A belated but much needed gift…

Well, the end of 2015 saw a complete lack of blog posts from me- nothing in Nov or Dec, I’m afraid. A number of reasons- including writer’s block when it came to reflecting on the terrible acts of violence that were taking place (but also a decision that the best thing to do was talk with people and pray rather than struggle to write); some teaching commitments that needed significant input, and then the crazy Christmas season (I got as far as drafting one post in the midst of the brilliant but time consuming extra services…) and then some time off, which I spent, well, taking time off.

I was also trialling a period of preaching without full scripts, which meant that I didn’t have anything that made sense for a blog post at the start of each week…

But, yesterday I had a full script, based on the passage of the Bible in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church chapter 12, verses 1-11, so here it is-

Our main theme today is the Holy Spirit; and while the second reading is about one of the best-known miracles, or signs as John calls them, of the kingdom of God, which takes place soon after Jesus’ baptism… these two readings, while quite different, are really about the same thing- how God takes action in the world.

The Holy Spirit and God’s action was something we noticed in both our readings from last week also- the Samaritans being filled with the Holy Spirit after being prayed for and the Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus at his baptism…that outpouring of God’s grace and power in a way that was hoped for and yet unexpected. This weekend in many other churches in the UK congregations are hearing these readings… over 3/4million people, just in the Church of England, are hearing about the Holy Spirit today, which is quite exciting for me… but we’re also in a quiet season- after the busy Christmas services the question that remains is ‘what now?’ as the sales draw to a close, do we shut up shop until December or engage with people in our community, press further ourselves,  pray and seek renewal and growth in our own lives and churches? If the answer to any of those is yes, then we need to consider the Holy Spirit sooner rather than later.

Who is the Holy Spirit? Sometimes when talking about the Holy Spirit its tempting to pull out batteries and talk about how the Holy Spirit energises Christians, like a battery, or to use a hair dryer to fill something, or some baking yeast… those are all helpful to some extent, but they also miss one important point- The Holy Spirit isn’t electricity or air or carbon dioxide produced by yeast… the Holy Spirit is God. If God the Father is God everywhere, if Jesus is God over there, then the Holy Spirit is God in there. The Holy Spirit is a person- the one whom Jesus promised to send, BUT the sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence is the activity of God… when God is active the Holy Spirit is present, and when the Holy Spirit is active that is a signpost towards the kingdom of God- in the passage from John the changing of water to wine was a sign of God’s activity, the in the lives of the Samaritans who’d become Christians there was a clear and obvious sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit, as we heard last week.

So what does the Holy Spirit do? Well the passage we heard from 1 Corinthians gives one part of the answer. The Holy Spirit gives gifts- now you can over-analyse passages like this and get all tied up in knots about particular gifts or which ones have priority, or whether anything that someone could naturally do can still be a gift… but at the bottom line- God, through the Holy Spirit, helps us to do things either better than we might otherwise (eg flourish and grow in ourselves) or to do things we could not do (pray in different tongues, have knowledge of things, bring healing in spirit and body).  There’s been enough theology and practical discussion about this amongst Christians of different backgrounds to agree that a- this is what the early Christians believed and b- this is what significant numbers of Christians continue to experience in the 21st century. All Christians have responded to the Holy Spirit- when we have any conviction of sin, anything in us that wants to come close to God or responds in thanksgiving when we are reminded of our own salvation, it’s the Holy Spirit that is at work. The Holy Spirit is in all believers- like a seal of God, and when someone talks about ‘receiving the Holy Spirit’ or being baptised in the Holy Spirit, rather than it being about before- no spirit, after- yes Spirit its much more helpful to understand it as ‘more Spirit’… God’s Spirit is in all believers, we can ask for and receive more of God’s Spirit in our lives, to help us to be- wiser, more discerning, to help us work for the common good, to have greater knowledge of God’s will for our own lives and for others, to have more faith, to be able to bring healing to others or other signs of God’s power, to be better able to speak God’s truth to the world and to others, to be able to pray in other languages- and understand and discern those things… anyone who says that ‘Jesus is Lord’ does so in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit helps us to move from the stands onto the pitch, to stop being spectators and get involved- but not just in frenetic activity like a lunatic running around in circles on a field, but as part of a team with a coach and a plan- we each have a part to play in the whole, and when we do, it works- more is done, better, with God at the heart of it all…

Why doesn’t the Holy Spirit do all that in my life? All sorts of possible reasons- my own lack of faith/expectation, my own sins that I don’t want to confess or repent of, my own blinkers (which may be personal, cultural or spiritual), my own fears… but not because God doesn’t want it for me or you. God may not give me the gifts I want, or think I need, but its not my prerogative to pick and choose… that, that and that, but don’t bother with those two…

What doesn’t the Holy Spirit do? Solve all our problems, force strange gifts onto us that we neither want nor need, replace our brains… If we are anxious about something- whether it be exams, work, money or health, then asking God to help us with those things probably won’t remove them from our lives- the education secretary declaring that there won’t be any A levels this year or the bank manager discovering an extra 0 in a convenient place on our account… but the Holy Spirit can give us wisdom to work through them, discernment about how to act, Godly insight into the situation, and the strength to let Jesus be our Lord rather than those other things that try to take his place in our lives.

Why is the Holy Spirit important for us today? If we want to grow as a church, if we want to grow as Christians, if we want to see people’s lives and the community around us transformed by the saving love of God as shown in Jesus his son, then we need the Holy Spirit. To the extent that we’re not clueless, ignorant, unloving and unable to pray, we already have the Holy Spirit with us and within us, but we need more… And we also need to know this- that we are important to the Holy Spirit. God has plans for this place, for us, for you and I, and they involve the Holy Spirit and the people of this community. We are so important to God that he is willing to somehow cram part of himself into us in a way that doesn’t even give us indigestion or mess up our hair. The Holy Spirit is also important for the world today because there are a whole lot of wonderfully kind people, acting with compassion to help folks they’ve never met, but it’s the Holy Spirit that transforms people’s lives like nothing else- just as the transformation of water into wine was remarkable not because wine was made… that was an everyday thing, but it was the speed, the quality and the way in which it happened- that was the sign of God that revealed Jesus’ glory at Cana, and its is what draws people to faith today.

So how do I invite the Holy Spirit to be more part of my life? I’m a Christian and have been for years, I’m a new Christian, unsure of how this all works, I’m not yet a Christian and I’m completely flummoxed by most of what’s been said and done today. If you take nothing else away, take this- As the meerkat on the telly says, its ‘simples’… we ask God. We desire. we crave, we need, we want it- if we are content with our experience, our faith, our church and with our understanding of God, then we don’t want more of the Holy Spirit. We may have had our white hot moments of faith, but they were long ago… So let’s pray now, sitting as we are, maybe with our hands on our knees, open to receive…come Holy Spirit, fill me again, I’ve become so empty that I’d forgotten what it was like to be filled… come Holy Spirit I want more of you in my life- I’ve never realised what I could have… come Holy Spirit, into my life- I’m don’t know or understand what this will mean, but I can feel something in my heart that yearns for you and today, now I want to overcome my fears and hesitations… come Holy Spirit, into my life- I’ve been around people and places and I’ve been put off, but I want this, even though I’m nervous and unsure… so fill us, breathe on us, strengthen us in unity and empower us to boldly serve you, give us the gifts that you have for us, help us to know you each day, set us free from the prisons we have created for ourselves, open the windows of our hearts and blow through us with the sweet scent of heaven…

hope you have a great and blessed week, and maybe I’ll post something else this month…

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