prayer

The Mission

We are in what I think of as “the long goodbye” in Romans, a typical conclusion for one of Paul’s letters. As we explore Romans 15:14-33, let’s break it into pieces and consider what the apostle is saying.

I am fully convinced, my dear brothers and sisters, that you are full of goodness. You know these things so well you can teach each other all about them. Even so, I have been bold enough to write about some of these points, knowing that all you need is this reminder. For by God’s grace, I am a special messenger from Christ Jesus to you Gentiles. I bring you the Good News so that I might present you as an acceptable offering to God, made holy by the Holy Spirit.​

Paul treats these Roman Christians he has yet to meet as knowledgeable about their faith. But like us, even knowledgeable people need a reminder from time to time about what is important. That’s an important function of Paul’s letter to the Romans: It reminds us of core truths that must never be forgotten by Christians.

There is what Paul calls the Good News, of course, the truth about Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection and what that means for a world struggling against sin. Paul also gives us a call to holiness.

Paul’s “acceptable offering” language creates an interesting metaphor. It is as if Paul puts himself in the ancient role of priest, doing all he can do to make the sacrifice holy and acceptable to God. But no longer are animals slaughtered in sacrifice; instead, we rely on Christ’s perfect sacrifice for all sin. Sanctification now happens as we allow the Spirit to make us holy in anticipation of eternal life with God.

So I have reason to be enthusiastic about all Christ Jesus has done through me in my service to God. Yet I dare not boast about anything except what Christ has done through me, bringing the Gentiles to God by my message and by the way I worked among them. They were convinced by the power of miraculous signs and wonders and by the power of God’s Spirit. In this way, I have fully presented the Good News of Christ from Jerusalem all the way to Illyricum.

Paul is happy to declare the great miracles that have occurred during his ministry, but he is careful to give credit to God. He has followed a long, circuitous path as he has spread the Good News, and God has been with him every step of the way.

We should remember the kind of man Paul was before his almost forced conversion. He was a dangerous enemy of Christians, bent on their destruction. But God had need of him, and he became just as passionate a servant of Jesus Christ.

This also is a good time to remember the miracles associated with Paul in the Book of Acts. If you want a little extra study time, look for miracle stories in Acts 13, 14, 16, 19, 20 and 28. In a couple of them, it’s interesting to note how Paul suffered for doing God’s work.

My ambition has always been to preach the Good News where the name of Christ has never been heard, rather than where a church has already been started by someone else. I have been following the plan spoken of in the Scriptures, where it says,

“Those who have never been told about him will see,
   and those who have never heard of him will understand.”

In fact, my visit to you has been delayed so long because I have been preaching in these places.

But now I have finished my work in these regions, and after all these long years of waiting, I am eager to visit you. I am planning to go to Spain, and when I do, I will stop off in Rome. And after I have enjoyed your fellowship for a little while, you can provide for my journey.

When we call Paul an “apostle,” we specifically mean he spread the Good News where it had not been heard, staying long enough to establish Christian communities before moving on. His desire to continue such work remains, but he also is seeing a refinement to his calling. God is about to send him in a new direction, and to do so, he will need fresh relationships and a support system based in Rome.

For us, Paul’s situation is a reminder to seek whether God is calling us to make adjustments in how we serve the kingdom. We want to be committed in our work, but perhaps it is a dangerous thing to become too comfortable in our work. We must remain ready to adapt.

But before I come, I must go to Jerusalem to take a gift to the believers there. For you see, the believers in Macedonia and Achaia have eagerly taken up an offering for the poor among the believers in Jerusalem. They were glad to do this because they feel they owe a real debt to them. Since the Gentiles received the spiritual blessings of the Good News from the believers in Jerusalem, they feel the least they can do in return is to help them financially. As soon as I have delivered this money and completed this good deed of theirs, I will come to see you on my way to Spain. And I am sure that when I come, Christ will richly bless our time together.

Before going to Rome, Paul is hoping to bring some healing to a serious rift in the church, the one between Christians of Jewish descent and Christians of Gentile descent. The dispute over whether Gentiles should be made to live like Jews if they want to be Christians has created hard feelings. The very Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem has fallen on difficult times, and despite the rift the Gentile Christians have cobbled together a significant gift to help them.

Rather than sending someone in the role of courier, Paul wants to deliver the funds himself, to ensure the good-hearted intent of the gift is clear and fellowship is restored. This is a dangerous strategy for him. Once a budding leader among the Pharisees, Paul is now a pariah among Jews who do not believe in Jesus. But he believes there is an antidote to this danger:

Dear brothers and sisters, I urge you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to join in my struggle by praying to God for me. Do this because of your love for me, given to you by the Holy Spirit. Pray that I will be rescued from those in Judea who refuse to obey God. Pray also that the believers there will be willing to accept the donation I am taking to Jerusalem. Then, by the will of God, I will be able to come to you with a joyful heart, and we will be an encouragement to each other.

The antidote, of course, is prayer. Yes, Paul clearly has God on his side. Yes, Paul has been able to do great signs and wonders. And yet Paul still humbly covets the prayers of other Christians.

Why do we pray? There are lots of reasons, but here’s a practical one you may not have considered: The Christians who have exhibited the greatest power and most effective ministries in history have rooted all they do in prayer. Why question what works?

We also see that Paul has an unusual concern about Jerusalem. He fears that once he gets there, the Jewish Christians may reject a gift from “unclean” Gentiles. He’s praying their hearts be accepting and full of love.

And now may God, who gives us his peace, be with you all. Amen.

Paul, in the midst of so much contention and so much concern, speaks of peace so freely. We’ve seen a lot of strife and anxiety in our world the past few months. I pray that we continue to sense God’s peace, and to be bearers of peace to others.

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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.

God and Governance

1 Timothy 2:1-7
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For

there is one God;
   there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
   who gave himself a ransom for all
—this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.


In these highly politicized times, this Scripture will make more than a few folks squirm.

First, let me state what is probably obvious to most people at least half awake the last few years. We are a polarized people. We’ve seen the left and right run toward their extreme edges, leaving a void in the middle. Far behind us are the days of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill sitting down in a room and hashing out a way to govern despite their political differences.

And then there’s this ongoing presidential election, where the major parties are running candidates who, according to the polls, are both disliked by more than half the voters. In other words, every other person you meet is considering a hold-your-nose-to-vote election day scenario.

So, let me ask you the tough questions the Apostle Paul has raised for us. For the last eight years, have you been praying for our president? Regardless of what you may think of him?

Will you pray for our next president, regardless of who she or he may be?

I suspect some of us are blanching at the idea. Me, pray for him? Me, lift her up to God for support and sustenance?

Our situation could be worse, however. Just in case you’re thinking, “How could Paul suggest we do such a thing,” let’s take a moment to consider the context of his words.

The worldly leader of leaders in Paul’s day was the Emperor Nero. Yes, that Nero. The Nero who persecuted the Christians, having them dipped in tar and turned into human torches, or letting them be torn apart by wild animals for sport. The insane Nero, the evil Nero, the guy likely assigned the code number “666” by the author of Revelation.

Paul was telling Timothy to pray for the worst leader you could imagine, and for all of his flunkies. And frankly, as strange as Paul’s request sounds, there is some incredibly powerful Christian logic here, a logic rooted in Old Testament teachings. Proverbs 21:1 makes clear God can control the will of any leader; the prophet Jeremiah exhorted the Jews in exile to pray for their captors, knowing that if their captors were at peace and blessed, the Jews would be at peace and blessed, too.

We pray assuming God can change anyone so he or she is inclined to do God’s will. It is of course a good thing when our leaders follow God’s will, even if they have not done so in the past. Paul is essentially saying, “If they begin to listen to and follow God, things will be better for all of us.”

He goes on to emphasize there is but one path, one God and one mediator, Jesus, who is the Christ. Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins, regardless of whether we sit in a palace or sift through a dung heap for a living.

In a way, Paul’s (and Timothy’s, we must presume) prayers do seem to have borne fruit, although not in time to save Paul from martyrdom. Nero’s empire eventually passed into the hands of other emperors, until one day it finally belonged to Constantine, who made Christianity the official religion.

Some people debate whether it was really a good thing for countercultural Christianity to suddenly be acceptable in the halls of power, but one thing is for sure—the alignment of the empire’s leaders with the faith sped the spread of Christianity.

So, if you’re one of the many folks who lie awake at night worrying about this nation’s future, quit worrying and start praying. Certainly, pray for the leaders you like. But also pray fervently and regularly for the leaders you feel are not aligned with God.

Pray for all the people who might lead us soon. God may do great things in their hearts, working through them to awaken this nation to its role in Christ’s kingdom.

 

A Truthsayer’s Respite

We’ve heard two stories about the Prophet Elijah, both making clear the tremendous power God showed through this truthsayer. At a word, Elijah could make it rain or not rain. With an intense prayer, he could save the life of a young boy. The prophet even could call down fire from the sky, vanquishing enemy priests in the process.

In 1 Kings 19:1-15, we see the difficult side of engaging with God in such direct ways. We are reminded how human even the most faithful of us are, and how patient God is. Take time to read the story, please, before you go further.

So, what happened to Elijah? How can a man working so confidently on God’s behalf suddenly collapse into a catatonic mess?

We get no explanation from the story, or at least no direct answer. Jezebel threatened Elijah’s life—old news, really—and suddenly he was full of fear and fleeing into the wilderness. I think the answer is simple however, and familiar to anyone who has ever tried to do the Lord’s work.

Elijah simply was tired. Dog tired. Worn out. Driven by love for God and his people, the prophet had pushed himself to a physical and emotional breaking point, and then he broke. He needed a rest. Win or lose, battling evil is exhausting.

The beauty in the story is how God, through his angels, met Elijah in his need. There is a sense of urgency that the prophet “get back in the game,” so to speak, but God also had a deep desire to care for this man who had given so much. The food Elijah initially received was enough to propel him 40 days deeper into the wilderness.

To go on with his calling, the now-complaining Elijah had to encounter God directly. Not only that, he had to still himself, center himself, and calm himself enough to remember that God only occasionally chooses to speak through fire falling from the sky. God’s usual way of communicating is still and soft. You have to wait for his voice, even strain to hear it.

Are you starting to hear the lesson? All of us who take on Christian identity will find ourselves called to serve the kingdom in some particular way. Let me go ahead and tell you the tough news now. Life won’t get easier when you try to do God’s work. Life will get harder.

Evil will threaten you and try to deter you. And yes, you will get tired.

There is heavenly food and water galore, however. Don’t struggle and strain and then nearly die of spiritual starvation before consuming it.

There is God’s word. You know whether you’re in the Bible. I know whether I’m in it. Get in it. Get in it in Sunday school. Get in it in a small group in someone’s home. Dig into it in your private time. Devour it. Let God’s revelation of his truth lift you up and carry you along.

There is prayer. You don’t have to rattle on all day, working your way through mental lists of people and situations. It is good and important to pray for others, but I’m talking about developing the kind of prayer time where you connect, the kind where you breathe so God’s whispered response moves to the depth of your soul.

There is the ekklesia, the gathering of believers, the church. Perhaps Elijah’s greatest problem was loneliness. As he complained, he kept going back to that theme: I alone am left, I alone am left. You are not alone, not ever, for Christ has come and left us with his Holy Spirit to gather us, bind us, and help us work together as a church.

Lord, grant us great strength and energy as we work in your name. Elijah moved his people toward renewed holiness and understanding of God. Help us to do the same as we join in your renewing work made possible by Jesus Christ. May we complete with joy the journey to the great city, the eternal life you have promised your followers.


The featured image is “Elijah and the Angel,” 1898, Providence Lithograph Company.

The Cure for Doubt

John 20:19-31

Nonbelievers aren’t the only ones with doubts. People who call themselves Christian sometimes have doubts about Jesus, the resurrection, and how it all applies to them.

It’s not surprising we can struggle in such ways. The Easter story lives on the edge of fantasy—a man most undeniably dead leaves his rock-sealed, heavily guarded tomb and appears to hundreds in an indestructible state. Even more remarkable, we are to understand this event as a mere beginning, a foreshadowing of a radical change in creation that eventually will result in our own transforming, death-defeating resurrections.

Our doubts arise for a simple reason. Despite the promises of the Easter story, the world keeps smacking us around. We lose people close to us. Worry about the immediate future overwhelms us. Sometimes we simply experience intellectual doubt, our rational minds telling us to stick to what we can see as the basis for reality.

In today’s resurrection story in the Gospel of John, we find the disciple Thomas very doubtful. Thomas had seen the man he called teacher, Lord and master crushed by the power of the world, and he quickly fell into a rigid cynicism. Even when his fellow disciples excitedly told him they had seen the risen Christ, he was not impressed.

Let me see the hands, he said. Let me stick my fingers in that horrible wound in his side. I wonder if we’re supposed to read his words with a tone of bitter sarcasm. “Look, they riddled him with holes, including a spear-sized one running through his lungs and heart,” I hear him saying in the deepest, darkest corner of his soul. “You really think he is walking around?”

Thomas had to wait a week, but Jesus accommodated his request, appearing for his wavering disciple’s sake. Touch the wounds, Jesus said. Believe.

We see Thomas’ doubt cured. I believe that in this story we also can find a cure for our own doubts.

Even if we don’t see Christ physically present, our doubts can be relieved by an inner experience of God. That idea certainly fits with today’s story. Even the disciples needed to experience something more than the physical Christ to grasp the truth of Christ’s resurrection. This is why we have this account of Christ breathing on them, providing an early Pentecost, an experience of the Holy Spirit to sustain them.

The risen Christ breathes on us, too. We simply have to put aside doubt long enough to open ourselves to a similar encounter with the Holy Spirit, that aspect of God resident in Christ.

I am perplexed by how resistant people are to the simple acts that trigger the experience, even people who have long called themselves Christians. When I spend time with Christians struggling with doubt, I find they have a basic problem: They’ve forgotten how to spend time with the one who gave them their first taste of eternal life.

We encounter God most directly by spending time in prayer, learning the stories of the Bible, and worshiping so the Holy Spirit can work in us and through us as a group.

I know. I sometimes sound like a broken record with all this talk about praying, reading our Bibles and going to church. It is the Methodist in me. We suffer needlessly when we fail to methodically use the means God has given us to draw near him. When we do draw near, we allow God’s Spirit to whisper to our spirits.

Those who spend significant time in such activities can testify that the ensuing experience is as good as seeing Jesus in the room. Christ breathes on us, and doubt flees.

A Mighty Prayer for a Mighty Church

Ephesians 1:15-23

Some people want to declare Christianity a dying part of our culture here in the United States. Our Ephesians text today reminds me of how quickly any local church can move back toward life and vitality, and the simple step to make such a reversal happen.

The Apostle Paul, who many scholars believe was imprisoned in Rome when he wrote this letter, described the church at Ephesus in a way most churches would like to be described. The Ephesian Christians first of all had faith in Jesus. It almost sounds like a “duh” statement—the Christians had faith in Christ.

But is it? It’s not unusual for churches to lose track of why they exist. Perhaps this was also a problem in the early days of Christianity. So much has to be managed on a daily basis, even in a small church. In Acts, we see the early church in Jerusalem struggling with an administrative matter, how to ensure proper, fair care for all the widows in the church, and division ensued. Such day-to-day concerns can cause us to forget why we cluster together in the first place, and likely were as much a danger to churches then as they are now.

The Ephesians, however, must have been keeping their eyes on Christ—on the stories they had learned about their Savior, on the evidence and miracles provided by the apostles and other leaders of the church. This is what any healthy church must do. Want to know the most important way to hold pastors and teachers accountable? If you’re not hearing from them regularly about Christ’s work on the cross and the power of the resurrection, call them on that omission.

Paul also described the Ephesians as being loving “toward all the saints.” This is usually interpreted to mean the church at Ephesus was involved in supporting Christian congregations and ministries (Paul’s, for example) in other parts of the known world. The church was what we Methodists call “connectional.” We know we have to go beyond our own communities. There is strength in unity with Christians, even the ones we may never meet in person in this life.

The Ephesian Christians sound like what we would call a strong church. They also sound like a lot of churches I know today—committed to Christ and loving and caring for one another. But what Paul described was not the be-all and end-all for church life. Something much greater was and is possible.

Paul began to outline his prayer for the Ephesians, a prayer best described by one word: “ongoing.” Now, there’s no doubt the Christians at Ephesus already had received wisdom and revelations from God regarding their particular role in the growing kingdom of God. But there was more, Paul said, an ongoing growth in understanding.

He spoke of the kind of growth in understanding that comes from a long-term relationship, growth similar to what you see in a holy marriage or a decades-long friendship. No matter how much Christ is known, he is eternal and can be known more and more.

As we know him more, the “eyes of our hearts” are enlightened, and we better understand the hope we have and the true riches that are ours, changes in our lives given to us in ever-increasing quantities by the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

So, how does a Christ-centered, loving church seek more? Paul modeled the method, saying he would pray for the Christians at Ephesus without ceasing. By this, he certainly meant he would incorporate them in his regular prayer time. He also could be pointing to the incorporation of prayer into the heart, along the lines of what we see in the Christian classic “The Way of a Pilgrim,” where every breath becomes a prayer, a connection to God.

We have to ask ourselves, as a church, are we praying enough? Are we praying deeply enough as a group? Are the eyes of our hearts open wide enough to truly see and trust God’s power?

God, may your Spirit guide us and teach us to pray. My the vitality we find draw others to us.

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.