Tag Archives: Holy 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.

Natural development – and more

While much of the world has moved from Christmas back to work and dreams of holidays, Christians have, I hope, more to ask. “How did people get to know about Jesus?”, What was the route from “Baby of Bethlehem” to “Saviour of the World”? Perhaps by mapping it out, week by week, we can learn, and apply it for our own faith, and for our sharing faith with other people.

It starts at the Epiphany with the visit of the Wise Men, then goes on to Jesus’ baptism. But Luke 3:15-22 doesn’t say much about the baptism. Why? he was not interested in details (which day, time, how wet, exactly where . .). Luke wants us to understand that (verse 22) the Holy Spirit came down on Jesus; John the Baptist had said (verse 16) “He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Now Jesus is baptised, and the Spirit descends on him, as a vital preparation for his ministry. (So in Acts 8:16,17, also read this Sunday, Peter and John expect Christians to receive the Holy Spirit for their Christian life.)

Some versions of faith make the most of the natural. Scripture records God the creator, and expects us to receive and use our “natural” / God given general abilities. There is advice (even commands) about learning, manners, “self development” – some of the things we don’t like: discipline, diligence. – look in the Wisdom tradition, Proverbs, but also eg Ruth. Loyalty, the providence of God (and hard work) feature more than miracles.

Luke is not dismissing or denying that. But he wants to make very clear that Christian life combines both the natural and the supernatural. The Holy Spirit who empowered Jesus is also to give us strength and direction, gifts and fruit.

The story of Jesus will tell of God rescuing us from sin and chaos. But Luke won’t stop there. He will also make clear, from the beginning, the way that humans might join in God’s work. The Holy Spirit is important in both, for the Holy Spirit who descended on Jesus at his baptism was the same Holy Spirit received by the believers Peter and John prayed for – the same Holy Spirit Christians pray for.

Jesus baptism wasn’t important to Luke because of its ritual, but because of the arrival of the Spirit and the beginning of the Ministry. The two go together. As we begin to ask “How did people get to know about Jesus?” The most important part of the answer, then and now, was the role played by the Holy Spirit. We mustn’t neglect our “natural” abilities and skills, but as Christians we need to use them with the power and direction of the Holy Spirit to be fully effective in responding to God’s love by living in his service.

Impact!

For Jesus first disciples, the arrival of the Holy Spirit was a moment of impact – confusion, transformation, power, awe. Fire and wind symbolise power, with an edge of dangerous uncontrollability.

But Jesus had warned them! (Only then, as now, it was one thing to hear the words, and quite another to experience the reality!). First (John 15:26-27) was the point about “testifying”. The Spirit gives evidence for God, and God’s activity in Jesus. It is so obvious in the change in the disciples that day. Peter made a great start on the Day of Pentecost. But today’s Christian disciples are also to give evidence by what they say, and what they do. Perhaps we are sometimes too hesitant.

There is more in John 16:4b-15. Jesus had to leave – among other reasons, to stop disciples wanting to find and ask him personally, rather than the Holy Spirit who could be in contact everywhere. The Holy Spirit has some important corrections to make to our understanding:

  • about sin – interestingly, about the refusal to accept and trust God in Christ. We are more hung up on morality and standards of behaviour. Without ignoring them, should we focus more on allowing a fuller and wider trust of God. What might follow from that?
  • about righteousness – Jesus returns to heaven vindicated and victorious. Against all those who said his way was not practical, not politically viable, not realistic, or just wrong, he parades the Father’s affirmation and approval of his way of life, teaching, and choice of the cross.
  • about judgement – because the “ruler of this world” (that’s Satan, representing all evil) has been condemned, the Kingdom of God starts here. There is judgement, but with a focus on sweeping away the false, rather than finding individuals to condemn (they have a warning and a little more time).

So the Holy Spirit brings truth, exposing the corruption and compromise of “worldly” fashion and wisdom. God is glorified, as his love in restoring what ought to be, and healing what is, is seen in action.

The arrival of the Holy Spirit had an enormous impact. It still does, when lives are changed, and communities opened to liberating truth.

Trinity -?

If you use your computer bible to search, you will find the word “Trinity” absent from the New Testament. So why do we call this first Sunday after Pentecost “Trinity Sunday”?  Because Christians asked questions about God, and found answers which are still important from scripture.

It began with questions about Jesus. “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22) – Jesus taught with authority; he did miracles: not only healing, but controlling the rough sea. John says much about the Father and the Son – “All that my Father has is mine;” John 16:15. Paul calls Christ “the visible likeness of the invisible God” Col 1:15, and several of his letters begin “May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ [together, like that] give you grace and peace.” 1Cor 1:3

Then the Holy Spirit, who came to Jesus at his baptism, and to the disciples at Pentecost, is recognised. The word Trinity may be absent, but the trio appear as in Mt 28:19  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”

Why does it matter? It might seem a remote and theoretical discussion – but isn’t! God is not a lonely old man creating the universe as a hobby, nor is he just Jesus the man.  God is a relationship!  Have you ever thought about that? A relationship beyond our understanding, with sympathy and communication!

Relationships are a popular concern: Teenagers, parents of children, children about parents, we all wonder about community, and the threat “they” pose – whoever they are.  God is a relationship. Christians must learn to relate, like God. The world will watch to see if we can cope with one another, and doubt claims to bring forgiveness is we are not even speaking to one another.  I am glad the gospel, which shows Jesus relating to all sorts of people, also tells me that failure in the disciples was forgiveable, as long as they kept with him and kept trying.

“God is love”. (1John 4:8,16). We quote the example of Jesus, both his behaviour and his sacrifice in accepting death by crucifixion, but love is what God is, as well as does. Jesus mission is an overflowing of a quality always in the Trinity – or do I mean among the Trinity?  So “Trinity” is shorthand from after New Testament times for a biblical picture of God as a relationship, important for our dealing with people and especially other Christians.

The Son is not the same as the Spirit, and neither is the same as the Father. Is this dry theory? No.  Different and equal, not in competition, working perfectly together, accepting themselves and one another, reaching out together in love and service – but who am I taking about?  God, yes.  The Church – ideally, as it shows the God it trusts.  Every Christian individual, despite our fragmented structure?

Just as we are tempted to think we understand God (that has to be a laugh), we think we have it right, that our tradition is valuable – (which is true).  We face a temptation: we have it all right, our tradition is enough.  Wrong.  God, unity in diversity, makes us think about being different together.  God, love without competition, makes us think of using different gifts in the service of all.

I wonder if I have persuaded you?  Those who followed Jesus of Nazareth came to know God, and recognised relationship in God.  So Christians, even if not good at relating, must be interested and learning – about love, unity, communication.  As the early Churches worshipped and thought, they recognised in God diversity and unity. We need to take that model of unity seriously; not all being the same, but having a shared life and goal.  I can’t fill in the details, I can suggest that if we get closer to God, it should become clearer and easier.

I must end with words from 2 Corinthians (13:13)  “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you – us – all.”

Agency – but no Franchise!

Todays gospel speaks of receiving the Holy Spirit, but the story is really in Acts 2:1-21.  And a strange story it is – with the powerful images of wind and fire; we know how much energy they have.  But what are we to make of it?

Strange things happening around religious people and events are not new. When (I think it was John Wesley, the Methodist) preached, crowds came, and strange behaviour was sometimes seen – people fainted, shook, cried, even made strange noises. Wesley was asked about this, and wisely replied that if it led on to a changed and Godly life, good. If not, it was of no value.

So what does the Holy Spirit do? Is it about making us good?  NO, not “good”. Good can be boring.  So is the Holy Spirit about character change?  Maybe partly, but this still sounds a bit negative.  I would prefer to say the Holy Spirit is about making us GOD’S AGENTS.

There’s nothing automatic about this. The Spirit can change us, but you have to want it, and keep allowing a transformation that can be uncomfortable.  Do that, and HS will both give gifts, for benefit of other Christians (see the list in 1 Corinthians 12, and other New Testament lists), and produce the fruit of good character – not a boring “goodness”, but a sometimes provocative joy, a peace despite stress, and a self-control when others are losing it.

The Holy Spirit leads us into exciting service for God – secret agents without the secret!  We are not all leaders, but all have an important, and individual, part to play. (1 Cor 12:7 “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”)

See how it works in Acts.  A group of frightened, puzzled, insecure disciples (hiding behind locked doors) burst out, and become a force that takes the world for God.  They are still themselves, making mistakes, getting it wrong sometimes. But Peter’s sermon converts 3,000, and the gospel travels the known world (and beyond!).

So, are you signing up as an agent, or becoming an obstacle?

Celebrate the Farewell -?

We celebrate Ascension Day (reading Luke 24:44-53, and Acts 1:1-11), the day Jesus left earth after his ministry – put like that, it seems odd. Imagine someone saying “You can’t have thought much of him if you celebrate his going!” It’s not like that, but why? What are we celebrating?

Part of the celebration is about the story of Jesus. We remember his birth (everybody has to celebrate Christmas, whether they like it or not!), and then we go on to remember through Epiphany how he came to be known and recognised. To begin with he was popular – healing and telling stories, but he didn’t offer the easy route some wanted, and he annoyed important people. We come to his Passion, Death, and yes, Resurrection (Easter is the most important celebration, but somehow more optional in the social calendar). That’s not quite the end, for there are the appearances, the forgiveness of the failed friends. Ascension Day wraps it up tidily.

It gives us a chance to think about who we are. We come from many places – for Christians come from every part of the world, and many different cultures and languages. They include all sorts of personalities, all ages, professions and life experiences. They were given that nickname, probably not in flattery, in Antioch – “Christians”, Jesus people. That is what we share, what draws and holds us together. Perhaps we should be encouraged that even in Acts 1:6 they still haven’t got it right, expecting the Kingdom in their terms.

But wait a minute. If Luke ends his gospel with Jesus being carried up to heaven, he tells the story again at the beginning of his second volume, Acts. What’s that about?

It is partly to say “He’s coming back, – be ready to give an account of yourselves”, which is what the angels say

But it’s also to say, because Jesus completed his ministry successfully – life, death, and resurrection – he is no longer stuck in one place. I imagine some of you will have visited the Holy Land, to see where Jesus walked, talked, died. Despite all the problems there, it remains popular – but so does Parry’s “Jerusalem” “And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England’s (Wales’?) mountains green, and was the Holy Lamb of God in … pleasant pastures seen?”

If Jesus had continued to appear around Palestine, how could we say “The Lord is here, his Spirit is with US”?

If his appearances had tailed off, that would have been a sad end. But being seen to return gloriously to heaven closes one chapter, and opens a new book. We look for the coming of the Spirit. We rejoice in the victory of our Lord.

Jesus has gone from earth to heaven;

  • Jesus has gone from one place, to be with us all
  • Jesus leads his Church, through the Holy Spirit, in every part of the world
  • Including – wherever you are reading this

Alleluia!

Good – but not enough!

Nicodemus deserves credit (John 3:1-17).  He comes to Jesus – yes, at night, which might look embarrassed, but also allows him to ask questions freely.  He already has a life of disciplined goodness.  We suspect Pharisees, and some were guilty of pride and religious red tape, but for others the life meant knowing and living the Old Testament Law in detail.  Perhaps most important, he wants to know more.  That is good.

So, why does Jesus ask him such difficult questions?  We might have thought this polite man an ideal disciple – or church member.  But it seems that he won’t do.  Why?  Jesus refers (v13,14) to his ministry and his coming death.  What Nicodemus knows is not enough – for him, or for other good people.  Christian faith depends on what God does and gives – Jesus and his sacrificial death.  There are real benefits in living a good life, following the commandments, but that is incomplete.

Nicodemus goes away puzzled, but doesn’t give up.  He reappears in the pages of the gospel story at John 7:50, and again at John 19:39.  Sometimes the most important changes come “between events”, as the Holy Spirit works.

Our passage hasn’t finished.  v16 is one of the best known in the gospel, but we should read on.  John 3:16-21 goes on to speak of judgement.  This picture does not see God handing out suffering and pain (a deity we would find it hard to worship!)  It seems that Nicodemus was ready to come into the light.  We have to ask if we are also ready to be examined, and perhaps embarrassed, in order to receive the gift.

Trinity and Relationship (Trinity c)

Trinity Sunday, but does it matter in practice what the early Christians thought, from a very different philosophical background?  I don’t feel bound to their ideas, as I do to the New Testament, but I think there is value in the idea of Trinity.

John 16:12-15 has Jesus telling the disciples that the Holy Spirit will relate “what he hears”, making clear a very close communication and co-operation between Father, Son and Spirit.  The New Testament never fully explains the relationship, but shows that Jesus has the Father’s power and authority, as well as approval.  (This is a feature of many miracles, and explicitly in the forgiveness, as well as healing, of the paralysed man let down through the roof Mark 2).  Father, Son and Spirit are associated in the Great Commission (Matthew 28), and the “Grace” 2 Corinthians 13, extending the unity of Father and Son Colossians 1, John 10:30, John 17:11 etc.

But why does it matter?  I suspect that for many people, God is pictured as a lonely old man orbiting through the universe and looking for someone to talk to.  That is rubbish.  But it is rubbish because God is a relationship. Father, Son and Spirit are so close, in such perfect communication and unity of purpose that they really are one.  You can speak of any of the three being fully involved in what any of the others does.  That is not mere theory.  It means that relationship is at the heart of Christian life.  Difficult though we find other people (rather as we find ideas of the Trinity mindbending), they are not optional.  If God is a relationship, and we are made in God’s image, relationship is of key importance, to our spiritual life as much as to our practical existence.

When we get tired of “meetings”; when Church politics and personalities irritate or worse, we need to remember that other people are not optional.  Part of our Christian living is to learn the quality of communication and unity of purpose which is God.  Which takes us to another of Trinity Sunday’s readings: Romans 5:1-5  – for those who know God’s grace, difficulties are part of the pilgrim route, schooling the character and leading to hope.  I suggested, slightly tongue in cheek, at Bible Study that our Ministry Area should adopt the motto “We also boast of our troubles”.  (The version of “sufferings” in the Good News Bible).  It might give a new perspective!