Tag Archives: Holy Spirit

Strength of (God’s) character

We often admire people who show great strength of character. They have a hard time, and manage to cope, even to encourage others. There is nothing new about this – Paul knew that the philosophers of his time would say much the same, arguing about how to achieve this.

In 2 Corinthians 4:7-15 (which we read today on 25 July, the feast of James the Apostle, replacing the readings in the regular sequence which would have given us Ephesians 3:14-21), Paul has an answer. Whatever good qualities Christians show, they are not a personal possession or achievement, but the gift of God.

The comparison he uses is clay pots – comparatively cheap (compared to bronze or precious metal), and always fragile. Although they can be chipped or broken, they can be filled with all sorts of precious things.

James was a fisherman, perhaps with a bit of a temper, if we think of his nickname “Son of Thunder”. One of the twelve apostles, he was the first to die as a martyr – before Peter was arrested and then miraculously released. (Acts 12). What was the point of that? Somehow the twin events showed God at work in frail humans. They were not guaranteed protection, but given support and purpose – as Paul says in this passage.

We are often perplexed, by the things happening around us, and not least our own reactions and failures. But there is no need for despair (verse 8), as God leads us on and provides what we need. We shan’t always look good, or come out of things with a glowing reputation, but we trust the Holy Spirit to lead us on and through all, and hopefully to allow even our failures to show something of God’s love and patience.

The Holy Spirit

On the Day of Pentecost many will turn their thoughts to the story of the birth of the church in Acts 2. But we are also given Romans 8:22-27 to consider.

Paul speaks of vision and hope – not a hope of going back to some former “golden age”, even the events of that first outpouring of the Spirit on Jesus followers. He recognises that we have not “arrived”, that we live in a situation still incomplete. Our present life is not the final stage, and we look forward. Vision is always important, but the content of the vision also matters.

Paul encourages us to “our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies”, that is the full experience of God’s love and transformation which will come after our life on earth. This isn’t all there is, and however hard we look to anticipate God’s Kingdom, in our relationships, our service and our worship, there is more and better to come. We can be confident of that because of what God has promised.

The second thing is that, even though we don’t really know what we should be praying for, the Spirit prays for us and guides. It is another source of confidence. We are not guided only by human plans and projects, but by God the Holy Spirit. We can join in with that prayer – “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” is a well known phrase, which acquires greater meaning, as do phrases like “in Jesus name”, “through Jesus Christ our Lord”. Praying in tongues is also an action which helps offer our obedience and encourages us to take direction.

Pentecost added a new celebration to the festival of harvest and the giving of the Law when the Holy Spirit arrived so dramatically. We rejoice in that, but our Spirit given vision looks forward, to what is yet to come in God’s mercy and grace.

Vital spark

Does the Holy Spirit work in you? That’s a dangerous question. An extravert will tend to answer YES, and introvert will be less sure, and an Anglican like me may be more hesitant. What if we ask: “Would your friends recognise something of God in you?” – it is still difficult, clouded by personality. But it matters as we see in Acts 19:1-7. Paul, arriving in Ephesus, asks a group he finds there. They are disciples, but of John the Baptist; they have commitment and some understanding, but like Apollos (see the end of end Acts 18), not full understanding or attachment to Christ.

The confusion is still with us. The title of “Christian” can mean “a nice person”, or “caring” – not always a disciple of Jesus. These men in Ephesus had repented – turned away from evil and wrong, as John the Baptist had taught. Repentance, a change of direction and focus, away from evil and self, is still basic to conversion and Christian life.

But with turning away from is turning to – do you remember the question asked in Baptism? “Do you turn to ___ ?”
Yes, Christ. Jesus, as showing us God, and the right way. [If you read Genesis 1, did you notice God separating darkness and light at the very beginning?]

Today’s gospel tells of Jesus, baptised by John at the very start of his ministry. It is then that the Holy Spirit comes on him, and from that time that he heals, performs miracles and teaches. This, the time of Baptism and the coming of the HS, is the start.

For us, too, Christian baptism is important, and the Holy Spirit who gives gifts. There are all sorts of gifts; the spectacular are not necessarily the most important. But Does the Holy Spirit work in you?

If you are a baptised Christian, looking to live as a follower of Jesus, then the possibility is there. It would be good to look for the Spirit, welcome signs of his activity, ask for his presence, guidance and strength. The Spirit makes the difference between the well-meaning and those who share in God’s work in God’s way.

Fellowship

I want to talk about fellowship – because it is a key thing that makes Christian groups different. It is often confused with friendship, or with a cosy atmosphere, fellowship is both more and less. Friendship involves knowing people, choosing to spend time together, or at least in communication (perhaps by social media), because of things in common – activities, interests, attitudes, taste in music, food, . . . Fellowship is not about liking another person or group – it is about sharing faith, or in Christian terms, commitment to Christ. So I may have fellowship with those of very different backgrounds, cultures, experience, and may not even share a language. But I share a common obedience, and will share heaven!

So Jesus calls disciples, not just to do the work (be sent out), but to be with him: learning, including learning from being together as disciples. Today (we read 1 John 1) the writer talks about the experience of faith “ so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ”.

The word comes again, as we realise fellowship is not something to be turned on and off: “ If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true” verse 6 and the answer: 1 John 1:7 “but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

What makes a Christian group different? There is nothing wrong with other groups, for work, sport, social action – but a Christian starts with Christian fellowship, and goes on with the direction and strength of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes that happens formally, sometimes it is much hidden. Fellowship is not a “natural” thing, like the attraction felt by some friends. We have to work at it, with people not like us, for the sake of our shared loyalty to one Lord, Jesus Christ, and our owing everything to him.

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.