By the Power of the Spirit

(Ezekiel 36:23-28Acts 2:1-4, Galatians 5:16-26)

A couple weeks ago, I mentioned a conversation we had around our table at the presbytery’s leadership training event. Rick and Sue and I were sitting that morning with, among other people, one of the co-executives of our synod, who made a most interesting comment. We were talking about the difference between the experience of the people of God in the Old Testament and ours today, that we have the Spirit of God where they did not, and this chap noted that we often don’t want to talk about that, or even think about that. I think, as I said before, that our reluctance is driven in large part by fear—our fear of letting go, giving up our sense of control over our lives and letting the Spirit lead us—and that’s unfortunate. It’s unfortunate because it keeps us from experiencing the full reality of our redemption and our new life in Christ, part of which is being set free from fear; we wind up living as if we had no more power than anyone else in this world, but a higher standard to live up to. That makes trying to be Christian a painful slog, rather than the easy yoke and the life of joy and peace that Christ promises us.

Unfortunately, this is an area in which our tradition isn’t a great help to us; as a pastor I knew in college put it one time, Presbyterians believe in doing things “decently and in order,” and forget that when Paul uses those words, he’s talking about the proper place of prophecy and tongues in worship. The idea is that there needs to be a balance, so that the church doesn’t descend into emotionalism and chaos, on the one hand, but there’s room for the Spirit to move, on the other. I think a lot of times people who aren’t Pentecostal or charismatic look at those churches and just see emotionalism and chaos—and sometimes they’re right, to be sure; I’ve endured services like that—and overreact in the other direction, shutting off the Spirit. We don’t have a very good feel for the middle ground, because we don’t have a very clear idea of why we need the Holy Spirit; we have this vague idea that the Spirit is supposed to make people jump up and down, fall over, and say things we don’t understand, and maybe that frightens us, and we really don’t understand the Spirit’s work beyond that. Those sorts of manifestations are particular signs of the Spirit’s presence and activity, but in most cases they aren’t the point of the Spirit’s presence and activity; in focusing on them, we miss the forest for the trees.

In truth, the work of the Holy Spirit in and among us is far broader and deeper and more important than just the flashy stuff. There’s a reason that God’s final solution to his people’s unbelieving disobedience is, “I will put my Spirit in you”; there’s a reason that the conclusion of Christ’s work and the birth of the church as the new Israel is the fulfillment of that promise, as the Spirit is poured out on all of Jesus’ disciples. Everything that we say is true about life in Christ is true in us and for us because of the Holy Spirit; it’s the Spirit who unites us with Christ and holds us in the presence of God. It’s the Spirit of God who makes all things possible. Take out your Bibles, or pull out the Bible there under the pew in front of you, and let’s look at some of this reality.

First off, look at what Jesus says in John 14:26: “The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” Wait a minute—didn’t Jesus teach them all sorts of things? Yes, but remember, they never really understood—they didn’t get it; they couldn’t. It was only when the Spirit came to remind them of everything Jesus had said and to teach them what it all meant that it actually made sense to them. That’s why Paul talks in Ephesians 3 about “the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.”

Reformed types like to talk about “the perspicuity of Scripture”—the idea that anyone can read it and understand it, you don’t need a priest to tell you what the Bible means—which is good, sort of. Certainly, you don’t need a priest, but that’s not because Scripture is all so easy that a child could understand it, or that any unbeliever who picks up the Bible is immediately going to see Jesus. No, Scripture is clear because the Holy Spirit speaks through it and makes it clear to us; it is by the Spirit’s light that we understand, and that we see that this word contains the living Word, Jesus Christ.

Next, take a look at John 3:5-6: “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.’” Jesus says this as he’s explaining to Nicodemus why he said, “You must be born again”; it’s the Spirit who accomplishes this by uniting us to Christ in his death and resurrection, as Paul says in Romans 6:3-7: “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” It is by the work of the Holy Spirit that the death of Christ on the cross becomes for us and that the new life of his resurrection becomes ours, so that we become sharers in his kingdom; it is the Spirit who unites us to Christ as members of his body.

This means that we have fellowship with God—which is to say, he has made us his friends and invited us into his presence—as John says in 1 John 1:3; this is why, a little later on in that letter, in 3:1, John writes, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God—and that is what we are.” And then again in verse 24, John says, “Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: we know it by the Spirit he gave us.” It is the Spirit who brings us into this fellowship with God, and who is the sign of that fellowship—who is the proof that God lives in us, and that we are alive in him. It’s through the Spirit that we have access to God in prayer, and through him (as Paul says in Romans 5:5) that God has poured out his love in our hearts.

Something else Paul says is that the Spirit is our assurance that God will be faithful to give us all that he has promised—he describes the Spirit as the deposit that guarantees our inheritance. In 2 Corinthians 5, he writes, “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling . . . so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” Then again in Ephesians 1:13-14, he says, “You also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.” Last week, of course, I focused on that last phrase, but here, take a look at how the Spirit is described: he is the seal of our salvation, the one who signifies that we are in Christ, and the guarantee that we will receive the inheritance God has promised. He is our assurance that we are saved, and that our salvation is sure.

I could go on like this—the Spirit is the one who gives us the abilities and talents we have, so that we may use them for his glory and the work of his kingdom on earth, something Paul talks about in several places; the Spirit prays in and for us, Paul says in Romans 8:26-27, according to the will of God, “with groanings too deep for words”; the Spirit inspires us to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to others, something we see a great deal in the book of Acts. I had originally thought to use these last few weeks to do a sermon series on the Holy Spirit, but there just weren’t enough Sundays to do a full series justice, if we started looking into these various things in detail. Maybe next year we’ll come back to that. 

For the moment, I hope you’re beginning to see how the Spirit is involved in every part of our lives as Christians, and how everything that we affirm is true by the Spirit’s work; and in particular, if you’ll look at Galatians 5, that the end goal of the Spirit’s work in us is transformation. The Spirit prods us to grow, and that growth produces fruit, and that fruit is the seed of further growth in our lives by the power of the Spirit, and so over time we are changed; and the more we change, the more we become like Christ, and the more our hearts are prepared for that day when we will stand in his presence and see him face to face.

And note two things about that: first, this is the Spirit’s work, not ours. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control—these are the things that ought to characterize us as Christians, but we can’t live a life filled with these qualities in our own strength. Some of them we can teach ourselves if we try really hard—self-control, for instance—but only at the expense of other things, and some of them are beyond our ability to do by force of will. Peace might be the best example of that. Trying to work on all eight of them at once would simply be too much for us, even for those with the strongest wills, and it would inevitably fail, in one way or another. To live this kind of life, we must live by the Spirit, and let the Spirit produce these qualities and virtues in us by his power.

Second, part of this is not gratifying the desires of the flesh. This means that yes, there is a moral component to living by the Spirit—there are those in the church who insist that God can’t possibly want us to live up to any standards of behavior that we don’t like, particularly when it comes to sexual morality, but that simply isn’t true—but it goes beyond what we think of as morality, because again, this isn’t just a matter of outward behavior. As Paul makes clear, this is about a complete change of perspective and orientation, giving up the orientation that we’ve learned from the world and accepting a whole new orientation that points us toward God. It’s about not merely resisting the desires of the flesh, but surrendering them to God and allowing his Spirit to give us new desires; it’s about letting God teach us by his Spirit to want what he wants for our lives.

So then, if this is God’s work in us, and nothing we can do in our own strength, what’s our part in it? Are we called to do nothing? No; our part is to cooperate with what God is doing in our lives. The most important thing we can do is simply to make this a priority, to put time with God first on our to-do list. The Spirit is always at work in us, whatever we may be doing, but some of the things we do are more congenial to that than others—and of course, when we choose to sin, we’re deliberately working against his work in us. It’s important, if we want to grow in our faith, to make time to pray, and read Scripture, and think—to spend time intentionally focused on God, intentionally opening our minds and our hearts to hear his voice and listen to what he has to say.

“Breathe Deep the Breath of God”

(Genesis 2:4b-7Ezekiel 37:1-14Acts 2:1-13)

When you say the word “Pentecost,” most people probably think of Pentecostals; and if they know the stereotypes, that’s probably where their minds go, to images of people jumping over pews and swinging from the chandeliers. Like most stereotypes, that one has at least a grain of truth to it—I remember a service at a Pentecostal church in Queens in which, while our friend Ralph Johnson was preaching, one of the choir members jumped up, let out a scream, and took off running, doing laps around the sanctuary. The fact that Ralph just kept on preaching as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening suggested that, in fact, this wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. That sort of thing, if not usually that extreme, does tend to happen in churches that emphasize the power and work of the Holy Spirit, if they’re open to such occurrences; and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the leaders are careful and diligent to weed out things which aren’t of God, rather than letting services devolve into “anything goes.”

The problem comes when, as too often happens, people begin to associate the work of the Spirit only with the more flamboyant phenomena, such as speaking in tongues. I don’t disbelieve in such things, and I don’t see that Scripture does either, but they’re only a very small and particular part of the Spirit’s work; to focus on them, to say that it’s only when people are speaking in tongues and falling over that the Spirit is moving, is to have a very skewed view of the matter. Unfortunately, that sort of view is all too common in some parts of the church—and just as unfortunately, it has tended to push 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, as we’ve been talking about the fact that the work of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection was only completed in his ascension, we’ve also been pointing to another truth: the work of his ascension was only completed at Pentecost, when he poured out his 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 his 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.

To understand why that is, think about breathing for a minute. I imagine there are a lot of folks here who never do; breathing is automatic, just something your body does while you’re focusing on other things. I assure you that’s not the case for an asthmatic, or for others in this church. For some of us here this morning, breathing is far less easy, far less of a given. There can be any number of reasons for that—for me it’s nothing major, just a combination of mild asthma, allergies, and sinus problems—but they all come down to the same thing: the experience of fighting for breath, of working hard to get enough air in, and the need for air that begins to build in the body. Breathing becomes, at least at times, a matter of conscious effort; you are aware of your body as you inhale and exhale, and you feel the air flow in and out as your diaphragm tenses and relaxes. And if you’ve ever been there, you never take breathing quite as much for granted again.

Indeed, if you’ve ever had a time when you were unable to breathe, it becomes very easy to understand why the ancient Hebrews equated breath with life, and why in Hebrew—and also in Greek—one word means both “breath” and “spirit” (and also means “wind”). The Greek word is pneuma, from which we get words like “pneumatic” and “pneumonia”; its Hebrew equivalent is ruach. Whichever word you use, though, the concept is the same—this is what is essential for life. It is the ruach that gives life, that turns the body from a dead lump of clay into a living being; and when death comes, it is the pneuma that is no longer present. Thus in Genesis 2:7, God breathes the ruach of life into the first human being, and he becomes flesh and gets up; and thus we have this extraordinary image in Ezekiel 37.

You see, the people of Israel were in exile—for their sin, God had allowed them to be conquered and hauled off to Babylon—and they were crying out for salvation, which they defined as a return home. What God understood, though, was that their problem ran far deeper than just their physical distance from the heartland of Israel; their real problem was their spiritual distance from the heart of God. That was why they were in exile in the first place, and without anything to change the situation, their return home would ultimately end with them getting dragged off into exile all over again. For the people of God to really be the people of God, they needed a lot more than merely a new address—they needed a whole new life, a whole new spirit, to enable them to live in a new relationship with God. And so through Ezekiel, through this extraordinary acted parable of the valley of dry bones, he tells Israel, “I will put my ruach within you, and you shall live.” Nothing less would solve the problem. And so at Pentecost, when all was ready at last, God fulfilled his promise, and his Holy Spirit came upon his people in power.

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. Luke doesn’t tell us explicitly where they were when this happened, but it seems to me that they must have been in the temple, because where else would a crowd of devout Jews been on such a day? Not just the disciples themselves, but all the other devout Jews who heard them speaking. What’s more, the Spirit of God shouldn’t be kept under cover in a back room somewhere; when God poured out his Spirit on all his people as he had long promised, where else should it have been than right there in the Temple, the center of his people’s worship and the heart of their life as a nation?

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—a vast pneuma—and Acts says “it filled the whole house where they were sitting.” It might seem odd for Luke to use the word “house” to describe so great a building as the Temple, but it was often called the house of God, so his word choice does make sense. In any case, the emphasis is on the sound—on the size of the sound, if you will, that it filled the entire space. Along with a sound like a great wind 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. During the Exodus, he led Israel with a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night; and when he appeared to them on Sinai, we are told that “Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended on it in fire.” In other words, these were unmistakable signs to the Jews that God had just entered the building, and that he had come in power.

Note what happened: when the Spirit filled them, Jesus’ followers began to talk about God in many different languages. In fact, they began to preach the gospel, to proclaim the wonderful things that God had done, so that everyone who was there in the temple could understand the message—and there were a lot of people there from a lot of different places. In modern terms, we would say there were people from Iran, Iraq, Tur-key, Egypt, Libya, Greece, and the Arabian peninsula, as well as the capital city of Rome. Now, all of these people would have spoken either Aramaic or Greek, or possibly both, but this was something else: there in Jerusalem, where those were the languages they needed to communicate, suddenly they heard people speaking their own language.

And such people! Galileans! Now, to understand their reaction, you have to understand how Galileans were regarded by the people of Jerusalem. I think about the closest you can come is to think of the way many people in America think of the rural poor in the backcountry South; and that fits in two ways. One, if Jeff Foxworthy, with his “You might be a redneck if . . .” schtick, had been a first-century Jew, he would have been a Galilean. They didn’t quite match up with the rather cruel stereotype we get in jokes about people marrying their cousins, but there was definitely the sense that Galileans were hicks, less educated and less sophisticated, out of the cultural mainstream—certainly not the sort of people who would have studied foreign languages.

And even if they had, they weren’t the sort of people who could have spoken them intelligibly. Just as some people mock Southern accents, while others find the accents of the rural South hard to understand, Galileans were known for their difficult and rather mushy way of speaking, with consonants disappearing or indistinct, and a rather . . . different approach to vowels. So to hear Galileans speaking their own languages, and doing so clearly and fluently—well, these were people they thought of as uneducated, unsophisticated, and incomprehensible at the best of times, suddenly speaking the equivalent of flawless BBC English.

In other words, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples suddenly had the ability to tell people about Jesus and carry on his ministry in ways they could never have done before; they were empowered to do things as agents of his grace that they could never have done on their own. It’s not always as flamboyant as all that—indeed, it wasn’t for the disciples, either—but at bottom, that’s what the Spirit is on about. The Spirit isn’t with us, fundamentally, to do weird stuff, as if he liked to see how strange he can make us look or feel; rather, the Spirit is with us as the one through whom we receive and live in the life of God, that we might be his children, and the power of God, that we might do his work on this earth.

What happened that day in the temple was unimaginably great, a seismic shift in human existence; but it was also, in a way, a very simple thing. Before that day, only a small handful of people lived in the presence of the Spirit of God; most of God’s people had to do without. Spiritually speaking, they had no breath—they couldn’t breathe, because they were airless, living in a spiritual vacuum. That’s why, as we talked about a few weeks ago, they had to have the priests to pray for them. On that Pentecost in the temple, however, everything changed. There was a sound like a mighty wind, as the Spirit blew on Jesus’ followers, and they breathed in, and for the first time, God’s Holy Spirit filled all his people; and when they breathed out, they spoke words of life in every language. They had prepared themselves for his coming, clearing the decks for his work by committing to the work of unity and prayer, committing to integrity, and now all they had to do was breathe. It was that simple, for the Spirit of God—the breath of God—had filled them and had become their breath; the life of God had become their life. All they had to do was to be there and to be open, and the Spirit did the rest.

It’s the same way for us. Pentecost was a one-time event; on that day, God for the first time gave his Spirit to the whole church, not just a select few. What God calls us to is just to let go, to relax, and breathe deep—to breathe deep the breath of God, as a song I know puts it—so that the Spirit can give us his life; he calls us to open ourselves to his work and pay attention, and to let him move in us, changing us and stirring our hearts. We breathe in through prayer and worship, whether alone or together—most especially when we are together, when we can draw strength from and reinforce what the Spirit is doing in those around us, but also as we learn to worship and pray in and through the acts and moments of our everyday lives. And as we breathe in, we also breathe out, as the Spirit moves us to speak the words of Jesus Christ to those around us, and to love them with his love for them. Everything we do as Christians, we do in and by the Spirit of God; indeed, everything we do as Christians, we do only in and by the Spirit of God.

Understand this. It’s the Spirit who enables us to understand God’s Word, because it’s the Spirit who speaks to us through his Word. It’s the Spirit who is the power of that Word in our lives, carrying what we hear into our minds and hearts and using it to change us, bit by bit, day by day, from the inside out. It’s the Spirit who carries our prayers to Jesus, where he presents them to the Father, and the Spirit who brings his words to us in return. It’s the Spirit who is alive and active in this world, through whom God is with us every moment, guiding us, protecting us, speaking to us, strengthening us, shaping our lives, and growing us up to full maturity. It’s the Spirit who gives us the ability to resist temptation, if we ask, and the Spirit who inspires us to talk to our neighbors and friends, however haltingly, about Jesus.

I don’t, incidentally, just mean those who aren’t saved and don’t know him; I don’t just mean evangelism, as important as that is. I also mean those who go to church and have some relationship with Jesus, and the sorts of conversations that build us up in the body of Christ. You see, the Spirit loves the Father and the Son, and loves to talk about them; and when the Spirit is moving in us, so do we. But it’s all by the Spirit of God; it’s only by the Spirit of God, and none of it in our own strength. It’s the Spirit who is our wisdom and courage for the facing of this hour and the living of these days; it’s the Spirit who gives us power to love and follow Jesus. It’s the Spirit, indeed, who gives us breath to live at all.