Since the end of November 2014, I have been serving as the supply pastor to a small United Methodist church here in east-central Indiana, Sugar Grove United Methodist Church. I’m currently running through a sermon series expositing the Apostles’ Creed, loosely based on Dr Timothy Tennent’s This We Believe! Meditations on the Apostles’ Creed and its study guide/devotional companion, J.D. Walt’s Creed. This past Sunday was the fifth sermon in the series of seven.
Knowing God: The Holy Spirit
Joel 2:28-32, Ezekiel 36:25-28
Galatians 5:16-18, 22-26
When was the last time you heard anyone talk about the Holy Spirit? We say that we believe in one “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity,” but if you are like many Christians, you rarely speak of or hear others speak of the Third Person of the Trinity. This is true across much of Christianity—based upon who and what we talk about and pray to, it may in fact seem that the Holy Spirit has been replaced in our conceptions of the Holy Trinity by the Virgin Mary, or the Church herself.
Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones lamented this fact back in the mid-20th century. In a book called The Way, he wrote,
The Holy Spirit is not central in our present day Christianity. The emphasis upon the Holy Spirit has been pushed from the main stream of Christianity into the cults. There the teaching has been thrown out of balance, often identified with rampant emotionalism. That queers [in the sense of definition 1b and 2a] it. The queer have queered Pentecost for many. And yet the almost entire absence of emphasis upon the Spirit has impoverished the main stream of Christianity. It often degenerates into a humanistic striving to be good.
It was not that way in the beginning—not in the early church, and not in the early Methodist movement. In many ways, it is because ‘main stream’ Christians do not speak about the Holy Spirit that some Pentecostals have been able to make the Holy Spirit seem an unapproachable and foreign topic even to other Christians.
But the phrase “I believe in the Holy Spirit” cements the fact that the Apostles’ Creed was built around the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. We affirm that we believe in God the Father Almighty, and that we believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…and that we believe in the Holy Spirit.
Will you bow with me in prayer? May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Strength and Redeemer. Amen.
The doctrine of the Trinity is a vital part of what makes us Christian. Some people say that it’s just enough to love Jesus, or to believe that Jesus is God. But the Trinity reconciles two truths about God that seem otherwise impossible. God is both holy and merciful, unapproachable and accessible; God the Father reigns over creation even as God the Son takes on a human body and dies the death of a criminal on a cross. As Isaiah 57:15 puts it, God “dwells in a high and holy place, and also with him who is humble and lowly in spirit.”
In John 14, Jesus says that he will ask God the Father to send another Advocate to be with his disciples forever. “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you” (Jn 14:17-18).
So what does it mean for the Church to declare that we believe in the Holy Spirit?
First, it means that God himself is with us, even now. Even while God the Father sits upon the throne of the universe, and even while God the Son sits at the Father’s right hand, God is with us—because the Holy Spirit is with us. “You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you,” Jesus said. And because God is with us, it means that we have God’s authority on our side. As Dr Tennent puts it,
The Holy Spirit is the authoritative, empowering presence of the living God. The gospel doesn’t stop at the cross, resurrection and ascension of Christ. The gospel continues to unfold in the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is the ongoing reminder that God does not just exercise authority over the world, but he has authority to act in the world.
From the beginning to the end of our lives, God is interacting with us through his Holy Spirit. Even before we were Christians, it was God the Holy Spirit who made us aware of our sins, showing us our need for a savior. He is the one who convicts the world of sin. For Christians, the Holy Spirit is the one who even enabled us to respond to the offer of salvation at all. Before the Holy Spirit enabled us, we were not simply sick—we were “dead in our trespasses and sins,” as Ephesians 2:1 puts it. Without the Holy Spirit, we would still be spiritually dead, separated from God by our sins. What Jesus made possible on the cross, the Holy Spirit puts into effect. This is why we pray in the Collect for Purity like we did this morning, “Almighty God, to whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name.”
We read in Ezekiel today that God will give us a new heart and a new spirit—indeed, that it will be God’s Spirit which he puts within us. The Holy Spirit gives us that new heart so that we can be obedient to God; he cleanses us from all that holds us back from closeness and intimacy from God—as the text says, he will “make you follow [God’s] statutes and be careful to observe [God’s] ordinances.” When the Holy Spirit gives us a new heart, we are born-again, or in theological terms, regenerated. We no longer ‘try’ to be good; we no longer care whether we are ‘too religious’ or that we’re ‘taking things too far with religion.’ As a modern hymn puts it, “It’s not what you give, but what you keep that the King is counting.” When God puts his Spirit in you, you are empowered to live out the life he calls you to live as his disciple and follower.
When God puts his Spirit in you, you grow to be like him. The Holy Spirit abides—or lives and dwells—in you, and you start to show the fruit of that transformed life—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.
He also teaches us how to pray and what to pray for, gives us guidance and direction for our lives, and teaches us and corrects us as we read the Bible.
Second, the Holy Spirit empowers us to go carry God’s mission into all the world. Dr Tennent estimates that there are some 24,000 ethnic groups that have yet to hear the Gospel; over a billion people in our planet of seven billion have never heard the Good News. But the Holy Spirit empowers us to be witnesses of what God has done for us to all the world, both here at home and overseas.
Some of you may be uncomfortable with the idea of ‘witnessing’—it’s not fun to leave yourself vulnerable to rejection, and when you are telling someone else of what God has done for you and continues to do in your life, it can be difficult not to take their rejection of the Good News as rejection of you. But let me assure you: they are not rejecting you. And you never know where God is at work—through the Holy Spirit, who goes before us and prepares the way even in the hearts of those we fear might reject his message.
You don’t need to pass out Bible tracts or tell people that they’re going to Hell. But what God calls you to do is to build relationships, to love people as people—even when it hurts and even when they reject your God; even when they don’t fit your agenda, because God values them regardless of anyone’s agenda. Pray for them, and listen to the Holy Spirit’s promptings. As he guides you, simply tell them how Jesus has changed your life, and let God do the rest.
Third, the Holy Spirit shows the world that God is at work in his Church. As Dr Tennent puts it, “The Spirit delivers the not yet into the already.” Our God is in the business of healing, both spiritual and physical. When Jesus was here on earth, he healed lepers and people with all sorts of other diseases and illnesses. In the Book of Acts, we read of a number of accounts where the Apostles themselves were able to cure the sick, sometimes even by their shadow touching the sick person (Acts 5:15).
Even today, the Holy Spirit still brings the healing of heaven into the brokenness of this present world. I can give you two concrete examples. The first is that of Talbot Davis, a pastor friend in North Carolina. Back when he was a 22 year old senior in college, he was a very good tennis player. But he received an injury while playing the sport that could have been career-ending. He tore his shoulder, and the doctors recommended surgery— at the very least, this would have ended his tennis season. So he went to a friend whom he knew believed that God still healed people, and his friend prayed over his shoulder in the name of Jesus. As Talbot recounts it on his blog, “I felt an unmistakable surge of divine electricity enter my body. And…I’m now 53 and never had that shoulder surgery.”
The second example is a bit closer to home. A young man who is a member at Gethsemane UMC in Muncie was playing basketball and fell. He broke his neck, cracking one of his cervical vertebrae—he was taken to the hospital in Muncie, and the doctors put him in a neck brace out of the very real fear that he might end up permanently paralyzed. The youth group and leaders from Gethsemane visited him in the hospital and the young man asked them to pray for him. So they gathered in a circle and prayed over his neck. The next morning, when the doctors went to get more x-rays, they found that there was no longer any break and that the bone had healed entirely.
God the Holy Spirit continues to work the Trinity’s will in the world, even today—healing, convicting of sin, calling to repentance and leading onward to holiness and reunion with God. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.