Tag Archives: Holy Spirit

Bug in the system?

Paul has set out for the Roman Church he hopes to visit the need for Christians to live the new life won for them by Jesus, and not to think that forgiveness allows them to indulge every disordered desire. In chapter 7, he begins to ask how this works out – a basic question for Christians in every age and culture.

The Jewish Christians recognise that they are now released from the Law – meaning the commands of the Old Testament (like the 10 commandments of Exodus 20). They know very well that it is one thing to know what is right and good, but another to do it. This is a problem we share. We can say that it would be wonderful if society worked according to our plan, or even if we lived in this way – but we only have to try losing weight, or getting up earlier, or being less grumpy, to discover the difficulty. As we read Romans 7:15-25, we have to admit that wanting to do something, and actually doing it consistently, are two things separated by a problem in ourselves.

Paul identifies the problem as sin. Even when we want to be good, it doesn’t always work out like that. What can we do? Of course, one solution is to change the target – “Be reasonable”, “It doesn’t matter” . . But often it does matter, and the failures cause problems. Education, discipline, harsher punishments have all been suggested, tried, – and none have provided a full solution.

The rescue that Paul has experienced is provided by Jesus. There is a fault in human behaviour (not in the design; it was caused by the refusal to recognise God and do things the way God planned). Humans do not have the ability to do what they want and believe to be right consistently and constantly – so the power of God must be brought to bear.

We shall talk more about life in the Holy Spirit in chapter 8 – next week’s reading. There is one more thing before we leave chapter 7. Is this experience of human weakness experienced by all humans, or do Christians escape?

Certainly all humans contain that flaw that prevents the good they decide on becoming the unfailing behaviour they deliver. Some are more disciplined, some less tempted, but perfection is not an option. Christians have access to the vital missing ingredient – the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works in several ways, including providing direction (what should be done), motivation (why bother?), and the power or energy to get on with it. So does that mean that Christians don’t have the problem? Not quite. With the help of the Holy Spirit they can achieve much more, but never in this life become perfect. There is still the problem, now alongside the solution, but lurking to trip us up. Thank God that’s not the end of the story!

All Together Now!

On the Sunday which we call Pentecost (after the Jewish festival), the “text of the day” is the story in Acts 2. The Holy Spirit, coming to a group of frightened disciples, transforms them into public witnesses for Jesus’ resurrection. The timid group who met fearfully behind locked doors are filled with power, and their numbers expand dramatically.

What more is there to say? Yet the church traditionally reads 3 or more sections of the Bible on a Sunday – and that provides depth. Looking at 1 Corinthians 12:3-13 we find an additional perspective. There are gifts for every believer! Even in that congregation with few educated or wealthy people, it is not just for the leadership, or the “mature”. Everyone is expected to be gifted by the Spirit.

But this is not like Christmas, with competition to see who gets the best! The gifts are given to make it possible for each individual to serve. Paul makes it clear. Just as a living body needs different organs to work together, so the “Body of Christ”, the church, needs all the gifts the Spirit gives to different people to work together. In that way – and only in that way – the whole body is healthy and active.

It is a vision we struggle to put into practice. Ambition, pride and scorn get very much in the way. We don’t remember to identify our own gifts and use them. Sometimes we like to confuse the presents given by God’s Spirit with what we call “natural abilities” – as if they are not also given. And we always find it hard to listen to, and receive from, people who have a different personality, or background. God knows all about it! It is God’s wisdom that we recognise our need of one another in this way. We need to give, to look for the opportunities to use our gifts for others. And we need, no less, to receive humbly what others have to give us, gifts we do not get in any other way.

Reading 1 Corinthians 12 as well as Acts 2 may help us avoid the mistake of thinking that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are personal possessions. Yes, they are given to each of us personally. And yes, Peter becomes a faith “superhero” because of that sermon and its response. But before I get proud about my gifts, the Spirit makes clear both that these are God’s gifts, and that we must work together. Spiritual “character development” comes with spiritual “family life”, and can be both wonderful and challenging.

What’s behind it?

Do you sometimes wonder why things succeed? Is it just clever presentation, a good advertising agency, or a bit of manipulation? Sometimes we look back at the fashions of a few years ago – the popular ideas and activities as well as clothes – and wonder why we ever thought them worth bothering with. Yet some things do last, and prove their worth.

Paul writes to the Corinthians (we read 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 this week) about what happened when he first came to them and established the group of Christian believers. He says that they weren’t persuaded by a clever speaker, nor by polished theory and philosophy. Yet the Church was established there, and fought through many difficulties, as it has done all over the world. Paul’s claim is that, far from depending on himself, he spoke of Jesus and his death. The force was God’s Spirit, which made, and maintained, the difference.

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,  so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

1 Corinthians 2:4-5

There is a power behind Christian living, but if it is real it is not dependent on a dominant personality, or a clever presentation. The power has to be the power of God to heal and transform broken lives, and to motivate loving service. In a similar way, the wisdom Paul speaks of is not about getting rich, making a reputation, or even getting your own way. It is in gaining some understanding of a God who loves his people, who chooses the way of the Cross, and works in lives that are often seen as unimportant.

But is it real? The Christian faith continues to grow and transform people, even when it costs them dearly. Despite many human failures and scandals, nothing has finished it. It has to be something more than clever words and flattery. It has to be about the way things were made, and really are.

Telling the story

How would you tell the story of Jesus? Or, for somebody who knew parts of it, but not the significance, how would you order it? These are important questions if faith is to reach two or even three lost generations in the West. Acts 10 tells the story of Peter’s visit to the non-Jewish Cornelius, and the section we read today (Acts 10:34-43) covers what he said to the gathered household.

First, he does not confuse the issue with his own feelings. The event is of enormous importance to Peter, as he goes takes the message of Jesus outside the Jewish world for the first time. (Read Acts 10:9-17 to understand something of the struggle it involved). Yet his two verses of explanation (vv33,34) are directed to explain his presence to his audience, not to chart his own journey and new insight!

Secondly, Peter makes clear that God’s message is about Jesus, and delivered through the events of Jesus’ life. There is reference to the events at his Baptism (also read today), but verses 39-41 go straight to the death and resurrection. This is central to Christian faith, and Peter wastes no time in making that clear.

His stress on the importance of Jesus, and the corresponding lack of self-importance, or demands for institutional affiliation, are also a great help in the search for unity among Christians. Faith is shared by those who follow Jesus as Lord. They have a variety of leaders, organisations, and traditions – some of lasting value, but none of these are definitive. When we tell the story of Jesus, it is not to increase attendance at our preferred place or worship, or to add donors to its finances, but to share the faith which brings life and hope. New believers may “join” other groups – but we must rejoice if they are joined to the faithful!

If Peter spoke along these lines – it seems likely this is a summary, and he used more words than are written here – we should notice how effective this was. Verses 44-48 show the power of God breaking out, reminding us that the Holy Spirit is not under control. (This is one time when the Spirit came before Baptism with water). It doesn’t need a great speaker to manipulate an audience; a humble person who will tell the story of Jesus as something of importance can release the power of God to help and heal.

If you wonder how to tell the story of Jesus, make sure it is just that – the story of Jesus life, death and resurrection. For those who come to believe, expect God’s power to show in changing lives – but lives that change in God’s agenda, not yours or that of your congregation!

Recipe for action

Imagine what it would be like if every Christian was confident in their faith. I mean confident, not bumptious or aggressive – indeed confidence would let them listen to other views and other ways calmly. What sort of a church would result from people who took seriously 2 Timothy 1:1-14, starting with verse 7? Let’s think about it.

for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

Paul is writing to Timothy, a young and possibly rather diffident leader in the church. He gives thanks for his faith, and v 6,7

For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

God’s Spirit fills us with power. Not like Superman – or the Amazing Hulk. Not power for display, but to get things done. Paul talks about witnessing, about not being ashamed of Jesus. That’s an important part of Christian confidence. “I may not have got all the answers, and I’m not holding myself up as perfect, but I can recommend a Saviour.” It takes power to make that recommendation graciously, whether it means speaking up in an awkward silence, or being consistent about living differently to others.

But it’s not just power, love is needed. What has love to do with confidence?

God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

God’s love is what has saved us. A love for the unlovely. A reason to know that we are valued, that we have a place – and not because we pretend to be something we are not, but because God makes us something we are not. If the Spirit fills us with love, the competition to be more important, more successful, loses its point. We can love and accept others because we are loved and accepted.

for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. s not make us timid; instead his Spirit fills us with power, love, and self-control.”

Self control? Paul was no control freak. He travelled the Mediterranean, and there were no timetables (and no travel insurance). Paul’s life was flexible, but there was a discipline there to get things done. He said that it was not what he achieved, but what God did in and through him, and together they worked well.

Self-control is no easier to find than power or love, but we are told that these are things the Holy Spirit gives and develops as we live as Christians. It’s not a passing or accidental reference in verse 7, because verse 14 underlines it:

14 Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

That needs no explanation. We need confident Christians, filled by the Holy Spirit with power, love and self-control. Don’t just think about it; do it!

Art thou peculiar?

You have probably heard the criticism that “Some Christians are so heavenly minded, they are no earthly use!” Certainly you will not go far without finding some who talk a different, “religious” language. It has many forms, but they are all a long way from ordinary conversation, and have the effect of alienating everyday people.

At first sight, what Paul has to say to the Colossians (today’s reading is Colossians 3:1-11) might seem to point in this direction: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth”. Indeed, he goes on to list a number of things which have to be “put to death” – fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). Isn’t this the negative, judgemental religion that is often criticised and avoided?

Perhaps not. These may be common temptations, but they are hardly things we would want to encourage. “Let’s have more greed” might please the advertisers, but most of us would not be in favour. In fact, these are things we would be happy to avoid (especially if it were easier).

Paul is talking about the consequences of faith, and about the new power at work in Christian believers and the new motivation driving their transformed lives – the Holy Spirit. The new life is only possible because of Jesus, and it is a good life – something we perhaps do not emphasise enough?

As you read on, notice that there are not only things to get rid of, but also things to enjoy and celebrate. Truth is important, and a key to good relationships for family and community life. The other thing mentioned in this section is the breaking down of the barriers of race and wealth – again, an important issue today, as well as for the Colossians.

I’d like to think that Christians have a “heavenly mindedness” which makes them all the more practical and useful on earth. Most of us probably have a way to go yet – we are still being worked on – but the transformation and the newness of life need to be real, not just theoretical.

Preserving Freedom

Paul has argued through Galatians against a group who wanted to impose full Jewish Law and practice on those who became believers in Jesus from outside the Jewish community. He insists that faith, and not obeying the detailed instructions of the Old Testament Law, is what makes a person free and right with God.

It might sound very remote in the twenty first century, if it were not for the difficulty we have today as Christians understanding how Christian life is supposed to work. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Clearly it would be terrible, having escaped from the life of a slave, to be returned to it again. But what is Christian freedom, and how is it to be used, and indeed preserved?

Today’s reading (Galatians 5:1 and 13-25) jumps from that verse to explain the difference between a selfish life, dominated by the indulgence of human appetites, and a free life powered and directed by the Holy Spirit. We have become expert at justifying what we want, having our own way, and imposing on others – yet know that this seldom ends well. What we have to learn is how thankfulness for a life set free can lead us to love and serve, and to cultivate the “fruit of the Spirit”. These are gifts we cannot obtain by self-discipline, but that God will develop in us as we allow them to grow.

Freedom can be lost! When Paul sounds as if he speaks from experience, we can echo his concerns. “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. ” This leads back to the selfish life, enslaved by human desires. The alternative? “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”

The Experience of God

[There is a comment on John 16:12-15, gospel reading for Trinity Sunday year c, to be found if you click here]

Descriptions can be less than helpful! “Sheets of a naturally derived, cellulose based material, joined and pivoted at one edge, usually of a light colour marked on one or both sides with a darker pigment.” tells you nothing very useful about a book. In much the same way, attempts to describe and analyse God, who is beyond human description and definition, may not be of great value.

Yet reading Romans 5:1-5, we learn something of the Christian experience of God, and how that may be remembered and shared. Jesus, we are told, has sorted out our relationship with God. Now we may find peace and grace, if only we have faith. Having peace does not mean a problem-free life. Yet even troubles lead on to hope – hope which, because of the Holy Spirit, is well earthed and not just hopefulness.

Almost without realising it, we have spoken of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The point is not to define or “pin them down”, but to welcome what they are doing in and around us. Paul is keen to tell the Roman Christians that the events of Jesus life and death apply to and for them. He also wants their lives to be transformed by that good news. As he speaks of God, he talks about the triple activity quite naturally. [We could look at John 16:12-15, today’s gospel reading, and find the same sort of reference to the three, working closely together].

On Trinity Sunday, we think of God. Let it be of the awesome and wonderful God, who has astounded and delighted greater minds than ours, and never of some dry theory. We shall not be examined on theory, whether in the philosophical terms of the early centuries, or of our own time. But we shall be judged on whether we have taken the opportunities to know God in practice. If our prayer, action and reflection have brought us to some understanding of what God is doing and wanting, it will show. If our experience makes us want to be more like God, that too will be plain. A difficult test? But a glorious transformation of human life and relationships.

Only two possibilities?

Christians are sometimes accused of trying to make a simple – even a simplistic – choice out of life’s endless moral dilemmas. It is complained that preachers unfairly make the spectrum of goodness and evil into a false two way split. But scripture does this too. There are many different metaphors which have in common a refusal to allow the hearer to sit on the fence. Think for example of Jesus parable about the two men, one building his house on sand, and one on rock. In the Old Testament, Deuteronomy several times urges a choice of direction: blessing and curse 11:26f, compare 30:15. Psalm 1 pictures two trees, one by the waterside, not a forest or even a copse. In today’s reading of Romans 8:14-17, Paul offers some explanation.

Of course, on the Day of Pentecost, named for its 50 day interval after Passover (Easter), we tend to focus on the dramatic story of the coming of the Holy Spirit, told in Acts 2. But for us who live a long time after those events, how does the Spirit make a difference?

Paul has spoken in Romans 7:14-23 of the way good intentions are not enough to overcome sin, experienced as selfishness, desire, addiction and many other things. In Romans 8 he explains that it is the Holy Spirit that breaks the monopoly of human sin. It is not that the Christian becomes perfect, or even loses the many temptations to fall back into a self-centred, desire directed, life. But the Christian can be “led by the Spirit of God” – directed by a greater force, though always responsible, never coerced. This is a life that pleases God, and is seen as good and constructive by those around. This is the way to become the person God intended, filling the place in the community (both the Christian congregation and the wider local community) that is properly theirs.

It is a strange balance. We do not lose control of our lives, yet what is good in them is given, not achieved. The choice has to be made each day, and even more often, yet going the way of God’s Spirit we have confidence in our direction, even when it is not obvious. We still sin, and need repentance and forgiveness, but the stranglehold of a sin-dominated life is broken, and wonderful opportunities are glimpsed.

Christians do believe in a division into two. Only God is able to give a final, accurate judgement, but scripture again and again speaks of a two way choice, not a range of assessments of good and bad.

This is reinforced by the role of the Holy Spirit in making us God’s adopted children and heirs. Again, the division – those who receive the inheritance, and those who do not. Adoption is a gift, yet a gift in which we may have confidence, and for which we may always be grateful.

The story of the birth of the church that Pentecost is striking, and still of great importance. The Holy Spirit, working in Christian believers, leads them to the life God intends, and gives a new position as adopted children.

“Redemption” ?

Luke 2:22-40 What do you make of that story? Only Luke tells it – so is it less interesting, or less relevant? It starts as a bit of ritual. Jesus was brought up as a Jew, so circumcised a week after his birth, and then at 40 days old taken with his mother to the Temple. Mary presents him in the Temple, and makes a sacrifice – the 2 pigeon option allowed for the poor – in a ceremony required by the Old Testament.

So far, not very helpful you might think. But hold on. That ceremony came from the Exodus and the Passover. You remember how the slaves in Egypt escaped after a series of plagues, and the last and worst of the plagues was – the death of the firstborn. And Exodus 13 explains how all the firstborn of the Israelites belonged in a special way to God. There is more detail, but it makes sense – Jesus belonging specially to God; a small fee paid to ransom him and return him to his family . .

Then the excitement grows again. Simeon appears. How can he tell one baby from another? Somehow the Holy Spirit makes it possible. He has been promised (and, since God keeps his promises) now understands he is seeing the promised Messiah.

He speaks of a light for the Gentiles – all the world!

And of glory for God’s people

and he warns Mary of suffering, as Jesus will bring some people down, as well as raising others up.

If you feel excited (and perhaps you should), Mary and Joseph are amazed. They haven’t forgotten the earlier messages and promises, angels, shepherds – but how does Simeon know? This Holy Spirit has something.

To reinforce the importance and transforming power of the Holy Spirit, Anna arrives – and she is a prophet. Whether she accepts Simeon’s word, or knows by her own spiritual insight – she now also give thanks to God, and talks about Jesus to all who were still looking for God to do something.

It started with a bit of Jewish ritual. It gained significance as we found a connection with the Passover (don’t forget the Last Supper was a Passover meal, and the Christian eucharist depends on it). God’s people were set free at the Exodus, as they will be again more lastingly by Jesus and his death. The idea of Redemption is interesting.

Then there is the excitement of the Holy Spirit giving revelations and warnings – the same Spirit who will be active in Jesus ministry, the same Spirit who guides and empowers Christians today. It is beginning to happen, and it is good, and we know it hasn’t stopped. Where is the Spirit active today? Who are the Simeons and Annas, praying, understanding, talking about God?

Even at 40 days old, Jesus is exciting, making things happen.