Pentecost

Day of Adoption

It is Pentecost Sunday, and we of course should not gather on this day without hearing the story of the Holy Spirit falling upon a small group of Christ’s followers, birthing our Savior’s church in the process.

The Spirit’s falling that day had immediate, obvious effects, of course. There was an ongoing miracle, the miracle that Christ’s followers could declare him Lord and Savior regardless of the language spoken by the audience. The Spirit also filled Peter so he could preach the first full, great Christian sermon. If you keep reading in Acts, you hear much of that sermon, and you see the results—more than 3,000 in the crowd accepted Jesus as Savior that day.

With that story in mind, I want us to continue our Romans series, where Paul talks about life in the Spirit. What he writes illuminates what we celebrate today and hope to live out every day. We’re going to work our way through our Romans text, Romans 8:15-30, a little at a time.

It begins:

So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory.

My brother and his wife adopted a boy from Haiti a few years ago. They were in relationship with the boy well before the adoption; Chad met the boy we now call Nathaniel while doing medical missionary work in Haiti. Chad and his family continued to visit him and remain in contact with him in other ways while the long adoption process proceeded.

The day the Haitian judge signed the papers changed everything, though. Nathaniel had a new home, one very different from the little orphanage where he lived. He even had a new language to learn. And he had two new people to call Mom and Dad.

The nature of the relationship had changed dramatically. Think of the Christian Pentecost this way: It marks the day of adoption for all believers. Our relationship with God changes because of the Spirit’s very active presence in our lives. We are now on affectionate, familial terms with God as we experience him as the Holy Spirit.

It is not just a matter of knowing by way of creeds and Scripture we are saved. We are now so close to God that the Holy Spirit can whisper directly to our spirits, giving us assurances of salvation. We have been taken into a new home, and the good, perfect Father draws us close and says, “You are mine, and all will be well.”

But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.

This can be troubling. No one likes to suffer. We are part of a new family now, though. Holy families stick together and work together. There is work to be done in a broken world, one where sin and death still have a lingering hold, causing continuing suffering.

Our older brother in the family, Jesus Christ, suffered mightily in this work to defeat sin and restore all things. We know his death on the cross is enough to restore us to God in full! His resurrection proves it!

We also know his work will be made complete—the astonishing thing is we, empowered by the Holy Spirit, are invited to play a role in this family business.

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

Have you seen those ads on the internet that say, “This will make your jaw drop!” The ads are never for anything very exciting, but this text, properly understood, should make your jaw drop. It asserts something rare in Scripture.

Creation—not just human beings, but all things made, the animals, the grass, the oceans, the stars, everything—longs for the completion of Christ’s work. Everything is broken; everything is suffering because of human sin.

Restored by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we have been adopted into a powerful task. As we let the Holy Spirit move us toward the time of full renewal, the world is literally watching, straining toward the day of remaking and resurrection.

And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.)

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will.

Do you believe the promise and trust the promise enough to feel the longing Paul describes?

Oh, for that day of resurrection renewal to come! Oh, to see the glory we know we have been granted as children of God! The idea is so powerful, so beautiful, that we can find ourselves at a loss regarding how to pray for such a thing.

But it’s okay. The Spirit senses our longings, and when we let him, he can plead our emotions and desires to God when we cannot put them into words.

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory.

Sometimes these ideas get abused. People read “God causes everything to work together for the good” and interpret it to mean God makes evil occur so some good can come of it later. That is not what Paul means.

Instead, Paul is saying God will take the results of sin and use even the worst horrors to the benefit of the kingdom. That must drive Satan crazy. Can you hear him complaining? “Every time I think I’ve got those humans whipped and beaten, God comes along and turns my work against me.”

Our dear Father, Abba, wins, and through the work of our dear older brother, we as co-heirs in the family win. The horror of the cross has turned into resurrection glory. The terrible things we see and suffer will dissolve into glory one day, too; they will be completely reversed, undone, and every tear will be wiped away.

That is the promise the Holy Spirit whispers to us every day as we work with his guidance and strength in us.

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Lead Us, Spirit

Romans 8:1-14 (NLT)

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit.

Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will. That’s why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God.

But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit if you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them do not belong to him at all.) And Christ lives within you, so even though your body will die because of sin, the Spirit gives you life because you have been made right with God. The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you.

Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.


Last week, I preached about the spiritual war going on around us, and particularly, in our minds. There was a warning embedded there: Evil still contends for us, and we fall prey to sin if we do not take care.

I should point out that not all theologians would agree with the direction I chose for that sermon. Some think Paul was simply comparing his old life under the law with his new, holy life lived in God’s Spirit. They would argue that for a person truly saved, the lure and aggravation of sin should cease.

I disagree, of course. But there is a danger in what I preached last Sunday. The danger is we will say to ourselves, “I’m saved, but I’ll always go on sinning, and I guess I can just live with it.”

For Christians, learning to be content is generally a good thing. We should never be content with sin in our lives, however. Any present known sin should cause us great anguish. Sin should keep us awake at night.

And let me add something important: Our anguish should not be that of a frightened child awaiting punishment. Instead, we should be upset because sin is blocking us from living the truly free, joyous life we are offered on a daily basis.

It’s less about the fear of a whipping and more about the simple fact that our sour, worried stomachs won’t let us eat the cake already set before us. Ongoing sin keeps us from experiencing now the happiness and sense of blessed assurance that we will have for all eternity in the direct presence of God.

I hope the idea of a life without sin—a life without sin’s accompanying worry, fear of embarrassment, sense of shame, and feeling you have betrayed The One who loves you most—intrigues you. I hope that as you imagine such a life, you think, “I want that.”

I pray you take your relationship with God seriously enough to make the sinless life the major goal of your life.

Most of us do not live as if we have made such a choice. Kids have a saying these days: “Meh.” It means they’re uncommitted, neither impressed nor unimpressed. Wesley once preached about what he called “Almost Christians.” When I look around me, I see a lot of “meh” Christians.

For many, a relationship with God is one checkbox on a long list of life goals, and it often is not even the first item on the list. Such an approach to life is a far cry from what Paul is encouraging.

Paul wants us to understand what it means to live life in the Spirit, the capital-S Spirit, by fully experiencing that life. I probably need to pause here for just a second—does everyone know what we mean by God’s Spirit?

The Spirit is God, God moving through us and among us. We know God in other ways, mostly now as stories of God as Father and God as Son at work in the world. As we conclude this Easter season, we need to remember that the resurrected Jesus is not the end of the story, not even after he ascended into Heaven. By reconciling us to God, Jesus the Son made it possible for God to once again touch us directly, and God now does so through his Spirit.

So, a simple question: Will you let God’s Spirit lead? In every moment? In every matter?

Back to that checklist most of us have either on paper or in our heads. Try this: First, take “relationship with God” off of it completely. The moment we make it one part of the list, we’ve completely missed the point of the relationship.

Next, say to yourself, “My relationship with God is so important that I will put everything on that list under God’s authority.” Look at that list: “God, are these items this part of your will? God, are these goals really what you want for me? God, does all this serve you?”

Where you hear “no,” ditch those items. Where you hear “yes,” by all means, focus there! And don’t be surprised if God starts adding items to your list, possibilities that surprise you.

The answers may not be immediate or obvious, but if you’re sincere in your approach to a life in the Spirit, the answers will become clear over time.

A few basic truths in all of this: If you’re not developing a deeper understanding of what is in the Bible, it’s very hard for you to be living a life in the Spirit. God has been making his introductions and clarifying his will for thousands of years—why would anyone seeking a deeper understanding of God’s will not explore the Bible thoroughly?

If you’re not praying earnestly, don’t expect to be able to discern God’s will amidst the din of a very loud, sin-filled world.

If it is not a priority for you to be in deep, sincere fellowship with other Christians, sharing in the larger, corporate Christian life, then you’re being quite “meh” about whether you want a life in the Spirit. Remember the Spirit works among believers as well as in believers, and one of the greatest confirmations we can have of God’s presence is corporate unity in the Spirit. Occasionally, we find ourselves aligned not only with each other in the present but also with the faithful saints of the past, and we know something beautiful has happened.

Remember to what you are being invited: a remaking, a complete refurbishing of who you are. Paul tells us that God’s Spirit was the active, very personal force in the resurrection of Christ and will be the active personal force in our remaking after death. And even in this life, there are new gifts, new abilities, and new opportunities when we open ourselves to the Spirit’s leading.

Who wouldn’t want the power of such a relationship with God in our lives now?

Next Sunday, we will celebrate the Christian Pentecost, and we will continue to consider what it means to fully submit ourselves to God’s leadership through his Spirit.

 

Choose Your Master

Romans 6:15-23 (NLT)

Well then, since God’s grace has set us free from the law, does that mean we can go on sinning? Of course not! Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living. Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living.

Because of the weakness of your human nature, I am using the illustration of slavery to help you understand all this. Previously, you let yourselves be slaves to impurity and lawlessness, which led ever deeper into sin. Now you must give yourselves to be slaves to righteous living so that you will become holy.

When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the obligation to do right. And what was the result? You are now ashamed of the things you used to do, things that end in eternal doom. But now you are free from the power of sin and have become slaves of God. Now you do those things that lead to holiness and result in eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.


Let’s start by looking at another important piece of Scripture in Acts 2:41-42, a picture of the church in its earliest days.

On Pentecost, after Jesus had ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit had fallen on Christ’s followers, Peter preached to curious people gathered in the streets. It was a most effective sermon.

“Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all,” the author of Acts tells us. “All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.”

Certainly, the grace of God was at work. People don’t come to a belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior unless God is at work. But in response, the believers did something, too.

They “devoted themselves.” They devoted themselves to study. The apostles would have used the Jewish Scriptures, what we now call the Old Testament, to help everyone understand who Jesus is in the context of Judaism.

They also devoted themselves to deep, deep fellowship. The church, the body of people who believed, became the center of most members’ lives. And they prayed, fervently.

Let’s name the key action again: They devoted themselves. To borrow from the imagery of a theologian named Helmut Thielicke, the believers opened their mouths so they could drink from the river of sanctifying grace. They were changed in the moment of salvation, and the change became an ongoing process that, with a little effort on their part, would continue for the rest of their lives.

Such effort is what Paul is describing in Romans. Paul uses a metaphor that can seem offensive today. If it makes you feel any better, it was offensive then—he practically apologizes for using it, saying the metaphor is necessary in order to penetrate weak, worldly minds.

If you’re going to be a Christian, you need to start thinking of yourself as an obedient slave, he says. Escaping the slavery of sin, you now must deliberately enslave yourselves to Christ.

Paul’s audiences, including us, find this offensive because of a delusion we like to maintain, the notion that we live our lives beholden to no one. We are, to use a very American word, independent people.

Yeah. Right. I remember thinking when I was a child, “I cannot wait until I grow up, because then no one will be able to tell me what to do.”

I grew up, and did I ever get a surprise. I had to get a job; with that job came a boss. I did what she told me to do, and I did what a series of bosses afterward told me to do. Even when I was a boss, I had a boss.

I continued my schooling in both college and seminary, and discovered those professors also had a lot of control over me. I appreciated the freedom of thought many of them gave me, but in the end, I did what they told me to do to earn those pieces of paper hanging on my wall.

Some of you here may be thinking, “Well, none of this applies to me now.” Maybe you’re retired or own your own business. “No one tells me what to do.”

Right. Call the IRS and inform them of your independence.

From a spiritual perspective, once we overcome the delusion of being beholden to no one, we should be delighted we can choose the perfect master. We have the opportunity to enslave ourselves to one who gives perfect, sacrificial love.

Our time as a slave to Christ is returned to us in immeasurably vast ways. We enslave our finite lives and receive eternal life.

Jesus said in Matthew 11:29-30: “Take my yoke upon you.” (When Jesus spoke, we were  metaphorically reduced to beasts of burden!) “Let me teach you because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find a rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

I don’t know about you, but I want a master who speaks such words, a master I can trust. To go back to last week’s imagery, I want to work in a safe field under a gentle master, with the assurance I have nothing to fear. When Satan was my master, fear ruled my day.

So, what does the new master call us to do? What are the tasks that “lead to holiness and result in eternal life?”

I hinted at them before as we looked at Acts. There is Scripture, where God reveals truth to us. There is fellowship, life in the church, where we find we are never alone. There is prayer.

Or, to boil it all down, there is a deep, loving relationship with the master and with each other.

Let me ask a question of those of you who are or have been married. If you spend just two minutes a day with your spouse, how will your marriage fare?

And yet, that’s how many of us approach our relationship with God, if we spend that much time. A quick devotional and we’re off to the daily races. We find time for other things—and there are so many other things—but God gets two minutes. Or less.

Saturday I saw some evidence of what it’s like to be in a community of people who take Scripture and prayer very seriously. Connie and I went to a gathering of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. It is a reform group within the United Methodist Church calling us as a denomination back to our roots as Jesus-centered, Holy Spirit-filled people rooted in Scripture.

I was sitting in a lecture on “The Call to Holiness” and the speaker referenced the image in the sixth chapter of Isaiah of the angels surrounding the throne of God, crying out to one another … .

Well, that’s when it became interesting. A large ballroom filled with people suddenly resounded with, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory!” The crowd had finished his sentence without missing a beat.

The speaker stopped in his tracks, his eyebrows raised in surprise.

Perhaps he was taken aback at being in a room full of Methodists who actually knew their Bible. Not only that, they knew their Bible well enough to speak in confidence and in unison.

Their knowledge also clearly enhanced their prayer lives. For you see, in their unified voices, they joined in a prayer of praise that we believe goes on for all eternity.

It was a Holy Spirit goosebumps sort of moment.

I want us as a little church in Ten Mile, Tennessee, to have such moments. I want us to all know the stories. I want our prayer lives to be rich.

Here’s what I will devote myself to today: I will do all I can to make such moments happen. It is my particular job as a particular slave to Christ to help us toward such moments.

I cannot do it alone, however. If you are willing to devote yourselves, come let me know, and we will find a way.

The Returning Fire

Acts 2:1-21

Fire dancing on the heads of the first Christians—that’s the primary image I get from Pentecost. It was not a burning fire, however. It was a spiritual fire entering them. Jesus sent them fire for their bellies.

And did it ever work. A people who had moved from cowering in fear to quietly praying and waiting suddenly ran into the streets declaring Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Crowds gathered; Peter preached. Three thousand new believers came to Christ that day.

Would you like to see something like that happen today? Would you like to see a returning fire in the bellies of American Christians? Would you like to have to figure out how to handle dozens, hundreds or even thousands of new Christians in our community all at once? (Yes, there are ways to organize for such events.)

Lord knows, we need such an awakening. I suspect the Lord simply waits on us to let it happen once again.

What led to that astonishing moment remains instructive for us today. In the events of Pentecost, I see how we can open ourselves to a new, fiery experience of the Holy Spirit.

As followers of Christ today, we know Christ told us to tell others that salvation is available. We also believe the Holy Spirit is at work in us. Logically, we should speak, knowing God’s work will be done in those who hear us.

Practically, however, most Christians seldom witness to others about their faith. I believe it is largely our fears that prevent the Holy Spirit from going to work through us—fear of not knowing what to say, fear of looking foolish, fear of making someone angry, fear of seeming different.

Stop cowering in fear. Like Jesus’ earliest followers, you’ve had some experience of the resurrection. Yeah, you didn’t see the risen Christ or see him ascend into heaven, but something brings you here. Some experience of Christ in your life, some sense of connection via the Holy Spirit, draws you.

As I said before, Jesus’ followers trusted their experiences, let fear go and began praying. What would happen to us if we went to praying, alone and in groups? I don’t just mean on Sunday, with congregants lifting up names and situations and the pastor saying words. I mean praying in our homes, in our workplaces, morning, noon and night, until we find ourselves living in a continuous state of prayer.

Something will happen. Something will happen. Of that, I have no doubt. New convictions and new gifts from the Spirit will come. At that point, we would be truly different from the world and even from most of the churches around us.

From there, the model is kindergarten simple, as simple as show and tell. You remember how show and tell works. You find something that excites you, you take it to class, and you show it off. Your friends are intrigued. They want to know more. You tell them more.

With the returning fire visibly working among us, Christian show and tell should become easy. We naturally will show more love, grace and forgiveness. There should be a core of joy that remains with us regardless of our circumstances. People should sit up and say, “I want what that person has.”

Get the show right, and the tell becomes easy. People probably won’t be converted by simply seeing actions, but many in this searching, jaded world at least will want to hear what we have to say. Peter began his sermon in answer to a question: “What does this mean?”

Yes, some sneered at what they saw in the believers; some will always sneer. Peter used their sneering as an opening to further capture the attention of the intrigued.

The sermon was straightforward. Peter was, after all, a simple man. He connected the Jewish audience to prophecy being fulfilled that day and in recent days prior. He declared Jesus to be their Messiah. He confronted them with the sin of not recognizing their Savior, of killing him. The 3,000 were “cut to the heart,” repented, and were baptized.

The tell is always the story of Jesus. God among us, Jesus taught love and forgiveness. He died on the cross to break the power of sin. He is risen. Each piece may need explaining, but the story is simple.

Prayer. Show and tell. Let’s try it. We will see the fire return again and again.

With Us in the Last Days

Acts 2:1-21

The most immediate and personal expression of God usually is the most difficult for us to comprehend.

For many Christians, the first story that comes to mind regarding the Holy Spirit is the one we celebrate at Pentecost, the falling of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ followers. While the Pentecost story found in Acts 2 is powerful, I have wondered if its mysterious tone contributes to the confusion even longtime Christians sometimes experience.

The Spirit rushed in like wind and danced like fire on about 120 of Jesus’ followers. They began to speak loudly in languages they did not previously know, attracting a crowd, some of whom accused them of being drunk.

In other words, the Spirit caused them to behave in a way that made people stare.

That can make people who don’t like to be stared at a little uncomfortable with the idea of encountering the Holy Spirit directly. Open yourself to the Spirit, and hey, the next thing you know, you might be speaking in tongues. (Speaking in tongues is biblical, by the way, although the gift should be used with limitations; see 1 Corinthians 14.)

It helps me to spend time studying what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit’s purpose in John’s gospel, specifically, in chapters 15 and 16. It is a purpose designed for the last days, the era between the Spirit’s arrival and the return of Christ, the era we live in now.

Working through us, the Holy Spirit accomplishes three particular tasks, laid out in John 16:8-11.

Task no. 1 is to provide a clear definition of sin. In this new era, all sin is rooted in the failure to fully declare in our hearts and with our mouths that Jesus is our savior. When we do this—when we humble ourselves enough to say we are dependent on God and cannot save ourselves through strength, intellect, wealth or power—we open ourselves to discerning what is and is not God’s will.

For most Christians, even devoted ones, it remains an imperfect understanding, of course. So many aspects of our broken humanity, in particular our emotions, still get in the way. That is why Scripture remains so important to us, even with the Spirit at work in us. We know God is unchanging, and that thoughts and feelings we experience cannot be from God if they conflict with clear scriptural teachings. We are blessed in the last days with dual revelations co-witnessing to Christ, one written for our eyes and one whispered to our spirits.

Task no. 2 is to declare to the world that Jesus is right in what he taught and continues to teach through the Holy Spirit. Now, it is not politically correct these days to declare anyone right. “Tolerant” has replaced “righteous” as the secular description of an upstanding member of the community. But guided by the Holy Spirit, we are to share with the world the definition for righteousness, as provided by God. Jesus, as revealed in the Bible, is the shining example of righteousness.

This is not as harsh a task as it might sound. The word “righteous” can have such negative connotations. But remember, from a Christian perspective, righteousness is best defined as loving God completely while at the same time loving other people as we want to be loved. We obey God, but a big part of that obedience is loving and forgiving people who are difficult to love, even when their sin touches us negatively in some way.

Task no. 3 is to declare that judgment already has come and remains under way. When Jesus said “It is finished” on the cross, he meant that his work to break the power of evil in this world is complete. As terrible and messy as it can be at times, our fight with evil is now a mop-up operation. The evil spiritual forces opposing God know they have been defeated because God’s Spirit is visible to them in the world.

Note that all of this involves our active participation. God wants us to play a part, in the process growing into the beings he intended us to be. Trusting the Holy Spirit, we are a people who are working to expand Christ’s kingdom and waiting for Christ’s return.

We may have other work we do to get by, along the lines of Paul continuing to make tents while in Corinth, but service to God’s kingdom is our primary reason to exist. Anything we put ahead of that responsibility likely is an idol.

Let me add something important: It is glorious work. If you seek meaning in life, know that the moments you walk hand-in-hand with the Holy Spirit to serve God’s kingdom will be your best moments. We can even make what should have been otherwise mundane moments shine with the glory of God, if only we learn to constantly look for opportunities to let the Holy Spirit work through us.

Hear again the mystery in Peter’s words as he speaks of people working in conjunction with the Holy Spirit in these last days:

“Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”

If you want a life that is more than what you feel you have now—if you want a life that transcends a normal life—engage fully with God’s Spirit. He is available to you always through prayer and meditation, in the sacraments, through Scripture, and in all those other places God has promised to meet you.

A Temporary Goodbye

He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

Many of us who are Methodists make this statement every Sunday as part of the Apostles’ Creed. This declaration of the importance of “the ascension” seems to flow naturally from our affirmations that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins, and that he was resurrected from the dead.

In conversations with fellow churchgoers, however, it sometimes seems the ascension is more tightly wrapped in mystery than the idea of the crucifixion and resurrection. (Not that we can fully grasp those two astonishing ideas!)

As best we can, we want to understand all three ideas—crucifixion, resurrection and ascension—so we can see how they work together to make salvation possible.

The key to understanding the ascension is to comprehend what ascends, what is carried “up.”

Luke, a companion of the Apostle Paul, gives us accounts of the ascension in the end of the gospel of Luke and the beginning of the book of Acts. After appearing repeatedly to his followers in his resurrected form, Jesus led them about two miles outside Jerusalem to Bethany.

He then did several important things: He opened their minds to understand the Jewish Scriptures, in particular how they predicted Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He told his followers they would spread throughout the world the good news that salvation is available. He promised them the Holy Spirit would come to empower and support them.

And then the ascension happened. It’s described a bit mysteriously; in Luke, Jesus “withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” In Acts, we get a little more detail, where we learn “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”

When explaining all this to Luke, Jesus’ followers were trying to describe something almost incomprehensible, the visible crossing of Christ from one plane of existence to the next. They struggled for words as children sometimes struggle when confronted with a new idea.

A couple of years ago, at the funeral of my wife’s aunt, the preacher had a unique habit of kneeling whenever he prayed, even if he was standing behind the pulpit. At one point as he kneeled to pray, disappearing like a puppet behind a box, a three-year-old girl asked loudly, “Where’d he go?” I wonder if some of Jesus’ followers uttered a similar phrase in Aramaic as the Christ vanished from sight in such a mysterious way.

The point of the account as described by Luke is that Jesus physically left this world and entered the realm of the holy, God’s abode, the place where only things unstained by sin can go.

Later in Acts, the first martyr, Stephen, cried out shortly before being stoned to death, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” From this we see that the earliest Christians understood that after the ascension, Jesus resumed his role as part of what theologians sometimes call the “Godhead,” God in all of his aspects.

So, why does it matter that Jesus ascended into heaven? Well, it matters because of what Jesus took with him—his resurrected human body. Human flesh now exists as part of the Godhead, a strange change in the nature of heaven. What was unacceptable anywhere near the throne is now on the throne.

And that is why salvation is now so easy for us, if we will only believe that Jesus died to free us from punishment for our sins. When we appeal to God in heaven, we are appealing to the one who loves us so much that he made himself like us in order to save us.

We’re also to understand that Christ’s return, perhaps to occur while we are all alive, will be a real, physical event, a moment when God-in-flesh will once again stand within his creation and claim it as his own.

I also should point out that the ascension left something of a void. For a brief time, humanity was again separated from the full presence of God. But then, just as Jesus had promised, something came down, another aspect of God, the Holy Spirit.

That’s an event we celebrate next Sunday, which is Pentecost.

Permeable People

Jesus had followers throughout his ministry, and after witnessing part or all of his torture, death and resurrection, some continued to follow him in a mixed state of wonder and confusion over the miracle they were seeing.

These people were the hard-core believers. They still did not constitute a church, however, at least not in the proper sense of the word. Something was lacking, something Jesus had promised would come.

Pentecost Sunday marks the arrival of that something, which is, of course, the Holy Spirit. The life force had arrived; the church was born. And we are forced to consider our relationship with God in a whole new way.

God the Father is a revelation of God outside all things, over all things. God the Son, Jesus, is God voluntarily reducing himself to experience human flesh, standing before us, alongside us, in solidarity with us. Those both are wonderful revelations of the One True God.

God the Holy Spirit, however, is God working within us. And that is what makes this expression of God the most mysterious and sometimes the most frightening. God the Father and God the Son can be kept at arm’s length, treated as historical evidence of God’s existence. It’s possible to talk about those two revelations all day, even lifting up praise for them, and never really have to encounter them.

The Holy Spirit, however, is more intense than God in your face. He is God in your gut, eyeball to eyeball with your soul.

Not that God is rude. He will examine you from the inside out and challenge what he finds there, but only if you let him. He’ll even remake what he finds there, but again, only if you let him. And letting him in does require a willful act or two.

"Pentecost," Josef Ignaz Mildorfer, circa 1750, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“Pentecost,” Josef Ignaz Mildorfer, circa 1750, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Look at the story of Pentecost, in Acts 2:1-21. In fact, go back just a little earlier, to Acts 1:13-14. What were the believers doing before the Spirit arrived? Well, they were doing the work of the church, even though they were not yet fully a church. Before ascending into heaven, Jesus told them to go into Jerusalem and wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Clearly, the followers didn’t see waiting as a passive activity. They prayed intently. They searched what we now think of as the Old Testament for evidence of how to organize, and they treated what they found there as truth.

In other words, they made themselves permeable people, ready to soak up the Spirit when he arrived, surrendering themselves fully to the work God wanted to do in them.

It was a mighty change. Any confusion or dull-mindedness about the resurrection vanished; 120 people were of one mind, declaring Jesus the Christ and the availability of salvation to all. Language was no barrier. Peter delivered one incredible sermon, so powerful that the church’s numbers on its first day swelled to more than 3,000 before the sun set.

Long before he went to the cross, Jesus said such incredible availability of the Spirit would happen. In John 7:37-39, Jesus invited those who believe in him to “drink,” and be filled in a way that “rivers of living water” will flow out of them. The author of this gospel made clear Jesus was referring to the work of the Spirit.

It is an image that stirs my soul. God has promised that if we let him in—if we drink him in by opening our mouths in prayer and our minds to God’s word—his Spirit will overwhelm us and then pour out on those around us.

God, help us with our impermeability. We stand in the flow of your Spirit, but so often we behave more like rocks than sponges, your Spirit flowing around us rather than through us.

Drive away fear of change, Lord. Make us certain that the new shape you give us as you cleanse us and fill us is more pleasing and joyous than what we were before.

And may we become your reservoirs of living water, Lord, available to all who need to know you. May we speak your truth and draw others to Jesus Christ. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.