Like many of us, I found this week’s D-Day commemorations very moving. I was in awe of the courage and bravery shown by those soldiers, sailors and airmen who landed on Normandy’s beaches to liberate western Europe 75 years ago.
It is hard to pinpoint what motivated those men and women to such courage. Perhaps it was patriotism, or comradeship, or the inspirational leadership of Churchill, Eisenhower or General Montgomery.
Today, we shall be thinking about what – or more precisely who – it is who unites and equips the Church. To use a military metaphor, we’ll be thinking about the general who gives Christians the inspiration, skills and stamina we need to follow Jesus.
Today, on this Pentecost Sunday, we should be reminded that it is God’s Holy Spirit who performs this role. It is the Holy Spirit who makes us God’s children and who conforms us to the likeness of Christ. It is the Spirit who is giving us the gifts and skills we need to be God’s people in the world today.
But before I go further, let me pray: Father, thank you for your gift of the Holy Spirit. Help us to understand and appreciate his work in our lives today. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.
Pentecost…a promise kept!
If you are familiar with the Old Testament, you will know that as well as few famous highlights (such as the Exodus) it also contains many disappointments and sadnesses too. The people of Israel were never able to enjoy perfect harmony with God or with their neighbours. This disharmony reached its climax with the exile to Babylon in around 590 BC, when many Jews were deported from the Promised Land, the monarchy was toppled, Jerusalem fell and the temple was destroyed. All hope seemed lost.
Yet the Old Testament did contain seeds of hope, promises of a better future. Prophets like Joel and Ezekiel predicted that God would one day pour out his Spirit on all his people. On everyone who knew and loved him, whether Jew or Gentile.
Jesus himself reiterated these Old Testament promises during his own ministry. As we heard last week, on Ascension Day he promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would shortly come upon them. He was going up, but the gift of the Spirit would shortly come down.
This promise was fulfilled a few days later, at the feast of Pentecost. As described in our reading from Acts this morning, the Holy Spirit fell on the first disciples with tongues of fire. The promised gift of God had been given, and the Holy Spirit continues to be given to every Christian believer to this day. If you have faith in Christ, then the Holy Spirit has taken up residence in your heart.
But what is the Spirit’s work within us? What does he do within our hearts? I think our passage from Galatians this morning helps us to identify two things the Spirit does for us. He makes us children of God and transforms us into the family likeness. In other words, he enables us to call God Father, and makes us more like God’s Son. Let’s briefly look at both these things in turn.
The Spirit…makes us children of God
Last Autumn I took my first assembly at Ashton Hayes Primary School. Before I began, I was introduced to the pupils by Mr Hover, the headteacher. He told the children that they had to call me “Reverend Phil” or “Mr Weston”. But I interrupted him to say that two pupils were allowed to call me by a different name – “Daddy”. To their great embarrassment, I then pointed out my son James and daughter Alice, sitting cross-legged with their new classmates.
James and Alice can call me “Daddy” because they have a much closer, deeper relationship with me than any of their classmates. They don’t have to wait until I next take assembly at school to meet with me. They don’t need to ask permission to talk to me. Alice and James know they can approach me at any time, and usually(!) expect to receive my full attention and affection.
The excellent news in our Galatians passage today is that Christians can enjoy the same relationship with God. The Holy Spirit enables Christians to call God our Father. Spirit-filled Christians can enjoy the same level of access and intimacy with God that a child enjoys with his or her human father.
As Paul says in verse 6 says today, “Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father’”. Abba is an Aramaic word – a word that is close in meaning to ‘Dad’ or ‘Daddy’. A word that conveys love, trust and total dependence.
This is great news, isn’t it? It means that as Christians we don’t approach God as a distant Creator, as a stern Judge or as a ‘Headmaster in Heaven’. On the contrary, it means we approach him as a loving parent. As someone who knows us intimately. Someone who loves us dearly. Someone on whom we can totally depend.
When Christians call out to God, he doesn’t look down on us as mere creatures or as anonymous offspring, but as his Spirit-filled children – as his adopted sons and daughters. This is a truth that should give us great confidence that our prayers are heard. A truth that should inspire us to pray more frequently to our Heavenly Father. A truth that should encourage us to ask for the help of the Holy Spirit whenever we pray.
The Spirit…conforms us to the family likeness!
As well as being able to call God ‘Father’, Christians are also being made into the family likeness. One of the great works the Spirit does within us is to make us more like Christ in our belief and behaviour.
Family members often have a physical resemblance to one another. The same hair colour, similar facial features, a similar height and build etc. People instantly recognise me as my father’s son for example – we are both tall, slim and thinning on top! As biological relatives, my father and I share a family likeness.
The same is true for spiritual relatives. As Christians’ our actions and attitudes, rather than our physical appearance, will begin to show a family resemblance. As the Holy Spirit gets to work in our lives, all our characters will increasingly look like Christ’s. As sons and daughters of God we will become more like THE Son of God.
In verses 1 to 3 of our Galatians reading, Paul doesn’t mince his words. He describes the Galatians’ pre-Christian experience as “slavery”. Before they became Christians they were slaves to “the elemental spiritual forces of the world,” he says. They were powerless to live a life wholly pleasing to God.
To put it another way, they were enslaved to the temptations of the flesh, the world and the devil. On our own, says Paul, we human beings lack the inner strength and stamina to consistently do what us right in God’s sight. We need external help to be holy – and that’s where the Holy Spirit comes in!
If we are Christians we are ‘a work in progress’. We are a construction site (you might say), where God’s Spirit is building a Christ-like character within us.
Over time, the Holy Spirit will make us more holy and assure us we are God’s children. He will ‘sanctify’ our hearts and minds to make our beliefs and behaviour more like Jesus’.
In particular, the Holy Spirit will produce his fruit in our lives. Fruit like kindness, love, gentleness and self-control. Characteristics that Jesus exhibited throughout in his earthly life. Fruit we will be thinking more about next Sunday.
But for now, Pentecost Sunday is the perfect opportunity to pray that God’s Spirit will make each of us a little more like Christ. Pentecost is the ideal occasion to ask the Holy Spirit to point out areas of our life where he wants us to change. Today is a great time to ask for his help become more like the Lord Jesus.
The Spirit…is a gift that keeps on giving!
I hope this morning we have received a taste of what God’s Holy Spirit has to offer us.
If I had more time I could say more about the special gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to Christian believers. Special spiritual gifts that equip Christians to serve one another and grow the church – gifts like leadership, administrative skills, evangelism, faith, healing ability and prophetic knowledge. Gifts to be used for the common good and the glory of God.
And the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit is yet to come. One day it will be the Holy Spirit who gives us new bodies in a new creation. It will be the power of the Holy Spirit that will give us glorified bodies in the world to come. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, “he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.”
You see, our experience of the Spirit’s work today is just a foretaste, a down payment, of the great gift of eternal life every Christian will receive from him one day. He truly is the gift who keeps on giving!
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