Preached 6 February 2011 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
I’m sure you are all familiar with the quiz show “Mastermind” – even if you never watch it. And you’re familiar with it because of its catch phrase; because of something Magnus Magnussen used to say if he was in the middle of a question when the buzzer sounded for the end of the round. “I’ve started … so I’ll finish.” But if, instead of “I’ve started” he had said “I’ve begun …” what do you suppose he might have said next. “I’ve begun so … ” Yes! “I’ll continue.” “Continue” normally follows “begun” or “began” doesn’t it? For example, “Five weeks ago we began a sermon series on 1 Corinthians … and today I’m going to continue with it.”
“Continue” follows “began.” But the problem is that no one seems to have told St Luke that. Take a look at the first verse of the second of Luke’s two books in the New Testament and you’ll see what I mean. St Luke wrote both the gospel that bears his name and the book of Acts, and here is how he starts the book of Acts: “In my first book,” he says, “I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach …” And? And? … And nothing! Jesus ascends to heaven and then we get 28 chapters about the church as it springs to life and begins to spread right across Asia Minor and into Europe. So why start the book of Acts with Jesus and that word “began”?
Because Luke understands, you see – and wants us to understand too – that the church is the instrument through which Jesus continues to do and to teach what he began to do and to teach before his death and resurrection and ascension into heaven. And until we get that into our heads and hearts we’ll never really understand what the church is all about … and we’ll certainly never understand why it needs to be Spirit-filled. Which is the topic I have been given for this morning. The Spirit-filled church.
So let me say again (just in case you weren’t listening hard enough) what it is that Luke is trying to get across to us at the beginning of the book of Acts: That the church is the body through which Jesus continues to do and to teach today, throughout the whole wide world, what he began to do and to teach 2000 years ago as he walked the length and breadth of what we now call Israel and Palestine. In those familiar words of Teresa of Avila: “Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.” And the “yours” there is both individually and corporate, but mainly corporate. Only to a limited degree can I, individually, be the body of Christ; but once I am joined to you, and to you, and you … we are the body of Christ, intended by God to be the means whereby Jesus continues to do and to teach right here and now in Bradford all that he began to do and teach in Capernaum and Cana and Jerusalem.
Awesome! If only it could be so. But the truth is – as we’re all only too painfully aware – that we are seemingly a million miles from being the body of Christ here in Bolton in that kind of way. Why is that so? What are we getting wrong? What is it that is missing? What is it that was true of Jesus but is not true of us? And to answer that question, we need to look at the story of Jesus again, just for a minute or two, and ask: How did he function here on earth? How did he do what he did, teach what he taught? How did he know what to do and when to do it? When to start and when to stop? Because if we are to be in the here-and-now what he was in the there-and-then, presumably we are meant to function and to operate in the same way. His “how” should be our “how”.
Well the starting point for all that Jesus did and taught came when he went to John the Baptist at the River Jordan. What happened there? “When all the people were being baptised, Jesus was baptised too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove.” (Luke 3). Then, says Luke. “Jesus began his ministry”. Everything for Jesus began with the infilling of the Holy Spirit. Until then Jesus was in “pause” mode … waiting, waiting, waiting.
But once the Spirit came, everything began to happen. First stop was the wilderness. Why did Jesus decide to go there? Answer: He didn’t. Luke 4: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert.” There Jesus wrestled with the temptations to bring in the Kingdom of God by worldly means, but resisted them; and then what happened? Luke 4 again: “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit.” He went into the synagogue and announced: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.”
Are you getting the picture? Until the age of 30 Jesus did nothing; but then he was filled with the Spirit and spent the next 3 years doing everything. All his teaching, all his deeds of redeeming love, were packed into those three Spirit-filled years. He did all he did and taught all that he taught in the power of the Holy Spirit who was dwelling within him and filling him, and imbuing him with the love of God and the wisdom of God and the authority of God and the might of God and compassion of God.
And I’m sorry to say that until that becomes true of the church it will continue to fail as the body through which Jesus wants to be active in the world today. If we are to be a Jesus-shaped church here in Bolton we need to be as Spirit-filled as Jesus was. There simply is no other way.
All too often we are told: Jesus was able to do all he did because he was God. No. That’s a common misconception. Jesus did not minister from his divinity but from his Spirit-filled humanity. St Paul makes that very clear in his letter to the Philippians . There he tells us that when Jesus came to earth, though he was God, he chose not to act as God but emptied himself and became fully human. Why? So that he could be filled with the Holy Spirit in the same way as his church was to be filled with the Holy Spirit after he had returned to his Father.
The pattern is so clear; it is surprising how easily we manage to ignore it. After his resurrection, Jesus appears to his frightened disciples – hiding behind locked doors out of fear that they are going to be arrested and crucified too – and says to them. “Peace be with you. As my Father sent me, so I send you.” Then what? “Then he breathed on them, saying, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ John 20.
But what has happened to the church today … and for many a day past? Half of us – perhaps a lot more than half – have never heeded that little word “send” and don’t even understand that the church is not primarily a place of private comfort or Sunday morning entertainment, but an instrument of outreach and rescue and healing and recovery and redemption and mission.
And the remainder of us – those of us who do understand that fundamental, vital truth – can still get it terribly wrong by somehow thinking and acting as if it’s all down to us. We must get properly organised, come up with good plans and strategies, and locate and utilise resources. WE MUST MAKE IT HAPPEN!
But that is precisely what Jesus forbade at the start of it all. Listen to what he said to those first disciples just before he returned to heaven. Acts 1 again: “While he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit … You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.'”
Jesus was making it as clear as clear could be that, if we as the church are to continue to do what he began to do, if we are to continue with his ministry and mission, and if it is to be at all effective, we must not go it alone. We must move forward only in the power of the infilling Holy Spirit. The trouble is, so many of us pay lip-service to that truth but then ignore it.
John V Taylor, the one-time missionary, bishop of Winchester and General Secretary of CMS said this: “While we piously repeat the traditional assertion that without the Holy Spirit we can go nowhere in the Christian mission, we seem to press on notwithstanding with our man-made programmes. I have not heard recently of committee business adjourned because those present were still awaiting the arrival of the Spirit of God. I have known of projects abandoned for lack of funds, but not for lack of the gifts of the Spirit. Provided the human resources are adequate, we take the spiritual for granted.”
But the point Paul is making in this morning’s reading from 1 Corinthians 2 is that we cannot and must not “take the spiritual for granted.” Why? Because no-one – absolutely no-one – is what Paul calls “spiritual” by nature and you do not necessarily become “spiritual” by being baptised or getting confirmed or “making a decision for Christ” or joining a church. You do not suddenly get “spiritual” by joining the PCC or the Mothers Union or a home group or a ministry team.
The picture Paul paints in this morning’s passage is of two distinct realms. There is the realm he calls “the world” where everything hinges on science, economics, politics, logic, book knowledge, human intelligence, psychology, management theory, business principles and so on. Then there is the realm of “the spirit” where everything hinges on the thoughts of God, the will of God, the wisdom of God, the grace of God, the mercy of God, the perspective of God. And each person here this morning, says Paul, belongs primarily to one of those realms. I am either “worldly” or “spiritual.” And furthermore, says Paul, our default setting – the realm to which we belong and to which we will continue to belong unless we do something about it – is “worldly.” By nature, he says, we can never penetrate the spiritual realm. We can never access it or tap into it. By nature, we cannot know what God thinks about anything, how he sees any particular situation, what he wants to happen, what he wants us to do, what his grace would demand, or what his love would dictate. Instead, by nature, we will approach every situation we encounter with worldly wisdom and good old common sense, coming up with “down-to-earth,” practical, business-like, no nonsense, solutions that reject anything that has a whiff of the “airy-fairy” about it.
“Well, yes,” you say, “but does that really matter? Won’t the outcome be more or less the same however we approach things?” Absolutely not, says Paul. That is the trap. That is the tragedy. We often assume that a common sense, business-like, financially-viable, human-resource led approach to the kind of issues that, say, come up at PCC, will necessarily produce something that will be in line with the will of God; but what Paul is saying in this passage is that the outcome of such an approach will often be completely opposed to the will and purposes of God. Indeed, Paul says (underlining his point) it was that kind of approach – worldly instead of spiritual – that put Christ on the cross. Remember Caiaphas, the High Priest, looking at Jesus through his worldly-wise eyes, “It makes good sense to let him die,” he says, “if it will keep Israel safe.”
There’s a thought to make us sit up and take notice. Common-sense killed Christ! Accepted wisdom can be the enemy of the Gospel. One modern paraphrase puts what Paul says like this: “God’s wisdom is something mysterious that goes deep into the interior of his purposes. You don’t find it lying around on the surface. … The experts of our day haven’t a clue about what this eternal plan is. If they had, they wouldn’t have put Jesus on a cross.
That’s why what we need, says Paul – and what we shall have if we are “spiritual” as opposed to “worldly” – is “the mind of Christ.” Jesus, you see, was perfectly in tune with his Father. He knew what his Dad was thinking, what his Dad wanted him to say and do, and how his Dad wanted him to do it. “I only do,” he once said, “what I see my Father doing.” But how was that possible? How could Jesus read the Father’s mind, feel with the Father’s heart, and know the Father’s will? By the Spirit, says Paul. “The Spirit searches all things,” he says, “even the deep things of God.”
And, says Paul, the same Spirit who revealed the deep things of God to Jesus can reveal them to us. Bishop John V Taylor’s name for the Holy Spirit was “The Go Between God”. The Holy Spirit is just as much God as is the Father and as is the Son; but the Holy Spirit’s function from within the Godhead is to be the go-between, the communicator. He is the PA system that takes what the Father says and enables us to hear it. And being on the receiving end of such communication is essential to the mission of the church. Imagine the catastrophes that would take place in the skies above Heathrow if there was a suddenly and complete failure of communication between pilots and control tower? Imagine the confusion and mayhem on a battlefield if communications were severed between commander and troops. Imagine the disintegration of a business if the workforce was unable to receive or understand the directives being sent from head office.
The church is no stranger to such catastrophes, confusion, mayhem and disintegration; and the reason is quite simply that it so often operates in what we might call a communications blackout. It cannot hear the voice of God. It doesn’t feel the beat of the Father’s heart. It doesn’t know the Father’s will. And it cannot unless it is filled with the Father’s Spirit.
So let me get right down to the key question facing us this morning. How does the church become Spirit-filled? How do we restore communications with God and begin to know his will and to do it in his power?
Well, you know the answer, don’t you? You don’t really need me to tell you. How does a honeycomb become filled with honey? By every little hexagonal cell being filled with honey. How can the church become filled with the Spirit? By every little Neil and Maureen and Yvonne and Will and Joan – every single one of us, individually – being filled with the Spirit.
“But hang on.” you say. “Surely if I’m a Christian, I have the Holy Spirit anyway? Doesn’t St Paul actually say that somewhere?”
Well, yes – indeed he does. He says that unless a person has the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Christ – Romans 8.9. But there is a big difference between you having the Spirit and the Spirit having you; and it’s the Spirit having you that being “filled with the Spirit” is all about.
I can have a cold without the cold having me. Apart from feeling a bit under the weather and coughing and sneezing a bit, I’m largely unaffected and my life goes on much as it did before I got the cold. But if I’m FULL of cold, my life actually changes. The cold has me. It dominates me. There are things I would have done that I can no longer do. And there are things I have to do that I would not have done. Being full of cold is disruptive and transformational. And so is being filled with the Spirit.
But nevertheless, being filled with the Spirit is the thing to which each and every one of us is called. Writing to the Christians at Ephesus … the Christians at Ephesus, mark you, who all by Paul’s own reckoning already have the Holy Spirit and together comprise the church at Ephesus … Paul says: “Be filled with the Spirit”; and it is clear that he is calling on them to give free range in their lives to the Holy Spirit whom, whether they realise it or not, they are presently keeping locked away in the cupboard under the stairs. “Be filled with the Spirit” is a call to welcome him and to create space for him in every room.
There’s an old illustration of what Paul is talking about which involves taking a cup and pouring water in until it flows over the top. “Is the cup full?” “Yes,” we reply. “No it’s not,” says the preacher and he fishes out a couple of pebbles then pours in more water. “Is it full now?” No, because there are yet more pebbles in there that need to be removed before the cup is full. That is why when Paul says “Be filled with the Spirit” he uses the Greek verb form called present continuous. “Be filled and go on being filled”. For being filled with the Spirit is not a once-and-for-all event. There will always be pebbles in the cup. There will always be junk in our lives that needs dumping in the skip called Calvary, so that the Spirit can come in and fill the spaces that are left.
Some of us who follow Paul – the one sitting over there, not St Paul – on Facebook are memorising a new text each week, along with him. And last week’s text was Jonah 2.8 “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” And the truth is that all our lives are piled high with worthless idols when they could be filled with the Holy Spirit instead. He is the grace we forfeit.
So how do we become filled with the Spirit?
Well, pentecosts with a small “p” – similar to the Pentecost in Acts 2 with it’s capital “P” – do still happen, and I’m certainly not going to rule that out. In all ages and generations, including our own, there are countless churches world-wide that have experienced a sudden, dramatic, powerful visitation of the Holy Spirit that “fills” just about everyone in them, simultaneously and instantly, and sets the place on fire for Jesus. I’ve been to some such churches and I would love this to become one of them. Indeed, I pray for it to happen here.
But I’m bound to admit that that is not the norm. When that does happen, it seems to be that God is fast-tracking what generally happens far more slowly. And here I can perhaps best talk from my own experience.
I became a Christian in 1953 at the age of 11. I stood up in a Children’s Rally in Manchester where I’d been taken by my Geography teacher at Keighley Boy’s Grammar, and I gave my life to Jesus. It was real, it was genuine, and I have absolutely no doubt that I then received the Holy Spirit. But it was not until 1965 – 12 years later when I was already a Reader in the Church of England – that I began to hear of people like myself being filled with the Spirit and having their Christian lives renewed and transformed. In other words, the first step for me on the road to being filled with the Spirit was a growing awareness that there was more to the Christian life than I had, at that stage, known or experienced.
And with the awareness came desire. I found myself wanting what I didn’t have. I longed to be filled with the Spirit. And that longing expressed itself in various ways. I began to read about being filled with the Spirit. I began to go to meetings where people talked about being filled with the Spirit. I began to pray earnestly to be filled with the Spirit. One night I determined to stay up all night, lying face down on the living room floor begging to be filled with the Spirit and willing it to happen. And though God didn’t answer my prayer that night, he did answer it very soon afterwards. He answered it, in fact, when I became still, stopped striving, and simply became OPEN and RECEPTIVE. One evening, in St John’s Vicarage in Bowling, a vicar called Michael Harper prayed with me, laid hands on me, and … well, I was filled with the Spirit.
It was not particularly dramatic – though for some people it is. For me it was gentle and warm and altogether lovely. It was, surprisingly, the beginning of a much-heightened appreciation of the beauty and reality of Jesus – though that should not have surprised me for, after all, the chief work of the Holy Spirit IS to shine the spotlight on Jesus . The fuller of the Spirit we become, the more we see and love and serve the Lord Jesus.
And worship of Jesus suddenly becomes the thing we most love doing. For me, worship became a delight from that night onwards. The Holy Spirit is a wonderful worship leader! And he also brings gifts from the Father. I could do things I couldn’t do before. And I started to hear God speak in a way that I’d never heard him speak before. I acquired a new way of understanding Scripture. I found myself seeing stuff in it I’d never seen before – “having my eyes opened,” as Paul puts it, “to the deep things of God.”
It was the beginning too of getting convictions of what God wanted, of being guided by him in many matters both great and small, of sometimes having very direct words from him for other people. And it was the start of being empowered in new ways to speak for him more effectively and to use my gifts and fulfil my ministries within the church, within the body of Christ.
And there we come back to where I started, to what this is all about. It isn’t about an exciting new experience that I can brag about – though being filled with the Spirit is exciting and wonderful. It isn’t about getting a spiritual fix to keep me on a spiritual high – though being filled with the Spirit does give you spiritual highs that are sometimes a veritable taste of heaven. What it IS all about is me and you becoming so fully focused on Jesus and so empowered by the Spirit and so open and attentive to the Father’s voice that we each begin to function properly together as the body of Christ in this locality and thus continue to do and say here in Bolton all that Jesus began to do and say when he was here on earth.
Are you up for that? Then “be filled with the Spirit.”
It is not a suggestion, you’ll note. It’s an instruction, a command. And as such it requires something of you. But you have already started on the road that leads there. For if you didn’t have it before, you certainly have now the same awareness that I had in 1965. The awareness that there is a fullness of the Spirit that can be yours. And if that awareness has awakened in you this morning a desire for that fullness, a longing for it, then feed that desire. Read about the fullness of the Spirit, hear more about it, pray about it, talk about it – talk about it to me if you would like to. (We are allowed to be “spiritual” once the service is over, you know. We don’t have to just talk about the weather!)
And then come to a place, a point in time, when you’re ready and when you open yourself fully to God – alone or preferably with some other Christian who understands what it is you are asking for – and simply receive the Holy Spirit in all his fullness. You will never be the same again … But, more importantly perhaps, neither will the church. For as we individually become filled with the Spirit, so the church becomes filled with the Spirit. And, believe me, a Spirit-filled St James would be … will be … a wonder to behold, and something that the world cannot and will not ignore. Amen.