‘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.

‘Did you, like, fall over or something?’

In the first few episodes of the brilliant TV series ‘West Wing’, there’s a great story line that starts with Sam Seaborn having a one-night-stand with a very attractive young lady. When he leaves her place the next day, he accidentally takes her pager instead of his, and that’s how he discovers, later in the day, that she’s a call girl. This is a problem, as he’s a senior official in the White House.

Eventually he goes to his boss, Toby Ziegler, and says, “I accidentally slept with a prostitute”. Toby looks at him with a dead-pan expression on his face (as only Toby can) and says, “I don’t understand; you accidentally slept with a prostitute? Did you, like, fall over or something?”

I was reminded of this episode when I read Jonathan Clatworthy’s article on the Modern Church blog entitled, ‘Spreading the Word – a liberal response‘. In it, Clatworthy is rather scathing about what he calls ‘intentional evangelism’ and instead recommends ‘unintentional evangelism’ – evangelism, it seems, that doesn’t involve much in the way of spoken witness, but is more about living your life in devotion to God, letting people see that you’re a good person, and letting that be your influence (he’s quite keen on the quote, widely but almost certainly wrongly attributed to St. Francis, ‘Preach the Gospel – use words if necessary’).

Maybe its my wicked sense of humour, but when I read that phrase ‘unintentional evangelism’ I immediately thought of Toby saying “You accidentally slept with a prostitute? Did you, like, fall over or something?” I can almost see a very apologetic young Christian saying, “I’m sorry, sir – I think I might have accidentally evangelized you yesterday. I assure you, I didn’t mean to do it – it was entirely unintentional. I was falling over when I did it”.

Clatworthy’s article is in response to a piece in the Church Times by Chris Russell, who is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s advisor for evangelism and witness. Russell’s piece was entitled ‘Why Evangelism is Always Non-Negotiable’. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but here are a few choice quotes:

When Archbishop Welby first talked about appointing an Adviser for Evangelism and Witness, he explained the reason for using the “e-word”.

It was not simply because the term “mission” has – wonderfully in many ways – become the watch-word for everything we do in the Church, and as a concept has grown so large as to be ungraspable as a priority. Nor was it to give privilege to one church tradition above another. Evangelism is not, and will not be allowed to be, the preserve of Evangelicals: it is far too important for that. No, the reason for using the word “evangelism” is because it is a particularly Christian word: Jesus, we are told, arrived proclaiming the Good News. 

IT IS a relief that the cliché “Preach the gospel at all times: where necessary, use words” has ceased to do the rounds. At least, I hope it has – not just because there is no record that St Francis ever said it, but because, even if he did, it is just wrong: to proclaim the gospel is to use words. As T. S. Eliot’s character Sweeney says: “I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you.”

We see this reflected in the first of the Anglican Five Marks of Mission: “To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom”….

THIS message is about the person of Jesus Christ: so it is always personal, always loving, always gracious, and always particular. It is not some package to be delivered, like some dusty just-add-water powder. As it is Jesus Christ we are setting forth, the words always are spoken in a specific tongue, at a specific time, with a specific accent, and a particular dialect.

Evangelism requires listening and proclamation, reception and gift, the theologian Luke Bretherton writes. “We cannot presume to know what needs to be said and done with these people, in this place, at this time, if they are to truly hear and dwell within the gospel.”

The setting forth is essential. People cannot know the glad tidings unless God’s community shares them. The gospel is not something we already know: it is new knowledge that cannot be known unless it is borne witness to. To hear, respond, and follow Jesus Christ is the best thing that anyone can do with his or her life. The Church exists as the bearer and performer of this good news. The Holy Spirit forms us in, through, and for this. 

In response, Jonathan Clatworthy (after arguing that, while most Christians would agree that we have good news to share, they might not agree as to exactly what it is), says,

Some of us would argue, from experience, that unintentional evangelism is at least as powerful as the intentional kind.  How many people have been “brought to Christ” (whatever that actually means in any particular case) by the simple witness of worship, work and love on the part of a faithful community or individual?  In-your-face evangelism, however courteous and contextual, all too often alienates people; the quiet witness of a life lived according to the demands of the Christian story generally does not.

My quarrel with this paragraph is that it sets up two extreme alternatives – on the one hand, ‘the simple witness of worship, work, and love’, and on the other hand ‘in-your-face evangelism, however courteous and contextual’. But surely these aren’t the only two alternatives we have to choose from? Yes, of course (as Chris Russell clearly says in his article) our life needs to agree with our words, and worship, work and love add credibility to our witness. But does this really mean that we should not say anything at all unless we’re asked about it? Would the gospel message ever have made it out of Jerusalem if the first Christians had followed Clatworthy’s advice?

And come to think of it, should we really base our decisions about evangelism on whether or not people are offended or alienated by it? Doesn’t Jesus have something to say about this (in the context, please note, of a speech in which he sent his disciples out to do intentional evangelism)? “You will be hated by everyone because of me… The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master… If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household?” (Matthew 10:22-25). Doesn’t Paul assume that the message of the cross will be offensive to some people (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-end)?

Yes, of course, there’s a difference between the offence of the message and the offence of the messenger. Yes, of course, some people have been less than tactful (and less than wise) in the way they have chosen to present the gospel. But in our desperation not to be seen as ‘one of those people’, do we really have to go to the opposite extreme, and steadfastly refuse to say a word about the gospel unless someone is so impressed by our good life that they come up to us and ask us why we’re such admirable people? Once again, would the gospel ever have made it out of Jerusalem if the early Christians had followed Clatworthy’s advice?

No, sorry, this won’t do. It won’t do, because it is unfaithful to the Jesus we claim to be following. The Lord of the Church gave very clear instructions about this, and they are repeated in one form or another in all of the gospels and in the book of Acts. At the end of Luke’s gospel Jesus says,

“This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:46-49). 

Matthew’s version is perhaps better known:

‘Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go 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. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age”‘ (Matthew 28:18-20).

John puts an even more far-reaching commission on the lips of Jesus:

‘Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you”. And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven”‘ (John 20:21-23).

And in Acts chapter 1 Jesus says to his followers,

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

The ending of the Gospel of Mark is problematic; it seems to be cut off abruptly at 16:8, and what follows appears to have been added later in an attempt to bring the story to a smoother conclusion. Nonetheless, whoever the nameless editors may have been, they evidently shared the conviction of the other gospel writers that Jesus had sent his church out to spread his message and call people to faith in him:

‘(Jesus) said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned…” Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it’ (Mark 16:15-16, 20).

Note that, despite their surface differences, these witnesses present a remarkably coherent message. After his resurrection and before his ascension, Jesus told his disciples that he was sending them out in his name to spread the good news and to call people to repentance, faith, and discipleship, which would be made concrete by the act of baptism. This message was not just to stay in Jerusalem, but was to be taken to all nations. They would not be able to do this by themselves, and so they were going to be given the gift of the Holy Spirit in order to be effective witnesses. The Book of Acts goes on to tell the story of how the early church obeyed Jesus’ command and spread the good news of Jesus across the Roman empire.

Mr. Clatworthy appears to me to be recommending that we concentrate on ‘the simple witness of worship, work and love on the part of a faithful community or individual’, and only engage in evangelism in response to questions that are prompted by these things. But seriously, is this what those early Christians did? Did they send out a team to Samaria, for instance, or Athens, or Rome, with instructions to try to let everyone see how impressive their worship was, or how loving they were, or what wonderful food banks they ran, but at all costs not to say anything about the gospel unless they were asked?

Of course not. It is only because those early Christians faithfully followed their Master’s command to be intentional about evangelism that we are even having this discussion today. If they had not shared the gospel with words, not just deeds, Jonathan Clatworthy, Chris Russell and I would not be Christians today. I don’t know Jonathan Clatworthy but I assume that he is glad to be a Christian, and would find no-name theism unsatisfactory.

And that is why I believe that the fundamental problem with Mr. Clatworthy’s approach is that it is not self-sustaining. I don’t know the answer to his question, ‘How many people have been “brought to Christ” (whatever that actually means in any particular case) by the simple witness of worship, work and love on the part of a faithful community or individual?’ But I do know this: in the pages of the New Testament there is no meaningful ‘coming to Christ’ that does not involve speaking and hearing. This is because being a Christian is not just about becoming a kind and loving person, however admirable that may be. It is about hearing the Good News that the world has a new king, Jesus the Messiah, who died and rose again to reconcile us to God and to whom all authority in heaven and on earth has now been given. And it includes a call to all people to forsake their former allegiances and to commit themselves to Christ in willing and joyful discipleship.

But, as Paul puts it,

‘How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news”‘ (Romans 10:14-15).

Hence, the Lord calls witnesses and sends them to others with this gospel message. Not just accidental witnesses – not just unintentional evangelists – but joyful, intentional, enthusiastic sharers of the good news, who believe that it is God’s will that people who are not yet followers of Jesus should turn to Christ through the witness of his church, and who long with all their hearts to take part in that holy work.

Baptized in the Holy Spirit (a sermon for the Day of Pentecost)

Less than twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the apostle Paul wrote a letter to some Christian congregations he had founded in what we now call southern Turkey. At that time there was a controversy going on in the Christian church about whether you had to be Jewish to become a Christian. After all, some people said, Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, so it made sense to think that it was the Jews he came to save. This meant that in order to become a Christian, you first had to be circumcised and commit yourself to obeying all the Jewish laws – keeping kosher, observing the festivals and Sabbaths and all six hundred and thirteen commandments in the Torah.

To Paul, this was nonsense. In Christ ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). All that’s necessary is to believe in Jesus, get baptized, and learn the way of ‘faith working through love’ (Galatians 5:6). And Paul has a knockout argument he’s going to use to prove his point. Listen to what he says in Galatians chapter three:

The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?…Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Galatians 3:2, 5).

Now, I doubt very much whether any of you here have lost any sleep at all over the issue of whether or not you need to become Jewish in order to be a Christian! That stopped being an issue in the Christian church nearly two thousand years ago! But what I do want you to notice is the extraordinary argument that Paul uses here. He assumes – and he knows he can assume – that every single person in the Galatian churches has had a supernatural experience that they understood as ‘receiving the Spirit’. How did that happen? Was it by obeying the Jewish law, or putting your faith in Jesus? The Galatians know the answer: they believed in Jesus, they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and then they began to experience other supernatural events in their lives – miracles being worked among them, as Paul says.

I think this would be a difficult argument for me to use in a sermon today. If I stood up in the pulpit and said to you: “Look, folks, answer me a simple question. You remember the time when you received the Holy Spirit? Was it because you put your faith in Jesus, or was it because you obeyed the Ten Commandments?” My guess is that a lot of people would frown and think to themselves, “Uh, what does he mean by ‘receive the Holy Spirit’? How do I know whether or not I’ve received the Holy Spirit? How can you tell?” In other words, something that was a normal part of the Christian life when Paul wrote Galatians – something so normal that he could assume that every single person in the congregation had experienced it, and would know they had experienced it – has now become something completely foreign to us, something we don’t understand.

And that’s why this Feast of Pentecost is so important for us. It’s clear from the rest of the New Testament that Pentecost was not an isolated event. The specifics weren’t repeated – the rushing wind, the tongues of fire and so on – but the experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit is assumed throughout the New Testament. It happens again to the same believers in Acts chapter 4; it happens to a group of new converts in Samaria in chapter 8; it happens to Cornelius and his household in chapter 11, and to a group of believers in Ephesus in chapter 19. And in the gospels, Jesus assumes that it’s a gift the Father wants to give to every one of us; he says,

“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 11:13).

So let’s take a closer look at this Pentecost story and see what we can learn from it.

Read the rest here.

‘Peace be with you’ (a sermon for April 27th on John 20:19-23)

Who wants to be a failure? No one that I know! We’d all like to succeed, whether we’re talking about our work or our personal lives. Most people would like to have good marriages and strong families, with kids who grow up to be happy and successful as well. We’d like our businesses to succeed so that we can earn enough money to get by on, as well as having a sense of pride and satisfaction in what we do. Most clergy that I know want to be pastors of successful churches – churches that are growing in numbers and growing in the good effect they’re having in their communities.

And I suspect that all of us here today would like to be successful in our Christian lives as well. We’d like to get better at reading the Bible and praying; we’d like to be stronger in our faith, more resolute in turning away from our sins and learning new habits that help us follow Jesus. We’d like to be growing more like Jesus with every year that goes by. Who wouldn’t want to be a successful Christian?

No, we don’t want to be failures who find ourselves falling back into sinful habits that we thought we’d gotten the better of. We don’t want to be people who let the Lord down. We don’t want to be people who are too scared to speak up for him when all our friends are dissing the Christian faith. We don’t want to be people who run away and abandon Jesus when he is arrested and taken to trial before the high priest and the Roman governor.

And that, or course, is exactly what the disciples we read about this morning had done. On the night before Jesus died, when he was arrested in the garden, they had run away and abandoned him to his fate. Peter and John were a little braver; they had followed the guards to the high priest’s house, and Peter had even gone into the courtyard. But there he was recognized, and his courage failed him, and he denied three times that he even knew Jesus.

Imagine the feelings of these men and women on the first Easter Sunday when they begin to hear strange stories about the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Jesus. No doubt they felt as we would have felt. No doubt they were caught between joy and skepticism, not knowing whether they dared believe it. No doubt they were also caught between excitement and fear. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if it was true? If we really did see him alive again, we’d know for sure that he was right, and that he really was the Messiah God sent. But wait – what’s he going to say to us? Is he going to remember that we all abandoned him and ran away? You know what he’s like: if he’s frustrated or angry with us, he’s never slow about expressing it! Do you think he’s going to have any time for the likes of us, after what we did to him on Thursday night?”

Read the rest here.