The Transforming Spirit

(Ezekiel 36:22-28; Romans 8:1-9, Romans 12:1-2)

The last few weeks, we’ve been talking about God the Father and God the Son, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior; and as I noted, part of understanding what it means to confess our faith in the Father and the Son is to understand the various ways in which some in the church resist doing so. The basic impulse behind all of them, I believe, is the desire to make God safer and less challenging—really, less threatening to our pride and our selfish desires—by re-imagining him in whatever way suits our fancy. This is a constant temptation for all of us, as it’s one of the most basic ways the Devil seeks to derail us; that’s why we need to keep coming back to Scripture to correct our view of God, and to help us see him a little more clearly and truly each time.

Our tradition as Presbyterians, the Reformed tradition, is strong on this; these are more truths we need to remember than to learn. This is a good thing. When it comes to the Holy Spirit, however, we aren’t so strong; we tend not to understand his part in God’s work, and so to leave him out. Partly, this is no doubt in reaction to some of the wilder charismatic and Pentecostal types out there, who might give you the idea that it’s only when people are speaking in tongues and falling over that the Spirit is moving. That’s a false view of the Spirit’s work, but unfortunately, it is out there—and just as unfortunately, it has scared others in the church into the equal and opposite error of denying the work of the Spirit. You can hardly blame folks for saying, “Well, if that’s what the Spirit does, I don’t want any part of it—I’ll just stick with God and Jesus, thanks”; but that, too, misses the real work of the Spirit, and skews our view of God, ourselves, and the church.

You see, when I said last week that the work of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection was only completed in his ascension, that points us to another truth: the work of his ascension was only completed at Pentecost, when he poured out his Holy Spirit on all who believed in him. In Jesus’ crucifixion, the price was paid for all our sin, leaving no penalty or punishment remaining; in his resurrection, the power of sin and death over this world and over us was broken, freeing us to receive the life of Christ; in his ascension, Jesus opened the way for us as human beings to enter heaven, and took up his place as the one who intercedes for us before the throne of God; and in giving us the Holy Spirit, at Pentecost, everything he did became for us, applied specifically to each of us. It is by the presence and power of the Spirit that the work of Christ becomes real in our lives, that it becomes not just redemption in general, but our redemption. It is the Holy Spirit, you might say, who plugs us in to what God has done, and is doing, and will do.

It’s important to understand this, that before Pentecost, the life of the people of God was very different. Before then, only a select few people received God’s Spirit; at Pentecost, that changed, as God poured out his Holy Spirit on all his people, giving all of us the direct relationship with him that only prophets, priests and kings had known up until that point. God had promised that this would happen, that he would put a new spirit—his Spirit—in his people to give them new life; at Pentecost, he kept his promise.

Jesus had told his disciples before he left that this moment was coming, and coming soon, and so they set about preparing themselves for it. As part of that, they gathered together regularly to pray, and so they were all together on the day of Pentecost, also called the Feast of Weeks, which is one of the high festivals of the Jewish calendar. We don’t know where they were; some think they were gathered in the upper room; but we know that they wound up in the temple, because where else would a crowd of devout Jews have been on such a day? For that matter, it seems only logical that Jesus’ followers would have been there as well to celebrate the feast together; and so it seems likely to me that they were in the temple area, right in the religious center of Judaism, when the Holy Spirit came on them. After all, the Spirit of God shouldn’t be kept under cover in a back room somewhere; with his coming, the time for the disciples to hide was past.

The results were astonishing, as they tend to be when the Spirit is powerfully at work. Suddenly there was a sound like a high wind, which Acts says “filled the whole house where they were sitting.” Along with the great sound came what looked like tongues of fire; and just as the wind is associated with the Spirit, so too fire is associated with God’s appearances. The wind and flames were unmistakable signs to the Jews that God had just entered the building, and that he had come in power.

This was the fulfillment of the promise God had made through prophets like Ezekiel and Joel; it was the eruption of the kingdom of God into the kingdoms of this world on a broad scale. No longer was his realm to be identified with an earthly country, no longer was the rule of God directly identified with the rule of a particular human king, no longer was there a need for a human mediator between God and his people. Now, by the Spirit of God, people of every language and nation would become subjects of his king-dom, under his direct authority; for as Paul told the Philippians, whatever our citizenship may be on this earth, we are first and foremost citizens of the kingdom of God, and his ambassadors to the people and nations of this world.

If that sounds like it makes us different, it’s because it does. As followers of Jesus, we have been reborn, from above, by the Spirit of God, and we are not the same as those who do not follow him; we have a new and different nature, and a new and different orientation—to use the old cliché, while the rest of the world is marching in lockstep, we are called to march to the beat of a very different drummer indeed, following a different leader, serving a different master, pursuing different interests. To the rest of the world, we should be as independent, unpredictable and uncontrollable as the wind, for “so it is,” Jesus said, “with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

This is the point Paul makes, and drives home, to the church in Rome—and through them, to us. They, and we, are no longer under the power of sin and death, but under the power of the Holy Spirit; we no longer live the life of the flesh—which is to say, the life of this world, which operates according to the law of sin and is subject to death—but we live instead the life of the Spirit of God. The ways of the flesh, the ways of this world, lead only to death, and so the mindset and attitudes of this world, this-worldly ways of thinking, can only bring death; but if our thoughts and attitudes are in line with the Spirit of God, we find life and peace. That’s what the Spirit comes to do in us—to change our mindset, our frame of reference, our assumptions, our values, our attitudes, our ways of thinking, so that we will think as God thinks and see the world around us as he sees it, and thus live our lives accordingly, rather than living them according to the ways of the world and its conventional wisdom.

This is why Paul says in Romans 12, “Don’t be conformed to this world”—or as Eugene Peterson translated it, “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking”—“but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern the will of God.” This is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, renewing us and transforming us from the inside out. Being a Christian, living out the life of Christ, is not a matter of simply following a bunch of “thou shalt”s and “thou shalt not”s, as if outward conformity to some particular standard was sufficient; but neither is it about some free-form idea of “love” and “grace” that makes concrete standards of behavior irrelevant. Rather, it’s about something far greater than either: it’s about learning to walk according to the Spirit, opening ourselves up to be changed by the Spirit, from the deepest wellsprings of our behavior on out, so that our lives will be set free from the world’s mold, to be conformed instead to the character and the holiness of God.

The problem is, of course, that old habits die hard, and old ways of thinking die even harder, especially when the world around us keeps reinforcing and drawing us back to those old ways of thinking; it’s all too easy to lose our focus, and we’re all too prone to resist the Holy Spirit’s work and leading. To really follow Christ, to really walk by the Spirit, we have to begin by listening—and listening in the expectation that we will be convicted, because we will. If we open ourselves up to hear what God is trying to tell us, we will be convicted of sin in our lives that we don’t want to admit, we will be convicted that there are areas in our lives where we need to change, and we will be convicted of the ways in which we are immature and need to grow. We tend to resist that, because we really don’t think there is anything wrong with us the way we are; and so we live our lives according to the ways of the world rather than according to the Spirit.

That, incidentally, can be true even if we’re living “good Christian lives.” After all, it’s perfectly possible for most of us to be nice, moral people—good enough on the outside to make most folks happy, at any rate—in our own strength; and in this country with its Christian heritage, the world is perfectly happy to let you live a nice, moral life, as long as you are properly “tolerant”—which is to say, that you don’t do anything that makes anybody else uncomfortable. It’s a way of living that makes it easy for us to look at ourselves and think we’re doing just fine, and not realize how much we need God—while on the inside, our hearts can remain closed to him. As C. S. Lewis said,

We must not suppose that if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world.

The world is perfectly happy for us to believe in a safe God who doesn’t challenge us or anyone else, who is content to let everybody do whatever suits them; as religion goes, that’s a pretty comfortable and inoffensive form. What it isn’t is any sort of biblical faith. God doesn’t call us to be nice and never make anybody unhappy, he calls us to follow him and he fills us with his Spirit; and the Spirit works in us to grow us and stretch us, to expand us day by day that each day we might be filled a little more, and each day we might be able to hold a little bigger view of God, to see him a little more clearly and know him a little more truly. The Spirit breaks us out of our comfortable expectations of how the world should be, and how life should go, and what God ought to be like; his goal is not to grow us into nice Christian people, but into something far more—indeed, to grow us out of merely being nice Christian people, into those disconcerting, unpredictable, awe-inspiring people called saints. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote,

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.

We are to be the ones who take off our shoes, because we understand that God is that big, and that his Spirit is alive, present, and at work in every moment, in us and in the world around us, speaking to us, speaking through us, transforming us. We are to be the ones who live out of that awareness, following a voice the world cannot hear, to the glory of God and the praise of his name.

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