You all remember Peter, don’t you? One of the very first people to jump on the Jesus bandwagon, THE first to declare that Jesus was the Messiah. He travelled with Jesus and listened to him teach, witnessed his miracles…
Peter may have been on the right track in following Jesus, but he’s also a person we remember well for his mistakes and failures. When he saw Jesus walking on water, he decided that maybe he could do it too and so HE stepped out onto the water. Jesus had to rescue him.
This same Peter vowed that he would never leave Jesus’ side. And only hours later, after Jesus was arrested, Peter denied to three different people that he even knew Jesus at all! By the time Jesus was being crucified, he was nowhere to be seen.
Peter was, by many accounts, a pretty ineffective disciple to start out with. A mess, quite frankly.
But that’s not the end of Peter’s story. Only a little later in his life, he spoke before a crowd of people and over 3,000 of them believed his words and became followers of Jesus. His words deeply moved people and brought them into God’s presence. Soon after that he stood before the very same court that had Jesus crucified and, rather than backing off as he had before, he preached boldly about salvation and resurrection in Jesus’ name. Not to mention the fact that he healed a man who had been unable to walk for over 40 years. Peter became the leader of the movement that became the Church throughout the world.
So what changed? What changed Peter from a bumbling, ineffective, and fear-filled man to one that preached and healed and led a budding movement with power and authority and great effectiveness?
One thing. One thing happened. Peter received the Holy Spirit. The presence of the Holy Spirit changed him from weak to strong, changed from fearful to bold, changed from ineffective into the Rock upon which Christ built his Church. The Holy Spirit empowered Peter to become an unstoppable force of God’s grace in the world. And it was the Holy Spirit that made that difference.
This morning we’re talking about that difference. That difference that the Holy Spirit makes in our world. That difference the Holy Spirit makes in our lives. So we’re focusing this Back to Basics sermon on the Holy Spirit.
When Brian and I were discussing this sermon, he suggested we make a job description for the Holy Spirit. If the position of Holy Spirit were up for employment, what would a brief description of the position entail? I asked him, why a job description? His response was immediate: "Because the Holy Spirit is the part of God that is always at work! If the Holy Spirit weren’t working, it wouldn’t really be the Holy Spirit!" Because at its core, that’s our basic understanding as Christians – the Holy Spirit is God at work in our world, in our lives, in our communities.
Three main images are used for the Holy Spirit in the Bible – wind, breath, and fire. The interesting thing about all three is that they are active. We can talk about God the Father being a rock or a fortress or a shelter. We can talk about God the Son being a redeemer or a savior or a deliverer. But when it comes to God the Holy Spirit, we need an image that is in motion and that is active. Even though wind, breath, and fire are things that can’t be grasped or controlled, they are all things that carry power and life in them. And all must be in motion. If the wind stops blowing, it stops being the wind. If a breath stops inhaling and exhaling, it stops being a breath. If a flame stops burning, it stops being a fire. Likewise, if the Holy Spirit stops its motion, if it stops its work, I believe it stops being the Holy Spirit. It simply must be active!
For the Holy Spirit is the part of God that is always in motion, constantly drawing the world in to God, reminding us of God’s ways, and teaching the world about the things of God. We learn about and see the work of God the Father and Jesus the Son in Scriptures and in the world around us, but most of our actual experiences of God are experiences of the Holy Spirit. When we feel God at work in our lives and see people around us changing into the people God would have them be, we are experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
And I was thinking about the Holy Spirit and what it does, I realized, that the Holy Spirit has got quite a job! So here’s the job description I came up with for the Holy Spirit to share with you to help you get a better grasp of just what it is that the Holy Spirit is doing in the world today:
[A “job description” for the Holy Spirit was distributed as a handout, which included 30-35 passages from Scripture on the Holy Spirit]
Probably the most important thing that runs through the Holy Spirit’s job description is change. The main part of the Holy Spirit’s job is change – changing our hearts, changing our lives, changing our souls. The first thing the Holy Spirit changes is hearts. In the Old Testament, God tells us, "I will gather you from the peoples, and I will give them a new heart, and I will put a new spirit within them. I will remove their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will be my people and I will be their God."
That’s the kind of change and transformation that the Holy Spirit brings. Removing that old, stony, hardened heart that’s inside us and isn’t receptive to God and giving us a heart transplant! A new heart that beats in time with the truth of God.
Jesus taught the same thing, although instead of just limiting it to a heart transplant, he said we actually needed to be born all over again! He tells us, "Truly, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of both water and spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit." That’s the extent to which the Holy Spirit changes us – we become like a brand new person!
Yesterday, I was speaking with a dad of a three year-old little girl with another one on the way. I asked how fatherhood had changed his life. His immediate response: "I never could have imagined it. My attitude about things is different. I put everything in perspective now, when before I would let little things blow out of proportion. It’s strengthened my marriage as we focus on how to raise our kids the best we know how. It’s changed me in so many ways."
If a father welcoming a new child into his family makes such a difference to him, imagine what a difference it makes for us when we are welcomed into our Heavenly Father’s family in a new way. As Paul described it, the change is so great that we can honestly say we’re not even part of the world the same way as we were. We are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in us.
Because it’s not just the Holy Spirit that is responsible for doing God’s work. We know that we can’t allow God to do all the heavy lifting while we sit back and sip a lemonade on a park bench. We’ve got work to do as well! And we know when we have a job to do what a difference it makes if you have the proper skills and support, right?
Soon after I finished school I got a job in Chicago that I was pretty excited about. It was a job where I would be working with refugees, people who were fleeing religious and political persecution in their homelands and had come to the United States to start life anew in a safe place. It was my job to work with newly arriving refugees from all over the world and help them find their first job in the United States. I thought this sounded like a pretty cool job. So I showed up for my first day of work ready to dive in and learn my job.
When I got there, my supervisor took me to my desk, showed me my computer and the database system I would be using to record my work, she explained how to pronounce some Bosnian and Croatian words, and told me it would be my responsibility to assess clients’ skills, help them fill out job applications, get them through their job interviews and that I should expect to get no fewer than 25 people into jobs each month. The whole training process took about 3 hours and then I was set free to do my job. Now and then I was invited into her office to talk about how I was faring and whether I was meeting my quotas, maybe even get a little pep talk, but other than that I was pretty much on my own.
I have to tell you, with that training and that kind of support, I was not very successful at my job. I rarely got a full 25 people into jobs in a month and there were even times when my superiors made things extra difficult by placing special conditions on certain cases. It took me about 10 months and I was fired for doing substandard work.
I had another job working with impoverished families that spent two full weeks equipping me with knowledge and skills that I would need on my job. When I was sent to my work, I was sent with three others, one other new person and one experienced worker, and my supervisor. I had the opportunity to watch the others in action, work together with my supervisor on a regular basis, and reflect regularly on struggles and successes in our work together. My supervisor taught me new skills as I needed them, she supported me when I failed, and gave me the opportunity to use my gifts and abilities in ways that served the entire team.
I was successful at that job. I enjoyed that job. I did things I never thought I was capable of doing in that job.
The difference between those two jobs was not that I started out with the right skills for one but not the other, the difference was not that I believed one job was worth doing but not the other, the difference was not that I was motivated to succeed at one job but not the other, the difference was that I had a supervisor in one job that helped me, equipped me, supported me, and empowered me to do the work she was asking me to do and the other one, well, didn’t.
The Holy Spirit is like that supervisor who invites us to do a big, difficult job, and then equips us, and supports us, and empowers us to accomplish that job. The Holy Spirit sends us into the world to do God’s work as well, but we are not sent out on our own without the resources to accomplish our task.
One of the things I really appreciated about my second job was the ability to learn from the wisdom and experience of my supervisor as I watched her work. As you’ll see on the next section of the Job Description page, providing a kind of wisdom and spiritual understanding is one of the ways the Holy Spirit acts like a good supervisor to us. Sometimes, that wisdom comes in the form of giving us unusual knowledge about what God is doing or planning, like the prophets who predicted the future,
but far more often, the spiritual wisdom the Spirit provides is more like the opportunity I had to work alongside a supervisor who knew how to do her job, and therefore showed me how to do mine. When you get to work alongside of a master and benefit from her knowledge and experience and see how they work you gain wisdom as you observe it. Kind of like an apprentice who works alongside an expert and gains wisdom by being with their master. As we do our work, the Spirit is present with us, working alongside of us, showing us how it accomplishes its work and we learn as we observe its movement in the world. We grow in wisdom and understanding as the Spirit works alongside of us, teaching us as we go.
The Spirit sometimes turns our attention to things we hadn’t noticed and makes us sensitive to things we had ignored. We notice how it changes people’s perspectives, gives flashes of insight, and provides people with abilities they never knew they had. As we watch the Spirit working, we gain wisdom about spiritual things.
Another way the Spirit works with us and for us is by giving us the gifts and power we need to accomplish the things God calls us to do. We are not alone in our attempts to follow Jesus and carry on his ministry, the Holy Spirit provides us with the tools and training to be able to do that ministry.
The ability to give special gifts to people is one of the things the Spirit is best known for. Look at #4 for a moment (Paul’s description of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:4, 7-11). That Bible passage talks about the great variety of gifts the Spirit gives to Christians for their ministries. The Spirit might give one person the gift of healing, to another knowledge, to another teaching. Each gift is given by the Holy Spirit so that people have the tools they need to accomplish the work they have been called to do.
Nobody is ever called to accomplish something for God without God providing the tools you need to succeed in that work. The Holy Spirit always provides the gifts you need.
And what’s more, the spirit also provides the power needed to accomplish that work. A lot of times, we allow ourselves to be intimidated or resigned because we don’t think we have sufficient power to change the way things are. We don’t think we hold the right position or have the right influence or have access to the right people.
What God wants us to know, what the Bible witnesses to, is that the Holy Spirit always always always provides power sufficient to accomplish the task before us. That power might not come from where we expect it or think it should, but it always comes. It is not our job to supply the power, it is the job of the Holy Spirit to grant that power when the time comes.
A great example of that is the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. Wesley deeply desired to reform the Church and bring everyday people into a closer relationship with God. He was a priest in the Church of England, but all his influence in that position never seemed to help him much. He was highly educated, but all his knowledge didn’t seem to help him much. It was only when he had stopped in at a prayer meeting and found himself strangely stirred, his heart warmed, that he found the power, not from his position, not from his connections, but from deep within as an assurance of the Holy Spirit, that’s when he became the preacher that led a movement of people into deep, meaningful relationships with God on two continents. The power came from the work of the Holy Spirit, not from something John Wesley did.
That’s how the Spirit works on our behalf. When we are called to a ministry, we are given both the gifts and the power from the Holy Spirit to accomplish the work we are called to do.
That’s true not only for the work and ministry we do out in the world, but also for the work we do in our own spirits, the work of becoming more holy, more Christ-like. The Spirit is constantly at work in us, unceasingly transforming each follower of Jesus into the image of Christ, each church into the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit gives us power to fight temptation, overcome our selfishness, and to live out our everyday lives fulfilling the purposes which God created us for.
We are transformed within by the Holy Spirit even as we are transforming the world around us by the help of the Holy Spirit. It is God’s Spirit that equips us, empowers us, teaches us, and uses us to transform the world. That’s where God is really headed with all of this – God transforms us so that we can transform the world.
Let me close with these words from the eighth chapter of Romans. I’ll read from the Message translation of the Bible, which tries to put the timeless message of the Bible and put it into today’s ordinary language:
If God himself has taken up residence in someone’s life, they will find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Now it stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, by bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!
So don’t you see that we don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. There’s nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new Spirit-filled life. God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go!
This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike "What’s next, Papa?" God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance!