that. But when we appreciate and wonder at the marvel of God’s loving grace to us sinners, then we are motivated to respond in ways that please him, and the Holy Spirit gives us the strength to walk in ways we previously thought impossible. We shall stumble and fall at times, of course, but we shall be on a journey of growth.
So a good, if daring, thing to do is this. Talk to someone who has known you for a number of years. Ask them whether they have seen changes in your life, and if so, what. Because over a sustained period we should expect to see signs of change. If you’re anything like me, you will be a long way from perfection, but how can we not be optimistic about what the grace of God can accomplish in us by the power of the Holy Spirit?
It’s why we hear slogans bandied about such as, ‘God loves us just as we are, but loves us too much to leave us as we are.’ Or, ‘I am not what I could be or I should be, but I am not what I used to be, and by the grace of God I shall not be what I am now.’
In other words, one slogan it isn’t is ‘Let go and let God.’ God gives us his grace in Christ, and he dwells within us by his Spirit. He continues to take the initiative in our lives, and we gratefully respond in love, because of what he has done and in the power he has given us. Thus he forms us more like Jesus. The Holy Spirit makes us more holy.
And what does that holiness look like? It looks like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.