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Sermon on Peace

The first Sunday in Lent, 2008

Christmas cards often  celebrate Jesus’ birth with the word “Peace”. They make me ask myself, has Jesus really brought peace to the world?

It would be nice to think that Jesus’ coming into the world brought peace.  But it is not obvious that it did.  Wars and wickedness have persisted since he came.  So I wondered whether there are any Biblical grounds for thinking his coming would bring peace.  I found two passages linking his coming with peace. The first is in Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming of a messiah.  (Is. 9: 6-8a)  (New International Version)

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders, and he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.”

The second Biblical text linking Jesus birth with peace are the words of the heavenly host at the time of his birth, as reported by St Luke (2: 14), who told the shepherds:  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.”

These writers clearly associated the coming the Messiah with the advent of peace on earth.  But has the coming of Jesus brought peace?  Several writers, such as Richard Dawkins, have reminded us recently that Christians have been the source of persecution and war.  Sometimes Christians have fought against Christians: most recently the Protestants and Catholics have fought each other in Northern Ireland.  To convert heathen tribes such as the Saxons in early medieval Europe, Christians offered them Christianity or death.  To cleanse the church of perceived heresy, Christians tortured and killed those whose views differed from their own.  To protect the Holy Lands from infidels, Christians fought crusades against Muslims.

Can we really believe that Christ’s coming brought peace to the world?  This is the question I want to consider this morning.  Sceptics would point to the facts I’ve just listed as providing overwhelming evidence that it did not.  On the contrary, they would say, Christianity has been a source of dreadful and unmerited suffering.

We have seen that the Bible links the Messiah’s birth with an increase in peace.  Does it explain how the Messiah will bring this about?  Indeed it does.  It focuses on three areas:  peace in the world at large, peace between individuals, and peace for the faithful.  At first it seems that they are quite distinct topics, but we will find that they are closely related.

First, then, has Jesus brought peace to the world at large?  Isaiah promised that the Prince of Peace would establish universal peace.   As we heard in the first reading, with God’s help he would create a new heaven and a new earth, a new Jerusalem of faithful people, blessed by God, living in peace (Isaiah 65: 17-25.  Cp. Is. 11: 1-9).  In  chapters preceding this passage, the author described the iniquity of the people of Israel and the need for God to intervene if his kingdom was to be established on earth.  Here are a few verses from ch. 59 that express the author’s concerns:

We look for justice, but find none;  for deliverance, but it is far away…

The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice.  He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene;  so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him.  …

He put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.  According to what they have done, so will he repay wrath to his enemies..

The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins.  (vv.11, 16, 17-18, 20)

Thus the prophet promises that God will come in power to defeat his enemies and establish an eternal kingdom of peace for the righteous.

Now we face the first problem.  When Jesus, the Messiah arrived, he did not behave as the author of Isaiah had prophesied.  He did not kill God’s enemies, but let them kill him.  He did not establish peace on earth, but, as we will see, a division between those who follow him and those who oppose him.  So what are we to make of Isaiah’s prophecy?

According to the gospels, Jesus, like the rest of the Jews, continued to believe the prophecy, and, knowing that he was the Messiah, he believed that he would fulfil it.  But, he said, he would do so some time in the future.  He did not know exactly when, but he thought he would come again in power to punish the wicked and reward the faithful quite soon.  The early church’s faith that Jesus would conquer evil and establish a new kingdom of everlasting peace is described in detail in the book of Revelation.  We have no evidence that Isaiah’s prophecy will ever be fulfilled, but the church continues to hope and believe that one day it will be.

However, there is some evidence that Jesus did not think that peace in the world would be established by force.  When Jesus entered Jerusalem as the Messiah, he did not come on a warhorse but on a donkey, as a symbol of peace.  And he did not destroy his enemies, but instead he wept over Jerusalem, saying “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19: 42)  If the people of Jerusalem had accepted Jesus as their Messiah, and lived in obedience to him, they would have enjoyed peace. But they did not understand that, and instead treated him as an enemy of peace, and crucified him.

It is not hard to see what Jesus had in mind.  When people honour Jesus, they set aside their greed, and ambition and pride, which are the chief causes of strife, and, following his lead, they live godly lives of love, truth and forgiveness.  Unconverted people are prone to hurt and exploit others, no matter how firmly they are governed.  As more and more people become disciples of Jesus, peace within communities and between states will increase.

It seems unlikely, however, that the whole world will convert, and even converted people have lapses of anger that hurt others.  Will the world ever enjoy perfect peace?  It would, if Jesus’ rule were complete, as it is in the New Jerusalem described at the end of the book of Revelation.  The possibility of the kingdom of heaven on earth can and should inspire Christians as the ideal society that God wants to create.  I’m reminded of how a vision of the New Jerusalem inspired Christian to keep on the straight and narrow way in John Bunyan’s book Pilgrim’s Progress.  Christ will build the new Jerusalem here through his disciples, not I think by descending from the clouds with hosts of armed angels in chariots of fire, but by his disciples’ acts of mercy, forgiveness and love.  The people of Jerusalem did not understand this.  Nor, alas, do many people today.

But just a moment.  Is it true that Jesus’ disciples bring peace on earth?  In the gospels Jesus is reported as saying:  “You must not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth;  I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  I have come to set a man against his father…” an so on. (Matt. 10:34-6)  Jesus taught his disciples to expect the same sort of hostility and violence as he received.  In his farewell discourse, according to St John, he said:  “Remember what I said:  “A servant is not greater than his master.”  As they persecuted me, they will persecute you…” (John 15:20).  To use John’s metaphors, those who prefer darkness to light will try to extinguish the light of all who illuminate and challenge their dark deeds.

When Jesus said “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”, it seems that he thought the way to establish justice is by force, just as Isaiah had said.  Indeed force can establish peace of a sort, and nations use their armies and police forces for that purpose.  In speaking like this, had Jesus in fact abandoned any other path to peace?

Well consider another of his sayings, also reported by St Matthew.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said:  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” (Matt. 5:9).  He went on to say that his disciples should not retaliate when people harm them, but continue to love them.  He said:  “You have learned that they were told:  “love your neighbour, hate your enemy.”  But what I tell you is this :  Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors;  only so can you be children of your heavenly Father, who makes his sun rise on good and bad alike,..” (Matt. 5: 43-45).

Just as God loves wicked people, so must we, forgiving them even when they harm us.  Of course they might not love us in return, but continue to persecute us.  Such, it seems, is life.  Sometimes, despite their best efforts, Christians do not enjoy a very peaceful life with family and neighbours who do not share their beliefs.

Then in what sense, if any, did Jesus bring peace on earth?  He has not, as yet, brought universal peace between nations, or peace between neighbours.  What he has brought, however, is peace in the lives of his disciples.  This is the third kind of peace discussed in the Bible.  What it shows is that every stage of Christian discipleship is marked by increasing peace of mind for the disciple.  Let me briefly indicate what I mean.

As you know, people today are encouraged by advertisers to be selfish, and encouraged by counsellors to be ambitious, yet Jesus was selfless and lived and died for others.  The conflict in people’s lives between their natural desires and godly inclinations is resolved when they sincerely repent of their sins and submit to God’s will.  As Jesus said, you cannot serve two masters.  You must choose just one, or remain torn between two. Those who decide to submit to God find peace from a divided heart.  However, they might then feel guilty for having acted so long contrary to God’s will.  They find peace from this guilt through faith in his forgiveness.  So instead of being at war with God, his disciples are peaceful followers of God, walking in his ways.

Having set out on the path of discipleship, people often find the going difficult, and they fear that they will lose their way, or lose their courage and strength to continue.

Disciples overcome their fear of straying from God’s paths by finding that Jesus is always with them, to guide, strengthen and comfort them.  When they pray in faith for his help, and then wait for it, it is given.  This experience, repeated again and again, creates a sense of peace and even joy, knowing that you are never alone, but that the spirit of Jesus is always with you, to support you along the way.  St Paul put it this way to the Philippians:  “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7)

Finally, when people discover Jesus’ will for them, they find that it is characterized by peace.  In some pagan religions, I’ve been told, people believed the essence of god was to be discovered in wine, women and song, in some sort of Dionysian ecstasy.  The characteristics of Jesus’ will, however, are well summed up in St Paul’s list of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, which begin with love, joy and peace (Gal.5:22).

I once saw the passion play at Oberammagau, and the strongest impression I had of Jesus throughout his ordeal was of his peace.  No matter what was happening around him, whether he was being defamed, mocked or scourged, he remained peaceful, knowing the he was with God and doing God’s good will.  On occasion he may require us to act vigorously, but because his will is always good and loving, it is always at peace.

If the Bible finds the peace of God to pass all understanding, you will forgive this feeble attempt to analyse it.  But let me conclude by relating the peace that Christians enjoy with God to the other two areas of peace:  peace between neighbours and peace in the world.  Christians can enjoy peace with God, but they will only enjoy full peace with their neighbours when their neighbours have become disciples too.  And the world will enjoy peace only when Jesus’ sovereignty is respected by all people. That is what the Book of Revelation understood.  In the new peaceful Jerusalem, it says, God dwells with men and women:  they are his people and he is their God (21:3).  There is no sun to light the city, but it will be alight with the glory of God in his son, the Lamb, and all the nations will walk by his light (21:23-24).

We enjoy an imperfect glimpse of this heavenly city in the fellowship of our church, when it is faithful to Jesus.

This is the first Sunday in Lent.  Let us commit ourselves afresh to our Lord Jesus Christ, so that we can increasingly enjoy his peace, and brighten our family, and neighbourhood and city with the light of his love.

Maundy Thursday

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Maundy Thursday (and dying with Christ)  John 13: 1

When Jesus and his disciples met for a meal in Jerusalem about the time of the Passover, I imagine the disciples were excited.  The previous Sunday Jesus had entered the city as Israel’s promised Messiah, mounted on an ass rather than a warhorse, as the Prince of Peace.  Many people had welcomed him, even though the authorities had not.  Perhaps Jesus would soon inaugurate the New Jerusalem of peace and justice that Isaiah had foretold.  As close friends of Jesus, they looked forward to  prominent roles in his kingdom.  St Luke writes that some of them were arguing as to who would be greatest among them (Luke 22:24).  They had absolutely no idea that Jesus was about to be betrayed and crucified.

While the disciples were discussing who would be greatest in Jesus’ new kingdom, Jesus was worried that they still did not understand what his kingdom was like.  They imagined themselves like other rulers, telling people what to do.  But Jesus knew that if one lives by God’s spirit of altruistic love, one has no interest in one’s own greatness, and one seldom tells people what to do.  Instead one’s concern is for the wellbeing of others, to help them in any way one can.

With his death immanent, Jesus seized the moment to remind them of this important fact.  According to St Luke Jesus told his disciples that, although he was the greatest among them, he had lived a life of a servant. This is what Luke writes:

Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them;  and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.  But you are not to be like that.  Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and those who rule like the one who serves. …I am among you as one who serves.” (Vv.25-6, 27b.)

No doubt these words stopped the disciples from squabbling over who was the greatest.  But did they really get the message?  It is St John who writes that Jesus put a towel around his waist and washed his disciples’ feet.  That was considered too menial a task even for Jewish slaves.  It was the job of Gentile slaves, or women or children.  Would the disciples ever forget that:  having their feet washed by their master?  Today even the Pope calls himself the servant of the servants of God, and washes a few feet on Maundy Thursday.

So the first lesson we can learn from this reading is that we too must forget about our social standing and must refrain from bossing people about.  Instead we must humbly offer to help people as best we can, in loving concern for their wellbeing.

Does this mean that Christians should go around as lowly servants?  Yes and No.  They should put concern about their own status to one side, and instead do whatever they can to meet the needs of those around them.  Now they might do that from a position of power, as head of a big institution:  the Pope, after all, is head of the Roman Catholic Christians.  Or one might serve others in humble obscurity, for instance as a mother tending a sick child by day and by night, with no-one to praise her for doing so, except God.  The love that Christ showed us, and that animates his friends, is focussed on serving others.

In serving others, of course, one does not obey their every whim, as a slave obeys his master.  Christians serve God above all, and his love has the well-being of people at heart, physical, mental, social and spiritual.  We should help people to find wholeness in their lives.

Finally, the injunction that we should love others does not mean we spend all our time in humble service of others.  God also asks us to worship him, and to thank him for his blessings.  So it is right that sometimes we celebrate life with our friends, as the disciples did with Jesus, at a dinner party.

St John’s account of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet has a twist in it.  Peter was appalled that Jesus should serve him in this way, and objected.  But Jesus said to him:  “Unless I  wash you, you have no part with me.” (v.8b)  What did he mean by that?  Jesus also said to Peter:  You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” (v.7)

As John’s gospel unfolds, it becomes clear that in washing Peter’s feet, Jesus is saying to Peter, I am not only cleaning your feet.  I am also washing away the guilt and sinfulness that could keep you from loving me.  I am cleaning your soul. .  The act of washing the disciples’ feet was not merely a demonstration of humility.  It was also a symbolic act of cleansing.

Later at the dinner, Jesus says to Peter:  “before the cock crows, you will disown me three times.” (v.38b).  And according to the gospel, as you know, that is what happened.

Peter wept bitterly after he had denied Jesus three times, and consumed by his guilt, must have wondered how Jesus could ever forgive him, ever love him.  So for Peter to be reconciled to Jesus once again, he had to discover that, although he had denied Jesus, Jesus was willing to forgive him.  Later that day Peter might have heard Jesus say to those who crucified him:  “Father forgive them, for they not what they do.” (Luke 23:34).  Jesus’ loving forgiveness of his enemies knew no limits.  Peter must have realized that Jesus would forgive him too.

People can know they are forgiven by Jesus, but still not be part of him.  Forgiveness  removes the power of guilt to keep us from a relationship with God.  Knowing that he still loves us despite our rejection of him means we can love him again. But knowledge of Jesus’ love and forgiveness is not enough to bind us to him.  It is always tempting to think, I’m glad Jesus loves me and forgives me, but I’ll go on living life my way, thank you very much. To partake in the life of Jesus, we must commit ourselves to his will.  That is why St John, at the end of his gospel, has Jesus ask Simon Peter three times:  “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”  And when Peter said he did, Jesus said “Feed my sheep”, that is, commit yourself to serving me.  Only when that commitment has been made, when we have committed ourselves again to serving Jesus, is our life part of his.

Jesus washed Peter of the power of guilt and sin.  But can he wash us?  There is a passage in the first letter of John which says that he can. It reads:

God is light;  in him there is no darkness at all.  If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.  But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

It continues:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  (I John 1: 5b-9)

Notice the two references to purification.  First, the blood of Jesus can purify us;  and second, once we repent of our sins, Jesus will purify us from all unrighteousness.

The decision to follow Jesus is a turning point in one’s life, as it was for Peter when he first obeyed Jesus call to leave his nets and follow him.  But after making that decision there are always times when our commitment fails, when we walk in darkness and not in his light.  On those occasions, how can the blood of Jesus purify us, as John puts it, or wash us clean?

As I said before, when we see the Son of God crucified, praying to his father to forgive those who tortured and killed him, we know that in his love he forgives us when we act contrary to his will.  That event shows that our guilt is no barrier to his loving forgiveness.  You might say that his blood removes the power of guilt to keep us from loving God.

But what about the power of temptation to lead us again and again into sin?  How can we be cleansed of the power of sin?  St Paul answers that question in Romans ch.6 with these words:

What shall we say, then?  Shall we go on sinning…? By no means!  We died to sin;  how can we live in it any longer?  Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptised in Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:1-4)

Think about Jesus, for a moment, as an obedient son. We should distinguish between his dying from the sin of his persecutors, and his dying to sin.  He died to sin in that when he was tempted to disobey God, he remained dead to that temptation, he did not allow himself to be animated by it at all.  Imagine how tempting it must have been for Jesus to save himself from the cross, but he did not yield to that temptation because it was contrary to God’s will.  He remained dead to sin, and instead offered himself to God in obedience.

What St Paul is saying is that we should identify ourselves with Jesus, and in particular with this aspect of his character.  Just as he remained dead to sin, so should we, in order that God can raise us by his Holy Spirit.

To do this, to identify with Jesus in his death and to receive his life, I find Holy Communion a help.  In accepting the broken bread, I’m identifying with Jesus in his death;  and in taking the cup, I’m accepting his life-giving blood, his Holy Spirit.  The Christian life is one of remaining dead to sin and alive in God.

So you can see, when the Son of God died on the cross forgiving his murderers, he displayed for all to see the depth of God’s forgiving love.  And when as a man he humbled himself in obedience to God’s will, he remained dead to the temptation to sin, even to death, showing us the path of discipleship.

Thanks to his death we are washed free from the power of guilt to keep us from God.  And thanks to his humble obedience to the point of death, we have a way to overcome the temptation to sin.  Our souls are cleansed thanks to the loving forgiveness of the Son of God, and the obedience unto death of the Son of Man.

To whom be the glory, for ever and ever, Amen.

Enjoying the life of God

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Sermon at St Marks Camberwell, 4 July, 2010.

Reading:  James 1: 12-18


St James is thought to have been a brother of Jesus, and leader of the early Christian church in Jerusalem.  The first Christians in Jerusalem were persecuted by Jews, particularly for proclaiming that Jesus was the promised Messiah. The Jews expected the Messiah to be a powerful man who would rid their nation of foreign powers and establish a kingdom of righteousness.  Jesus, by contrast, was weak and humble and was executed by the Romans. When Stephen declared that Jesus was the Messiah, the Jews stoned him to death.  To escape such persecution, many Jewish Christians left Jerusalem to live in other cities around the Mediterranean.  But their persecution did not stop:  Jews in many of those cities attacked them, as St Paul found in Thessalonica and Corinth for example, when he went to visit them and preach the gospel.

James’s letter is addressed to the Jewish Christians “scattered among the nations.” (1:1)  It begins by acknowledging their persecution, and encouraging them to persevere in their faith.  The temptation they faced was to renounce their faith in Jesus, and resume their original Jewish traditions.  After all, the Jews were following laws that God have given to Moses and the prophets.  Why risk one’s life and happiness for this new religion proclaiming the divinity of Jesus?

The reason for remaining faithful to Jesus, James writes, is that those who do so  “will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” (1:12)  It is that promise that I wish to discuss today.

Christians in our society are not persecuted, thank heavens, but they are sometimes mocked by atheists for believing in an invisible God who often seems very remote from them.  As for thinking that a man like Jesus is divine, that can seem very confusing, something it would be simpler to deny.  It is quite natural for Christians today to wonder whether they should persevere in their faith.

James points out that the decision whether to retain one’s Christian faith and practice is not just a matter of convenience or personal preference.  Rather it is a matter of spiritual life or death.  Those who live by their Christian faith will receive a “crown of life”, whereas those who live by their own desires will be led into sin and spiritual death.

What did St James mean by a “crown of life?”  Saints Paul, Peter and John write in the New Testament of a crown of life being a reward for keeping the faith,  bestowed upon the faithful after they have died, possibly by Jesus at his second coming.

(I Cor.9:25ff; I Peter 5:4;  Rev. 2:10.)  The crown is a symbol of their glory in heaven.  This would have been reassuring to Christians who were persecuted for their faith.  Indeed it is also reassuring to us when we face our own death.

However, there is a second aspect to the crown of life.  When James writes about “the crown of life” he means the glory that comes from sharing in God’s own life, the life of the Holy Spirit, given to those who love him. St Paul said that possession of the Holy Spirit was a condition for enjoying life in heaven. James clearly has this in mind when he contrasts a life of sin, which leads to spiritual death, with a life of faith, whose reward is the eternal life of God’s Holy Spirit.  He calls those who receive the Holy Spirit of God “the firstfruits of all he created.” (1:18)

The observation that sin leads to spiritual death is first made in Genesis ch.3.  You remember that there were two trees in the garden of Eden:  one bore knowledge of good and evil, and the other was the tree of Life.  Adam lost his innocence by disobeying God and yielding to the temptation of Eve to take the fruit of the first tree, thereby acquiring first hand knowledge of good and evil.  God banished him from the garden, and then is says “he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis3:24)  Those who live in sin are denied access to eternal life.

This message of Genesis is as true today as it was for Adam and Eve.  If we live in sin, we are also unable to enjoy the Life of God.  When we think of sin, we often recall the seven deadly sins.  Adam and Eve were led away from God by sexual desire, but the other sins are just as dangerous:  anger, greed, laziness, pride, envy and gluttony.  Isn’t there a bit of all of those in most of us?

A particular temptation for Christians, I think, is to let righteous indignation turn to hate.  When I studied the life of Martin Luther King, I was particularly struck by his care for the souls of the whites who discriminated against the blacks and for the souls of his black followers, who were being organised to oppose them.  It was very tempting for the blacks to use violence against the whites.  But King, following Mahatma Ghandi, developed a method of passive resistance.  He wrote (on 23 July 1956):

…in this method, the non-violent resister seeks to lift or rather to change the opponent, to redeem him.  He does not seek to defeat him or to humiliate him.  And I think this is very important, that the end is never merely to protest but the end is reconciliation..  Another basic factor in the method of non-violent resistance is that this method does not seek merely to avoid external physical violence, but it seeks to avoid internal violence of spirit.  And at the center of the method of non-violence stands the principle of love..  This is the point at which the non-violent resister follows the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for it is this love ethic that stands at the center of the Christian faith.  (“Non-Aggression Procedures to Interracial Harmony.”

To keep his demonstrators from becoming angry with the whites, he conducted practice sessions in which people abused them and threatened them, and they learned not to reply or hit back.  Every volunteer had to sign a Commitment Card on which he pledged to meditate on the life of Jesus, and to walk and talk in a loving, Godly way. [Why We Can’t Wait, p. 61.]

James said, keeping away from sin is important because sin leads to spiritual death.

Why does sin lead to spiritual death?  Because while we obey dictates of our own desires, we are deaf to the will of God.  But those who repent of their sins and submit to God’s authority can receive his Holy Spirit. The Tree of Life is a symbol of the life of God himself.  God’s absolutely good, holy life was manifest in the life of Jesus, and it was bestowed on his disciples as God’s Holy Spirit.  James says that anyone who loves God, that is, anyone who honours Jesus and obeys him, will be endowed by God with his Holy Spirit, spiritually reborn with a new, good, holy life, which will take him to heaven.  As Jesus said to Nichodemus:  “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water [for the washing away of sin] and the Spirit.  Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” (John 3:5-6)  Born again Christians are those who have received God’s Holy Spirit, who animates their lives.

So James is pointing out to the Jewish Christians, to renounce your faith in Jesus is not a trivial matter.  It could result in you spiritual death, both in this world and the world to come.  Faithful Christians, on the other hand, will enjoy the crown of eternal life.

At this point you might say, well this is all very interesting, but what exactly is the Holy Spirit of God that you keep talking about?  What, if you like, are His distinguishing characteristics?

I think the best way to describe the Holy Spirit is by saying that He is God’s particular word for each one of us, at the present time and place in which we find ourselves.  But, you might reply, isn’t the Bible God’s word to us?  Well yes it is, it seems to have been divinely inspired.  It points out that God has expressed himself by creating the natural world;  and he spoke to Moses, giving him the ten commandments which are still valid;  and finally he spoke to us through Jesus, who taught his disciples about God’s wish that we should love him and one another self-sacrificially, and then showed us how that was done.

Notice, incidentally, how St John equates the word of God with his life and with truth.  He opens his gospel with these famous words:

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 men. …The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.  (John 1:1-4, 14)

There are limitations, however, with the word of God found in the Bible.  The laws given to Moses, and even the summary of the law provided by Jesus, to love God and our neighbours as ourselves, provide only general guidance as to how we should behave. They can certainly check us if we behave badly.  If we murder or steal, the laws of Moses tell us that is contrary to God’s will.  If we fail to honour God and to love our neighbours, we know that we are not conforming to Jesus’ commands.  But the laws do not tell us what we should do just now, about the particular circumstances that confront us.

God’s Holy Spirit prompts us to perform particular actions, according to God’s plan for us, hour by hour and day by day.  These promptings are loving in intent, for the real good of either ourselves or others.  Indeed St John wrote that all acts of love are divine.  He said “God is love.  Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” (I John 4:16b)  St Paul described the characteristics of life in the Spirit with his famous list of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians chapter five:  “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22.)

So the first characteristic of the words of God to us through his Holy Spirit is that they are loving in intent.  But be warned:  the kind of love that characterizes God is the self-sacrificial love that a parent has for his or her child, a love called agape in Greek.  While God does care for our well-being, he would like to use us in the service of others, very occasionally to the point of death.  Martin Luther King found that despite his peaceful, loving campaign, his efforts to achieve justice for the black community were often met with hatred and harm.  He wrote [in Testament of Hope, p.41] of being put in jail five times, of his house being bombed twice, and of being the victim of a near-fatal stabbing.

So life in God’s service is not always easy.  But King would not be put off.  Elsewhere he wrote [Strength to Love, p. 40] of his determination to continue loving white people no matter how dreadfully they treated him..  He concluded:

Be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.

One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves.

We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.

As you know, on 4th April 1968 King was shot dead in Memphis.

It is to the credit of the United States nation that every year they honour King with a public holiday.

The first characteristic of God’s Holy Spirit is that His words are loving in intent.  A second characteristic is that they are very wise.

James, in his letter, refers to the promptings of the Spirit as “wisdom”.  Earlier in chapter one he writes:  “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God…and it will be given to him.” (James 1:5).  In the first few chapters of the book of Proverbs, wisdom is the name given to God’s Spirit.  For example, there it is written:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding…

Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding…

She is more precious than rubies;  nothing you desire can compare with her.

Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace.  She is a tree of life to those who embrace her;  those who lay hold of her will be blessed.

Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you;  love her, and she will watch over you.  Wisdom is supreme;  therefore get wisdom.  (Pr.3:5,13,17-18; 4:6-7)

The advice of the Holy Spirit is not only loving, it is also wise, sometimes wise beyond our understanding.

Finally, when we start to do what the Spirit suggests, we find that He also provides us with the strength we need to get the job done.  Paul wrote to the Philippians:  “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4: 13)

So the Holy Spirit is a source of new spiritual life, He reveals the truth to us, He inspires us to act in ways that are loving and wise, and He provides the strength we need to obey Him.

Then how can we experience God’s Holy Spirit for ourselves?  In our passage, James writes that God has promised his life “to those who love him.” (v.12)  Let me stress that we cannot find the Holy Spirit by ourselves.  He is a divine person, who must be addressed.  We can ask Him to guide and strengthen us, but then we must wait for his inspiration.  Jesus told Lazarus that the Holy Spirit is like the wind that “blows wherever it pleases.” (John 3:8.)  Not only must we invite the Holy Spirit to guide us, our motives for doing so must be good.  We must sincerely want to love God by serving and obeying him.

The voice of God is quiet, and closer to us than our own thoughts.  Do you remember how God addressed Elijah?  Not in earthquake, wind or fire, but with a still small voice (I Kings 19: 11-12).  We must still our minds and remain expectant to catch what God says.

Let me conclude with the words of Psalm 95:

Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;

For he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.


The Life of God

Sermon summary

James 1: 12-18

James wrote to Christian Jews who had dispersed around the Mediterranean to avoid persecution in Jerusalem.

He encouraged them to persevere in their faith, in order to receive “the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”

What is a “crown of life”?

It is (1) a symbol of the life and glory that Christians will enjoy in heaven, possibly bestowed at Jesus’ second coming.  (I Cor.9:25; I Peter 5:4; Rev. 2:10.)     And it is (2) the gift of God’s Holy Spirit to those who love him.

The life of God is not available to those who live in sin.

Adam was excluded from the Garden of Eden, and from the Tree of Life.

We must avoid the seven deadly sins, and not let righteous indignation turn to hate.

Martin Luther King insisted on this.

While we obey our own desires, we remain deaf to the will of God.

What are the characteristics of the Holy Spirit?

(1) He is the particular word of God to each of us, here and now.

(2) His will is loving in intent.  But the love is agape, self-sacrificial in nature.

It can incur the wrath of others, and consequent suffering, even death, as in the case of Martin Luther King.

(3) His will is very wise.  Note the praise of Wisdom in Proverbs chs. 1-4.

(4) He provides us with the strength to do His will. (Philippians 4: 13.)

How can we experience the Holy Spirit?

We must sincerely want to serve God, and should ask God to send us His Spirit to guide and empower us.

We must be still, wait and listen for the Spirit’s promptings:  a still, small voice.

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. (Ps. 95)