The Advent and Christmas rush means I’ve missed posting several sermons lately. Hopefully, I’ll post them soon, even though they will be rather ‘after the event’. At least they will be present here then nearer next December for those who search this blog and others for relevant sermons.
In the meantime, here is a sermon for this coming Sunday, when we mark the baptism of Jesus.
If you follow the movies, you may have noticed that in recent months Hollywood has had a bit of a religious obsession. Much of it has been poor, or at least contentious. God’s Not Dead caricatured atheists, Left Behind took up some dubious fundamentalist theories of the end times based on a questionable series of Christian pulp fiction novels, and Noah divided opinion.
Now Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods And Kings has caused a stir. Not just because any such film is bound to provoke polarised opinions (and that’s just in the church!), but because Scott engaged famous white actors to play dark-skinned Egyptians so as to generate box office income. And that’s before we get to the controversies about whether the script took liberties with history and scholarship.
But Hollywood hasn’t usually worried too much about the choice between truth and a juicy story. Coming from a family where my grandmother was a friend of Gladys Aylward, I am only too aware how furious Aylward was with the fictional romance that was invented for the film about her life, The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness (never mind the dubious morals of Ingrid Bergman, who portrayed her).
Let me come back to Exodus, though. Because Mark’s account of John baptising people, including Jesus, has Exodus themes in it. I’ve said before in sermons that the Jewish people of Jesus’ day commonly regarded themselves as being in a kind of exile, even though they lived in their own Promised Land, because they were occupied by Rome. So they longed for freedom. And as well as a theme that was like the liberation from Babylon, the Gospels also contain the imagery of freedom from their original place of captivity, Egypt. The Good News that Mark is beginning to tell is couched at the beginning in Exodus language.
Our problem is that we are so used to hearing these stories in the light of more recent Christian debates and themes that we miss this. Perhaps we hear the baptism stories and start thinking about what we believe about baptism. Is it for infants, or is it for committed disciples?
But we need to return to the Exodus theme. ‘Exodus’ is a Greek word. It is usually taken to mean ‘departure’, and so the second book of the Old Testament narrates the departure from Egypt. ‘Exodus’ as a word is a compound of two other words – ‘ek’, meaning ‘out of’, and ‘hodos’, meaning ‘road’ or ‘way’. This is the road or way you take out of somewhere. It is the escape route that you follow. And so an Exodus theme is a freedom theme. It is about liberation and liberty. I want to explore the baptism of Jesus, then, and its implications for us, under this theme of ‘freedom’.
Firstly, the baptism itself. It’s implicit in Mark what is made more obvious in other Gospel writers, namely that John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance. Mark simply notes,
Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan. (Verse 5b)
It’s therefore strange that Jesus embraces John’s baptism. Why does he need to repent? Again, the other Gospel writers are more explicit about this problem, but Mark characteristically keeps his account brief. Jesus certainly identifies with the people. He is the One who will lead people out of slavery – not, in this case, the slavery of Israel in Egypt, but slavery to sin. As the Israelites came through the waters of the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds) to freedom from Egypt and her powers, so Jesus leads his people through the cleansing waters of baptism to freedom from sin.
This is the good news of Jesus’ baptism: the Messiah has come to lead his people to freedom from sin. It begins with confession and forgiveness, but it becomes a whole pilgrimage from ‘Egypt’ to the ‘Promised Land’, as that initial setting free becomes a journey in which God leads us into freedom not only from the penalty of sin but also into increasing freedom from the practice of sin, until one day, in the New Creation, we shall be free from the presence of sin.
For Jesus, that journey will embrace what our baptism service calls ‘the deep waters of death’. His Red Sea will not only be the waters of the Jordan at John’s baptism, but Calvary and a tomb. But he will rise to new life and ascend to his Promised Land, promising that we will one day go with him at our own resurrection.
This is Good News that says to us, life doesn’t always have to be like this. It doesn’t have to remain a catalogue of remorse and failure. There is hope. We do not have to hate ourselves, because God loves us to the point of offering forgiveness and new life.
Thus begins our transforming journey, in a baptism that calls us out of Egypt and on the road of increasing freedom. It’s worth reminding ourselves of this from time to time.
One person who did that in his life was Martin Luther. He was a man prone to mood swings between elation and darkness. He could be the wittiest person alive, but he could also plumb the depths. But he said that whenever he was most tempted to doubt or to give up, he would remind himself of one fact: ‘I am baptised.’
I am not saying that baptism is some religious magic trick, but I am saying that to remember our baptism is to remember the promises of God to forgive our sins, and the power of God to change us and ultimately all creation, too. It is a sacrament of hope, as well as of beginnings.
Secondly, the Holy Spirit. On the one hand, John promises,
I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit (verse 8)
And on the other, we read,
Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. (Verse 10)
What does this have to do with the Exodus freedom story? It’s about the manner of God’s presence.
I’m sure you will recall that when Israel was being led through the wilderness, it was by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
But now, in the New Covenant, God’s people get an upgrade. Not only will the presence of God (cloud and fire) lead them, now that same presence will come upon all of them and dwell within them. For you frequent flyers, they have effectively gone from economy class to business class.
In Jesus’ case, there is something else. The descent of the Spirit upon him shows that he is the Messiah, for Messiah means ‘Anointed One’. He is anointed, not with the oil used to mark an earthly monarch, but with the oil of God, the Holy Spirit.
And if Jesus the Messiah is anointed with the Holy Spirit and we receive the Spirit too, then that confirms our Christian identity – we are to be ‘little Christs’. No, we are not Messiahs, and heaven deliver us from any more people in the Church with Messiah complexes, but the upgrade to the indwelling Spirit equips us for our pilgrimage to freedom. It is the witness of the Holy Spirit that confirms we are forgiven and loved. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to lead us into increasing freedom from the practice of sin, thus making us more Christ-like. (Although we may more modestly feel it’s a case of becoming less un-Christ-like!)
We need not fear the gift of the Holy Spirit. He is the Spirit of freedom. ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,’ wrote the Apostle Paul. He brings God’s freedom to us, and empowers us then to be ministers of God’s freedom in the world. Through the Spirit’s work, we offer Christ and his liberating work to those in the chains of sin – the chains of their own sin, and the chains imposed by others upon them.
And not for us the limited distribution of the Holy Spirit in the Old Covenant. Now the Spirit is given not only to a select number of God’s people, he is given to women and men, young and old, privileged and poor – anyone who desires to follow Jesus the Messiah, the leader of freedom.
Those in higher church traditions than us have a liturgical symbol for this in the way the bishop applies anointing oil (‘chrism oil’) to the foreheads of candidates for confirmation. I came to like that tradition when I used to take part in ecumenical confirmation services with Anglicans, and concluded that we were missing out on that symbolism. I can offer something ad hoc, in that I possess a bottle of anointing oil, which has a beautiful smell of frankincense, and some people find it helpful to link the fragrant aroma of the oil with the presence of the Holy Spirit, who brings freedom.
Thirdly, the voice of God. The terrifying thunder from the mountain on the Exodus route now becomes the voice from heaven as Jesus comes up out of the water. Heaven is ‘torn open’, the Spirit descends like a dove (verse 10), and the voice from heaven speaks:
‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ (verse 11)
Tom Wright says that we should not see the opening of heaven as like a door ajar in the sky, because heaven in the Bible is rather the dimension of God’s reality that is invisible to us. So instead, this is like an invisible curtain being pulled back so that we see the whole of life in the light of this different reality. And in this case, when heaven opens the curtain into our life, we hear the divine voice that addressed Jesus addressing us, too: ‘You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’
And certainly that is a totally different reality in which to live. Think about God addressing Jesus this way. Mark hasn’t recorded any virtuous acts by Jesus yet at all. His baptism is his first action in this Gospel, and even that is done to him. There is not even a reference to the humility of the Incarnation in Mark. What, then, has Jesus done to earn his Father’s pleasure here? Absolutely nothing. But he hears the voice of unconditional love. God loves him and is pleased with him.
Those of you who are parents, recall those times when you went into your children’s bedrooms at night when they were fast asleep. They might have delighted you that day, or they might have been utter pickles. But still you gazed at them and whispered words about how much you loved them. You had unconditional love for them.
So ask yourself this: is God angry with me, or does he love me? Can I really believe the Good News that God delights in me? This is the liberating news of our New Testament Exodus.
And that is a transforming insight. If God loves us like this, why do we not love ourselves? I don’t mean in a self-centred way. Rather, I mean something that the author Donald Miller has recently written about. In a booklet available online called Start Life Over, he lists five principles towards changing our lives for the better. The second of these is that – strange as it may sound – we are in a relationship with ourselves, so we should make it a healthy one.
What he says is this. To some extent, we all seek the approval of others, but what we don’t notice is how we seek our own approval. It is as if we are two people: one doing the actions of daily life, the other watching those actions in judgement. Miller noticed that a friend whom he deeply admired was always doing respectful things. And he wondered: if I start doing more respectful things, will I respect myself more, and thus change for the better? He writes,
And it worked. I would find myself wanting to eat a half gallon of ice cream while watching television and I asked myself “if you skipped this, would you have a little more respect for yourself?” and the truth is I would. So I skipped it. And I had much more self respect.
I liked myself more.
This sort of thing translated into a whole host of other areas of my life. I started holding my tongue a little more and found I respected myself more when I was more thoughtful in conversation. I found myself less willing to people please because, well, people who people please aren’t as respectable, right? (Page 9)
I suggest to you that this kind of transformation is open to us when we embark on our baptismal journey of freedom, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and hear God’s voice from heaven telling us we are loved unconditionally. It makes change possible.
So often, the way we seek to promote change in ourselves and in others is through threat. We are no carrot and all stick. But all that produces is fear and paralysis. We might see some change, but it is the change wrought by sleeplessness and night terrors, rather than love. Ultimately, it doesn’t achieve much, and it affects us badly as people.
God chooses the way of unconditional love to lead us into freedom.
My church at Knaphill is redesigning its website. I’ve been asked to write a ‘Statement of Faith’ for it. While Methodism doesn’t generally produce doctrinal statements in the way many Christian organisations have since around Victorian times, I have drafted something based on core Methodist beliefs. This is what I have come up with – although I’m sure it will need tweaking:
In particular, historic Methodist belief can be summed up as ‘Four Alls’:
All need to be saved
All can be saved
All can know they are saved
All can be saved to the uttermost
What do these mean? Here is a brief outline:
All need to be saved
We believe that human selfishness (‘sin’, if you want the religious word) separates us from God and makes us deserving of divine judgement.
We are unable to change this of ourselves, but God can. Jesus’ death on the Cross absorbs the power of evil and the cost of forgiveness, putting us right with God. His resurrection gives us new life.
Our response is to trust this good news and turn away from our selfish ways of living in gratitude for what God has done in Jesus.
All can be saved
We believe no-one is beyond the possibilities of God’s transforming love. This good news is for everyone. God does not exclude anyone from the offer of his love. That means you and me!
All can know they are saved
What’s more, God wants us to be sure that he loves us. We believe God wants us to have that assurance. It comes through both the promises God makes us in the Bible and in an inner personal experience of God’s love through the Holy Spirit.
All can be saved to the uttermost
The Christian life isn’t just about being forgiven now and waiting for heaven. It’s about our lives being changed for the better here and now. We believe God wants to do that through the power of the Holy Spirit. We want to live differently as a sign of gratitude for God’s love. We want to make a difference in the world as a result.
I’m back tomorrow from a week off, and return with another sermon in our series on 1 John, which follows below. Then in the evening we have our annual All Souls service for bereaved people, and I’ll be posting my brief sermon for that service here on the blog tomorrow.
1 John 4:1-6
During the 1960s and 1970s, denominations such as the Methodist Church and the Church of England tried various experimental forms of worship. From that period comes the story of an Anglican bishop who visited a parish. He went to begin the service with the new form of words he had become used to. He said: “The Lord is here,” expecting the response, “His Spirit is with us.” But when he cried out, “The Lord is here,” nobody responded.
He said it a second time, slightly louder, in case people hadn’t quite heard him properly. “The Lord is here!” But again, there was no response.
A third time he said, “The Lord is here,” but again no-one said anything in reply. Finally, in desperation, he found himself saying, “The Lord is here, isn’t he?” To which the vicar replied, “Not in our service, he isn’t.”
How do we tell when the Holy Spirit is present? It’s an issue we have to deal with in the church. How do we assess people’s claims when they say that the Holy Spirit led them to say or do certain things?
Here is one occasion when perhaps I should have thought a little more discerningly about that question. We were sitting in the living room of an Anglican rector friend’s rectory. Several of us from an ecumenical group in our area were present, along with two other pastors from elsewhere in the county. One was a prominent vicar of a huge church ten miles away that attracted a huge congregation from all over London and the South East. The other was the pastor of a large independent church from down on the coast.
We were gathered along with the representative of an Argentinean evangelist to consider inviting him to lead a conference for the whole county. In the middle of the prayer time, the independent pastor started making huge claims about how he could feel the Holy Spirit very close to him, telling him what we should call the conference.
As it happens, the conference wasn’t bad – a few exaggerated spiritual claims from one or two people, but nothing sinister. Except the time when the aforesaid independent pastor made the appeal for the offering. He dished out twenty minutes of emotional manipulation about giving, some of it connected to the idea that the more you gave, the more likely it was that God would make you rich, and all to a background of stirring music. If I hadn’t been on the team organising the conference and if I hadn’t had a rôle to play that night organising the team that prayed with and counselled people afterwards, I would have walked out. In retrospect, I think I should have seen the warning signs when he started making his grand claims a few months earlier about how close he claimed the Holy Spirit was to him.
You may not find yourself in that situation, but we all hear claims from time to time that the Holy Spirit has led someone to say something contentious or do something controversial. We have to weigh these claims carefully. Just because something is out of the ordinary doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong – but nor does it automatically mean it’s right.
John faced a similar situation in the community to which he was writing. People were making bids for leadership in the community, and claimed the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but clearly John himself was dubious about some of these people. He had to give counsel to the church about how to discern the godly from the fake. There are two tests he offers in this passage, and we’ll explore them for how they help us to separate the work of the Holy Spirit from that which is merely of the human spirit, or even of another kind of spirit.
The two tests are a test of belief and a test of behaviour. Let us consider, firstly, John’s test of belief.
This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. (Verses 1-2)
John’s opponents are teaching that Jesus only appeared to be human – a denial of the doctrine of the Incarnation. A word from the Holy Spirit will glorify Jesus, the true Jesus. It will not undermine Jesus as fully divine and fully human. It will not deny the Cross and the Resurrection, the Ascension and his Return. In fact, a word from the Holy Spirit will bring praise to the name of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.
So take, for example, the question of how you might respond to someone who tells you they have had a particular spiritual experience that seems strange or unsettling to you. Depending on your own Christian life and what you have become used to, that could be any one of a number of things. If, for example, you’re not used to the idea of people speaking in tongues and someone says to you they have received the gift of tongues, the question to ask is not, do I find this spooky and unsettling? Instead, the question to ask is, does this person praise Jesus more as a result of their experience?
Similarly, suppose someone tells you that they received prayer at a meeting and they claim that the Holy Spirit came powerfully upon them – so powerfully, indeed, that they couldn’t remain on their feet and they fell to the floor. The question to ask is not so much about the falling down as about the standing up afterwards. Did they acknowledge Jesus, the Jesus of the New Testament, as a result of their dramatic experience?
If the answer is yes, then you have a decent sign that the Holy Spirit was at work, because Jesus told his disciples (as recorded in John’s Gospel) that the work of the Spirit was to point to him. On the other hand, if someone’s conversation afterwards is all ‘me, me, me’ then you have reasonable grounds to doubt whether they had an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit.
Equally, if the spiritual experience is allied to a viewpoint that denies essential truths about Jesus, you can also be properly sceptical about its authenticity. So if someone claims something remarkable but it is in the name of, say, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, then you have every right to doubt not the reality but the validity of that experience. After all, Jehovah’s Witnesses dilute the full biblical revelation about Jesus into making him just a demi-god, rather than fully divine. The Holy Spirit bears no witness to claims like that.
It’s with things like that in mind that John talks about ‘the spirit of the antichrist’ – you have to delete from your memories the ideas you have had about some end times spiritual terrorist that you might have gained from horror films or tawdry Christian paperbacks. Instead, you have to see ‘the antichrist’ as all that opposes Jesus Christ in all his truth and majesty. Such opponents will not be drawing you into a legitimate experience of the Holy Spirit.
Secondly, let us consider John’s other test, the test of behaviour. Listen again to how this section ends:
We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognise the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. (Verse 6)
The point John is making as a founding apostle of the Church is this: look for how people react to the teaching of the Church. John and his fellow apostles were witnesses to the Resurrection and many had spent time directly with Jesus, as John himself had. They were best qualified, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to say what was authentic faith in Jesus. Therefore it was reasonable to expect that anyone claiming true spiritual experience would listen to them and respond positively to their teaching. (It still is.)
If we want to know whether someone is being led by the Holy Spirit, we have a right to ask whether they are walking in ‘the faith once delivered to the saints’, as received, interpreted and transmitted by the Church over the centuries. We shall always be open to new insights into the Scriptures, and it is also true that following ‘what the Bible says’ is by no means always a simple and clear matter. However, we can still discern whether there is a desire to be faithful to the apostolic testimony.
It is therefore often a sign of someone living under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that she or he finds the Scriptures coming alive, and that this experience is accompanied by a desire to live out the teaching found there. If a person who is living like that speaks about experiences of the Holy Spirit, it is worth taking them seriously. That doesn’t mean being uncritical, but it does mean being warmly disposed towards them.
I can look back on the experience I had in my first circuit when we had an ecumenical project that put youth worship in the local night club. Some people thought that the loud and exuberant worship of the teenagers was spiritual froth. But I recall how some of those youngsters took part-time jobs in local care homes, where they washed and cleaned incontinent elderly people out of their love for Christ, and I say they passed John’s test of behaviour.
I look back too at what has happened to several of those teenagers and young adults in the intervening years. I see some who entered church leadership. I see a scientist who works on pioneer treatments for people with HIV/AIDS. And so I say yes, the test of behaviour was met by many of them.
On the other hand, we should seriously question those who make great claims to spiritual experience but who are not prepared to match it with a desire for holy living. The person who claims remarkable insights into the ways of God yet is also rather too acquainted with the emptying of alcohol bottles is not to be trusted, as is the person who shows dangerous signs of greed and acquisitiveness, or the Christian who treats the opposite sex with less than complete respect.
Likewise, too, we should be suspicious of those who take the apostles’ teaching and twist it to their own ends, in order to justify their own behaviour. Be wary, for example, of the Mormons, who claim all sorts of spiritual experiences, but who also teach the highly dubious notion of ‘celestial marriage’, despite Jesus’ clear teaching that ‘there will be neither marrying nor giving in marriage in heaven’. And in promoting ‘celestial marriage’ they end up privileging married people and demeaning the single, the divorced and the widowed. They don’t seem to notice Jesus’ own marital status. In fact, they fail both the behaviour and the belief tests.
But although I’ve used examples of sub-Christian groups such as the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, let’s remember that John was specifically addressing a problem of people who infiltrated the church herself with their dilution of who Jesus was and is, and their rejection of apostolic teaching. They tried to claim a following, but the whole problem with them was that their whole approach to life and faith was captive to the world’s way of thinking and living, not Christ’s:
They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. (Verse 5)
Being sucked into the vain values of a world opposed to Christ is a danger we all live with. It is something each of us needs to guard against. To give into the world’s ways and seek approval there is one of the surest recipes for cutting ourselves off from true, Christlike spirituality. So as well as exercising discernment over the claims of others by examining their belief in Christ and their behaviour in response to apostolic teaching, we do just as well to guard our own hearts and minds. Let us devote ourselves to the full, biblical Jesus and to the teaching of the apostles, that in doing so we may be more open to the work of the Holy Spirit.
When I arrived in my first circuit, I could tell that people wanted to ask me a question, and they were nervous about it.
“Do you drink …… tea or coffee?”
Why were they nervous to ask me that? Because my predecessor didn’t drink caffeine at all, only water. Honestly, he wasn’t a Mormon. He also – perhaps unsurprisingly – didn’t drink alcohol, and there was much amusement at a church lunch when he innocently took delight in a trifle that had the odd additional ingredient. When he asked for seconds, his wife looked furious, and he didn’t understand why.
Whatever our views on alcohol, it wouldn’t be too contentious to suggest that Paul’s words, “Do not get drunk on wine” would command our widespread assent as Christians, whether or not we are teetotal. (Although the number of Christians who seem to disregard this in practice worries me.)
My own conviction is this: the argument for being teetotal is usually based on the idea that alcohol is misused in society, and so Christians should set an example by abstaining. However, I think that is a flawed argument. The existence of misuse is not necessarily a reason for disuse, but for right use. There are many good things that are misused in our society, but imagine if we expected all Christians to abstain from all of them. I’ve never heard anyone say that because sex is misused, even married Christians should be celibate!
There is a case for some Christians abstaining from something that is abused in our society, as a witness that life is not about being given over to these things as idols. So I believe some Christians will be teetotal, some will be celibate, some will embrace voluntary poverty and so on. The issue for all Christians is whether we receive these things with thanksgiving and are not given over to them.
That, I believe, is key to what Paul says here. Are we given over to things such as wine, or to the Holy Spirit? We know what being given over to wine looks like, and it isn’t attractive.
The question for us then becomes, if we give ourselves over instead to the Holy Spirit, what will that look like? We could have a discussion about whether or not that involves ecstatic experiences – after all, some of the disciples at Pentecost were mistaken for being drunk – but the real issue for Paul is not the ecstasy. He isn’t against it, he documents his own dramatic spiritual experiences elsewhere. For him, what matters is that when we are given over to the Holy Spirit, certain changes happen in our lives.
We’ve already thought about that earlier in this sermon series when we considered ‘the fruit of the Spirit’, where Paul’s focus seems to be on what the fullness of the Spirit looks like in our character. Here, he goes on to describe what the fullness of the Spirit looks like in church life, before we ever get out into the world. In urging his readers here to be filled with the Spirit, then, he maps out what a Spirit-filled church would look like. That description comes in four verbs: speak, sing, thank and submit.
Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. (Verse 19a)
When I became a Local Preacher in my early twenties, the chaplain at the Church of England comprehensive school I had attended heard about it and invited me back to preach at a Christmas communion service there. When I was a pupil at the school, I was uncomfortable with the high church worship and never took communion. However, when I returned to preach, I joined the queue and took the sacrament.
Afterwards, the chaplain, whom we all knew as Jim, said to me, “I’m so glad you came and made your communion.”
I thought about those words: ‘made your communion.’ ‘Made my communion?’ They’re very private and individual, aren’t they? Sometimes we see worship as a bunch of individuals all separately in the same building worshipping. We speak to one another before the service and afterwards, but speaking to one another with the ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ makes little sense to some of us.
Well, it does unless worship is a place where we are meant not only to address God but to encourage one another. A Spirit-filled church is a place of encouragement.
Hence you get someone in the New Testament like Barnabas, whose name means ‘Son of Encouragement’. He certainly was. He believed in Paul and commended him to the apostles when they were distrustful of him. He took on Mark when Paul thought he was unreliable. He was responsible for encouraging two men who between them would go on to write half of the New Testament.
Were time to allow me, I could tell you more tales than I wish about church members who were the opposite of Barnabas – who stabbed people in the back, or who had Olympian levels of bitterness. But a Spirit-filled church will be a place where we encourage each other. Specifically, we encourage one another in the faith. It is not that our speaking is limited to social pleasantries, but that it has a spiritual, Christ-centred content and goal. We can display that on Sundays, but also in home groups (which are so vital in this respect) and at other times. If our spirituality at KMC were measured by how much we speak encouragement to one another, how would we rate?
Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord (verse 19b)
Some people read here about singing ‘in your heart’ and assume that this is something we do silently and perhaps privately. However, that would be to misunderstand the Jewish use of ‘heart’. For Jews, the heart was not the seat of the emotions (that was the bowels), but the centre of a person’s being. So to sing and make music to the Lord in your heart is to sing to the Lord from the very centre of who you are.
This, then, tells us that Spirit-filled worship is not just our public praise in a Sunday service. It is something that we do ‘at all times and in all places’. It comes out of who we are, so it is not merely about completing some formalities. Spirit-filled worship is a response to the grace of God in Jesus Christ that comes from the depth of our being and co-opts every part of our lives to express the praise that is due to his name.
Yes, Sunday worship is in some sense central to that, but only if it is representative of what is going on in the rest of our lives. Unless that is true, we are guilty of hypocrisy.
Not that any one of us is perfect, and in that sense we are all hypocrites when we worship, but does our worship come because we are grateful for what the Father has done for us in Jesus Christ? Does it come because we therefore think that the only gift we can give is the entirety of our lives laid down in adoration and service? Is that at least our basic orientation?
Hence worship only begins on Sunday. As Brother Lawrence famously learned to practise the presence of God while peeling vegetables in the monastery kitchen, so we practise his presence in our conventional daily tasks, doing them as for him. Any duty can be offered in worship. Any job or profession can, too, not just the caring professions and church work.
The Spirit-filled church is not just detected on Sunday. Her worship continues from the call to worship on Sunday morning to a benediction on Saturday night.
always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (verse 20)
This, of course, is a continuation of what we’ve just been thinking about in the ‘singing’ of worship: true worship is about thankfulness, gratitude for what God has done. Specifically it is ‘in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’.
I have occasionally conducted an experiment in a church service that shows whether this is the focus of a congregation’s worship or not. Here is what I have done: you can be briefed, in case I ever try this here!
At the opening prayers, I have asked people to suggest topics for praise and thanksgiving, with the idea that I will then weave their suggestions into an extempore prayer that expresses the congregation’s sense of praise. It is interesting to note what themes people suggest – and, perhaps more to the point, what they don’t mention.
Time and again people will say they want to praise God for the goodness and beauty of creation. But only rarely will they want to praise God for what he has done in Jesus.
Now granted if you’re going to nit-pick, Jesus was involved in creation. But what hardly ever comes out is someone requesting that we praise God for his redemption in Christ. Either we are too shy to mention it, or it is not central to our consciousness. Whichever alternative you take, it’s pretty devastating.
Yet as Paul reminds us that our thanksgiving to God is ‘in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’, one thing he is surely reminding us of here is that Spirit-filled worship is Christ-centred. All sorts of people can be thankful for creation, but who can be thankful for redemption? Those who follow Jesus can.
Jesus told his disciples that when the Holy Spirit came, he would remind them of what he had said and done. In other words, the Spirit comes not to glorify his own name, but that of Jesus. (Hence the old chorus, ‘Father we love you, we worship and adore you’ is wrong in the third verse.)
So a third sign of Spirit-filled worship will be that it is Christ-centred. Specifically, it will focus on the Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection as much as on the creation. Do we regard the Cross as a tragedy, or does it make us sing? Do we shape our lives by the Cross? Because Spirit-filled worshippers will sing in gratitude for the Cross, and they will take up their own crosses of unjust suffering in devotion to the cause of God’s kingdom that Jesus is bringing in.
Fourthly and finally, submit:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (verse 21)
There is a lot of argument as to whether this verse belongs with the section we are thinking about, or the subsequent one about relationships. I believe it belongs to both, and acts like a hinge between them. ‘Submit to one another’ is Paul’s tagline for all Christian relationships, both in the church and in the home.
In this respect, all the issues about leadership, power and authority are secondary. People with more concern about whether they are exercising power – or whether they can – are not concentrating on the main thing, which is that we submit to one another. Not only do we no longer belong to ourselves but to Christ, it is also true to say that we no longer belong to ourselves, we belong to each other. This raises issues about how we share our gifts and possessions, and how we seek to give consideration to one another, preferring others ahead of ourselves. No wonder one of the early Christian leaders, a man named Tertullian, once said,
We share everything except our wives.
That’s the kind of mutual submission that the Spirit brings. When we know what Jesus has done for us, giving up the glory of heaven for the poverty of a manger and the ignominy of the Cross, all questions of lording it over people have to be crucified.
I guess many of us have problems at one time or another in our lives with going on ego trips. Sometimes it’s self-conscious, sometimes it’s an unconscious thing, broadcasting our insecurities to the world without us even knowing we’re doing it, or perhaps even knowing we’re insecure. Either way, however, the person who goes on an ego trip is demonstrating one area of their lives where they are not filled with the Spirit.
Why? Well, what is God doing in building his Church? He is forming us into a new community, the community of his kingdom. He is making us into the sign and foretaste of the coming age. And in the age to come, all the ugly designs on power in this world that see people belittling others, or trampling those below them while grovelling to those above them, will be gone.
To prepare ourselves for God’s kingdom, and to be a faithful witness to it now, the Spirit leads us into the counter-cultural practice of mutual submission. Our status in society doesn’t matter, nor does our level of authority in the church. What matters is that the Spirit leads us into mutual submission. As the hymn puts it, ‘Brother, sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you.’ So in the early church slaves became bishops, because social status was immaterial. There was even a Bishop Onesimus – could it have been Philemon’s runaway slave whom Paul wrote about?
In conclusion, then, Paul has begun to show us what giving ourselves over to the fullness of the Spirit looks like in church life. We become a community known for speaking encouragement. Our worship comes from the heart of who we are, and permeates all of life. Our thanksgiving means our lives are focussed on and shaped by the Cross. And we joyfully submit to one another, regardless of rank and in defiance of social norms, because the power games of the world are unlike Christ and must not be allowed to infect his Church further.
All this is, of course, a work in progress. Can we see signs that God is doing these things among us? Where do we need to be more open to the Spirit?
I’m back after holiday to preach tomorrow morning for the first time in three weeks. Here goes:
When I was in my early years at secondary school, the girls used to debate who was the dreamiest pop star. Was it Donny Osmond, Michael Jackson, Les McKeown from the Bay City Rollers, or was it David Cassidy?
In David Cassidy’s case, they would sing along with a glazed look in their eyes:
How can I be sure
In a world that’s constantly changing?
While I’m not trying to suggest that we boys were too superior, given that the music wars for us at that age were between Slade and Gary Glitter, I do want to concentrate on that question: ‘How can I be sure?’
It’s a question that has been asked in many ways by many people over the ages. In particular, Christians have asked it this way: how can I be sure that God loves me? Catholics would point to the sacraments as a sign. Calvinists would talk about the promises of God in Scripture – except then someone would say, but how do I know they apply to me as one of the elect, not one of the damned? So some moved on to other supposed signs of divine favour, such as wealth and prosperity.
Into this debate came John Wesley, with his particular doctrine of assurance. One thing Wesley stressed (along with such things as the promises of Scripture) was the work of the Spirit in assuring us we are children of God. And the classic passage about the Spirit revealing to us that we are children of a heavenly Father is this one in Romans 8.
So, then: in what ways does the Spirit affirm and strengthen our knowledge that we are sons and daughters of God?
Firstly, it’s a matter of being led by the Spirit:
those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (verse 14)
Let’s be careful here: language of being ‘led by the Spirit’ has been horribly debased in the church. ‘I feel led’ gets reduced to the most trivial of forms: ‘I feel led to eat a Mars bar’; ‘I feel led to wear blue jeans’, and so on. No: Paul’s point about being led by the Spirit is altogether more serious, and far removed from the frivolous use of the language sometimes found in Christian circles. For what precedes is this:
For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live (verse 13)
We are led by the Spirit in order to be Christlike. The Spirit enables us to resemble the family likeness.
Most of you have noticed how much Mark looks like a redheaded version of me. When he was born, a church member jokingly told me never to take a paternity case to court, because the judge would take one look at me, one look at Mark, and throw the case out with laughter. On the other hand, when I was born, someone next to my mother in the maternity hospital looked at me and said to her, “He doesn’t look like you, he doesn’t look like your husband – what does your milkman look like?”
We expect children in some way or another to display a family likeness. One of the ways we know we are children of God is that over a period of time, we start to behave more like Jesus than we did before.
This is not to say it is easy. Nor is it to expect instant miracles. For ourselves, we may find it hard to detect the changes. I find that the key more often is that others notice the changes in us.
The story is told of a pupil at a school whose behaviour was so bad and so disruptive that the staff no longer knew what to do with him. One sanction after another had been tried. Every punishment and every incentive failed to bring about any change in him. He was as dreadful as ever.
Eventually, the Head Teacher called the boy into his office one day. He said to the young man, “We are at the end of our tether with you. There is only one thing I can think of to try, if you and your parents will agree. I want to adopt you as my own son. You will come and live with me. You will take my surname. Every time you are in trouble, it will be my name that is dragged through the mud.”
The boy agreed. His desperate parents agreed. This was the turning point in the boy’s life. Not that he became perfect, but he knew he was loved and wanted as an adopted son. For it isn’t just the fact that we take on the family likeness as evidence that we are adopted children of God, it’s also that spiritual adoption changes us. It works both ways. Being led by the Spirit is the evidence of adoption, and adoption entices us to be led by the Spirit.
All of which leads to the second strand I want to share with you this morning. If the Spirit reveals to us that we are adopted children of God, then that means we are loved by the Father. Hence Paul says in verse 15,
For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, Abba, Father.
The Holy Spirit not only changes us in holiness more into the family image of Christ, nor only does the impartation of grace motivate us to live differently, the Spirit also enables us to call God, Abba, Father. Not merely reverence, but closeness: you will have heard many preachers tell you that ‘Abba’ is the word a Jewish child used to address their father in tenderness and trust. No wonder Paul goes onto say in verse 16,
The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.
Not only in the pages of Scripture but also written on our hearts is the knowledge that we are children of God, dearly beloved children who can address him as Abba.
I have a favourite story I love to tell about this. Several years before I met Debbie, I once went out a few times with a girl whom I used to meet in London. We would have a meal and see a film together. On one occasion, she told me over the meal before the film that she had something serious to tell me. I went into pastoral mode and she said, “I’m an adopted child.”
Endeavouring to be sensitive, I adopted an expression of concern.
“No,” she said, noticing my response, “you don’t need to worry. I’m glad I was adopted. It means I know I was wanted.”
Those words have stayed with me. ‘I know I was wanted.’ I believe we can see our status as adopted children of God the same way. Being adopted into the family of God means we know we are wanted. When the Holy Spirit whispers into our hearts that we are God’s sons and daughters and that we can tenderly call him Abba, we know we are wanted. After all, God set out on a mission of love to draw us into his family. In Christ he even took on human flesh and later died for us. How much does God want us? Jesus opens his arms wide on the Cross and says, “This much.”
What does that do for us? Does it not give us the most amazing sense of security in the love of God? We do not have to be like the girl in a field pulling petals off a flower, saying, “He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not.” The Spirit’s testimony to our adoption through Christ as God’s beloved children gives us a rock solid hope in the love God has for us. Let us never allow ourselves to think that God only begrudgingly has us in his kingdom because Jesus won him around through the Cross. Yes, Jesus died for our sins, but all that he did for us came from the Father’s heart of love for his created beings.
This wonderful love of God, then, is not only meant to be a ‘safe space’ for us, it’s more. The safety that God’s love gives us is then the jumping-off point from which we can leap into great risks of faith for him.
And that takes me neatly into the third and final point I want to make about the Spirit’s witness to our adoption into the family of God. It’s about our inheritance as God’s children. Verse 17:
Now if we are children, then we are heirs— heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
Parents who care for their children will make provision for their future, as much as they reasonably can. Our wills lay that out for Rebekah and Mark, not only financially, but also we considered their care, should we die before they reach the age of majority. All being well, they will have an inheritance.
The curious thing for the children of God, though, is that we have an inheritance, even though there is no remote possibility of our heavenly Father dying! We shall inherit the glory of a resurrection body (verse 23) along with our great elder brother, Jesus. It will be our inheritance to reign with him in God’s new creation.
And that knowledge holds us in good stead now. For while the certainty of God’s love for us enables us to dare great things for him, we also know that daredevil faith leads to suffering, just as it did for Christ. Just as Christ suffered, so shall we. But just as Christ had an inheritance to anticipate and it kept him going, the same is true for us. As children of God, we have an inheritance with Christ. We have an eternal destiny in the purposes of God, and so when difficulty or opposition comes our way now, we need not keep our eyes fixed purely on the trials of the present: we can look into God’s great future and remember what our heavenly Father has willed for us – a will we inherit not when he dies (which he won’t) but when we die.
In this, we have something that not everybody has. The story is told that during Jim Callaghan’s tenure of 10 Downing Street in the 1970s, he had one particularly tortuous meeting about the Troubles in Northern Ireland with Ian Paisley. Callaghan and Paisley could not agree about anything in their conversation. Eventually, exasperated, Callaghan said, “Surely we can agree that we are all children of God?”
“No,” thundered Paisley, “we are all children of wrath.”
To our ears, that may seem a typically severe Ian Paisley statement, and in one sense it is. But Paisley was right that not everyone is a child of God. While we are all God’s offspring in the sense that we owe our existence to him, not all are adopted into his family. That happens by his grace to those who entrust their lives to him in Christ.
And when we do that, we receive the love God has been longing to pour out on all (which may be obscured by a term like ‘children of wrath’). We are adopted, because he so wants us in his family and not outside, and we can take risks because we have that great security. And we are guaranteed an inheritance that means we can cope with the setbacks and the resistance to our faithful living, because we know what the Father in his love has for us.
This is what the Spirit of adoption does, in revealing the Father’s boundless love to our hearts.
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.
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.
My dear young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.
To which Mozart replies,
Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?
A sermon topic like today’s runs that risk – too many notes. When we think about the Holy Spirit and mission, there is so much to say. Hence if I don’t cover your favourite theme within this strand today, I’m sorry. But don’t worry, I’m sure it will pop up elsewhere, either in this sermon series or at other times.
So if you wanted to hear about the way the Holy Spirit goes ahead of us and prepares the way in mission – fear not, you’ll hear me talk about that on various occasions. If you wanted me to cover the use of spiritual gifts – well, they get their own billing later in the series.
Excuse me, then, if I limit myself to the big themes here in Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. They will give us an outline, and on other occasions we can fill in some detail. After all, you wouldn’t want a preacher with ‘too many notes’, would you?
Here’s the first strand. At college, one of my friends had a well-worn T-shirt which reflected another 1980s film with a musical theme: The Blues Brothers. Ian’s T-shirt had the slogan from the film: ‘We’re on a mission from God.’ These days, Ian is respectable in the church, with a PhD and a job as a theological college principal!
But the story of the film is of a man being released from prison, only to find that the Catholic home where he and his brother were raised by nuns is under threat of closure if it cannot pay a tax bill. They reform their old band and seek to raise the funds. Hence, ‘We’re on a mission from God.’
And the first part of Peter’s sermon shows that we all are on a mission from God when the Spirit comes. This is about the universal nature of the Spirit’s work in mission. The Spirit makes mission from all to all – from all in the church, to all in the world.
All that talk about blood and fire, billows of smoke, the sun going dark and the moon like blood (verses 19-20)? It’s not a weather forecast! It’s dramatic language, underpinning the basic point that this work of the Spirit to use all God’s people to reach all people with God’s love in Christ is an earth-shattering, game-changing moment. This is a great ‘day of the Lord’ (verse 20) when ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (verse 21), because God has poured out his Spirit on all people (verse 17), to the extent male and female, young and old, slaves as well as free will dream, have visions and prophesy (verses 17-18).
Yes, all of God’s people are equipped to prophesy, to speak God’s message boldly. Well did one preacher say that the Bible doesn’t just teach the famous Reformation slogan of the priesthood of all believers, it teaches the prophethood of al believers. When you say that only certain ranks of people in the church are ‘good enough’ for certain tasks, you forget that God has poured out the Spirit on all his people for his mission. Granted, we each have distinct gifts, but the Spirit comes on all who profess faith in Christ, and one reason for that is we are all ordained. God ordains all of us into the work of his mission.
Or, put it this way: we are not all evangelists, but we are all witnesses. We may not be able to explain and answer everything, but like a witness in a court case, we can all say what we have seen and what has happened to us. We can all talk about what Jesus has done for us. The Holy Spirit has come into our lives, and equipped us to do that.
This is not a threat or a demand, it is a promise. It fulfils the promise Jesus made about the coming of the Spirit before his Ascension: ‘You will be my witnesses.’ That isn’t an order, it’s a promise. When the Spirit comes, we are all ordained into the universal mission of God’s saving love: from all, to all.
The second strand in the Holy Spirit’s mission work here is this: it’s all about Jesus. For the rest of Peter’s sermon, he goes on and on about Jesus (verses 22-36). This is who he is. This is what he has done. This is how you have reacted to him so far. This is what you need to do about him. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
This amplifies what I’ve just said about us all being witnesses. Some of you may be familiar with a Christian website called Ship of Fools, a site which includes humorous sections such as Gadgets for God, featuring the latest in tacky Christian memorabilia, a Caption Competition, Signs and Blunders, through Mystery Worshipper reports on church service around the world, to serious discussion of pressing issues.
Ship of Fools started life as a print magazine in the early 1980s. I know, because I was one of the subscribers. In one of those issues, they carried a cartoon strip article called ‘Born Again Testimonies’. ‘You may be – but has your testimony been born again?’ the article asked. It depicted Christians who were discouraged that the story of their spiritual experience was not as dramatic and exciting as that commonly portrayed in Christian testimony books. It offered a rewriting of your story by Hollywood scriptwriters, plastic surgery, dental and gymnastic care, all to make you ready for the platform of an evangelist at a crusade.
I suspect it touched a raw nerve, because it hit on a feeling I’ve noticed among regular churchgoers. “I don’t have a Damascus Road experience to talk about, so my testimony will count for nothing.” If you haven’t been a drug dealer, a bank robber or a celebrity, no-one will be interested in your story.
However, as the great John Stott once put it, ‘Testimony is not autobiography.’ In other words, testimony is not my story, it’s not ‘me, me, me’, it’s the story of what Jesus has done in my life. Now again, you may think that unless what Jesus has done in your life is the religious equivalent of a fireworks spectacular, it may not be worth talking about.
But we would be wrong. All that Peter describes about Jesus in this sermon – his ministry, his death, his resurrection, his Ascension and his sending of the Holy Spirit – all these things impact us. So what if in our lives it doesn’t come all-singing and all-dancing, complete with a laser light show? What matters is that we know Jesus has changed us – and is changing us. The majority of people live ordinary, unflashy lives, and so an ordinary, unflashy story of what Jesus means to us is every bit as likely, if not more so, to have an effect upon them.
So – why not give it some thought? What has Jesus done for you? Reflect on it. There will be material from your life that you can share about the work of Jesus. that’s where the Holy Spirit wants to focus: on Jesus. We can co-operate with the Spirit by being willing to talk about Jesus and his work in our lives.
The third and final strand of the Spirit’s work in mission that I want to draw out here has to do with the effect upon the listeners.
What happens at the end of the sermon?
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Verse 37)
What has the Holy Spirit done here? It’s what Jesus (as recorded in John’s Gospel) called ‘conviction of sin’. Conviction of sin is the third element in this passage of the Holy Spirit’s work in mission.
Conviction of sin is when the Holy Spirit shows people how they are in the wrong before God – either generally or specifically – and calls them to change. In that respect, it’s different from that work of the enemy we call ‘condemnation’, which just says, “You’re a terrible person, you’re useless.” Condemnation leaves someone without hope. Conviction of sin is different, because it is specific, and there is a remedy that draws us to God, namely repentance.
So we see in the story today that when the crowd asks Peter and the apostles what they should do, he gives a specific reply:
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Verse 38)
We know that coming to faith involves repentance in some form. Faith in Jesus Christ and following him entails changing our way of life. In all sorts of areas, we shall need to perform the spiritual version of a U-turn, to go Christ’s way. The Holy Spirit shows us what we need to change and renounce.
By way of an aside, of course this is not something that happens just once at the beginning of the Christian life: it happens throughout, as the Holy Spirit patiently works to make us more Christlike.
But let us note that it truly is the Holy Spirit who does the convicting. Peter has described the situation, and yes he has told the people that they and others were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus (verses 23, 36), but it’s still the Spirit who cuts them to the heart. We have to be careful not to do the Holy Spirit’s work ourselves, but faithfully to share God’s love and truth and leave the Spirit to do the convicting.
I once had the privilege of registering a wedding for someone who had begun worshipping at another church in the area, but one which did
not own its own building. She had come to faith through an Alpha Course that church had run, and wanted to be baptised. However, she was living with her partner without being married to him. The church had not harangued her for this, even though they believed (and I do, too) that living together falls short of God’s vision for relationships. However, she felt it was not right for her to be baptised until her relationship was regularised. So I registered the wedding, and her pastor conducted the service. I believe it was the Holy Spirit who convicted her, and who led her to marriage before baptism. In fact, the wedding was at 11 o’clock, and she then went to another church building to be baptised at 12 o’clock!
And we also might remember that the Spirit’s timetable and agenda for sorting out people’s lives might not be quite the same as ours. I once heard the preacher Clive Calver tell a story at Spring Harvest about how he kept praying, “Lord, please take away my pride.”
When it didn’t happen, he continued to pray, asking, “Lord, why aren’t you taking away my pride?”
“Because then there would be nothing left,” was what he believed God replied.
We don’t always know why the Spirit highlights certain issues in a person’s life but delays attending to others. What we do know is that coming to Christ involves the Spirit showing us where we need to change our ways in repentance, and that that begins a process that lasts the whole of our lives.
In conclusion, then, the Holy Spirit enlists us for God’s mission in Jesus. The mission is for all people, and needs all God’s people, empowered by the Spirit, for it to flourish. That mission will focus not on us, but on Jesus. Our rôle is to tell the story of Jesus’ activity in our lives. And the Spirit draws people to follow Jesus through conviction of sin.
All in all, then, the mission of God will not function without the primary work of the Holy Spirit. Never mind our plans, our campaigns, our techniques or what the latest book or conference speaker says. No Holy Spirit, no mission worthy of the name.
Come, Holy Spirit.
“We’re all just trash, waiting to be thrown away.”
It’s a line from Toy Story 3. I’m sure several of you have seen the Toy Story animated films. Young Andy has a collection of toys, such as Buzz Lightyear and Sheriff Woody. But in the third and final instalment, Andy is growing up and no longer needs his old toys. They end up in day care, where a bear threatens to put them out with the rubbish, and mocks them for believing in Andy’s love. He tells them, “We’re all just trash, waiting to be thrown away. That’s all a toy is.”
Waiting. We see it negatively today. Waiting for something is a bad thing. That’s why we invented credit cards – to ‘take the waiting out of wanting’. Ask a child whether she likes waiting, and you can guarantee an answer beginning with ‘no’. That maybe a sign of what an immature society we now have, when that childish attitude is reproduced so frequently among adults.
In contrast, many of you from older generations know the benefit of waiting. You saved up, you waited for marriage and you stood firm in the face of pressure. You know that waiting can be a good thing.
Today, as we begin this new sermon series on the Holy Spirit, we find the disciples of Jesus waiting. In between the Ascension and Pentecost, they are waiting for the Holy Spirit. And while there is a sense in which we do not need to wait for the Holy Spirit any more, because all followers of Christ receive the Spirit when faith comes alive, we nevertheless go through periods of waiting for the Holy Spirit to work. So this morning’s theme of ‘Waiting for the Holy Spirit’ can still be relevant to our lives of faith today.
I want to suggest that when God makes us wait for the Holy Spirit, it is to focus us on what is important. How so? I find three ways in the reading.
Firstly, waiting for the Holy Spirit makes us focus on our priorities. Listen again to the opening dialogue in the story:
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Verses 6-8)
The disciples still think the Messiah came to sort out the land for Israel and to repel the Roman occupying forces. Jesus tells them basically they haven’t got the right priorities. Not that he isn’t interested in politics, but if their priorities are only about what’s in it for them, something is wrong. They need to wait for God’s priority of the Holy Spirit. Because living in the power of the Spirit will do more to bring in the kingdom of God than lusting after political favour.
Jesus tests our priorities by keeping us waiting. When we have nothing, know nothing, get nowhere and don’t have the foggiest reason why, he exposes our priorities and motives. They come to the fore, and Jesus says to us, “Are you concentrating on what matters for God’s kingdom?” The longer we wait for something to happen, the more we struggle with the life of faith not being full of zest, the more we find life in the church dry and difficult, the more Jesus asks questions of us. He wants to know who or what we are trusting in.
So think of those conversations we have about the decline of the church, when we reflect on the unbalanced age profile, full of older people and shorter on younger and middle-aged people. Jesus listens to those conversations where we wonder what miracle cure we might invoke. He listens when we consider trying the latest trendy religious idea that we’ve heard about.
And what does he say in reply? I think he says, you have your priorities wrong. You are not concentrating on the right things. You should be using the spiritual silence to wait and long for the Holy Spirit. He would ask us whether our priorities are to try something humanly clever, where the glory would go to us, or whether our priority is to wait in prayer, seeking the power of the Holy Spirit. Today should be a day when we decide that, however unpromising church life may be, we reject our lust for human priorities and say that we will not rush to solutions, we will wait on God for the Holy Spirit, because nothing matters more.
Secondly, waiting for the Holy Spirit makes us focus on power. Jesus tells them,
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (verse 8).
Here is a reason to wait: we don’t have the power, the Holy Spirit does. It is one of those humbling lessons for human beings.
In fact, I would say it is a much harder lesson for our generation than it was for the first disciples. Belief in God and a general dependence upon God was pretty well universal in their time. We live in the light of a western culture which over the last three hundred years or so has relegated God to the private sphere even when we do still believe in him. We have made science and reason the dominant powers and qualities. Many in our societies think they can provide the answers to everything, and this belief also infects people of faith. We come up with policies, programmes, techniques and reasoned statements.
And it’s not that science and reason are bad. We owe so much to them. Advances in medical knowledge have benefitted us all. Inventions in technology and communication have improved our lives. We should be grateful for innovations like these. We would not want to turn back the clock.
But any idea that science and reason are the answers to everything in life should be tempered by other considerations. These same disciplines have also given us the horrors of nuclear weapons and the devastation of environmental destruction.
And that is to say nothing about other aspects of power. Political power has the ability to achieve much good, but we also know its tendency towards corruption. So surely when Jesus says, “You will receive power” we should see that as good news. Because the power of the Holy Spirit is the power seen in the life of Jesus himself. It is the power best demonstrated in humility and human weakness. It is the power that works to bless the poor and needy. It is the power that raises up the humble and dethrones the proud. Uneducated fishermen lead a revolution, and the wealthy and educated establishment can do nothing to prevent them.
Now if that is the case, why on earth are we satisfied with the limited promises of human power? Why do we run the church on the same values as the rest of the world? Why in our inpatient hurry do we default to the ways of the world?
Often we take heart from the ordinariness and the frailty of Jesus’ disciples when we fail. But maybe we could see something else in their story. As well as joy and relief that we are forgiven like them, could not also be encouraged and challenged by the fact that these ordinary, mundane people were transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit?
If that is the case, then why do we keep rushing into the ways of human power? If we want to work for God’s kingdom, then we need God’s power for that. If we don’t have that power now, then we hold back. We wait. We wait on God.
Which leads me to the third theme that waiting on the Holy Spirit means: prayer. If we need to align our priorities with God’s, and if we need to seek God’s power rather than ours, then our waiting needs to be characterised by prayer. We don’t just wait: we wait on God.
That’s what we see the disciples doing:
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of* James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. (Verses 12-14)
They ‘were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.’ Here is true waiting for the Holy Spirit. Prayer.
Now this needs careful handling. The moment a preacher starts to emphasise prayer in a sermon, all sorts of things can go wrong. It can turn into a guilt trip. How easy it is to say that we don’t pray enough. And of course that isn’t just the congregation: that’s true of the preachers as well. We can impose guilt without offering positive hope, because we are often not up to much in this area, either. Besides, some listeners will say, “Are you suggesting I don’t pray? Of course I pray!”
So let me say this. I recall the words of a favourite Local Preacher in the circuit where I grew up. He was regularly the most challenging preacher to fill a pulpit there. When he said something to stir us up in a sermon, he often added this comment: “I never challenge you without first challenging myself.” Hence, what I preach here I say as much to myself as to you.
What I’d like us to notice is not simply that ‘they prayed’, but that ‘they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer’ (my emphasis). We’re not talking about a few short, simple daily prayers here: those first disciples made a radical commitment to prayer.
Now that will take on different forms in our varying circumstances of life. Depending on work, family life and so on, we shall each have different ways of demonstrating our devotion to prayer. But as R T Kendall says, “If we don’t have some system, we never get around to it.”
What is certain is that our attitude to prayer cannot be perfunctory. We look down on children’s prayers that sometimes don’t get much beyond “Lord, bless me and my family,” but in truth too many of our adult prayers are no deeper. It can be very telling what requests are put in a church intercessions book – and what requests don’t make it to the book. We want prayers for ourselves and our loved ones, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes it feels little different from an adult version of that child’s “Bless me, bless my family” prayer.
The challenge is to go beyond – to be ‘constantly devoting [ourselves] to prayer’ in the waiting time. Prayer for the Holy Spirit, I would suggest. Because we recognise we cannot live by our priorities, and need to align our lives with the priorities of God. Because we also recognise the bankruptcy of depending on human power, and know that the only thing which will turn around our lives and our churches is the power of God, the Holy Spirit.
So can we make a simple commitment today? A commitment to wait for God, and to wait on God in prayer. A commitment so to pray that it is less about asking God to bless us than asking God to reorder our priorities after his, and where we ask him to help us lay down our reliance on human power in favour of the Holy Spirit’s power. Can we make a commitment to wait in prayer for the power of God, the Holy Spirit?
Because nothing less than that is needed for the health of our churches and our witness to God’s saving love in Christ.