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?