Freedom in the Holy Spirit (a sermon on Galatians 5.1, 13-25)

Some of you here today are old enough to remember a song that began with these lines:

I’d like to be under the sea
In an octopus’ garden in the shade
He’d let us in, knows where we’ve been
In an octopus’ garden in the shade.

And then a bit later on in the song came these lines which sum up so much of what the sixties were all about:

We would be so happy, you and me,
With no one there to tell us what to do.

‘No one there to tell us what to do’! What a congenial line for our modern ideas about freedom. Slavery means having to do what someone else tells you. Freedom means being able to do exactly what you want. This was the idea that fired up the sixties generation. Cast off the restrains of the past! No one gets to define you except you! Make your own choices, follow your feelings, follow your heart.

Of course, that didn’t always go well for people, even in the sixties. Another very famous song from that era includes the line ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’ That songwriter was a little soured on the ideals of the counter-culture, I think! A lot of people who cast off all constraints and did whatever their instincts told them discovered after a while that instincts can make a pretty tyrannical slave-driver. People schooled in the ways of unbridled self-indulgence too often ended up in chronic substance abuse and addiction, and some of the wreckage from that is with us to this day.

So what actually is freedom? Freedom from what? Freedom forwhat? And how do we achieve it? What does the New Testament have to say about freedom, and how we can experience it?

To answer this question, I want to talk to you today about four words and what we mean by them. You can find them all in the excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Galatians that we read this morning. The four words are ‘freedom’, ‘flesh’, ‘law’, and ‘Spirit’.

So let’s kick things off with the word ‘freedom’. In Galatians 5:1 Paul says, ‘For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.’

Paul didn’t come up with this idea of Christian freedom by himself; he got it from the teaching of Jesus. In John chapter 8 Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (v.31). His hearers are confused; they’re descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves, so what can Jesus mean by “You will be made free”? Jesus explains:

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (vv.34-36).

So now we can see what we need to be set free from. Jesus wasn’t talking about a literal slavery with a human slave-owner. He was talking about the inner slavery we experience when we’re under the power of sin. Sin can exert a powerful control over us; we like to think we’re free, but along comes temptation, and with hardly any struggle at all, we give in to it. We get into the habitof giving in to it. Habits are like deep ruts worn in our brains, and every time we travel those ruts, we make them deeper. Once made, they’re very hard to break. Sin takes advantage of that, and it makes us slaves.

I need to say again that I’m not just talking about obvious, spectacular sins like murder or theft or adultery or anything like that. Sin is primarily selfishness or self-centredness. Instead of making God the centre of our lives, we claim that spot for ourselves. But the trouble is, we aren’t very good at ruling our own lives. We have the human propensity to mess things up. We spoil relationships, we spoil good intentions and shining dreams, we mess things up for others and for ourselves. Human history is a long, sad record of how good, well-meaning people screwed things up, for themselves and for others, over and over again.

The word Paul uses for this tendency is ‘the flesh.’ When he uses that phrase, he doesn’t mean what we mean today by the old-fashioned phrase ‘sins of the flesh’. That’s clear in the list he gives in our reading from Galatians; some of the sins he mentions are connected with the body, and they include sexual sins, but some of them are to do with our inner attitudes, too. The list is found in verses 19-21:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.

It’s obvious that if we live lives like that, real human community is going to be impossible for us, because human community depends on a willingness to put others ahead of ourselves. And that’s why the Octopus’ Garden definition of freedom will never work. “We would be so happy, you and me, with no one there to tell us what to do.” Well, that sounds fine, but what if what I want to do infringes on the well-being of others? Human history gives us the answer to that question, and maybe our own history does, too. Lasting relationships can’t be built on a foundation of selfishness and self-centredness.

How do we respond to this? How can we be set free from the power of the flesh so we can experience true freedom? Jewish people in the time of Paul would have had a ready answer to that question: we’re set free by obedience to the Law of Moses, which was given by God on Mount Sinai to guide the life of his people.

The Law of Moses included not only the Ten Commandments and other moral laws, but also detailed instructions about how they were to worship God. They were to circumcise their sons as a sign that they were part of God’s people. They were to keep the sabbath day and do no work on it, and observe all the special holy days in the Jewish calendar. They were to stay away from unclean food—there was a great long list of all the foods considered ‘unclean’—and cook the clean food in specific ways, being especially careful not to eat meat with any blood in it. They were to offer all the prescribed sacrifices of animals and grains. And so the list went on.

In the time of Jesus some people had become very legalistic about this. The Pharisees believed that if all Israel obeyed the Law perfectly, God would reward them by sending the Messiah to set his people free. So they worked hard to strictly enforce the Law. And it is hard work! There are 613 commands in the Law of Moses; it’s hard enough to remember them all, let alone obey them!

Paul was convinced that this was a dead end. It wasn’t that the Law was a bad idea; it was just that the flesh was so powerful that it made it impossible for people to obey the Law perfectly. You and I have experienced this; we probably experience it every day. We start the day with good intentions, but it doesn’t take us long to mess up. No external Law can make us good; we need internal change for that to happen.

Today there are religious people who forget about that, and become legalists. Some of them are moral legalists: they try to live up to strict standards—usually about sex—and look down on others who don’t measure up. Actually, deep down inside they know they’re not measuring up too, and this terrifies them. Their idea of God is the angry schoolteacher with the big stick, standing over them, waiting to punish them for every single failure. God is a vindictive perfectionist.

Some religious people are ritual legalists. In Paul’s day they were sticklers for circumcision and keeping the sabbath and the food laws and observing all the prescribed rituals of Judaism. And today people can be obsessed with how exactly to follow the church year and the details of liturgy and worship, and neglect the more important parts of the teaching of Jesus.

Let’s step back for a minute. We’ve seen that freedom is what God made us for, but that freedom has been severely impacted by what Paul calls ‘the flesh’—our human propensity to mess things up. Some people try to address this issue through legalism: just give me some commandments to obey, and I’ll work hard, grit my teeth, pull myself up by my own collar, and make myself a better person! ‘Good luck with that!’ says Paul. ‘I tried that, and it didn’t work!’ So what’s the answer?

Paul does two things here: he clarifies the goal, and he tells us how to reach it.

In verses 13-14 he says, ‘For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’ This is what we were designed for: to love one another, not just a feeling, but a decision to do good for others, to serve others, to be a blessing to others, whether we feel like it or not, whether they deserve it or not.

This is what we were designed for. A railway train is never more free than when it’s running on tracks. That’s what it was designed for, so in running on tracks it’s being true to its own nature. If the train had free will, it might get frustrated by this and decide to attempt to jump the tracks and run across a field. But as soon as it tried that, we know what would happen! A train wasn’t designed to run across a field. Freedom is doing what you were designed for, living in harmony with the nature God gave you.

So we will find true freedom by giving ourselves to others in love. But the flesh doesn’t like this. The flesh is selfish and self-centred, and we’ve discovered just how strong it is. How do we overcome it? Paul give us the answer: God helps us overcome the power of the flesh by giving us access to a greater power, the power of the Holy Spirit living in us. Look at verses 22-25:

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, the one who breathes God’s life into us. In John chapter 3 Jesus tells us that we are born again by water and by the Spirit. We can’t control the Spirit, Jesus says: the wind blows where it will, and that’s the way it is with the Spirit of God. But you can pray for the gift of the Spirit, and God loves to give that gift. On the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit came on the church with power; Jesus called it being ‘baptized in the Holy Spirit’. The same experience appears several times in the pages of the book of Acts, and in his letters Paul encourages us to go on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit’. Jesus says, “If you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11.13)

So we need to pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and we then need to ‘live by the Spirit’. I actually love the way the NIV translates verse 25 of today’s reading: ‘Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.’ And if we do that, the Holy Spirit will gradually grow in us the fruit of ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (vv.22-23).

But he won’t do this by magic. He’ll do it in the school of hard knocks. Let me tell you how this works. You’re driving home from work, and you find yourself stuck in heavy traffic. The flesh gets upset; all those drivers are in my way! How dare they slow me down! So when we live by the flesh, we’re going to get angry and swear at them. We know the Law of Moses doesn’t approve, but the Law’s no help in restraining our bad temper.

So what do we do, as Spirit-filled Christians? We pray that God will fill us with the Holy Spirit and help us be patient, and then we fix our minds on God and take advantage of the opportunity for a bit of enforced leisure time! Maybe the Spirit whispers in our ear, “Hey, you’re always saying you don’t have enough time to pray. Well, you’ve got a few minutes here, and God’s listening!” And as we keep in step with the Spirit, day in and day out, we find the Spirit growing in us his fruit of patience. That’s how it works.

Today we baptize Malachi and Josephine, and we pray that the Holy Spirit will bring them to new birth in the family of God and mark them as God’s children. We pray that the Holy Spirit will fill them and help them grow as followers of Jesus. When they face struggles and difficulties, we pray that the Holy Spirit will guide them and help them become more like Jesus day by day. We pray that the Spirit will teach them that being a Christian isn’t just about obeying rules and hoping we’ve done enough to avoid God’s punishment. The Christian life is about having the breath of God in us, the Spirit of God, the power greater than ourselves and greater than the flesh. In John’s Gospel Jesus breathes on his disciples and says to them “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Today, we pray that he will breathe on Malachi and Josephine, not just now, but every day as they grow and learn to follow Jesus.

But what about us? Are we living in that freedom that Jesus promised us? This is the reason we became Christians. ‘For freedom Christ has set us free,’ says Paul in verse 1. So let’s pray every day for the Holy Spirit to fill us. Let’s turn to him for help when we struggle with our human propensity to mess things up. Let’s ask him to grow his fruit in us and then co-operate with him as he answers that prayer. And as we do this we’ll experience a growing sense of true freedom: not freedom to do whatever we want, but freedom to do what we were designed to do—to love God with all our heart and love our neighbour as ourselves. May this be so for you and me as we keep in step with the Spirit.

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All change!

One of the Pharisees, called Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish Council, came to Jesus by night. ‘Rabbi,’ he said, ‘we know that you are a teacher sent by God; no one could perform these signs of yours unless God were with him.’ Jesus answered, ‘In very truth I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he has been born again.’ ‘But how can someone be born when he is old?’ asked Nicodemus. ‘Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘In very truth I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born from water and spirit. Flesh can give birth only to flesh; it is spirit that gives birth to spirit. You ought not to be astonished when I say, “You must all be born again.” The wind blows where it wills; you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born from the Spirit.’ (John 3.3-8 REB)

‘New birth’ is a metaphor for transformation, or, more accurately, for the beginning of a process of transformation. Many people today equate it with ‘accepting Jesus as your personal Saviour’. I have nothing to say against accepting Jesus as your personal Saviour, but it seems clear to me that many who have done it don’t appear to be in process of transformation. Meanwhile, there are others who have a less clearly defined conversion experience but are obviously changing and becoming more like Jesus every day.

‘The wind blows where it wills’. You can’t control the Holy Spirit or tie him down. All you can do is open yourself up to his work in faith. Faith—trust in God—is the key to all this. We aren’t going to decide where this journey leads. God is the one who decides that. Faith is taking his hand and going with him on that journey, trusting that he knows best and that the end result will be blessing for all. We can’t see the end yet, so we have to take it on faith.

God, thank you for the work of the Holy Spirit who transforms us into the likeness of Jesus. It really is like being born all over again, it’s such a huge change! What’s the next step in that change process for us? Help us not to be afraid of it, but to trust you and cooperate with your Spirit, so that the work of the Kingdom may go forward in us. Amen.

Baptism in the Holy Spirit (a sermon on Acts 19:1-7 & Mark 1:4-11)

Today I want to talk to you about Baptism in the Holy Spirit.

I’m guessing some of you might be puzzled by this phrase. I can almost hear you thinking, “What the heck is ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’?” We all understand baptism in water – we’ve seen it lots of times. Sometimes it happens when adults come to faith in Jesus and then step forward to be baptized to seal their commitment to Christ. But most often it happens to babies, when parents present them to be baptized, or ‘christened’ as it’s still often called. But what on earth is ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’?

If you feel confused about this, you’re in good company! In our reading from Acts today we heard that when Paul was traveling through what is now Turkey, he came to Ephesus and found some people who claimed to be Christian disciples. But when he asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” they replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2).

Christian people today often share their confusion. We understand about God the Father who created the world and everything in it. We understand about Jesus the Son of God who lived and died and rose again to save us. But we find it hard to understand or even imagine the Holy Spirit. This third person of the Trinity seems shadowy and vague, and perhaps it seems appropriate to us that we once called him ‘The Holy Ghost’! And as for the idea that you can somehow be ‘baptized’ in the Holy Spirit in the same way we’re baptized in water – well, that sounds really strange to a lot of people. But in fact it ‘s clearly taught in the Gospels and the Book of Acts.

So let’s think for a few minutes about water baptism and baptism in the Holy Spirit.

Baptism in water is something we got from Jesus himself; Jesus teaches us that it’s part of the process of becoming his disciples. He says in Matthew 28 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (18b-19). The early Christian missionaries enthusiastically obeyed this command; they traveled all over the known world preaching the good news of Jesus. People heard their message, and some believed it and wanted to commit their lives to Jesus and become his followers. So they were baptized and they joined the Christian community where they learned to put his commands into practice.

At first all those who were baptized were adults. Later on, many Christians came to believe it was right and good for children of Christian parents to be received into the Christian community by baptism, so that families could be united as followers of Jesus. But whether adult or infant, from the beginning baptism has been a missionary act. The Christian message goes out and those who believe and want to practice it are baptized – along with their children – as a sign of being reborn into the new life in Christ. It’s part of the process of becoming a Christian.

One of the difficulties about reading the Bible is that the different books were written by different people, and they don’t always use words in the same way. This is true with this phrase, ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’: it’s used by Paul in one sense, and the gospel writers in another. Paul only uses it once, in 1 Corinthians 12:13, and it’s clear that he means exactly what we’ve just been talking about – the experience of becoming a Christian. He says, ‘For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit’.

He’s talking about the experience of becoming a Christian: you put your faith in Jesus, you’re baptized, and you receive the Holy Spirit – in whatever order those things come for you! We’re all alike in this, Paul says – all of us Christians have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We should never take this incredible gift for granted. In Advent we were thinking about Mary becoming pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, and carrying the Son of God in her womb for nine months. She was literally a human temple – a place where God lives. But what was true of Mary in a physical sense is also true of you and me in a spiritual sense: as Paul says in another place, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. This is what Paul means by being ‘baptized by one Spirit into one Body’ – we put our faith in Jesus, we are baptized, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

So a baptism service isn’t just about parents and godparents standing up and making promises. And an adult conversion – when a person turns from unbelief and commits themselves to becoming a Christian – isn’t just a human process either. It’s not just about human reasoning, human decision, or human willpower. No – the Holy Spirit is at work, coming to live in you, marking you as belonging to God, connecting you with God, giving you the power to follow Christ. It’s actually quite miraculous! So please – let’s not take it for granted! Let’s thank God every day that we’ve been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, and let’s learn to recognise his presence and follow his leading.

And this leads me to ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ in the second sense – the sense in which the gospel writers and the Book of Acts use the phrase. In our gospel for today we heard about John the Baptist and his preaching of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People came to him from all over the place and were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins for all the world to hear. It was a powerful religious revival and it had some people wondering whether John was the Messiah that they’d all been waiting for. But he said ‘no’. Look at Mark 1:7:

‘He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit”’.

The Greek word ‘baptizo’ means to be totally immersed, to be surrounded and filled with water, like a sunken ship sitting quietly on the bottom of the ocean – or to be overwhelmed, like a house swept away by a flood. This, says John, is what the Messiah is going to do for you. Baptism with water may seem pretty exciting, but it’s pretty tame compared to what you’re going to experience when the Messiah comes! You’re going to be totally flooded, overwhelmed, immersed, and filled to overflowing with the power of God’s Spirit!

In the Book of Acts, after Jesus’ resurrection, he himself confirmed this promise to his disciples. He told them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for ‘the promise of the Father. “This”, he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now”’ (Acts 1:4-5). And so it was; a few days later we read that the early Christians were all together in one place, when ‘suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability’ (Acts 2:2-4). People heard the noise, and a crowd gathered, marveling because they could each hear the Christians speaking in their own language. Eventually Peter got up to speak, and the Holy Spirit used his words so powerfully that three thousand people decided to become Christians that day. They saw that God wasn’t just a theory or a theological symbol: there was a real God who did real things in the real lives of real people. They had seen it in the newly Spirit-filled Christians, and they wanted it for themselves.

And by the way, this wasn’t just a one-off thing in the lives of these early Christians – they had a similar experience in Acts 4, after they’d been persecuted for the first time by the religious establishment. We read that they gathered together and prayed, and when they were finished ‘the place where they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness’ (v.31).

Experiences like these seem to be just part of normal Christian life in the New Testament. In our reading from Acts this morning Paul notices immediately when the Spirit seems to be missing. “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” he asks, and they reply, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit”. On further inquiry he discovers that they haven’t actually received Christian baptism yet, only the baptism of John, so he baptizes them. Afterwards we read that ‘When Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied’ (Acts 19:1-7).

So in the New Testament there’s this strongly experiential element to Christianity. It’s not just about belonging to an institution called the church, and going to its services on Sundays. It’s not just about reading the Bible and believing the creeds and the doctrines of the Christian faith. It’s not just about trying to put the teaching of Jesus into practice in your daily life.

No – New Testament Christianity is also an experience – an experience of knowing God. It’s an experience that makes absolutely no sense unless there’s a real God who does real things in the lives of real people. It’s about my life and your life being touched by the hand of God. It’s about God coming to live in us in a spiritual sense, so that we become temples of the Holy Spirit – places where God lives.

Some Anglicans are afraid of this kind of talk because it sounds rather Pentecostal to them. They think “That’s not why I go to an Anglican church; if I wanted that kind of thing I’d go down to Millwoods Pentecostal!” So let’s address this for a minute: is this sort of spirituality only for Pentecostals, or is it for us too?

The thing about reading the stories of the earliest Christians is that they weren’t Roman Catholics or Baptists or Anglicans or Pentecostals – they were just Christians. Their Christianity had a strong sacramental flavour to it – they had a very high view of sacraments like baptism and Holy Communion – something we associate today with the catholic traditions. They also had a high view of scripture and the importance of teaching, like modern evangelicals. They took the teaching of Jesus seriously and tried to put it into practice in their daily lives, loving their enemies and living simple lives with few possessions – something we associate today with Mennonite and Anabaptist traditions. And they also had a strongly experiential element – they expected the Holy Spirit to touch them and do remarkable things in their lives – just like modern Pentecostals.

Nowadays we’ve split up these emphases and made different denominations out of them, but the Holy Spirit won’t go along with that. The Holy Spirit doesn’t have many churches, he has one Church, the Body of Christ. All of these truths are part of the universal Christian faith, meant for all people in all places. We Anglicans are happy to share our gifts of liturgy and sacraments with other Christians. And we also need to be open to receiving from the treasures other Christians have been given.

I’m not going to describe for you this morning what an experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit is like, because there isn’t just one experience. God works in many different ways in the lives of many different people. Some people have experienced something very dramatic – an overpowering feeling of the love of God, maybe accompanied by something like the speaking in tongues described in our Acts reading. For other people it’s been something much more quiet and gradual, perhaps deepened as they’ve given more time to silent prayer on a regular basis.

But I do want to say something about the fear factor. I can understand it, because I’ve felt that fear myself. I like a form of Christianity where everything’s under control, where everything’s predictable. I can preach a pretty good sermon and do a half decent job of running a parish all by myself, thank you very much, without having to call on God for help! God’s so unpredictable; if I pray for the Spirit to come, he might and he might not, and I’m going to look pretty foolish if he doesn’t. So I’d rather just avoid the whole thing.

But I don’t think avoiding it is normal Christianity. Read through the New Testament, especially the Book of Acts, and see the place of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the early Christians. See how Jesus promises this gift to his followers, and how he reminds us that the heavenly Father gives good gifts to those who ask him. Ask yourself, “If I pray to be filed with the Holy Spirit, would God give me something bad in response?” And if you decide – as I’ve decided – that this is meant for us today too, then pray, and keep on praying, trusting the Father who loves you, until you also experience baptism in the Holy Spirit, as the early Christians experienced it and as Christians down through the centuries have experienced it.

Let me close with this thought. In Psalm 34:8 the writer says, ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him’. He doesn’t say, ‘Think about eating’ or ‘Do a study on eating’, or ‘listen to the experiences of others who have eaten’. He says, ‘taste’. In other words, for this Old Testament writer the experience of the presence and power of God was as tangible as the taste of his food.

Now whether you’ve experienced that for yourself or not, I think you can agree that it would be a life-changing experience. So let me encourage you to cultivate your hunger for God. Don’t be satisfied with anything less than the touch of his Spirit. Ask, and seek, and knock, and keep on asking, seeking, and knocking until the Lord answers your prayer – and then come back and tell your brothers and sisters in Christ what the Lord has done for you.

‘Thirsty for God’ (a sermon on John 7.37-39)

Tonight I’m going to be flying across the Atlantic to the U.K., but the first time I made that journey I was going in the other direction; it was September 1967, I was nine years old, and we were travelling by ship. Tonight it will be a journey of about eight and a half hours, but then it took five days to go from Liverpool to Montreal. When I think back on that, I realise again how vast that Atlantic Ocean is. That’s a huge amount of water!

Of course, centuries ago those trips took even longer. In the days of sail, ships were totally dependant on the prevailing winds. Sometimes, in calmer climates than the north Atlantic, ships would lie still for weeks on end because there was no wind. And sometimes, tragically, they ran out of drinking water during those times, and people began to die of thirst. It was this kind of situation that gave birth to the famous line in Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ ‘Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink’. Some people were so crazy with thirst that they did try salt water; of course, this only made things worse, and they died even sooner because of it.

Psalm 42:1-3 says:

‘As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”’.

In this passage of scripture, ‘thirst’ is used as a powerful image for our deep human longing for God. This longing isn’t satisfied by ideas about God, talk about God, or membership in organizations that work for God. It’s a longing for God himself, and for personal contact with God. When we have this longing, we realise that all the God-substitutes we so desperately embrace amount to nothing but salt-water; they only increase our deep inner thirst for the true and living God.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus uses this metaphor of thirst. The seventh chapter of John’s Gospel is built around the annual Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. This was a very popular feast, a kind of harvest festival. Over the years it had also acquired a sub-theme of longing for the end of this present evil age – the great final harvest, when God will bring in the Kingdom and the new age of his righteousness will begin – the time when the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all people.

Every day during the Feast of Tabernacles, water was drawn from the Pool of Siloam and carried in procession to the Temple while the words of Isaiah 12:3 were sung: ‘With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation’. Also the prophecy of Zechariah 14:8 would be read: ‘On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter’. This verse is a summary of a longer prophecy in Ezekiel 47: the prophet sees a vision of a river springing up in the Temple and flowing out into the desert, bringing new life and fruitfulness wherever it goes.

In this context – surrounded by all this imagery of water – listen again to the words of our Gospel reading:

‘On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let everyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’”. Now this he said about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified’ (John 7:37-39).

It’s as if Jesus is saying to his hearers, “All week long you’ve been enacting symbols about God’s salvation coming like water onto a thirsty ground. Well, I am the reality those symbols point to. Come to me, and drink deeply from those wells of salvation”.

 

Listen to these words from the prophet Jeremiah:

‘Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
send to Kedar and examine with care;
see if there has ever been such a thing.
Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit…
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns that can hold no water’ (Jeremiah 2:10-11, 13).

God’s people turned from the true and living God who was like a stream of fresh water, and instead they made idols for themselves that were like cracked cisterns, unable to hold water. This was their version of the becalmed sailors drinking salt water – it couldn’t satisfy. And today people still turn to idols – God-substitutes that claim to be able to fill God’s role, but actually they can’t.

One of the most common, of course, is materialism. We spend years trying to accumulate more and more stuff, even though the ‘more and more stuff’ we’ve already acquired hasn’t satisfied us. The one who dies with the most toys doesn’t win – they just die.

A second very common idol, often linked to the first one, is success. A lot of people gauge their self-worth with this one: if I can just get ahead in my career, so everyone will see I’m doing well, then I’ll find the satisfaction I’m looking for. Sometimes the worse thing that can happen to these folks is to actually achieve that goal; they feel satisfaction for a few days, maybe, but finally they realize it isn’t giving them the lasting happiness they were hoping for. They still haven’t found what they’re looking for – whatever it is.

A third idol that’s quite common is the liking and approval of others. This is especially seductive to people who have problems with self-esteem. ‘If I can just get people to like me and approve of what I’ve done, then that inner ache will go away; I’ll be able to relax and know I’m a worthwhile person, because other people like me. But wait – some of ‘me’ isn’t very likeable, so I’ll just hide my shadow side and pretend to be something better than I really am, so I can get people to like me’. This is the lie the idol persuades us to believe, but it never works. We still feel the emptiness, the spiritual thirst – and we also carry around the burden of having to continually fool people about who we really are.

Sad to say, the institutional church can also become an idol for some. The church is meant to be a community of faith, gathered around the living Lord Jesus Christ. However, some people have never made a connection with the risen Lord, and so they turn to the church instead. It’s unfortunately possible to go through all the motions of Christianity – church attendance, baptism, confirmation, Holy Communion – but stop there, without making a real connection with the risen Christ.

I think this might be the most insidious idol of all, and I’ll tell you why. People who worship this idol think they’ve tried Christianity and found it wanting. But in fact they’ve only tried ‘churchianity’. What they’ve had is the spiritual equivalent of a vaccination. You know how a vaccination works; you inject a tiny quantity of the disease into people’s bodies, and this awakens their immune system to protect them against the real thing when it comes their way. In the same way, people who worship the idol of ‘church’ have taken a tiny bit of Christianity to protect themselves against the real thing.

All these God-substitutes are nothing but salt water. In the end, they will only increase our spiritual thirst. Maybe you’re feeling that thirst today. Maybe you’re thinking “Yes, I know that nothing can take God’s place, and in fact I’m really thirsty for him”. Good – let’s think about drinking!

 Jesus says, ‘“Let everyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’”. Now this he said about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive’ (John 7:37b-39a). So the way to quench our thirst for God is to come to Jesus and drink. When we believe in Jesus – that is, when we put our faith, our trust, in him – he gives us the Holy Spirit who becomes to us like a river of living water in our hearts.

You might ask “How does this happen? How do I come to Jesus and drink?” First, we need to know that all followers of Jesus have the Holy Spirit living in them. Paul says, ‘For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 12:13). If you aren’t sure whether this verse applies to you, you can be sure. Simply pray, committing yourself to Christ in faith and asking him to live in you by his Holy Spirit. Then, if you haven’t been baptized at some point in your life, get baptized. If you’ve already been baptized, as most of us have, then the commitment of faith is all you need to complete the process.

Some people find this idea of a commitment of faith intimidating; they’re not sure they have enough faith to make it work. Don’t worry about that; Jesus once said that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, that’s enough. Here’s how I see it. Imagine I’ve made a series of poor choices in my life and as a result I’m experiencing significant health issues. So in desperation I make an appointment to see my doctor. He examines me, and then he sits me down and says, “I know how we can get you out of this mess and back to heath. It’s going to take a while, but we can do it. Will you let me help you?”

How do you reply to that? I think the simple word “Yes” is enough, don’t you?

And this is where we’re at. We find ourselves struggling to connect with God and find the way of life we were designed for. We’re addicted to all sorts of negative behaviours and we know we’re chasing after the wrong things. So we go to Doctor Jesus and ask him to help us. His reply is, “Yes, I can help you. Will you follow me?” Faith is simply saying “Yes” to that invitation. That’s all it takes to get the ball rolling.

But of course, that’s not all it takes to continue the process. If we want to have our spiritual thirst quenched – to go back to the original metaphor – there needs to be a daily drinking. Let me suggest a couple of things for you.

First, pray daily to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Yes, we all have the Holy Spirit, but we need to ask him each day to fill us. I once heard a good illustration of this. An old fashioned gas furnace has a little pilot light burning inside, and that’s vital. That’s like the gift of the Holy Spirit we were each given when we became followers of Jesus. But that won’t be enough to heat the whole house! We need to turn up the thermostat so that the pilot light fires the burners. And in the same way, we need the Holy Spirit to fill us to overflowing.

Sometimes this happens in a dramatic way. That’s how it was for the apostles in our first reading today, when they experienced tongues of fire and speaking in other languages, and it was so dramatic that a crowd of people gathered to see what was going on. But it doesn’t always happen in a dramatic way – in fact, that’s not all that common. Mostly it’s quiet: a gentle sense of connection with God – a joy that’s there in the background even when we don’t notice it – the experience of finding ourselves equal to challenges we were sure would be too much for us.

So before you start each day, take a few minutes to pray and ask God to fill you afresh with the Holy Spirit for the day ahead. You’ll be surprised how much difference that simple prayer can make.

Then there’s the daily experience of keeping in step with the Spirit. In our pew Bibles, Galatians 5:16 is translated as ‘Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh’. But the original Greek says ‘Walk in the Spirit’, and the NIV has the lovely translation ‘Keep in step with the Spirit’. I love that! It gives me the sense of the Holy Spirit as a companion walking beside me. I’m not sure which way to go, but the Spirit knows, and if I watch and listen, the Spirit will guide me.

One way the Spirit will guide me is through the Scriptures, especially the teachings of Jesus. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that 90% of the guidance I need for living my daily life is already there in the Scriptures. There are lots of stories of people setting bad examples to avoid! And sometimes we come across good examples to follow. There are simple commands that revolutionize our lives: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ – ‘Don’t lay up for yourselves treasures on earth’ – ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you’ – ‘stop lying to each other’ and so on.

But there are also little nudges we get from the Holy Spirit sometimes. With me, it often takes the form of a person coming to mind, with the little thought that I need to call them or send them an email. Sometimes it turns out to have been a mistake, but more often than not it doesn’t. What I’ve noticed is that if I obey those little nudges of guidance, they tend to come more often. But when I don’t, they stop coming. Simple lesson there? If I want to experience more of God’s guidance, I need to be sure I pay attention when it comes!

One last thing. If we want to keep in step with the Spirit – if we want to drink of this ‘river of living water’ that Jesus is talking about – then we will want to pray. And when I say ‘pray’, I don’t just mean ‘Come to Jesus for five minutes every day with a shopping list of wants’.

We’re all busy people, but I have discovered that my days go much better if I start them in prayer, and if that prayer includes a healthy portion of silence. So I try to get here earlier than I need to most days, and then I can sit in quiet for a few minutes. I don’t necessarily say very much. I just sit in a chair and pay attention to the presence of God. Sometimes it’s a struggle; my brain is buzzing and there are so many internal distractions. Usually it takes longer than five minutes to get past them. Usually, after about ten or twelve minutes of silence, I begin to feel like I’m getting through. But I’m not trying; I’m just sitting and paying attention. And eventually, most days, I do get a deeper awareness of God’s presence and more joy as I go into my day.

Jesus says, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7.37-38). Notice the direction here: out of the believer’s heart. We might have thought it would be the other way – into the believer’s heart – but it’s an outward flow. And so it is for us. When we come to Jesus and drink of the gift of the Holy Spirit, we become a refreshing presence in the world around us. The blessings of God flow out from us, touching other people and giving them a sense of God’s love for them as well. That’s God’s will for all of us. I can experience it and so can you.

So – will you come to Jesus and drink?

Random Lent Thought for Wednesday April 5th: ‘Sins of the flesh’ and the ‘fruit of the Spirit’

woman walking on the beachNowadays when we talk about ‘sins of the flesh’ we almost always mean sexual sins. ‘Flesh’ to us means ‘skin’; hence the connection. But this is not the way the writers of the New Testament saw it.

When our English Bible translations use the word ‘flesh’ for the Greek word ‘sarx’ (especially in the letters of Paul), they don’t help the situation. Paul had a perfectly good word for ‘body’ (‘soma’), and he tends to use it in a positive sense. But the ‘sarx’ or ‘flesh’ (as it’s translated in the NRSV and the NIV 2011) mean something closer to what Francis Spufford calls our ‘human propensity to f___ things up’ (or ‘HPtFtU’ for short). Earlier versions of the NIV used the translation ‘sinful nature’, and I think this is a lot better. Paul and the other New Testament authors believed that we humans have all been infected by this disease of sin – we have a ‘sinful nature’ – which is why growth in virtue and goodness is often such a struggle for us. But Paul’s list of ‘acts of the flesh’ is a lot less ‘fleshly’ than we might expect today:

‘…sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like’ (Galatians 5:19-21a NIV 2011).

This list does include sexual sins, to be sure, but it also includes hatred and ambition, anger and jealousy, hatred and discord. Other lists in the writings of Paul have a similar breadth.

But that’s not the end of the story. Paul goes on to say,

‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control…Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:22-25 NIV 2011).

Paul believed that the law of God was good but powerless to transform us, because our HPtFtU makes us unable to keep God’s laws by dint of sheer willpower. The Ten Commandments and the other wise laws of God describe an admirable way of life, but for all the good they do us, we might just as well be people who have just learned their times tables attempting the mysteries of higher mathematics.

Fortunately for us, there’s another principle at work: the coming of God to live in us by his Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the power and love of God at work in the world and in people. The Holy Spirit is Jesus’ gift to us; on the day of Pentecost, he (the Spirit) came and filled the early Christians, and he’s been doing it ever since.

Sometimes people have dramatic experiences of the Holy Spirit; sometimes (perhaps most often) they don’t. But the most amazing work he does is to strengthen us to do the ordinary little things Jesus calls us to do day by day. Paul says it’s like a tree growing fruit. As the life flows through the tree, the fruit grows naturally. And as the life of God flows in us by the Spirit, so we grow the fruit of love, joy, peace, forbearance and so on. True Christlike character, in other words.

Is there nothing for us to do, then? Most certainly not! If we do nothing, nothing’s going to be the result!

So what should we do? Well, we’ve been given the gift of the Spirit, now Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians to ‘go on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit’, and here he tells us to ‘keep in step with the Spirit’. I take these to be two different ways of attempting to describe the same experience: living our lives in conscious contact with the Holy Spirit, asking him each day to fill us, listening for his guidance, turning to him for help.

This is a different dynamic than law-keeping: it’s more personal, more relational, and certainly more joyful. God is love, John tells us, and ‘God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us’ (Romans 5:5 NIV 2011). Only the Spirit of God can give us the power to live out the love of God in our daily lives. And so, Father, please fill us today with the Holy Spirit and help us to keep in step with the Spirit, so that he may grow in us that lovely fruit of love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit’ (a sermon on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)

For some reason I was never a big fan of the character of Superman. I never read his comic book adventures when I was a boy, and I never went to see any of the Superman movies, even though they were very popular and got a lot of attention. But I know the story, of course – the story of how he was born on the planet Krypton and was sent to Earth in a rocket by his scientist father, minutes before Krypton was destroyed. On earth he was brought up as Clark Kent by a farming family, but as he grew up he was gradually seen to have what we would describe as supernatural powers. At a young age he decided to use those powers to benefit the whole of humanity, and the rest, as they say, is history – or, at least, comic-book history!

Superman can do amazing things because he’s not from earth and he’s not really one of us – he comes from ‘Another Place’. And I think a lot of people see Jesus in the same way. He comes among us as a human being, but he’s not really a human being – he’s the Son of God, a divine character. So it’s possible for him to do all sorts of things that we can’t do – he can work miracles, he can read people’s minds, he can live a perfect life without sin, and so on. In fact, he has an unfair advantage over us, and so he’s not actually very useful to us as an example, and all the biblical themes about the imitation of Christ aren’t really very helpful. How can we imitate Superman, when we weren’t born where he was born and we don’t have the same sort of nature as he does? And how can we imitate Jesus when he’s not a real human being with the same struggles as we have?

But the problem here isn’t with Jesus – it’s with our ideas about Jesus. Real Christian theology stresses that when God decided to become one of us in Jesus, he wasn’t just play-acting. He took on a real human nature, with all of the limitations of that nature. For instance, he didn’t start out knowing all the stuff he was going to be taught in school; he had to grow and learn, just like other children. Luke emphasises this aspect of Jesus’ life; in chapter two of his gospel we read that ‘The child grew and became strong’ (v. 40) – in other words he didn’t start out strong, he grew strong with time, as other children do. And later on in the chapter we read that ‘Jesus increased in wisdom and in years’ (v.52). Once again, he didn’t start out perfectly wise – he increased in it as the years went by.

The story of the baptism of Jesus, which we read this morning, continues this theme. It’s interesting to me that when Luke tells the story he doesn’t actually give a lot of attention to Jesus’ baptism itself. In fact, he doesn’t tell the story of the baptism at all; he tells us what happened after the baptism. Look at Luke 3:21-22:

Now when all the people were baptized, and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”.

It’s interesting to me that in his story of the baptism of Jesus, Luke doesn’t actually tell us the story of the baptism of Jesus: he just mentions it in passing. This doesn’t mean, of course, that water baptism is unimportant; we know that Jesus commanded his followers to baptize new disciples in water, and we know that the early Church followed that command. But in this story, Luke is not stressing the water baptism. What interests him is something else: the fact that after Jesus was baptized he received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Luke has set us up for this. Earlier, in the first section of today’s gospel, he says that all sorts of people were asking whether John the Baptist was the long-promised Messiah, but John denied it, pointing out that there was a crucial difference between him and the Messiah who was still to come. Look at Luke 3:16:

John answered them all by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”.

The Greek word ‘baptizo’ means to submerge, or fill, something. A ship that has sunk and is sitting on the bottom of the sea, surrounded and filled with water, has been ‘baptized’ in the literal sense of the Greek word. So what John is saying is, “Yes, I have the power to plunge you down under the water as a sign that you have repented of your sins, but the real Messiah will do something even more wonderful than that – he will plunge you into the Holy Spirit until you are completely immersed and filled with the Spirit’s power”.

But before Jesus can do this for us, he has to experience it for himself. And so after he has received John’s baptism, the Holy Spirit descends on him and fills him, and from that moment on he is completely dependant upon the power of the Holy Spirit. The next thing that happens is that he goes out into the desert for a time of testing, but it isn’t just his choice to go there and it isn’t just his own human resources that help him get through that time. Luke 4:1 says, ‘Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil’. And when the temptation is over, the Spirit continues to fill him and lead him. Luke 4:14 says, ‘Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee’.

Do you see the picture Luke is giving us here? It isn’t Jesus as Superman who can do amazing things because he comes from ‘Another Place’. It’s Jesus the first Christian, the model disciple, the truly human one who has come from God but who nevertheless needs the help of God to be able to do what he is called to do. So God sends the Holy Spirit to fill him and equip him, and because of the Holy Spirit he’s able to do what God asks of him on a daily basis.

And because of this, Jesus really is a useful model for us. He shares our human limitations, and so before he attempts to do anything for God, he first of all prays and is given the supernatural help he needs in order to do it. And this is where we must start in the Christian life. If Jesus is the model disciple, then we need to follow that model. If Jesus needs the power of the Holy Spirit, then so do we.

“Well, that’s all very well for Jesus”, you say, “but obviously God gave him the Holy Spirit because he was special, because he was the Son of God. How does that help me? I’m not the Son of God, so God isn’t going to give me the Spirit, is he?”

Ah, but he is! That’s exactly what Luke is saying here! Remember what we read at the beginning of the section, when John said about Jesus, “I baptize you with water, but… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (v.16). This is the special characteristic of Jesus’ ministry: he is the one who takes his followers and plunges them into the Holy Spirit until they are completely filled and immersed in the Spirit’s power. In fact, the gospel of John goes so far as to tell us that during his lifetime Jesus didn’t actually baptize anyone in water, although he commanded his followers to do that. Human beings can baptize people in water, but there is only one person who can baptize someone in the Holy Spirit, and that’s the only baptism he administered to anyone.

Luke continues this story after the resurrection of Jesus. He says in Acts 1:4:

While staying with (the disciples), (the risen Jesus) ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This”, he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now”.

And in verse 8 he goes on to tell them,

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”.

How was this promise fulfilled? Acts chapter two takes up the story:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability (Acts 2:1-4).

The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts were both written by the same author, who we know as Luke – possibly Luke the doctor who travelled with Paul in the later chapters of Acts. Luke has told the two stories – the story of Jesus and the story of the early Church – in the same way. Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit and given the power to do and say amazing things. His mission meets with success as many people hear him and follow him, but he is opposed by some powerful people. Eventually he is arrested, and then follows the story of the Cross and Resurrection.

In the same way, the early Christians in Acts 2 are filled with the Holy Spirit. They are ordinary people like us – Luke stresses this, telling us a few stories of their doubts and failings and character flaws – but the Holy Spirit gives them the power to do and say amazing things. Even though most of them are uneducated, nonetheless they travel around spreading the gospel and planting churches. Luke is especially interested in Paul; he too has a conversion experience and is filled with the Holy Spirit, and becomes the great missionary to the Gentiles. His mission is successful as people turn from idols to worship God in Jesus, but he is also opposed everywhere he goes by people in power. Eventually he is arrested in Jerusalem, just like Jesus, and when the story ends he has been taken to Rome to be tried before the Roman Emperor.

So the pattern Luke gives us is that you don’t have to be ‘from somewhere else’ – you don’t have to be Superman – in order to follow the teaching and example of Jesus. The same Holy Spirit who filled Jesus also fills us today. The difference is that the people in the Book of Acts knew it. They knew they were totally dependent on the Holy Spirit’s power. They had no organisation, no salaried employees, no sophisticated business plan, no huge advertising budget. They had no reputation in the community to build on – no one knew who they were from a hole in the wall. All they had was a message full of hope that had changed their lives, and a vibrant experience of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. And apparently, that was more than enough.

It’s often been said that if you took the Holy Spirit away from the Book of Acts you’d have nothing left; everything the early Christians did was totally dependant upon the Spirit’s power and guidance. When they wanted to have an outreach event to share the gospel with the city, what did they do? Answer: they prayed that God would give them boldness to proclaim the message, and that he himself would stretch out his hand to perform signs and wonders in Jesus’ name, and this is how God answered their prayer:

When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31).

In Acts 13 when the early Christians were planning new evangelistic work they didn’t have visioning meetings or hire specially trained evangelists; they fasted and prayed together, and while they were praying the Holy Spirit guided them:

While they were worshipping the Lord and praying, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them”. Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:2-3).

But the power of the Holy Spirit doesn’t only have to do with the proclamation of the gospel; it also concerns our efforts to live the sort of life that Jesus asks of us. Paul tells us about this in Galatians 5:16: ‘Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh’. In verses 22-23 he goes on: ‘By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’. He calls these things, ‘the fruit of the Spirit’. In other words, it’s the Holy Spirit who plants them like seeds in our lives, and it’s the Holy Spirit who helps them grow.  It’s not a matter of gritting our teeth and trying to be like Superman by our own unaided strength. It’s a matter of being filled with the same Holy Spirit who filled Jesus and who helps us to live as Jesus lived and do the things that Jesus did.

Is this for real? Does this sort of experience of the Holy Spirit still happen today? Yes it does, although it happens with incredible variety. Some Christians experience dramatic ‘baptisms in the Holy Spirit’ with deep emotion and perhaps miraculous signs like speaking in tongues. Others have quieter and more gradual experiences, but you can tell by the way that they live their lives that the Holy Spirit is truly at work in them helping them to live out the message of Jesus. What they all have in common is a deep awareness that this is not about human strength or skill. The Christian life is not difficult; the Christian life is impossible, unless the power of God fills us and gives us strength and wisdom. But on the other hand, this means that we’re not limited to our own puny wisdom and strength. Church history is full of stories of seemingly insignificant people who were used by God to do amazing things, despite their weaknesses.

So this is for you and me today. Luke tells this story because he wants us to be included in it. The same Holy Spirit who filled Jesus at his baptism can also fill us and set us free. He can grow his fruit of love and joy and peace in our lives and he can help us do the work Jesus calls us to do.

How do we receive this gift, and how do we grow in our daily experience of the Spirit? There is no human program for it, no infallible formula. There are no magic words. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit is like the wind – he blows where he will, and you can’t control him. Yes, he works through water baptism and through our faith, but he’s not tied to those things. He doesn’t come in answer to a magic spell, like at Hogwarts.

We can’t control the Holy Spirit, but we can ask for him. Let me close with these important words of Jesus:

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13).

So let’s ask him, and keep on asking, until we receive the gift the Father promised. And when we have received him, let’s pray daily that he will fill us, and then let’s consciously walk in step with him, so that God can work through us to bring salvation and blessing to the world.

Wanted: Enthusiastic Christians

Mainline Christendom churches do many excellent things, but one thing we’re not good atjesus-is-the-way doing is making enthusiastic Christians. What I mean is, taking secular people and turning them into enthusiastic Christians (a process traditionally called ‘conversion’).

I know, I know, we don’t convert anyone, we don’t turn them into enthusiastic Christians  that’s the work of God the Holy Spirit. I sing from that song book too!

Nonetheless, church culture can be a help or a hindrance. And the church culture of mainline Christendom churches was formed by fifteen hundred years of the Christendom paradigm, which assumed that people were already Christian by virtue of being born into a Christian country where the Christian worldview was assumed by everyone. People just needed catechism and pastoral care; they didn’t need evangelizing.

The Christendom paradigm is now dead. And here’s the rub: the church needs enthusiastic Christians to be able to do the things Jesus is asking us to do. If you haven’t been captivated by the Gospel of grace – if you haven’t experienced the forgiving, loving, life-giving touch of the Holy Spirit – if your Christianity is just a low-temperature, pew-sitting kind of thing – you’re going to have great difficulty passing it on to others, either your children, or your friends and neighbours.

This, I think, is the big issue for mainline Christendom churches. How do we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in such a way as to reach out to people who aren’t really that interested in ‘religion’ and help them become enthusiastic Christians?

I do not believe that there is an effective answer to that question that leaves out the issue of evangelism. And this strikes terror into the heart of mainline Christians. Most lay and clergy leaders in mainline churches are desperately searching for the magic bullet – the infallible program that will turn things around, draw new people into the church, balance the budgets etc., without asking us to talk to our non-Christian friends about Jesus.

That program does not exist. You cannot turn disinterested secular people into enthusiastic Christians without (a) having a faith worth sharing, (b) having a friend worth sharing it with, and (c) opening your mouth to talk about what Jesus means to you.

This is why I believe that the crucial issue for the future of our Anglican church is helping people learn to relax and enjoy evangelism. But a prerequisite for that is that they must be enthusiastic Christians themselves first. Therefore, evangelism isn’t just important for people outside the Church. People inside the Church need it to. When we become lukewarm, what we need more than anything else is a fresh infusion of the joy of the Gospel. We don’t need browbeating into greater faithfulness. We need to hear and experience the love of Christ in a fresh and powerful way. We will not share it with others unless we are experiencing it ourselves.

When I attended a Cursillo weekend (or ‘made my cursillo’, as the jargon goes) in the late 1970s I was introduced to a wonderful prayer from the Roman Catholic tradition. It begins like this: ‘Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love’.

The fire of your love. Not the slowing dying ember. Not the little flickering pilot light. The fire.

Come, Holy Spirit.