St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 22nd August 2010
How many people went into Plymouth yesterday and visited the Bang goes the Theory Roadshow in the city centre? We went down around lunchtime, and it was a real treat, with Dallas Campbell illustrating the relationship between pressure and volume, and all kinds of interactive displays. Over the years there has been (no pun intended) an explosion of science shows on television, such as Bang Goes the Theory, Brainiac and others. And I think the reason for their popularity is that they have made science come alive and fun.
I don’t know what your science lessons were like at school. But I do remember my physics classes were particularly boring. We had lots of teaching from the front, and we seemed to be forever drawing wave diagrams. I wanted to find out what happened if you set fire to your magnesium pencil sharpener, or connected the Bunsen burner to the cold water tap …
Well, today we are looking at the next section of the creed:
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints
and it would be very easy to spout interesting theories or talk about dry doctrine. But actually this part of the creed is, to use a dreadful American expression, where the “rubber hits the road”. The Holy Spirit turns all our talk about faith into practice, and makes it real. So today, instead of simply talking about dry theory, I am going to something rather different. Sadly I can’t think of any experiments I can do to illustrate my points, but I can share some of my experiences of the Holy Spirit, and then aim to tie them up with the Scripture that we heard read just now. And as I do so, hopefully what I share will connect with your own experience or be able to speak directly to you.
When did I first become aware of the Holy Spirit in my life? Looking back, I would have to say it was when I was about 8 years old. Is there anyone here who’s about 8 years old this morning? I was on a church camp somewhere with a children’s evangelist called John Inchley and I remember during the singing of a particular song becoming particularly aware of God’s presence. I didn’t really know at the time it was God’s presence, but it stayed with me as a memory that later on became very important in my life.
When I was 12, I went on a Sunday school weekend away – you may well have heard this testimony. My teachers explained the gospel to me. I took a little leaflet away, prayed the prayer of commitment and …. nothing happened. Because at the time the words in the leaflet were, well, just words. I had no idea really that Jesus wanted to speak to me through them. So for the next six months I sort of stopped believing, until I went away on a Christian holiday with my parents. I find hard to explain what happened next, but it was the love and care that the leaders showed there to this rather awkward, shy teenager that revealed Jesus was in fact alive and cared for me. So when I came home, read this prayer of commitment again, I found Jesus speaking to me, and almost exactly 30 years later I can look back and say this is when the Holy Spirit first entered my life.
I’m afraid this isn’t really a story of dramatic conversion, or even one that’s very interesting. But as I look back, one thing I can see very clearly – how my own personal experience came about through sharing in the life of the church. I wouldn’t have sensed God’s presence aged 8 if I hadn’t been on that weekend. I wouldn’t have come to a living faith aged nearly 13 without seeing the love and care of others towards me. It’s really very important to note that when we read of the Holy Spirit coming in power in the New Testament, it’s when the believers are gathered together in worship. In our gospel reading the risen Lord Jesus comes when the disciples are gathered on the evening of that first day of the week – that is, the day of resurrection we now call Sunday. In Acts the Holy Spirit comes upon the believers on the day of Pentecost, when as Luke records in Acts 2:1, they were all together in one place. And in our reading from 1 Corinthians it’s no accident Paul moves straight on from talking about the gift of the Holy Spirit to teaching about the body of Christ.
So lesson number one: If you want to experience the Holy Spirit, you need to gather with other believers.
There was, of course, one person who wasn’t there when Jesus first appeared to His disciples. Does anyone know who He was? That’s right, it was Thomas. We don’t know why He was absent. Maybe He was too scared to come along. Maybe He stayed at home. Maybe He had to do His washing. But the thing is, for a whole week He missed out on knowing the peace and presence of the risen Lord Jesus Christ. It was only when Jesus appeared again the following week, when the disciples gathered again for worship, that he met Jesus for himself. Surely there is no better illustration of the fact that if you don’t meet with others, you miss out on the blessing of God’s presence. And not only that, but others miss out from the blessing that you could be to them. After all, although we think of Thomas as a doubter, as someone who didn’t trust the reports of Jesus’ resurrection, he was in fact a man of great faith. He was the one who worshipped Jesus and said, “My Lord and my God”. How much could the disciples have benefited from His presence the previous week when they were still so full of doubt and confusion!
I hope you can see now why the creed joins belief in the Holy Spirit with belief in the holy, catholic church and the communion of saints. They are, when you stop to think about it, all part of the one and the same thing. You can’t have one without the other. We must move right away from the common idea we have our own personal experience of the Holy Spirit and then find a church to suit us, or at least one to attend when it suits us. That is a profoundly unbiblical, unhelpful and divisive notion which has done more than anything else to undermine the life of the church today.
What other lessons have I learnt about the Holy Spirit over the years? Well, I grew up in a large, thriving church and when I went to university I became part of a Christian scene where I met many believers from many different backgrounds. And of course as a young person you get attracted to people who are on fire for the Lord. But the danger then becomes you want to have the same spiritual gifts as them. I remember, for example, a time when I really wanted to be able to speak in tongues, because as far as I could see, this was really the mark of a spirit-filled Christians. Well, over the time I came to see this wasn’t the gift God had given me – and He still hasn’t given it to me yet – but that He had given me other gifts and abilities which were equally important.
Now I have to say right away that the ability to speak in tongues is a wonderful and precious gift, and those who have been given it find it a real blessing in their own walk with God. But at the same time we must resist the teaching that is still around in some circles that to believe in the Holy Spirit must therefore mean you have to have a miraculous or supernatural gift. In our reading from 1 Corinthians Paul places the gift of tongues right at the bottom of the list – not because it is a lesser or inferior gift – but because it is not the most helpful gift to build up the body of Christ together. In fact what he places at the top in verses 8 and 9 are wisdom, knowledge and faith. And it seems to me that these are the gifts that we should be seeking above all as a church today – wisdom to know how to live for Christ day by day, knowledge about the faith we claim to believe in, faith to step out as witnesses for Christ in a hostile and often uncaring world.
For in my experience, from all I have seen of various churches over the past 30 years, the second lesson I have learnt is that a Spirit-filled church is not one that prizes this or that gift or chases after the latest experiences, but one that is rooted deeply and firmly in the Lord. And let me say up front, that is the kind of church I believe we are called to be here at St Barnabas and St Michael’s – a church rooted in wisdom, knowledge and faith.
This doesn’t mean to say, of course that we shouldn’t expect miracles or works of power. One thing I learnt at university from my own direct experience was the power of healing prayer, and we shouldn’t be surprised at Paul placing healing so high up in the list of spiritual gifts in our passage today. I have seen over the years just what an important part the ministry of healing plays in the life of the church, and it’s something we should encourage and include as a regular part of our ministry Sunday by Sunday.
However as I look back over the last 30 years, do you know what the greatest miracle that has happened in my life? It’s quite simply been the fact that the Lord Jesus hasn’t given up on me, even when like the first disciples gathered in the upper room I have doubted or questioned, or simply ignored the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life.
I know there are quite a few people here who have had some experience of being involved in major building projects. At the beginning, you’re all full of enthusiasm, and you are really looking forward to the job being finished. At the end, you look round and you’re glad all the hard effort was worth it. But there comes a time half way through when you are in the middle of all this mess, and you see all the things you haven’t yet done, and you wonder why you ever started. And I sometimes think that is how God must look at me. To see all the faults and flaws He hasn’t yet dealt with, the bad habits and wrong attitudes that still need correcting. Yet somehow, and it’s certainly nothing to do with me, God hasn’t given up. And I think the third and greatest lesson I have learnt is this: Never stop believing in the Spirit’s power to change people for good.
After all, let’s go back to those disciples gathered in the upper room. They were a fearful lot. They had been with Jesus for three years but hadn’t really understood why Jesus had to die on the cross. They were certainly surprised as anyone else when the risen Jesus stood among them and said, Peace be with you. But Jesus, if I may put in this way, never stopped believing in them. He had a plan and a purpose for them, and He saw in them the means to share the incredible good news of His death and resurrection throughout the world. So even as He said peace be with you, He also said, As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.
This didn’t mean that the disciples became instant superheroes who immediately turned the world upside down. But it did mean that over the years despite their mistakes and their division and their human weakness the gospel did spread over most of the known Roman empire and beyond. And as the disciples found themselves often in new and uncomfortable and even dangerous circumstances they began to realise they could depend on the risen Lord in each and every situation. That’s why Paul’s testimony, for example, in Phil 4:13 says I can do everything through him who gives me strength. Not in the sense of, “Look at me – aren’t I great Christian?” But “look at me and see what Jesus has done in spite of who I am”. Paul more than anyone else knew about the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives for the good, and it was His concern wherever He went to give glory to the God who had so dramatically rescued Him and turned His life around.
What, I wonder, is your testimony about Jesus and the work of His Holy Spirit this morning? The more I have looked at this part of the creed, the more I think the real question is not, “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit” or “Have you understood who the Holy Spirit is?”, but “Do you know the Spirit’s power in your life?” And the answer is no, if all I’ve said this morning might as well have been preached in a foreign language, then may I urge you strongly to think about your faith this morning. Because the God we worship is a God of grace. He willing gives His Holy Spirit to all who want Him in their lives. But if the desire isn’t there, He won’t force Himself upon us.
So I would ask you to consider carefully whether in fact you want church to be a place of spiritual blessing, whether you are eager for the gifts of wisdom, knowledge and faith, whether you actually want the Lord Jesus to change you. I believe there are some here this morning who have lost that desire, or who have never really understood just what Jesus can do in their lives. And if that desire or that understanding isn’t there, it’s little wonder that our faith is a struggle, that our churches fail to grow as they should.
Paul finishes our reading from 1 Corinthians with these words – verse 13: For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. So let me ask – are you thirsty for the Holy Spirit? And if not, why not? What is stopping you from receiving the fullness of Jesus’ presence this morning, from discovering the wonderful truth of Him standing among us and giving you His peace?