Equipped (Acts 2:1-21)

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I love the story of the Apostle Peter. He began life named Simon and worked as a fisherman, an ordinary working man, until Jesus called him to be his disciple. As Simon followed Jesus for the next three years, he saw Jesus perform amazing miracles, witnessed his heavenly glory in the Transfiguration, and listened to Jesus teach about love, forgiveness and the Kingdom of Heaven. Peter often acted impulsively, literally jumping into deep water, and promised to stand by Jesus even if it cost him his life. Jesus gave Simon the named Peter, which means ‘Rock,’ when he confessed his faith that Jesus was God’s chosen Messiah.

When Jesus was arrested, Simon Peter denied him three times. Then, after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter returned his old ways and went fishing. Jesus met him there, cooked him breakfast, and re-established his relationship with him. In John’s gospel, Peter was among the disciples who were gathered together behind locked doors because they were afraid of the people who had killed Jesus. At the end of Luke’s gospel, Peter was one of the disciples who went back to Jerusalem to wait for power from heaven. I wonder whether Peter was still afraid and uncertain as they waited for Jesus to keep his promise and send them the Holy Spirit.

Then came the day of Pentecost when Jesus sent his Spirit to his disciples with the sound of rushing wind and tongues of fire. Many people focus on the Holy Spirit giving the disciples the ability to speak in tongues in the Pentecost story. I wonder if there is another miracle here which can be overlooked. That miracle was the way the Holy Spirit transformed Peter.

On the day of Pentecost, Simon Peter changed from being afraid and uncertain, to witnessing publicly to Jesus’ saving work. The power of the Holy Spirit equipped Peter with everything he needed to speak about Jesus, telling people about the wonderful things God has done in him, and bringing the gospel to the people of Jerusalem. Because of the way the Holy Spirit equipped Peter and the other disciples, about three thousand people came to faith and were baptised on that day (Acts 2:41).

One of the key ways the Holy Spirit equipped Peter to witness to Jesus was through the grace he experienced. The picture we get of Peter in the gospels is of a person who had good intentions, but who got things wrong along the way. Jesus never abandoned Peter or gave up on him. Jesus stuck with him, held him up above the waves, sometimes rebuked him, but forgave him, reconciled with him and restored him. Peter was able to witness to the grace and love of God through Jesus because he had experienced it for himself.

In the same way, when we experience God’s forgiveness, grace and love in Jesus, the Holy Spirit is equipping us to be his witnesses. Like Peter, God knows that we often have the best of intentions, but we get things wrong too. We mess things up, make mistakes, and damage relationships. But Jesus never abandons us. Through Jesus, God stays with us, keeps our heads above the waves, sometime rebukes us, but always restores our relationship with him through the forgiveness and grace he extends to us in Jesus. Through all of our mistakes and shortcomings, the Holy Spirit keeps us in God’s grace and love, equipping us to be witnesses of the good news of Jesus in our lives.

This witness doesn’t have to be like the witness Peter and the other disciples gave at Pentecost. We are not all called or gifted to preach publicly about Jesus. In Peter’s first letter, he gives advice to Jesus’ followers who are living in a culture that can be hostile to the faith on how to witness to what God has done for us in Jesus. Peter writes:

… even if you suffer for doing what is right, God will reward you for it. So don’t worry or be afraid of their threats. Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. (1 Peter 3:14-16a NLT)

Peter’s way of witnessing to Jesus starts with living in a way that is consistent with who God has made us. As the Holy Spirit lives in us and makes us God’s holy children, we witness to what God does for us by living holy lives. As we receive God’s perfect and infinite love for us in Jesus, we witness to God’s saving love by loving others around us. As people who are made righteous through faith, we witness to God’s goodness by trusting him in all things and doing what is good and right. According to Peter’s letter, our witness begins with how we live, the ways in which we talk to and about others, and how we treat others in our relationships. Then, when people ask us why there is something different about us, we are in a position to share the hope we have in Jesus who changes us by the power of his Spirit.

To witness like this, we need to be equipped by the power of the Holy Spirit, just Simon Peter. We hope and pray that all of God’s people would be equipped to be effective witnesses to Jesus in our lives. That is why we included Equipping as the third aspect of our congregation’s Discipling Plan. We want to see all of God’s people given the tools to be able to witness to what God is doing in our lives through Jesus by the Holy Spirit’s power. In time our congregation will be offering courses, studies and other programs to help equip us all as Jesus’ witnesses. In the end, though, we will need the Holy Spirit to be equipping us so that, like Peter, we can change from being afraid or uncertain of where God is leading us to being effective witnesses for Jesus.

Imagine what our church could be like if all of us were equipped by the Holy Spirit’s power to witness boldly and confidently to God’s saving work in our lives through Jesus, just like Peter and the other disciples. What could be possible if we witnessed the goodness of God in everything we said and did, in all of our relationships and interactions with other people, in every aspect of our lives? Not all of us are called to preach publicly like Peter did on that first Pentecost Day. However, as Peter writes in his letter, when the Holy Spirit equips us to live holy lives, doing what is right and good, and to be ready to give an answer for the hope we have to all who ask us, we will be Jesus’ witnesses in our communities, in our nation, and to the ends of the earth.

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God’s Powerful Word (Genesis 1:1-5)

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Many Christians have spent a lot of time arguing over the meaning of the creation story in Genesis 1. Some believe that God created the world in seven 24-hour days. Others understand the story more as ancient people trying to describe something God did over millions of years. As we hear the opening words from Genesis 1 as the Old Testament reading for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, I’m not really interested in arguing in favour of one interpretation or the other. Instead, Genesis 1 can teach us a lot about God and the way he is at work in our world, no matter how we may interpret it.

One of the most important things we can learn about God from Genesis 1 is that when God speaks, things happen. God’s word is so powerful that it has the ability to do exactly what it says. When God said, ‘Let there be light,’ that was exactly what happened – light came into existence and to give warmth to a dark and cold universe. As each day unfolded, God’s word continued to work its dynamic power, speaking the sky, dry land, trees and plants, and all living things into existence. The pattern is the same throughout the story: God speaks and whatever he says comes into being. This is because when the Holy Spirit is at work through the dynamic word of God, things happen.

We also see this in the ministry of Jesus. The Apostle John reflected the words of Genesis 1 in the opening chapter of his gospel when he wrote,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5 NIV)

In these words, John points to Jesus as the Word which God spoke at the beginning of time to bring everything into existence. This Word had now entered into creation in the form of a living, breathing person. As the Word-made-flesh, Jesus is the walking, talking Word of God who entered into the world by the power of the Holy Spirit to restore the original goodness of creation.

We can see this dynamic power of God’s word in Jesus as he spoke a new reality into existence through his earthly ministry. For example, at the start of Mark chapter 2, Jesus told a man who could not walk that his sins were forgiven. This was considered blasphemy by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day because they believed that only God could forgive sins. To show them that God had given him the authority to forgive sins, Jesus told the man to stand up, pick up his mat, and go home. To everyone’s amazement, that is exactly what happened! What Jesus said came into existence through God’s powerful word.

In this and every other miracle during Jesus’ earthly ministry, we see Holy Spirit at work through God’s powerful word. When Jesus told blind people to open their eyes, they were able to see. When he told lepers to show themselves to the priests, they are made clean. When he told the dead to come out of their tombs, they were raised to new life. And when Jesus told sinners that they were forgiven, the Holy Spirit worked through the powerful word of God to free them from their guilt, and make them righteous and good.

This dynamic word of God through which the Holy Spirit works is still with us today. It is so important for us to be listening to God through his word in the Bible because that is the main way the Holy Spirit operates in our lives. Just like the Holy Spirit worked through God’s word at the beginning of time to bring creation into existence, and just like the Holy Spirit worked through the words of Jesus to heal the sick, raise the dead and forgive sinners, so the Holy Spirit is still at work in our lives through God’s word. When we read the Bible and hear God’s promises to us in Jesus, the Holy Spirit works in us to bring into existence exactly what we read. When the Word of God promises us we are the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:27, that is who the Spirit makes us. When the Word of God promises us that we are a holy nation and a kingdom of priests in 1 Peter 2:9, that is who the Holy Spirit is making us. When the Word of God promises us in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that we are a new creation in Christ, that the old has gone and the new is here, the Spirit of God is continuing the work of creation by doing exactly what it says – making us new creations in Christ Jesus.

This Word of God is not just a written word that we read. It is also a word that we speak to each other and hear from each other. We do this each and every week when our pastor says to us that we are forgiven in Jesus’ name. Through the authority of Jesus which he has given to his church, when our pastor speaks God’s forgiveness, grace and love to us, that is exactly what God works in us – his forgiveness, grace and love.

This is not just something God gives to pastors. As members of God’s nation of royal priests, we are all able to speak the dynamic Word of God to each other in the Holy Spirit’s power. When we speak words of peace to each other, the same Spirit of God that was at work at the beginning of creation works through our words to create peace in the hearts and minds of those who receive our words. When we speak words of grace to each other, the Holy Spirit uses our words to extend God’s grace through us to the people we are speaking to. When we speak words of forgiveness to each other, the Spirit of God frees people from the wrongs they have done and gives them new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the same way that God brought everything into existence at the start of creation through his powerful word, when we speak God’s grace, love and blessing to others, God’s powerful word is at work through us and in us to create light, beauty and life in other people.

There are times when it can seem like words are empty and without meaning. When we read the story of creation in Genesis 1, however, we see that God’s word is powerful enough to do exactly what it says. God’s powerful word is still at work bringing light to dark places, giving warmth to cold hearts, and life where there is nothing at all. As we read God’s word, hearing his promises of grace and love, and when we speak God’s words of forgiveness and new life to each other, the Holy Spirit is still working in us and through us to do exactly what God says.

Disciples Forgive (John 20:19-23)

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Six weeks ago, on the Sunday after Easter, we looked at this same story from the perspective that Jesus sends his disciples into the world. Discipleship is about Jesus preparing and equipping us to carry on his work in the world on his behalf by the power of his Spirit.

As we celebrate God’s gift of his Holy Spirit to his people at Pentecost, I want to look at this story again from the perspective of the work the Spirit empowers us to do.

I have had lots of conversations with Christians over the years about how the Holy Spirit works in the life of the believer. One aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work that doesn’t seem to get talked about a lot, however, is the Spirit’s work of forgiveness. Yet here, at the end of his gospel, when Jesus appeared to his disciples in the evening of his resurrection, John makes a strong connection between the gift of the Holy Spirit with the forgiveness of sins.

Maybe one of the reasons we don’t talk about forgiveness a lot is because our culture doesn’t like talking about sin. We still suffer from the effects of sin, though, even if we want to try to deny its existence. So many people that I talk to describe how they feel guilty, or have regrets in life, or carry a sense of shame. The remedy for these afflictions rests in the gift Jesus gave to his disciples in this story: forgiveness.

Another reason talking about forgiveness can be difficult is that it doesn’t come naturally to us. We tend to find it hard to believe that we can be forgiven for the wrongs we have done or the guilt that we carry. We can also find it hard to forgive people who have wronged us. That is why the gift of the Holy Spirit is so important for us. The Spirit of God works in us what we can’t do for ourselves. The Spirit creates forgiving hearts within us by giving us the forgiveness Jesus won for us on the cross and the empty tomb. Then, having experienced forgiveness, we are more likely be forgiving people. That is why Jesus taught his disciples, including us, to love others like he loves us (John 13:34). To love someone means forgiving them and not keeping a record of their wrongs (see 1 Corinthians 13:5).

This isn’t a gift that is just given to pastors, priests, or whatever your name for the professional clergy might be. Just as one of the emphases of the festival of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit is given to all of God’s people, so all of God’s people have the authority and the privilege to lift the burdens of guilt, shame and regret by forgiving others. We all pray ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’ in the Lord’s Prayer. The sad reality is that some people never hear words of forgiveness outside of worship, so I consider it a high priority each week to tell people who live in a harsh, judging and condemning world that they are forgiven for Christ’s sake. It is my constant prayer that the Spirit of the living Christ will use these words to breathe life into people’s hearts so they can believe they really are forgiven children of God whom he loves and with whom he is pleased (Mark 1:11 etc), and they can in turn extend God’s forgiveness to the people in their lives who need it.

Obviously, forgiveness isn’t all the Holy Spirit does in the life of a believer, but it is a vital and life-giving aspect of the Spirit’s work. As we celebrate the festival of Pentecost, it is good to remember firstly that Jesus’ disciples are forgiven people and to ask the Spirit of Christ to give us a bold faith to hang on to the forgiveness he gives to us. As Jesus’ forgiven disciples, then, we are also empowered by the Holy Spirit to extend that same forgiveness to everyone in our lives, especially those who deserve it the least but need it the most.

More to think about:

  • Why do you think some people find it hard to accept forgiveness? Why do you think some people find it hard to forgive others?
  • Do you find it easy to believe that you are a forgiven person? If you are living with guilt or shame or regret, where do you think these feelings come from?
  • Why do you think John connects Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit to his disciples with the forgiveness of sins? (It might help to go back to Jesus promising the Paraclete [someone who stands beside us and speaks God’s truth to us] in John 14:16,17)
  • Who is someone that you find difficult to forgive? How might the gift of God’s Holy Spirit help you to forgive that person?
  • Who do you know that might need the gift of forgiveness? How might you be able to extend Jesus’ gift of forgiveness to them?

Jesus in You (John 14:15-21)

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Last week we heard Jesus say that we see the Father when we see him, and we get to know the Father when we get to know him, because Jesus is in the Father and the Father is in Jesus (vv1-14). From Jesus’ words we can think of discipleship as following him into a deeper and closer relationship with God the Father so we can participate with God in his work of redeeming, restoring and renewing the world.

But what about the Holy Spirit? As Christians who believe in and teach the Trinity, we believe that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one. So what is the role of the Spirit of God in this new relationship we have with the Father through the Son?

In John 14, Jesus continues by promising that he will ask the Father who will give us the Paraclete (v16). This word means someone who stands beside us to speak for us and to speak to us, which is why it can be translated as Advocate, Helper, Comforter, Encourager or Counsellor. This is the Spirit of Truth (v17) which, Jesus promises, is with us and will be, or is already, in us (depending on how we read the verb).

We need to pause at this point because of our post-modern culture’s difficulty with the word ‘truth.’ Our society has a tendency to want to make all ‘truth’ relative so that there is no one, absolute truth. Instead, post-modernism argues, we live with many truths, yours being different than mine, with the end result that there is no one ‘truth’ we can rely on.

I understand and agree that we need to respect and value what people hold as ‘truth’ for themselves. However, we then need to ask, what is the ‘Truth’ that Jesus talks about, and is it possible for us to find a ‘Truth’ in him that we can trust enough to build a life on?

Earlier in chapter 14, Jesus said that he is ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (v6). One way we can think of the ‘Spirit of Truth’ that Jesus promises to give us as not an idea, a concept, or even a doctrinal theology to be discussed, debated or even defended. Instead, if Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, it is possible to think of the ‘Truth’ as a person – Jesus himself. This would mean that the Spirit of Truth that he promises us is his own Spirit, which will be with us and even in us!

This is what Jesus seems to mean when he says, ‘When I am raised to life again, you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you’ (v20 NLT). The role of the Spirit of Truth that Jesus is talking about here is to bring us into the relationship that exists between the Father and the Son by living in us so as we live in him, he lives in us, and together we are one with God in perfect relationship.

There are times in life when this can be hard to believe. Especially when life is difficult or challenging, when we suffer from physical or mental illness, grief or loss of any kind, we can start to wonder where God is and why he is letting us go through pain or emptiness. This is where we need the Spirit to lead us deeper into the Truth. We can find in Christ that, even in the darkest times of life, we are one with the Father through Jesus by the power of the Spirit, and nothing can separate us from his love for us as his children whom he loves and with whom he is well pleased (Romans 8:38,39; Matthew 3:17 etc). We can understand the work of the Paraclete, then, as speaking words of grace and truth to us when we need them the most, and leading us into a deeper relationship with the Truth of God who is made a human being in the person of Jesus, so that, as people who are in the Father through the Son, we can live the life Jesus came to give us (14:19; 10:10).

As disciples of Jesus, following Jesus can mean living each and every day in this Truth, no matter what our circumstances might be, no matter whether we feel it or not. Living in the Spirit of Truth can mean that whether life is good or bad, whether we are cruising or battling, even if we struggle to get out of bed in the morning or to put one foot in front of the other, the Spirit of the living Christ gives us the ability to trust that God is with us, for us and in us. As the Spirit of Truth lives in us we share in the life of Jesus, and nothing, not even death, can overcome it.

Obviously there is a lot more we could say about the work of the Spirit of Truth in the lives of God’s people. There is good teaching on the Holy Spirit, and there are some ideas about the Spirit’s work that I struggle with based on what the Bible teaches. In a lot of ways, however, our understanding of the Holy Spirit needs to be founded on what Jesus says to us in this passage. The gift of the Paraclete is to bring us into God’s Truth – that we are one with the Father through the Son by the power of the Spirit. In this new relationship, we can find a God who loves us, that we can love in return, and we can live in ways that bring life to ourselves and to as we follow Jesus’ commands in faith, hope and love.

More to think about:

  • How do you picture the Holy Spirit? What do you think of the picture of the Spirit as Paraclete – someone who stands beside us to speak for us and to us? What do you like about it? What is difficult for you?
  • How do you understand the idea of ‘truth’? Do you believe there are absolute truths (always true, no matter what)? What might they be? Are some truths relative (different for different people at different times)? How do you work out what truths are absolute and which are relative?
  • Some years ago I came across the idea that the Spirit of Truth Jesus talks about is his Spirit because Jesus is God’s Truth. What do you think of this idea: that Truth from a biblical point of view is more about a person with whom we can have a relationship than an idea to be discussed and debated?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to believe that you are one with God the Father through Jesus the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit? What makes it a challenge? What helps you to believe it?
  • How might you live tomorrow differently if you were to go into it believing that you are one with God through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit? How might that faith shape what you do & say to others?