The Spirit working
Sunday 21st May 2017 Acts 17:22-31 1 Pt 3:13-22 Jn 14:15-21
Looking at the lectionary readings set for today, I couldn’t but be impressed with how well they work together. The Gospel reading tells of Jesus reassuring his disciples that although he would soon be leaving them, they weren’t to be abandoned as they would instead be sent another councillor, the Spirit of truth, who would be with and within them for all time. In the Epistle, Peter outlines the effect of this Spirit-led life in a secular society, with Christians putting the needs of others ahead of their own desires, explaining, when asked, their commitment to Christ in a spirit of patience and humility, always seeking to give glory to him rather than themselves. And then in the Acts we see a perfect example of the outworking of this spirit as St Paul, tuning in to the traditions and ideals of the Athenians, uses examples from their own culture and literature to illustrate the amazing uniqueness and majesty of the one Almighty God, calling on them to repent and accept forgiveness through Jesus, who God raised as the ultimate judge of all.
So in considering this passage from John’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples “If you love me you will keep my commandments and I will ask the Father to give you another councillor, who will be with you for ever”. The context, as always is really important. In the previous verses Jesus has told the disciples that he’s about to return to be with God the Father, so he now affirms that in that close relationship he will arrange to send the Holy Spirit to all who love him, to be a Councillor, Advisor or Comforter, depending on the translation used. There are many who believe this promise is conditional upon our obeying his commandments, that if we’re not 100% obedient, then he won’t send us the Spirit, but that’s not what he said. He merely states that obedience is a natural consequence of love. “If you love me, you WILL keep my commandments” – true love is always marked by a desire to please and serve the best interests of the beloved. We may not always succeed, but the intent is there, so Jesus responds to our love by sending the Spirit to be with us and within us – for ever. And here’s another wonderful assurance. As those who love Christ, we have his Spirit to guide, to advise and to empower, regardless of our failings. We may, through our sin lose contact, but the Spirit is with us, he states, forever, unconditionally, and ready to re-establish communication as soon as we are.
So Jesus continues to describe him as “the spirit of truth”, who those without Christ cannot receive because “they neither see him nor know him.” How similar that is to modern scientific thought, that they will only believe what can be recognised by the 5 senses, unable and unwilling to accept the logic of faith. And there’s the difference: we who love Christ do recognise his being because “he’s with us and within – becoming a part of us.” And because of this Spirit, Jesus is able to tell his disciples that they won’t be abandoned as orphans when he leaves, but as a part of the Trinity, the Spirit’s presence will mean that his followers, indwelt by the Spirit, will also be united with the risen, ascended Jesus who will reveal or explain more of himself to them each day. Hard to understand? O yes, but what an amazing concept and what a privilege.
But privilege always carries responsibility and in his letter Peter explains something of the effect the Spirit should have on our daily living. Very important because we always need to be on the watch for counterfeits. The Holy Spirit, explains Peter, will always lead Christians to do good, even at times to the detriment of their own wellbeing. The suffering may be in the form of outright persecution from folk who can’t bear to see God at work, or more simply that as Christians, led by the Spirit we give of our time or property in service of others, and he tells us not to be afraid, but in all things to sanctify Christ as Lord, or ensure that everything we do or say gives him the credit rather than ourselves. And Peter, the one who once denied knowing Jesus to a servant girl, emphasises the importance of our willingness to tell others what our faith in Christ means to us. But do this, he says in a gentle and reverent way, not being pushy, rude or offensive, but out of love and concern for the person we’re speaking to, and in a spirit of humility, love and service to Christ. How often I cringe when I hear some self-styled ‘evangelist’ loudly berating those who’ve not found faith, or glorifying themselves, boasting of their own achievements. So Peter concludes in v 22 by reminding us of our own standing before God, depending not on any personal achievement but on “the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities and powers made subject to him.” Or as the chorus I learned in my youth puts it “Living he loved me, dying he saved me, buried he carried my sins far away. Rising he justified freely for ever. One day he’s coming – Oh glorious day!” No room for personal pride or glorification in that.
So finally we see the example of the Spirit’s workings in St Paul, as recorded in Acts, when he addressed the crowd in Athens. Here’s the Spirit enabling Paul to answer in a way that’s meaningful to his audience. Paul had researched, studying their culture as he says in v 23 ”As I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’” He takes the trouble to ‘get on their wavelength’, speaking their language and basing his message on their philosophy and their literature, quoting Epimenides, a 4th century BC poet; and then gently uses their own arguments to show the fallacy of their philosophies to warn of impending judgement by the risen Christ. But the Atheneans, like those who “neither see him nor know him” of whom Jesus warned, and like so many worshipers of science today, refused to believe anything they couldn’t see, touch, smell, hear or feel, so the chapter concludes :” 32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter. 33 So Paul departed from among them.”
Yes, Paul left quietly and without protest, so sadly we don’t find an Epistle to the Athenians. How much they lost, and how much we too can similarly lose if we don’t love Christ and nurture that great gift of the Spirit that he has given us.
Duncan Burr at Mojacar on Sunday 21st May 2017
The views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the Church of England.