Tag Archives: Holy Spirit

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.

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.