Tag Archives: Holy Spirit

Be Reasonable -?

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good”. That’s a nice sentiment; I can’t see anyone taking offence; it should be possible to weave a pleasant and encouraging sermon around those words. If only Paul stopped there, and we didn’t read on in Rom 12! – But of course he did write on, and we need to read the rest of Romans 12:9-21. As you do so, there are several possible reactions.

  • one is dismay, and then perhaps despair. It is one thing to celebrate love, but being patient in suffering (v12) is asking a bit, blessing those who persecute you (v14) is over the top, and overcoming evil with good (v21) is beyond.
  • another way of taking it would be to say, “Very nice, that’s the ideal, what’s the pass mark?” – in other words not to take it too seriously. Something nice to say, but don’t expect it to happen!
  • perhaps we should go a third way, taking these words very seriously:

This will highlight two very different understandings of what life might be about. Some will see Church as something they enjoy doing, and a chance to be reminded to do good. Others will see Church as a process of being transformed. On the first view, Paul’s words from Romans 12 are either a heavy burden, or something not to be taken too seriously. Only when you see Church – worship and study and service and fellowship – the whole – as part of a process in which God the Holy Spirit transforms us, can these words of Paul be a part of the good news. Then, far from bringing ever greater demands of our effort and performance, we have laid out a journey of wonder and delight.

Look at it this way with me for a minute.

Love must be completely sincere. Hate what is evil, hold on to what is good. 10 Love one another warmly as Christians, and be eager to show respect for one another.

Romans 12:9-10

This is what the early Christians were known for – and what we have not always managed to continue and repeat.

11 Work hard and do not be lazy. Serve the Lord with a heart full of devotion.

Romans 12:11

It needs zeal. Not to do the work, but to be an active partner, allowing it to happen, avoiding distractions, taking a keen interest in what the Holy Spirit is prompting us to do next.

12 Let your hope keep you joyful, be patient in your troubles, and pray at all times. 13 Share your belongings with your needy fellow Christians, and open your homes to strangers. 14 Ask God to bless those who persecute you—yes, ask him to bless, not to curse. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, weep with those who weep. 16 Have the same concern for everyone. Do not be proud, but accept humble duties.[a] Do not think of yourselves as wise.

Romans 12:12-16

This now begins to make sense as what God would do, and will do in us if he is allowed to take charge.

17 If someone has done you wrong, do not repay him with a wrong. Try to do what everyone considers to be good. 18 Do everything possible on your part to live in peace with everybody. 19 Never take revenge, my friends, but instead let God’s anger do it. For the scripture says, “I will take revenge, I will pay back, says the Lord.” 20 Instead, as the scripture says: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them a drink; for by doing this you will make them burn with shame.”

Romans 12:17-20

Yes, of course this is demanding. But if we get into the habit of doing what the Holy Spirit suggests, we will be less concerned to defend ourselves. My feelings, my ego, my reputation – become less important as confidence in God, and investment in his Kingdom, grows.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:21

Yes, it was the point of the Cross, and while we can never repeat that sacrifice, we can allow the principle to be applied in us, and we can share the victory. I suggest to you that Paul, and the Holy Spirit inspiring him, intended these words to be taken seriously, as a description of a life in which control is given to God the Holy Spirit. It is not a demand for ever greater self-control, but a progression as we learn more of the Christian life, and grow in confidence and practice.

Let love be genuine

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:9, 21

Therefore . .

“Therefore . .” at the beginning of chapter 12 of Romans (we read Romans 12:1-8), Paul has completed his explanation of Christian “theory”. He will now turn to practical Christian living. But he makes it very clear that this is not detachable from what goes before. You can’t skip the first bit, because without it, this doesn’t make sense. It won’t even work.

Why is that? Surely Christianity is a very practical way of living? Yes, but it depends on God, faith, and grace. Without these, it fails. If you ask a question such as “What do I have to give God to get the thing I want?” there is no sensible answer. God doesn’t bargain. God gives generously, and includes us (if we are willing) in working for love, peace, justice . . But the good things you get are not your decision.

So – the section on practical Christian living starts with a call to be transformed. Yes, by all means be honest with God and express your hopes, desires and fears. But let the Holy Spirit get to work on you. Allow yourself to be changed, so that, gradually, you see more of God’s perspective on any situation. Don’t let yourself be bullied or manipulated into what is fashionable, or clever, or . . But look for what is good and sustainable. I don’t mean boring, or old-fashioned. There is plenty in God’s work that is exciting, creative, beautiful.

As your mind is re-shaped, (and yes, no matter how good your upbringing, we all need re-shaped minds!), look further. What gifts has God given you? There are lots of different ones, nobody has them all, but equally no Christian is left without a gift. What’s yours? Now, where does it fit in the Christian body? Paul gives a list, but there are other lists in other New Testament letters, and the wording varies, so there seems to be quite a variety. He wants to make the point that these gifts are not for “showing off”, as if believers were meant to be in competition for the “best” places. Quite the opposite, gifts are to be used for the benefit of the whole body – you use yours to help others, and need their gifts for the body to work as it should.

You can’t live as a Christian without being a Christian – because it only works if powered and directed by the Holy Spirit. Good intentions, discipline, duty – none are enough without the Spirit. That’s why the first steps involve a fundamental change of attitude, and being part of a co-operative, not competitive, group. And that is only the start!

Creation in trouble

As we work our way through Romans, each new section takes us a little further and opens up a new section of the Christian landscape. Reading Romans 8:12-25 this week does just that. We have been reminded of God’s grace, which reached out to us long before we were ready, and rescues us by grace, through faith. It is not about our being “good enough”, or even ready. It is by our trusting Jesus and what he has done for us, and accepting his gift.

Paul has talked in detail about how that does not mean a freedom to misbehave. We have to “choose our team”, as I suggested a couple of weeks ago. Now he will describe Christian life in a different way.


“ For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.”

Rom 8.14

Children are part of the family, they have a place of their own. They look to their father – in Roman society, very much the head of the family. They will learn, and grow in understanding and maturity. But they are still children. This is a picture of Christian life we can understand and learn from. We are glad to be accepted, to have our place, and the expectation of more to come. At the same time, there is the Father to look up to, much to learn, and the routine of family life to deal with. The Holy Spirit makes us children of God, and not slaves. Slaves have no freedom, no expectation, no place.

Children, as they get older, look forward to inheriting the good things the family has built up. But the thought that we share inheritance with Jesus reminds Paul that we are likely to share his suffering before we come to the glory of heaven. Indeed, he talks of the way the whole creation is not working as it should. Now that we understand more about Climate Change, this may be easier to grasp. There is something wrong, not just with the way humans “naturally” behave wrongly, but with the way everything works. Many “natural” disasters have human causes – from people living in dangerous places because no place is made for them elsewhere, to droughts caused by deforestation and poor farming practice. We need to take all this seriously, and take what action we can. Climate Change is our responsibility, and needs our action to control it urgently. Yet even if all that is done, there remains an awareness that creation is somehow distorted, bent out of God’s pattern.

Fortunately, there is still more. God’s children look beyond a world where Climate Change is limited, where corruption and injustice are dealt with. We look forward to something new, not just repaired. We hope for a life not yet available. We search for the fulfillment of a plan we know is good and wonderful – but the detail is still awaited. We have to hope, because it is not yet seen, or fully known. But the hope is confident, because we have seen and understood what God has already done, and seen where it is leading.

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.”