Who is God?
The Spirit: the God in the Church
My attempt to explain who God is has led us along a path of successive self-revelations of God to his people. This is, really, the only way we can know who God is – who the real God really is – for we have no tools with which to study him other than those he gives us. We are like the figures in a painting or a diorama created by an artist. The artist himself leaves plenty of clues to himself in his work, but none which is himself, so unless he tells us about himself explicitly, all our attempts to describe him wind up with us creating God in our image, rather than the other way round. In the coming of Jesus, the artist enters his own work, as one of the figures in the piece, and we learn even more about him. But then, after Jesus’s departure, God reveals himself in a new way.
Charles Williams, in his history of the Holy Spirit in the Church entitled, The Descent of the Dove, puts it this way:
[The followers of Jesus] remained, according to all the evidence, in a small secret group in Jerusalem. They supposed themselves to be waiting for the new manifestation which had been promised, in order that they might take up the work which their Lord had left them. According to their own evidence, the manifestation came. At a particular moment, and by no means secretly, the heavenly Secrets opened upon them, and there was communicated to that group of Jews, in a rush of wind and a dazzle of tongued flames, the secret of the Paraclete in the Church. Our Lord Messias had vanished in his flesh; our Lord the Spirit expressed himself towards the flesh and spirit of the disciples. The Church, itself one of the Secrets, began to be.Today, I want to talk about the Holy Spirit, the God in the Church. (Note the way I put that.)
Now, in the Old Testament, the occasional references to God’s Spirit are along the lines of what wordsmiths call “synechdoche,” where the part refers to the whole. We can talk about God’s actions by referring to what is done by his "mighty right arm," where his right arm stands for the whole of him -- keeping in mind that God, in his divine nature, doesn’t really have a right arm – or a left one, come to that. But just as synechdoche – letting the arm stand for the whole person – is a kind of metaphor, so it is also a kind of metaphor to talk about God as if he were like us, with our two arms. And the Holy Spirit, in those references to the Spirit in the Old Testament, is usually this sort of thing – a figure of speech, a metaphor.
But when we reach the New Testament and the experience of the early Church, we are no longer talking metaphor, but metaphysics. Charles Williams again:
They had not the language; they had not the ideas; they had to discover everything. They had only one fact, and that was that it had happened. Messias had come, and been killed, and risen; and they had been dead “in trespasses and sin,” and now they were not. They were re-generate; so might everyone be.The Spirit of God is no longer to be understood as a metaphor for the action of God; the Spirit of God is now understood to be God acting directly in the hearts of men and women, girls and boys. God is no longer “up there,” he is also now “in here” – and you can know that. John Wesley kept saying – and he was thought crazy by some of his fellow Anglicans who were horrified by him saying it – that Christianity is an experiential religion; that we know God, as well as are known by him; and that we can not only speak to him, but hear him speak to us – and feel his life coursing through our souls.
The old Methodist slogan went thus:
Everyone can be saved;Or in more technical lingo: Free grace, assurance of salvation, and perfection in love are made available to everyone.
Everyone can know one is saved;
And everyone can be saved to the uttermost.
This is what set the early Christians apart from their fellow Jews, even more than their belief that Jesus was the Messiah. Their prayer, together and alone, was a constant communion direct with God, without need of recourse to the official priesthood. And they walked amid wonders: answered prayers, ecstatic utterances, visions, miraculous healings, and heavenly direction of their ministry. When Paul was defending his credentials as an apostle to the Church at Corinth, he said, “the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power” – and it was by the power of God objectively demonstrated in his ministry that they could see that for themselves.
Alas, for too many of our churches today, we are all talk and no power. Or as I’ve heard many a congregation described, “the marquee is all lit up, but there ain’t no show inside.” Which doesn’t mean that showy worship and razzle dazzle is more indicative of the power and presence of God than ordered liturgy and well-worn words; fireworks are beautiful and delight the soul, but they don’t drive any engines, they don’t power anything. And we have to be careful about this – because what some people think of as “powerful” are worship services that are emotionally stirring, where the tears start in your eyes or people testify to beautiful experiences in their lives – all things that are right and good in their own way – but we mustn’t forget that real power also heals the sick, clothes the naked, feeds the poor, reconciles enemies, sets people free from the things that enslave them, and moves people to leave their old ways behind to follow Jesus and be saved.
The Holy Spirit is God, present in his own person and demonstrating his power in the Church and in the believer’s life, in fulfillment of the promise of a new creation by God given to Israel. The Spirit of God is the Spirit of Jesus, and is the way we experience him dwelling “in our hearts.” Indeed, it is by the Spirit of God that we are born to new life in Christ and made the children of God. And, as Paul says in the text we read earlier,
So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh -- for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.When we accept the relationship Christ offers us, when we start to call God “Father,” it is not just by our own invention; it is rather the Spirit of God himself, speaking through our prayers to claim that relationship and know that it is for real. It is a wonderful thing to know that God loves you, that God has accepted you and made you his own, that all the promises of God are real and have been given to you.
Nor do you have to fret and worry about that. You can know that. God himself will tell you that. He will move your heart to say what you could not say by your own efforts, and to believe what you could never hope to be true. And he can talk to you and guide you in your daily life. He has a plan for your life, a call for you, a path to walk – and following him in that way is the path to happiness and fulfillment. You can know that. And you can get there. We as a congregation can know that. And we can get there.
This doesn’t mean that you’ll never get discouraged. It doesn’t mean that you are relieved of all doubt. It doesn’t mean that you’ll never suffer depression or ill health or failure. Those are the common lot of all mankind, I’m afraid. But someday, we will win completely through. Someday, when the Day arrives at last, there will be no more shadows. And we are not the only ones to desire this. Paul says,
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.That day is not yet, of course, but we are not left to our own devices. The experience of God in the here and now, which is the activity of the Holy Spirit, is only the first fruits of the Spirit: the new creation in the Day beyond Days when the kingdom comes at last will see the entire harvest and the celebration of complete freedom.
In the meantime, you may find that you aren’t always able, right at first, to pick the Voice of God out from all the other racket in your head. That takes some skill, some spiritual maturity – maybe some guidance, too. And the change in your life may not be as sudden and obvious as the change in somebody else’s. You may even fall backwards at times, and this may be a source of great discouragement to you. Nevertheless, God is not silent, nor has he abandoned you. Listen:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.Do you hear that? God not only moves you to pray, but God prays for you. When you are too tired or too confused, when you are too discouraged or full of doubts, God prays for you and through you. And shall God not hear and answer the prayers of God?
There were many religions to choose from in the early days of Christianity. But the Church spread rapidly - not because its faith was easy to explain or because its leaders were well organized or because it was offering something people were primed to buy – but because it was real. And real always commands attention. These people knew God. They could introduce you to him. And you could be filled with him, too. Not just for a quick thrill here and there, but all the days of your life. The joy and the peace and the love and the power could all be yours.
The Church slowed down after a while. You can’t stay on a high for ever. Oh, there were always new persons to receive the faith and find the reality of God the Holy Spirit. But the Church also became an organization of people in the world, with all the hassles and pathologies of human organizations. Still, God never deserted his Church; and there came times, again and again, when the whole Church would shake out of its ordinariness and taste again the fire of God as on that first day of Pentecost. These times are sometimes called revivals or awakenings, reforms and reformations. There have been many. Our own Methodist movement began in such a demonstration of the Spirit of God. Something like that is going on in Africa these days, even amidst the poverty and the wars and everything else.
There’s no reason why it can’t happen here. There’s no reason why it can’t happen to you -- in you -- through you. And there’s no reason it can’t start today. The old slogans are as true as they ever were:
Everybody can be saved;And if the cranky, argumentative, barely-makin’-it churches of Corinth and Ephesus and Jerusalem and Rome could be transformed into engines of heavenly power, why then, so can we. And may it be so. Amen.
Everybody can know one is saved;
And everybody can be saved to the uttermost.