By His Spirit

(Genesis 2:4-7; John 20:19-23)

We’ve talked before about the fact that the work of Christ, accomplished in his death and resurrection, didn’t end there. After he rose from the dead, he spent time teaching his disciples, helping them understand what had happened and preparing them for what was coming; then he ascended to heaven, returning to the Father’s side, to be the way for us into the presence of God, and sent us his Holy Spirit. It’s through the work of the Spirit that Jesus is alive in us; it’s through the work of the Spirit that the redemption Jesus purchased on the cross is our redemption. It’s by the power of the Holy Spirit in us that we are crucified with Christ, and given his resurrection life.

And it’s only by the power of the Holy Spirit that following Jesus makes any sense at all. It’s all very well to ask, “What would Jesus do?” but on our own, that doesn’t do us much good. We aren’t smart enough to know what Jesus would do, for one thing; sure, there are a lot of issues where the Bible makes it quite clear what we’re supposed to do (or not do), but there are also a great many times when figuring out how to do what Christ calls us to do requires more knowledge and understanding than we possess.

And then, of course, it’s all too often true that we don’t want to do what he tells us, and we’re tempted to disobey; sometimes we just give in to temptation, sometimes we resist it, and sometimes we look for excuses to pretend that God doesn’t actually mean what he flat-out said. We don’t have the strength to resist every time—and that’s not even the biggest danger. The biggest danger is Satan’s sleight of hand, getting us to focus on one temptation while he slips another in where we aren’t looking. One classic is to let us “beat” one in our own strength in order to make us proud, for spiritual pride is among the most insidious and deadly of all sins; but there are always openings, places where we’re vulnerable. We just can’t keep watch in every direction at once.

The blessing for us is that we don’t have to, because we haven’t been sent out to be Christians on our own, by our own strength. What does Jesus say? “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Obviously that means we are sent out to continue his mission, but there’s more to it than that. How was Jesus sent, and how did he go? In complete submission to the Father, and complete dependence on the Father, with whom he was united by his Spirit. He wasn’t on his own. And neither are we, because we too have been sent out in the power of the Holy Spirit of God, who unites us to Christ, and it is by that power and with his guidance that we live.

This is important to understand, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it means we aren’t called to convert people to a religion. Human religions are about how we work our way to whatever reward is promised by whatever god or gods we choose to believe in—and this is also true, by the way, for atheists and agnostics, whether they recognize their idols as gods or not; human religions are about how we earn the favor of that which we worship and become whatever it is we think we want to be or ought to be. They are rooted in human decision and begin with human effort; they are fundamentally about us, though directed toward something greater than us, and are centrally concerned with ourselves. As such, they operate from a human perspective, and rarely (if ever) think to challenge that in any significant way.

Christianity, by contrast, is something profoundly different. Though we may use the word “religion” to describe it for lack of a better one—and because it does have certain things in common with the religions of the world—if by “religion” we mean “something like all those other religions,” then it isn’t. The gospel is not about us, it’s not about our work, it’s not about us being good enough to please God, and it’s not something we initiate or control. The gospel is about the reality that we can’t be good enough to please God, not with all our wisdom and all our best effort, because our sin is a separation between us and him that is far beyond our power to overcome—and about God’s response, that in Jesus Christ he overcame it from his side, through his death and resurrection, because he loves us.

As such, rather than being about what we do, our faith is all about what God has done, and is doing, and has promised to do. Other religions say, “You must be good enough”; Christianity says, “God is good enough.” Others say, “You must be strong enough”; we say, “God is strong enough.” Obedience isn’t something we must do or else, it’s an opportunity we’re given to give back to Jesus, to sacrifice something of our own will to him in gratitude for his sacrifice of everything for us.

Second, we aren’t called to convert anyone to anything. Conversion is the Holy Spirit’s work. We’re just called to bear witness to Jesus Christ—to tell others what we’ve seen and heard, and to live in such a way that what we tell them has credibility. We need to live what we say, not just mouth the words; but what people do with the message we bring is not our responsibility, it’s between them and the Spirit of God. It’s simply ours to live for Jesus, and to talk about him as we would talk about anyone else we love and admire greatly, and leave the rest to God. The weight of the souls of others does not rest on our shoulders, but his.

And third, we’re sent out to talk about what the Holy Spirit wants to talk about, not necessarily what we want to talk about, and to accomplish what Jesus wants to accomplish, not necessarily what we want to accomplish. This is not about church growth; Jesus didn’t grow a big church in his lifetime, he had a small band of followers. This is not about any of the cultural stuff we get hung up on, who has the best music or the nicest building or the most inspiring preacher. This is not about being successful by any worldly definition; from the world’s point of view, Jesus was anything but. There is nothing here to support doing things the way we’ve always done them, nor is there anything to support doing them the way the big church down the road does them; but there’s a clear indication that if we let either of those approaches drive our thinking, we’ve badly missed the point.

We are sent out in the power of the Holy Spirit to be witnesses to Jesus Christ; that is our sole purpose, and everything else we might do or care about should be secondary to that, because nothing else matters more to the Spirit of God who lives in us.

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