Living Free (Galatians 5:1,13-25)

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I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that every aspect of our lives has rules. We might call them different names, or try to present them in various ways, but in one way or another every part of our lives carry expectations or requirements for what we should or should not do.

I can understand, then, why people see Christianity the same way. It is our natural human tendency to want to know what we can get away with, what we’re allowed or not allowed to do, and then either conform or rebel against them. The main way people from outside the church perceive the Christian message is that if you’re a good person you’ll go to heaven when you die, but if you’re a bad person you’ll go to hell. It’s tragic that I’ve met people inside the church who think something similar: if you keep the rules you’ll go to heaven, but if you break the rules you’ll go to hell.

The beauty and the scandal of the Christian message is that the rules don’t determine our relationship with God or our place in God’s kingdom. If they did, we’d all be in deep trouble because we’ve all sinned and fallen short of who God wants us to be and what God wants us to do (Romans 3:23). Instead, God brings about a new way of living in relationship with him as members of his Kingdom through faith in Jesus (Romans 3:28). God loves us and accepts us because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for us, not because we keep the rules.

What that means is that God can’t love us any more if we keep the rules, and he won’t love us any less if we break the rules!

This faith gives us freedom. This is Paul’s main point in his letter to the Galatian church. There were people there who were making the Christian message and membership in the Kingdom of God conditional on whether or not people kept the rules, in particular the Old Testament rule about circumcision. Paul’s main idea in Galatians is that ‘in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love’ (Galatians 5:6 NIV). Living as a Christian is not about keeping or breaking the rules. The only thing that counts is trusting that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection gives us a new relationship with God as his children and living out that faith in Christ-like love for other people.

The big danger of this message is that we like using our freedom for our own benefit. Paul recognises this so he writes, ‘You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love’ (v13 NLT). When we use our freedom for our own gain or in selfish ways, we forfeit our freedom because we become slaves to sin again instead of living as God’s free people. The way to exercise our freedom is to use it to trust in Jesus’ love for us and love others in the way that Jesus has loved us.

That is why it is so important to be recognizing the love of Jesus in our lives and remaining in Jesus’ love (see John 15:4). As we grow in his love for us, the Holy Spirit equips us to love others in the same way. We won’t need rules to tell us how to love others because love will flow freely and naturally. Love isn’t something that you can command. It flows from the experience of being loved. As we learn the way of Jesus’ love, the Holy Spirit will guide us in this love so we can extend this love to other people.

That’s why Paul tells us to ‘let the Holy Spirit guide our lives’ (v16a), to be ‘directed by the Spirit’ (v18) and to be ‘living by the Spirit’ as we ‘follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives’ (v25). Living in faith and love doesn’t come naturally for us. Our natural tendency is to trust ourselves more than to trust in Jesus. We tend to want what suits us instead of loving others. So we need the Spirit’s guidance and leading in our lives so we can trust Jesus and love others in every aspect of our lives.

This is different to looking for the Holy Spirit to tell us what to do in life. If being guided by the Spirit means looking for God to tell us to do one thing or not do another, this can easily become another set of rules to live by. The freedom Paul talks about isn’t looking for the Holy Spirit to tells us what to do. It’s looking for the Spirit’s guidance in living in faith and love in all of our life’s circumstances.

As a parent, I am always telling my young children what to do or not do. However, I don’t want to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do for the rest of their lives. As they grow and mature, I hope that they will do what is right and good on their own because they love me and they what to do what is right and good. This is living in freedom – not doing good because they have to or because I tell them to, but just because they can. Living in the freedom that Jesus gives is the same. I hear Paul saying that our loving heavenly Father wants to free us from having to be told what to do. God wants us to trust him and his love for us in Jesus so we live in love for others. This is what we call becoming mature followers of Jesus.

A couple of weeks ago I talked about Jesus promising to send us the Spirit of truth to guide us into truth. One way we can understand God’s truth into which the Holy Spirit wants to lead us is that God wants us to live as his free, mature children. This freedom and maturity don’t mean living by a set of rules or being told what to do. The freedom Jesus wants us to live in is faith and love – trusting that his life, death and resurrection brings us into a new relationship with God as his children whom he loves, and loving other people in the same way Jesus loves us.

Keeping the rules won’t make God love you any more. Breaking the rules can’t make God love you any less. All that matters now is trusting that good news, and expressing that faith in Christ-like love for others.

More to think about:

  • How do you understand the idea of ‘freedom’? What does it look like in your life?
  • From what you know of the Christian message, do you think of it more about following rules or living in freedom? Can you explain why?
  • what do you think Paul means when he writes, ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery’ (Galatians 5:1 NIV)? What do you think the ‘freedom’ is that he is talking about?
  • How is the ‘freedom’ Paul writes about similar or different to how you usually think about freedom?
  • What is your reaction to the statement that ‘Keeping the rules can’t make God love you any more and breaking the rules won’t make God love you any less’? Would you agree or disagree with it? Explain why…
  • How is living in faith and love (Galatians 5:6b) different from living by a set of rules? Which way would you prefer to live? Why?
  • How might your life look different if your starting point in any decision was to ask  the Holy Spirit to lead you in the way of faith and love by trusting Jesus and loving others? How might your relationships be different? How might your church be different?
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Our Guide Into Truth (John 16:12-15)

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There was time when truth was simple. We were taught certain things at home, in school and at church that were pretty much consistent with each other and provided us with a degree of certainty about life. In our post-modern times, however, that has all changed. We are surrounded by a wide range of different ideas about who we are, our place in the world and what life is all about. This isn’t a bad thing because it can open us up to a much fuller and richer life in a lot of ways. However, working out what is true or not becomes a lot more complicated when a wide assortment of ideas and worldviews present us with conflicting messages.

One of the tools people use to work out what is truth for them is what they experience. When different voices give different messages about what is true, then people can rely on their personal experience to help them decide which can be trusted. For example, if an advertisement for a particular type of drink is telling me that one product tastes better, but another ad is telling me that their product has more flavour, then the best way to work out who is telling the truth is to try each of them. Our experience of those products will help us decide which is truth.

John talks a lot about truth in his gospel. If you’re wrestling with questions about truth, it’s worth reading John’s gospel and listening for the times when John refers to truth or raises questions about truth. It tells us that people were struggling with what was true in Jesus’ day as well as our own. Throughout his gospel, John points to Jesus as embodying God’s truth for us. then, in John 16:12-15, Jesus promises to send the Spirit of truth who will guide his followers ‘into all truth’ (v13a NLT).

It’s important to recognise that there are different kinds of truth, so we need to understand what sort of truth Jesus was talking about. For example, mathematical truths such as 2+2=4 are different from historical truths, such as Captain James Cook discovered Australia (which was what I was taught as a child, but which we know now isn’t the whole truth). Philosophical, religious and spiritual truths are different again, so we can’t just use ‘truth’ as a blanket term for every kind of truth.

When Jesus promised that the Spirit of truth will guide us into ‘all truth’, he was talking about the truth about God, our relationship with God, and how that relationship can shape the way in which we understand ourselves, others, our world and our place in it. One of the reasons why the Bible is such a large book is because this truth can be understood in a variety of ways and from a number of different perspectives. However, the basic truth of the Bible into which the Spirit of truth guides us is the good news of Jesus.

One way this truth can be expressed is what Paul writes in Romans 5:1 – ‘since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us’ (NLT). Through Paul’s words, the Spirit of truth guides us into the truth that we have been made right, or justified, by Jesus through faith in him. What this means is that everything that was wrong or broken about us has been put right through Jesus’ death and resurrection for us. Because we are made right again through faith in Jesus, we now have peace with God. God is not angry, disappointed or unhappy with us. God isn’t ignoring us or is apathetic towards us. Instead, because of what Jesus has done for us, we are in a new relationship with our Creator who accepts us, loves us, values us and cares for us as we are. As I said, the Bible communicates this truth in lots of different ways, but it is the good news of God’s unconditional love and grace for us in Jesus which is the truth the Holy Spirit guides us into.

We need the Holy Spirit to guide us into this truth because faith in the gospel doesn’t come naturally with us. There are people I know who have been part of the church their whole lives who still live with a deep sense of guilt or fear. We all need the Spirit of truth to be guiding us into the truth of God’s grace and love so we can live free from guilt, fear, shame or regret, and find the joy, peace, love and hope that Jesus gives us through the Holy Spirit.

As the Spirit of truth guides us into the truth of the gospel, then he also begins to guide others into the truth of God’s grace through us. Earlier I talked about how our experiences help to shape our understanding of truth. As the Holy Spirit guides us in the truth of the gospel, it shapes our relationships and faith communities so people can experience the reality of grace and Christ-like love in us. Through our relationships with each other, the words we speak to and about each other, and a culture of grace in our churches, the Holy Spirit can guide people into the truth of God’s grace by giving them the experience of grace. However good my messages, the church’s worship or our programs may or may not be, if people don’t experience the reality of the gospel in their relationship with us, then it won’t be true for them. However, when people are experiencing grace in relationship and community with us, then the Spirit of truth can guide them into the truth of God’s grace through us.

This becomes especially important in our ministry with the younger people of our congregation. What the Growing Young conversation essentially is about is how we can give others, especially our younger people, an experience of the truth of God’s grace in their relationship with us and our congregation so the Spirit of truth can guide them into the truth of the gospel. In a world where our young people come into contact with so many different ideas which claim to be true, when they experience the truth of God’s grace and love in relationship with us, then the Spirit of truth can guide them into the truth of the gospel and it will become true for them in a life-changing way.

Talking about truth is hard because there are any different kinds of truths and everyone thinks their version of the truth is the right one. I’m really thankful that Jesus promised to send his Spirit of truth to us to guide us into the truth of God’s grace and love for us in Jesus. As the Holy Spirit guides us into the truth of the gospel, the Spirit of truth will also grow and equip us so that he can guide other people, our young people especially, into the truth of the gospel.

More to think about:

  • How do you generally understand ‘truth’? Do you see truth in a simple way or as a more complex idea? Can you give an example of that?
  • To what degree do your experiences shape your understanding of truth? Are there times when your understanding of truth has depended on something you experienced? Have you ever believed that something was true even though your experiences gave you a different message?
  • In what ways have your experiences in the church or in life shaped your views on the truth of the Bible? In what ways have they been good or helpful? How might they have not been good or helpful?
  • How do you understand ‘the truth of the Bible’? What does that mean to you?
  • What is your view on thinking about the ‘truth of the Bible’ as specifically the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us? Is that too narrow? How can it help you understand the rest of the story of the Bible?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to believe in the good news of Jesus? Can you explain why?
  • Have you ever asked the Holy Spirit to guide you into God’s truth? If you have, what happened? If you haven’t, would you be willing to try it?
  • How can you help someone experience the truth of God’s grace and love by showing them grace and Christ-like love today?

Babel Undone (Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21)

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Do you know what it’s like when you try to say something to someone but they completely misunderstand what you’ve said?

For example, I’ve lost count of the number of times people have thanked me for a message I’ve given in worship, and then told me something they heard which I didn’t think I’d said. I don’t read from a manuscript when I preach so it is possible that I said something I didn’t intend to. However, it is also possible that they heard something I didn’t actually say.

There is a branch of philosophy which looks at human language and why messages we try to give aren’t always the same messages which are received. There are a lot of factors which shape meaning which is why messages can be misinterpreted and communication is often confused. I think all of us would have experienced it in one way or another. Either we intend to communicate an idea which is understood in a different way, or we hear people say things they didn’t mean.

When this happens, I go back to the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. This story gives us the ancient Hebrew understanding of why different languages exist and how people were dispersed to different parts of the world after the Great Flood. It also tells us why it can be hard to communicate clearly and why we often misunderstand each other. Not only was human language confused, but people of the same language group can also find it hard to understand and cooperate with each other.

This story is often connected with the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 in which God gave his Holy Spirit to the followers of Jesus. We read that when they received the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ disciples were given the ability to speak in other languages so that people from different parts of the Roman Empire could understand what they were saying. The disciples were able to tell people about the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for them, calling them to repentance and faith in the forgiveness of sins, in languages they could understand. The result was that about 3,000 people were baptised (Acts 2:41).

One way in which we can understand the story of Pentecost is that the confusion of Babel was overcome as people heard the gospel in their own language and were brought together into a new community of one people in Christ. The divisions and confusion between language groups of Babel are undone as the Holy Spirit did two main things. Firstly, the Spirit miraculously gave Jesus’ followers the ability to speak the gospel in languages that people from other nations could understand. Secondly, the Spirit also gave the hearers of their message the ability to understand what they were saying and to believe the good news. All of this – the message of the gospel itself, as well as the ability to speak, hear, understand and trust the message – all come from the Holy Spirit’s work in the lives of the people of Jerusalem at Pentecost.

I pray that God would pour out his Spirit on the church today just like he did at Pentecost. In so many ways, God’s church is confused and divided because of our inability to hear and understand each other. in our own congregation, we have been working towards having a much more intentional discipling focus through connecting, growing, equipping and sending God’s people to participate in his mission in the world. We have also been looking at how we faithfully and effectively pass the faith on to our young people. Both of these emphases involve cultural change in our congregation. However, every now and then someone will ask me how my outreach or youth program is going. So I sigh, say a little prayer, and then begin trying to explain again that we’re looking at growing a church culture in which everyone is involved, not running a program for a just few people.

It’s obvious sometimes that the messages I’m trying to communicate are not the messages people are receiving. Maybe I’m not communicating them effectively. Maybe people aren’t ready or able to hear what I’m saying. Maybe it’s a combination of both. Whatever the case may be, the Tower of Babel still casts its shadow over our church as there is confusion of language and divided opinions.

At the heart of both our discipling plan and our ministry with young people is the gospel of Jesus. They both grow out of and are oriented towards communicating the good news of Jesus. Our discipling plan is about connecting people with the gospel, growing together in faith, being equipped for ministry and sending out to live as the presence of the living Christ in the world. Our work with young people is about embracing them in the grace of Jesus through our church community so they can find their identity, belonging and purpose in him and grow to maturity as children of the living God. All of this is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us new life in Jesus, words of grace and truth to speak to each other, the ability to hear and understand the gospel, and trust in the good news of Jesus through a living and active faith. We can put all the plans, strategies, programs and processes in our church that we like, but in the end we rely on the Holy Spirit to give us the gospel to speak in ways that others can hear and understand, and create the faith we need to receive and trust in the good news of Jesus.

When I gave this message on Sunday I wondered what messages people would take from what I said. That’s the problem with language which began at Babel – the messages we intend to give are not always the messages people receive. I’m so thankful for the Holy Spirit who gives us the ability to speak the gospel of Jesus in ways that people can understand, and gives us the ability to hear it, understand it and receive it in faith.

More to think about:

  • Has there been a time when someone has misunderstood something you’ve said? Explain what happened…
  • Has there been a time when you have misunderstood something someone else has been saying? Describe what happened…
  • How can the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 help us understand why we can find it hard to understand each other?
  • How do you see God undoing the confusion of Babel when he gave the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ followers at Pentecost (Acts 2)?
  • Have you ever asked the Holy Spirit to help you hear the good news of Jesus in a way that you can understand and believe? What might happen if you did?
  • When was the last time you asked the Holy Spirit to help you speak the good news of Jesus to someone? Who do you know who needs to hear the gospel in their life?
  • What do you think might happen if we asked the Holy Spirit to help us understand other people better, especially our sisters and brothers in the church?

Dynamic Faith (Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-11)

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The Apostle Luke gives us two versions of the story of Jesus’ ascension. One thing Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11 have in common is that both of them have Jesus promising his disciples that they will receive power from the Holy Spirit. Christians celebrate the ascension of Jesus because he returned to the presence of his Father in order to be with his followers around the world and throughout time, and to give us power through his Spirit.

We can understand the word ‘power’ in a few different ways. Coming from Adelaide, a lot of people immediately think of one of our local Australian Football League teams, Port Adelaide Power. When many people of my generation and younger hear the word ‘power’ we often think of governments or other authority figures who use their ‘power’ for their own benefit or to control others. However, when the Bible talks about ‘power’ it means something different.

The New Testament word for ‘power’ is the same word from which we get our English words ‘dynamic’, ‘dynamo’ and ‘dynamite’. It means strength or an active force which makes things happen. When Jesus promised his followers that they would receive power from the Holy Spirit, he was telling them that he would send them his Spirit to give them the ability or strength they would need in order to do the work he was sending them to do.

There is a lot we could discuss about the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, but right now I want to focus on the task Jesus gave to his disciples at his ascension. In both Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts, Jesus told his disciples that they would be his witnesses. The Holy Spirit was to give them what they needed to witness to Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, and to bring the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins to all people.

It is significant that Paul also uses the word for ‘power’ when he talks about what the gospel of Jesus can do in a person’s life. In Romans 1:16 he writes that the good news of Jesus is ‘the power of God at work’ (NLT). In the same way, in 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul writes that the message of the cross is ‘the very power of God’ (NLT) for all who are being saved. These passages tell us that the Holy Spirit uses the good news of Jesus to work the power of God in us so we can be Jesus’ witnesses to the world.

The idea of witnessing to Jesus can be scary for a lot of Christians for a range of reasons. There have been a lot of programs and campaigns developed to try to help churches be more effective in our witnessing. I’m wondering, though, based on what Jesus says in the ascension stories, whether being his witnesses might be a lot simpler that we might think it is.

If the gospel is the way God gives us the Holy Spirit’s power, then it seems to me that living in the good news of Jesus would give us Holy Spirit power to witness to what Jesus has done for us. For example, Jesus says in Luke’s gospel that we will bring the message of repentance and forgiveness to all nations. When the Holy Spirit gives us the power to receive this forgiveness through faith, then the Spirit would also give us the power to forgive others in the same way. Witnessing to Jesus, then, means forgiving people who have wronged us in the Holy Spirit’s power just like God has forgiven us.

We can witness to Jesus in other ways, too. When the Holy Spirit gives us the power to believe that God loves us for Jesus’s sake, then the Holy Spirit also gives us the power to love others in the way Jesus teaches. When the Holy Spirit gives us the power to trust in God’s grace for us in Jesus, then the Holy Spirit also gives us the power to extend that same grace to others. When the Holy Spirit gives us the power to trust that God accepts us because of what Jesus has done for us, then the Holy Spirit also gives us the power to accept others in the same way. I could go on and on, going through each of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22,23) or Paul’s definition of Love (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a) to show how the Holy Spirit gives us the power to trust in God’s goodness and the power to display his goodness in our lives and in our relationships.

The ways in which we live our lives and treat other people are much more authentic and effective ways to witness to Jesus than preaching on a street corner or knocking on doors. There will be times when we will be asked to explain why we live in ways that are different to other people (see 1 Peter 3:15) but even then Jesus promises us that the Holy Spirit will give us the words to say (see Matthew 10:19; Mark 13:11; Luke 12:11). We really don’t need to stress about being Jesus’ witnesses because the Holy Spirit will give us the power we need in whatever opportunities God might give to us.

I would encourage anyone who is intimidated by the possibility of witnessing to others to start with the gospel. Where do we need God’s grace in our lives? Are we looking for forgiveness or healing? Are we lacking love, acceptance, hope or something else in our lives? When we find what we need in Jesus, in his suffering and death for us, or in his resurrection from the dead, God encounters us through the gospel, giving us his Holy Spirit and the power we need to witness to Jesus, not as a theological idea but as our lived reality.

Obviously there’s a lot more that can be said about the power of the Holy Spirit’s power in our lives, but that’s for other times. As we celebrate the ascension of Jesus, it is good for us to remember that we are witnesses to his grace and love in the world. Jesus sends us the Holy Spirit who gives us the power to both believe in his grace and to live out his grace in all our relationships.

That can be a powerful witness.

More to think about:

  • What do you think of when you hear the word ‘power’? Does it usually mean something good for you or not? Explain why…
  • What comes to mind when you hear people talk about the ‘power of the Holy Spirit’? In what ways have people told you the Holy Spirit’s power is shown?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to witness to Jesus? Why is that?
  • What do you think about the idea that the way we live our lives can be a powerful witness to Jesus? Would you agree or disagree? Explain why…
  • Believing in the gospel does not come naturally for people, but we need the Holy Spirit’s power to believe. Would you agree or disagree? Give reasons for your thoughts.
  • Sometimes the most effective witness to Jesus we can give is how we treat people and by forgiving, loving, accepting and showing grace to them just like Jesus does to us. Do you agree that we need the Holy Spirit’s power to do that? Explain why…
  • To whom can you witness to Jesus by forgiving, loving, accepting or showing grace in some form to this week? Don’t forget to ask for the Holy Spirit’s power if/when it gets difficult…

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.

God’s Powerful Word (Genesis 1:1-5)

wallup.net

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)

day of pentecost

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?