Tag Archives: Holy Spirit

Did you receive the Spirit?

He said to 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 NRSV)

From the early 1970s through to the late 1980s a fascinating phenomenon swept through churches in our land. It affected many Christians and its impact was probably felt, to a greater or lesser extent, by most Churches.

The phenomenon became known as the Charismatic Renewal Movement and, though it really began in the free churches, it spread to all the churches, and we still feel its effects today, in our worship, our liturgy and our music.

The Charismatic Renewal Movement had some things in common with the revivals of earlier generations but it was different in the sense that it seemed to relate to a whole range of understandings of worship.

Of course, as with all great movements, not everyone who got involved helped it to be seen in the best light, but the Renewal Movement enabled many people come to a faith in Jesus which has lasted throughout their lives since.

Churches were re-invigorated and some have gone from strength to strength. Others, more interested in their internal workings than in what God might be doing, have fared less well.

One of the most important legacies of the Renewal Movement is that it has restored the importance and significance of the Holy Spirit in the minds of many Christians. It has helped us all to think again about the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church and in our lives.

For the Charismatic Renewal Movement celebrated the work of the Holy Spirit and the gifts which he has showered upon the Church. The very word, “Charismatic” means “Spiritual Gifts” or “Gifts of Grace” – gifts given by the Holy Spirit to each Christian for the work of God’s Church.

St Paul talks at length about Spiritual gifts in his First Letter to The Corinthians, chapters 12 to 14, including what he considers to be the greatest gift of all, the gift of sacrificial love.

But the Holy Spirit is referred to throughout the New Testament, and spiritual gifts are seen to be the mark of faith in many of the New Testament accounts.

Our Baptism into Christ’s family, the Church, unites us with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and those who are Confirmed in Episcopal Churches find that calling upon the Holy Spirit is the major theme of the service.

And yet, though many have been Confirmed, and countless more have been baptised, we often behave like those believers who St Paul encountered, as if “we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

But the work of the Holy Spirit is essential to our Christian faith.

The Holy Spirit gently nudges us in the direction of God. The Spirit opens the scriptures to us, leading us into truth.

The Spirit enables our prayer, especially when we don’t know what to pray, or how to pray it.

Every Christian is endowed with Spiritual gifts, to help us to grow in faith, to nurture the faith of others, and to build up the church of God.

The Spirit is the very presence of God with us, wherever we are, empowering us to serve the kingdom, to develop our abilities, to do things we never imagined we could do, to grow in courage and confidence for our Lord.

The Spirit can be the gentle breath of God, quietly pointing us in the direction which God would have us go; or the Spirit can be wind and flame rushing through the Church, blowing out the cobwebs and disturbing our comfortable routines and expectations.

And Jesus called the Holy Spirit the “friend,” the “helper,” the “advocate” – the one who accompanies us on our journey; who speaks for us.

In fact, the simple truth is that the church would never have got off the ground but for Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit, who turned a rag bag of confused disciples into what became the mighty global movement it is today.

But there are two things we ought to know about the Spirit, two things which will help us to discern the Spirit at work.

First of all, the Spirit’s movement and the teachings of Jesus are in complete harmony. If someone is claiming that they are being led by the Spirit, but their behaviour is contrary to the teachings of Jesus, they are wrong. The only thing leading them is their own ego.

Secondly, We worship a genuinely awesome God; but we also worship a courteous God. God’s Holy Spirit will prompt and nudge, and guide – but he will wait for us to co-operate. He may whisper gently, or blow through the house, but the decision to act or follow is ours.

And, contrary to the impression that is often given, its not all about feelings, either. The Spirit makes his home deep within our souls and works from that depth of being. The same Spirit is at work whether we feel it or not.

Of course, it does make sense for us to set quiet time aside so that we might have a better chance of connecting with what God is trying to say to us through his Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the life-blood of the Christian Church, pointing us to the teaching of Jesus and drawing us into the worship of God. He is the sustainer of our life and faith, the gracious giver of spiritual gifts and the builder of the Kingdom of God.

Some Christians talk about the Holy Spirit too much, even to the exclusion of conversation about Jesus. Most of us, though, don’t acknowledge the Holy Spirit enough as the amazing outpouring of God’s grace into his world.

NJC

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Why Will They Come?

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. (Ephesians 3:20-21 NRSV)

A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. (John 6:2 NRSV)

The question is, why did the crowds follow Jesus in such great numbers?

Well, because he was the Son of God, we might answer; or, because he taught with authority; or even, because they saw him as the Messiah who would free Israel from foreign oppression.

Maybe, but I think the answer is simpler, but no less important for being so. I think the answer to why so many people flocked to hear Jesus in such great numbers is “Self Interest” – or at least that’s where it began.

You see, I don’t believe that, at its root, human nature changes a great deal from one generation to another.

We may live in a society which is more sophisticated in some ways than that of First Century Palestine but when push comes to shove, we’re not that different really. We may smirk at the superstitions and pretentions of previous generations, but we have our own, which future generations will laugh at in their turn. We may abhor the brutality and violence of older societies but, in truth, it is never far below the surface of our own.

Certainly, we have learned and are continuing to learn of different ways to approach the problems of our world, but hindsight can be the weapon of the smug and to project our values onto the people of ancient times is to act with considerable arrogance. You see, we’re not so different; which is why the Gospel is just as relevant to us as it was to the people of Jesus’ time.

The clue to why so many people followed Jesus on his earthly travels is given to us in that short passage from John’s gospel, above. In verse 2 of chapter 6 the evangelist tells us: “A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.”

They came to him for healing of the body and stayed for the healing of the soul.

The people of Jesus’ day, just like the people of today, needed hope. And Jesus gave them hope. He didn’t need, on the whole, to teach them to believe in God. The vast majority of them already believed. The same is true today.

Many people came to him because they heard that he could heal them of their infirmities. They came to him in their brokenness, and he gave them their lives back. For that is what healing is – to be given a new lease of life. All those people Jesus healed would go on to face death like the rest of us; but their encounter with him changed their lives.

And having come to him, either for themselves or bringing their loved ones with them, they saw that this man was different; and they stayed to hear what he had to say. Their encounter with Jesus reconnected them with the God who loved them. He not only gave them back their lives: he gave them hope – for this life and for eternity.

He didn’t judge who was worthy, who was the right kind of person, or who could best benefit from his services. He just met the needs of everyone who came – and proclaimed the Kingdom of God.

He then called his followers to go out and do the same, first in half a dozen pairs and then later in larger numbers. And finally he commissioned his friends do carry on his work – not to build an institution, a sect or a denomination – but to care, to proclaim, to baptize and to teach.

That task falls upon our generation too; and we still have the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower and enthuse us for our work. We may feel that we are frail and faltering Christians, and that is probably true – its certainly true for me; but by God’s grace and in God’s name we are called to share his love with those around us – to help them to have that life-changing encounter with Christ.

The people of our time need hope too. Can you think of anything more hope-less than just getting by from birth to death with no sense of purpose or aim?

But Christ offers us hope, and God has a purpose for each life. In Christ we can discover that purpose. We may not have Christ’s miraculous powers to ourselves but the purpose of the church church is to be a community of hope and encounter with the love of God.

That is a tough vocation, but it is also an attractive one, for when people catch a glimpse of hope they are much more likely to stay to hear the words of eternal life, and grow into the people God created them to be.

But, we say to ourselves, “Oh, I could never do that. I could never bring someone to encounter Christ. That’s not for me. I could never do it.”

Well, you’re in good company: including people like Moses who, in his old age, when called by God to go and free the Israelites from slavery, responded with words to the effect of: “Here I am lord. Please send somebody else!”

But we have the gift of the Holy Spirit to inspire and guide us in our vocation.

And we should also remind ourselves of those words from St Paul in that passage from Ephesians, above: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

Trinity of Love

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11 NRSV)

In my view, for what it’s worth, there seem to be basically two ways of studying Theology. There are those theologians who see their subject as an academic discipline, to be studied and explored much as you would do for, say, history or archaeology.

And then there are those for whom the study of theology is a determined effort to discover more of the truth about God, especially so that they can be applied to the Christian life.

For Christians, the latter approach is likely to bear more fruit, but that is not to denigrate the discoveries made by those who pursue an academic discipline for its own sake. Study for its own sake is both honourable and necessary to enable out thinking to be challenged.

However, I do get a little puzzled when theologians occasionally make comments to the effect that you won’t find much talk about the Holy Trinity in the New Testament.

The quotation from Mark’s gospel, above, is just one example of why that simply isn’t an accurate picture. Certainly, the term “Holy Trinity” is not used, but the presence of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is explicit in the gospels.

The study of the Trinity, difficult though it is, is necessary if we are to deepen our understanding of the one whom we worship.

It is important to grapple with that age-old problem which has faced human beings since almost time began. How do you define God?

Its an age-old problem because no-one has ever really successfully solved it. But, if you think about it, that’s really how it ought to be.

Because if we could define God – if we could, with 100% certainty say that God is this or God is that, then we would present ourselves with another difficulty.

And that difficulty is this:  once you have defined God, you must know pretty well everything about him. And the only person who knows everything about God – is God! So, to be able to accurately define God is a logical and philosophical impossibility. (No surprise, then, that one of the Great names for God in the Old Testament may be translated simply as “I am” – “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” (Exodus 3:14 NRSV)).

To attempt to prove the point, try something on a smaller scale. Try defining another human being. If you got half a dozen people to give description of someone they all know, that description might agree in many senses – but there would be disagreements in the detail.

And that wouldn’t surprise anyone, because they would all have encountered different aspects of that person. You might be father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, friend, work mate and each would bring about different ways of describing him or her.

But it’s even more complicated than that, because each one who tried to make their description would be filtering their views through their own personality, their own preoccupations, their own values.

So if it’s so hard to define another human being it should be little wonder that we have such difficulty in defining God.

But part of the vocation of the Christian is to try to at least understand more about God. And that is why our understanding has grown and developed over the centuries.

People have reflected on the existence and presence of God in our universe, they have seen the results of his activity in creation, and of what happens to creation when his creatures live without reference to God. And so our understanding has grown.

In any case, we know enough to get by. And we celebrate what we do know about God: that God is Creator of all; that God has taken on our human likeness; and that God is Spirit – comforting and disturbing us in our daily lives.

And supremely, we know that the God we worship is a God of love.

Over the millennia people have tried to project all kinds of fearsome attributes onto God – usually at someone else’s expense. Anger, jealousy, vengeance have all been laid at God’s door, often as a means of seeking to control other people.

Children have been threatened with eternal damnation if they don’t sit up, take notice and, of course, behave.

I have a friend who was completely put off her childhood faith because pious teachers told her that if she didn’t work hard and do her homework, she would probably go straight to the fires of hell for all eternity.

And Christians down the centuries have often tried to turn their churches into private clubs which ensure that some are “in” and others are “out”.

It’s no wonder organised religion has something of a dodgy name.

For one of the most potent and powerful attributes of God is NOT anger, jealousy or vengeance – but love.

And the evidence and the experience of so many Christians is so overwhelming that if we are to understand nothing else at all about God, we must understand that he is a God of love.

Creation is an act of love, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is an act of love, the activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the world is an act of love. If it is not of love, then it is not of God.

Speaking of a God of love is not a cop out, not a 1960s hippie sentiment. Nor is it an easy way of avoiding all the really serious issues. Far from it.

For the love of God is so awesome that it can be a fearful enough thing in itself. It is a love which we may aspire to but can’t hope to live up to.

When we talk about God Almighty, God all powerful, God the omnipotent, remember that God is also God the vulnerable, God who risks humiliation, God who weeps, God who suffers.

Re-read carefully the story of Jesus – especially the part leading up to and including the events of the cross on Good Friday. The Cross itself was an act of love.

That is why it is right to try to express that love of God in the life of our church communities. We need to take risks for God, we need to become vulnerable for God. For only then can we get along-side God’s people – both inside and outside the Church.

God’s love, by human standards, is often reckless and foolhardy. That may have to be our model too.

God the Holy Trinity might ultimately be undefinable by human intellect – but his loving purposes are clear enough for us to see; and for that we offer him our worship and our thanks and praise.

Some Help Along the Way

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.
(John 14:15-16 NRSV)

The concept of the Holy Trinity is firmly established in Christian understanding about the Nature of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or, if you prefer, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer) is the shorthand for a way of understanding the God who was there before all things, who entered into relationship with his own Creation and who ultimately pervades every aspect of life.

I find it to be mind-boggling stuff and prefer to leave it to those who are experts in various “-ologies” to argue things through.

That’s not intended to be an act of inverted snobbery but rather an acknowledgement that we can get so caught up in the finer details of a topic that we might miss what God is saying to us. We need to stand back from the trees to see the forest.

When Jesus talks about “the advocate” he is referring, of course, to the Holy Spirit, whose role is to enlighten, inspire and empower us as we seek to follow his teachings. The Spirit is the helper and guide, symbolised by the dove and by flames.

Jesus knew that for the Kingdom to grow he would have to leave his disciples to carry on and carry forward his work. Shortly before his arrest he tells them that after he has gone they will be given another helper for the task ahead. They couldn’t do it alone.

It was that special gift of God’s Holy Spirit which enabled Jesus’s followers (a motley bunch of ordinary people) to get up and proclaim the Gospel of God’s love right across the known world. That special gift continues to be at work in our time and is the one who, if I may be so bold as to say so, is at work in you as you explore your own questions of faith.

Jesus,
Thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit.
May I be empowered to serve your Kingdom,
inspired to proclaim your love
and enlightened to know your truth.
Amen.

Staring at the Sky

When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
(Acts 1:9-11 NRSV)

The story of the Ascension is so rich in symbolism that we can miss something of its simpler message. After Jesus has given his final instructions to his friends, he takes his earthly leave of them.

There is joy, bewilderment, anticipation . . .

. . . and then a couple of angels turn up and say, “What are you standing around staring at the sky for?”

And I look at that phrase and I hear echoes of, “Don’t you get it? You’ve got a job to do. There’s a world to change, and a Kingdom to be welcomed, and it’s like nothing you have ever seen before!”

Certainly the disciples were to be patient for a while. They needed to wait to see what God would do first, so that they could do His work, rather than their own thing.

But they had better be ready, and so had we.

Because when the promised gift of the Holy Spirit came they were able to go off and proclaim the Good News of Christ in word and deed, and so little Christian communities began to spring up everywhere.

The Spirit enabled, the Spirit empowered, the Spirit enthused and inspired, but the believers had to be ready and willing.

And so, in a quirky way, the message of Jesus’ ascension for us may be, “What are you standing around staring at the sky for?”

There’s work to be done. There is God’s love, not only to be shown, but to be given away. There are people to be fed, spiritually, and sometimes physically. There are prayers to be offered. There are deep relationships to be built. There is justice to be worked for and evil to be challenged.

So an important message of the Ascension is to be ready and prepared; ready to serve God with the gifts he has given us, and prepared for the opportunities and challenges we will face along the way.

Jesus,
you call me to wait for your guidance
before jumping in with both feet.
Help me not to use that
as an excuse to do nothing!
Show me the tasks you call me to take up,
and guide me through your Holy Spirit.
Amen