May 27, 2012

Holy Spirit: Spotlight on Jesus Christ

Passage: John 16:13-14

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

On Monday morning May 7, 2012, 19-year-old Nova Scotia teenager William Swinimer showed up for school wearing his yellow T-shirt with the slogan—“Life is Wasted Without Jesus”—a shirt he defiantly wore after the vice principal of Forest Heights Community School in Chester Basin, N.S., told him not to, leading him to serve several detentions. Swinimer said he wore the T-shirt day after day because he felt his rights to freedom of religion and expression were being violated. Students had complained to administrators that the shirt read like a judgment of their beliefs.  South Shore school board superintendent Nancy Pynch-Worthylake said students have always been allowed to share their religious views, as long as they don’t offend other students.

In April of 2012 author and journalist Michael Coren’s new book was released: Heresy: Ten Lies They Spread About Christianity.  The book is an exploration of why and how Christians and Christian ideas are caricatured in popular media.  The introduction begins with the story of Andres Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer who, in the summer of 2011, killed more than 90 people in a co-ordinated bomb and gun attack.  Within hours of Breivik’s attack there were countless accusations in newspapers and on radio and television that this gunman was a “fundamentalist Christian.”  As Coren shows, there wasn’t much about him that would remotely be recognized as either “fundamentalist Christian” or “Christian”—for that matter.

The Economist is a weekly magazine of news and opinion generally regarded as one of the world’s preeminent journals of its kind; it is considered a leading source of analysis on international business and world affairs known for its advocacy of economic and political freedom around the world.  It is not a particular friend of Christianity but even in this magazine the poor treatment of Christians is flagged as a problem.  In a December 31, 2011 article Christians and Lions it was stated that “the world’s most widely followed faith (Christianity) is gathering persecutors.  Even non-Christians should worry about that. ... Regimes and societies that persecute Christians tend to oppress other minorities too.”

It was on the night before Jesus gave up his life for us; he was gathered with his disciples and his conversation with them turned to the subject of his departure from them.  A new relationship would emerge for them that would be to his followers’ advantage.  It was here he said “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.”  Hatred by the world of Christians should not surprise us; it hated our Lord first.  Jesus’ teaching of his followers about anticipating the world’s hatred is the context of his teaching about the Holy Spirit whom he would send from the Father; the Advocate, the One who would come along side of us who would testify about Jesus.

Early-day Christians knew that the Spirit cemented their relationship with their Lord and invigorated them for a discipleship which was always rigorous and frequently dangerous. They could continue in their crossbearing—never mind thrive in it—only as the Spirit in them proved stronger than the pressure of the forces arrayed against them.

I started this message with current examples of the pressure we experience of the forces arrayed against us in our testimony to the love of God in Jesus Christ; we wonder why anyone would resist the news of God’s love, but experience such resistance nonetheless.  I know that such resistance can feel like a slap in the face; it stings and fosters silence.  But does such resistance make you embarrassed of your Saviour or do you find yourself clinging to him all the more?  The fact that the believer finds herself clinging all the more—even if clinging in silence—is the Holy Spirit cementing our relationship to our Lord even as he invigorated those first disciples.

“We know love by this, that he (Jesus) laid down his life for us”, wrote the Apostle John.  To testify about Jesus Christ—as far at the Apostles are concerned—is to proclaim the love of God for the world.  “For God so loved the world he gave his only Son”, wrote John.  “The Spirit”, said our Lord, “he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”  Further, Jesus said to his disciples—and by implication to all his followers—“you also are to testify”.

If the church of Jesus Christ falls silent, fails to testify to Jesus Christ, because of the pressures of the forces arrayed against its witness how will the world know that the God the world hates loves the same world such that he gave his life for it.  On the day of Jesus triumphal entry to Jerusalem some Pharisees begged Jesus to order his disciples to stop their praise of God that the Messiah had arrived; Jesus responded “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”  Clearly, though God can enable stones to shout out, Jesus expects that his disciples are not silent.  While it is true that God is free and can make the news of his love known by any means God chooses; God has chosen to enable the witness of the church as a primary means for bringing people to faith—witness to Jesus Christ in word and deed is always the responsibility of the Church.  In Acts, no one comes to faith in Jesus Christ apart from the community’s witness; it is crucial that the church bear witness to Jesus Christ.

2.  Few people are more obnoxious than those who keep talking about themselves.  Regardless of what is being discussed, the self-advertising "blowers" insert themselves.  They have out-travelled even the tour-guide, out-achieved the genuinely accomplished, out-lived the most vivacious.  Their attraction-grabbing neuroticism is as incessant as it is offensive.

Not so the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit is that person of the Trinity who is the opposite of all this.  Jesus maintained that the Spirit would glorify him; Jesus said the Spirit “will take what is mine and declare it to you.”  Scripture insists that the Father sends the Spirit in the name of the Son, never in the Spirit's own name.  In other words, the Spirit is a floodlight.  Floodlights are positioned in such a way that one does not see the floodlight itself, only that which it lights up and to which it therefore directs attention.  The Holy Spirit is the power of God within us and among us, turning our attention to Jesus Christ at the same time as it binds our hearts to his.  Any "spirit" which draws attention to itself is plainly not the Holy Spirit.

When you read the New Testament you get a clear sense that the Spirit was identified with startlingly vivid experience. Paul asks one group, “Did you receive the Spirit through works of the law or through hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:2). It’s as though he said, “That raging headache you have now: did you get it from having a brick fall on your head or from drinking ultra-cold ice water?” The one matter that is undeniable is the headache.  In other words, the apostle was appealing to their experience of the Spirit and asking them to recall the means (believing the gospel) by which a reality had seized them that was as undeniable as it was glorious.

Perhaps we long for such vivid experience of the Holy Spirit.  The point I make to you is that we do.  You know the voice of the Holy Spirit because it is the one turning your attention to Jesus Christ.  It is the Spirit who brings us joy in Jesus Christ when there seems little earthly reason for rejoicing.  In our worship the Spirit makes vivid the preaching and renders it the vehicle of Christy seizing us afresh.  It is the Spirit who inspires worship and makes our praise lively and life-giving.  Going to church is not like going to any other gathering; reading the Bible is not like reading any other book.  It is the Spirit that renders the gathering of his people for worship and the reading of scripture that spiritual component we can’t explain yet experience.

Further, this text also shows us how you can distinguish the Holy Spirit’s voice from the voice of all other “spirits”; the Holy Spirit’s voice is the one turning our attention to Jesus Christ.  It seems that in every generation there are those who feel the church needs to reinvent itself. The speed of technological change has turned up the volume in such calls for such reinvention; at one time each generation sought change now it is about every five years we “need” reinvention.

Calls for rearticulating the doctrines of the faith usually accompany the felt need for reinvention. Here is how you can know if reworked doctrine is faithful to the Apostles’ teaching; it remains a spotlight on Jesus Christ.  Teaching that is faithful to a trajectory of spotlight on Jesus Christ is faithful to the Holy Spirit; teaching with a trajectory that deflects the spotlight somewhere else in not of the Spirit of God.

One of the reasons I love the Apostles’’ Creed is because the spotlight is on Jesus.  (Also true of the Nicene Creed).  There are eighteen line items of faith commitments in the creed; ten of them are dedicated to articulate what we believe about Jesus Christ.

3.  “He (the Holy Spirit) will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you” said our Lord.  Whenever the church has forgotten the unique ministry of the Spirit, the church has ceased to serve and begun to tyrannize, manipulate, even persecute. The church's responsibility is always and only, in word and deed, to bear witness to Jesus Christ. It is the Holy Spirit's responsibility to honour and empower such testimony in bringing people to faith in and obedience to the Incarnate One himself. In a word, witness is the church's responsibility while conversion is the Spirit's.

Do you ever wonder why some atheists protest so loudly against someone they claim does not exist?  Thomas Nagel, an atheist who authored a popular introduction to philosophy titled What Does It All Mean? wrote: "I want atheism to be true … It isn't just that I don't believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I'm right about my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that."  The Spirit of God is ever shining the spotlight on Jesus Christ.

Michael Coren (in his new book) related the story of his sister Stephanie; it was a sad story of a family estrangement where Stephanie cut off all contact with her family.  In the ensuing years Michael married a Canadian left Britain and moved to Toronto. In time Michael became a Christian.  One day he felt moved to pray for family reunion; he offered a brief but heartfelt prayer.  A week later the phone rang.  It was his mother; excitedly she explained she had received a letter from Stephanie saying she wanted to make up, to meet.

Coren writes: “My sister had not spoken to my parents in fifteen years.  Suddenly I prayed for resolution.  My mother received a letter from my sister four days later, meaning that she almost certainly wrote it the same day I asked for help.  This was strange, this was frightening, this was remarkable.  There was a phone number on the letter.  I called it.  A man answered.  “Is Steph there?” I asked.  He wanted to know who it was.  I told him.  I heard him tell Stephanie and I heard her saying my name over and over again, as if she stopped I would no longer be there.  She was crying, almost hysterically.  She came to the phone and in between gulps for air she asked my why I hadn’t made contact earlier.  I told her I didn’t know how to contact her. Why, I responded hadn’t she contacted me?  Because, she explained, she kept hearing that we all hated her.  When I asked he who had said this, she couldn’t remember, almost as though the thought was implanted.

... We chatted, we laughed, we cried.  Then I said to her that I had to reveal something that was very important, something that had changed my life forever.  I told her that on a specific date some years ago I had become a Christian.  She didn’t answer at first.  Then she asked me to repeat the date.  I felt a warmth, a sensation that was real yet beyond description.  “Mike,” she said, her voice shaking, “so did I. Oh my God, so did I.’’

Imagine, an estranged brother and sister worlds apart on the same day owning Jesus Christ in faith.  Such is the power, the effectiveness of the Spirit of God to make the witness of the church to Jesus come alive in the hearts of people. Jesus is always, by the Spirit, calling people to himself—it is crucial that we bear witness to him.  “... the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf; You also are to testify”.