July 10, 2011

Letting the Spirit of God Show Through

Passage: Romans 8:9

“But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.”

A little girl, on the way home from church, turned to her mother and said, "Mommy, the Preacher’s sermon this morning confused me."
In reply, her Mom said:  "Oh! Why is that, honey?”
Well,” said the girl, “he said that God is bigger than we are.  Is that true?"
"Yes, that’s true," the mother replied.
"He also said that God lives within us.  Is that true too?"
“Why yes, of course it is.”  Her Mom replied.
"Well," said the girl. "If God is bigger than us and He lives in us, won’t He show through?"

This, in essence, is what Paul is telling us in Romans 8.  He’s saying that if we are truly followers of Christ, and God’s Spirit dwells in us, then because God is greater than we are, His Spirit will show through us to others.

So this morning, as we continue our summer sermon series on Paul’s letter to the Romans, let’s give some thought about how the Holy Spirit works.

First, let’s begin by considering what exactly is the Holy Spirit?

We first encounter the Holy Spirit, in the second verse of the first chapter, where we find the Hebrew word - rûah (which in English translation means) ‘wind’, ‘breath’, or more appropriately ‘Spirit’; a word used to describe the awesome power of God - demonstrated in the act of creation.

So it is that right from the very beginning of creation, the ‘Holy Spirit’ is revealed as the powerful essence of God; working amidst the chaos of a formless void, to bring into being order and life.

Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit is often compared to a mighty wind, mysterious in its power and presence; a wind that can part the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape from their bondage in Egypt.  Yet as impersonal as such an act may seem, we also discover that this same Spirit of God interacts in human lives, providing direction for King David and inspiration for the prophets.

When we come to the New Testament, that same dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit is shown in the lives of men and women.  The New Testament uses the Greek word πνεῦμα (pneuma) but the English translation is still the same:  ‘wind’, ‘breath’ or ‘Spirit’.

In the Gospels, the Holy Spirit is seen at work in the birth and life of John the Baptist; and of course, in the miraculous birth of Jesus.  Then during the ministry of Jesus, the Holy Spirit is the power working through Christ which enables Him to casts out demons (Matthew 12:24–32); and to heal the sick.  The Gospel writers tell us that Jesus was filled with this Spirit.

During His teaching ministry, Jesus added a whole new dimension to our understanding of the Holy Spirit calling Him, the ‘Comforter’, and then promising to send this ‘Comforter’ to His disciples after He ascends into Heaven.  In fact, to the bewilderment of His followers, Jesus tells them, that when the Holy Spirit comes to them, they’ll be better off than they are now with Him living with them.  (John 14:16)

Of course, at the time they don’t understand what He means, but what He is saying is that so long as He remained physically with them, He could only be in one place at a time.  But, when He comes to them through the Spirit of God, He’ll be there to help them all, no matter where they are in the world.

Jesus fully intended that His disciples would one day disperse throughout the world, carrying with them His Gospel of salvation.  But so long as He remained on earth, He was physically limited.  He couldn’t be with one disciple in Jerusalem, and another in Corinth, and another in Rome at the same time.  Once liberated from His earthly body, however, following His resurrection and ascension, He could help all His people simultaneously, because through the Spirit He would live in their lives, providing daily guidance and power.

In the early days of the Church, some Christians were confused by this.  They assumed that since Jesus had spoken these words just to His personal disciples, this Spirit or Comforter would therefore, only be available to the saints of the Church; those who excelled in leadership and faithfulness.  But Paul assures us, here in this passage from Romans that the Holy Spirit is meant to be experienced by all believers.

So then, the answer to our first question:  “What is the Holy Spirit?” it is the power and presence of Christ made available to all who believe in Him.

This leads us to a second question:  how does this Holy Spirit work and is it still working among us today?

The story of what happened on the Day of Pentecost is found in the Book of Acts.  The writer, Luke, describes how, when the Apostles and friends of Jesus were touched by this Spirit, and were mysteriously and radically changed.

Whereas moments before it arrived, they’d been nothing more than a bunch of leaderless, frightened, confused men and women, hiding behind locked doors; afraid even to show their faces in the streets, less they suffer the same fate as their Master.  But from the moment they are touched by those tongues of fire, they are transformed into a dynamic band of strong leaders, willing to risk life and limb in order to spread the Good News of Christ’s resurrection to the whole world.

This change was nothing short of remarkable; unprecedented!  Not only were they transformed in terms of their courage and audacity; but more than that their skills were enhanced.  Peter tells us that when he and the others went out into the street to speak to the crowds of people, who had come to Jerusalem from many different parts of the world, each person heard them speaking in their own language.

Read on in the book of Acts, (and also in the letters of Paul, Timothy, Peter & John) and you’ll find numerous references to the extraordinary courage and boldness of those men and women who were fired up by the Holy Spirit.  But the story doesn’t stop there.  It continues on through the history of the Church, as Christians in many different parts of the world, are enabled to endure enormous hardships, and even to face death fearlessly, as they’ve continue to spread the Good News of Christ to all who will listen.

But some of you might be tempted to say, but that’s all in the distant past!  What about today?  Is the Holy Spirit available to Christians in our day?

This Spring, I spent some time in Romania and several other countries of Eastern Europe.  After the Second World War, when the Communists governed these countries, many Christians were brutally persecuted because of their faith.  I have a book in my church office entitled ‘Extreme Devotion’, that tells some of their stories.  I’d like to share one with you.

It was almost midnight as the women prisoners heard the Communist guards arriving.  They’d come for a young Romanian woman, just 20 years old, who had been sentenced to death because she refused to forsake her faith.  The guards dragged her out of her cell that night, and as they did so, her fellow prisoners heard her reciting the Apostles’ Creed.  A few moments later, shots rang out in the courtyard.  The guards thought they had ended her life; but in reality they had simply released her to a new, more wonderful life in heaven.

Other stories from Romania tell of Christians forced to work seven days a week.  When many refused to work on Sundays, they were beaten, often suffering permanent physical damage to their bodies, yet they persisted in their defiance.

These Romanian Christians (and countless others who have shown similar courage in other countries) could not have done what they did, had it not been for the strong presence of God in their lives, through the Holy Spirit.

Stories of religious persecution are foreign to us living here in Canada.  We’re rarely, if ever, required to suffer because of our faith, and as a result, the faith of many of us has grown weak.  Persecution has a way of separating true believers from those who are Christian in name only.  But for those who have invited the Spirit of God into their hearts, it strengthens their faith.

So in answer to our second question:  Is the Holy Spirit available to us today; the resounding answer is ‘yes’; by all means.  It’s available to everyone who opens their hearts to receive it.

But remember, it’s not just in dire circumstances that this power is available.  The Spirit is there to help us day by day; to guide us through the trials and temptations of our lives; to be a constant companion; and every present indwelling of God within us.  In fact Paul would say that the mark of a Christian is the presence of God’s Spirit in one’s life.

This brings us to our final question:  how might we be expected to be changed by the Holy Spirit?

There are some who mistakenly believe that simply being connected with a congregation somehow makes you a Christian.  Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.  We fool ourselves if we think that merely coming occasionally to a place of worship, makes us true Christians.  Paul’s letter to the Romans makes it very clear, that if we are really Christians, we’re going to be people who have visibly been changed; changed in respect to our behaviour and our motivation.  Christians are people who live exemplary lives.

Now that doesn’t mean that Christians won’t experience temptation; temptations to indulge ourselves in acts of self-indulgence and hedonism.  From the very beginning of time, human beings have experienced temptation.  We see it in the story of Adam & Eve; and in the Gospels we learn that even Jesus was tempted.

But today, perhaps more than any other time in history, we are confronted with temptation also on a daily basis.  Even our children aren’t immune from this.  The internet, text messaging, facebook and all the other modern communication vehicles make it almost impossible for us to shield our children or ourselves from the seductions of the world.  But as Christians seeking to follow Christ, such cravings are to be shunned.

Paul understood the tension and conflict that exists between the way of Christ and the ways of the world.  Listen to what he says regarding his own personal struggle with temptation:  “We know that the law is spiritual; but I’m of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.  I don’t understand my own actions.  For I don’t do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.   …. with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.”
(Romans 7:14-15, 24)

Paul’s solution for this dilemma was to open his heart daily to the power of God’s Holy Spirit; allowing the Spirit to do for him, what he couldn’t do for himself.

That’s why Paul told the Romans, that:  “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through His Spirit that dwells in you.”  In other words, in those times when we are weak and in danger of being seduced by temptation, God can give us strength to resist.  All we need do in such moments of temptation is to accept God’s Spirit into our hearts and minds; and let the Spirit do its work.

So what are the benefits of allowing this Spirit into our lives?  In answer to this, Paul tell us that the Spirit of God actually sets us free, free to become fully human, free to be ourselves the way God intended us to be; whereas the life of self-gratification and hedonism inevitably leads to our destruction and death.

I’ve seen the truth of this many times over while working in the addiction field.  Individuals who began experimenting with pleasure enhancing drugs, almost inevitably reached a point where the drug no longer gave them pleasure.  Now they craved it - in ever increasing quantities, simply because without it, life had become unbearable.  In the end, what had started as a source of pleasure, destroyed their minds and bodies.

When weighing the benefits of a Spirit filled life against a worldly, pleasure-seeking one, Paul says one way leads to life and fulfillment, the other to slavery and death.

“For freedom Christ has set us free” says Paul in one of his other letters, therefore “Stand firm and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  (Galatians 5:1)

The little girl who thought that if God lives in us then He is bound to show through was wise beyond her years.  Let us pray that God’s spirit will shine through each one of us, so that not only will others see God through us, but that we too will be free – as God intended us to be.