Understanding the power of the Spirit is an important part of our Christian life: God calls us to work in his power, together, for the good of the whole of his creation. We’re not supposed to do this on our own!
Power of the Spirit; Reading: Romans 8:18-28
Three of my favourite films are the original Star Wars trilogy. The ones with Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and the rest in. Not the more recent ones, which are rubbish! If you haven’t heard of Jar Jar Binks, believe me, keep it that way.
Anyway, in the Star Wars films, Luke Skywalker learns from Yoda how to be a Jedi Knight. Yoda warns Luke about the Dark Side of the Force: anger, fear, and aggression. They can consume you, Yoda warns. They’re not stronger, but they are easy. There is a quick and easy path to evil.
A quick and easy path to evil. The destructive force of anger, fear, and aggression. The films explore that, and explore Luke’s struggle with them, and the redemptive power of love and courage. You don’t have to agree with the other stuff about the Force and Jedis to see that those are truths. And those are some of the truths that we also hear in this reading from Romans.
This chapter is the central part of Paul’s whole letter to the Christians living in Rome. “The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed” Paul wrote. That’s us. That’s the whole of creation waiting in eager expectation for us. On tiptoes, waiting, expecting, longing. Why? Because “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay”.
At the heart of our faith is the freedom that we’re given by God, through the death and resurrection of his son Jesus. Because of his love for us, God sent his son to lead us to freedom, and sends us his Spirit to give us the power of that freedom. But, this freedom isn’t limited to us. This God-given freedom is simply for us to have. God’s freedom is meant for the whole of creation. “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay”.
Is that a challenge for us? Is our understanding of what our God-given freedom is about too small? God’s freedom is shared by the whole of his creation. We are called to be part of God’s sovereign rule, we are called to share in the Messiah’s rule over the whole earth. And if we think that means we can damage or destroy the earth, if we think that means that we can do what we want, then we really haven’t understood what God as king is all about.
Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God’s rescue plan includes the whole of creation, and involves us working in that rescue plan. God’s rescue plan involves a renewed heaven and a renewed earth where we will enjoy life with no worries, where our new bodies will enjoy the new creation and where we will be truly able to worship God.
That’s the goal that we’re working to, that’s what we’re called to be a part of, the renewal and transformation of the whole of creation. This is about God’s Kingdom coming into the world. So that means, of course, telling people the good news that Jesus has liberated us and the whole of creation from death and sin. It also means showing people what a difference that makes. It means showing people what a difference that makes in our own lives, in our actions, in how we treat other people and in how we treat God’s creation.
So, in this central chapter of the letter, Paul focuses on our purpose within the whole of creation. And he also focuses on the importance of the Spirit in everyday Christian life. This isn’t an add-on, not something to graduate to, but a crucial part of a Christian’s life. Because, of course, we can’t do this ourselves. We can’t fulfil God’s purposes for us and for creation without God’s help.
At the start of Romans 8, Paul writes “through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death”. We are given the freedom that the whole of creation is longing for by the power of the Spirit working in us. We are given the gift of the Spirit by God, particularly at baptism, when we are welcomed as members of God’s family. The Spirit of God lives in us, gives us life and freedom and power. So, we are given God’s power in our lives. We are given the freedom and power to fulfil God’s purposes for our lives. We are given the freedom and power to work for the kingdom of God through our actions, in our everyday lives, in what we do and say.
Back to Yoda and Luke! Yoda warns Luke of the Dark Side, the destructive power of anger, fear, and aggression. The quick and easy route to evil. Luke has to struggle to understand how he can use the power that he has been given for good and not for evil, to overcome evil, not to give into it. And Luke also needs to learn that he does have power that he can use, that he isn’t on his own. “Use the Force, Luke”, as Obi Wan Kenobi frequently tells him.
Because there’s two opposite traps we can fall into. We can think that we have to do it all ourselves. But, we don’t and we can’t. The other trap is that we can think that we don’t have to do anything. We can sit back and let God get on with it. But, of course, that isn’t the case either. God gives us our power and our freedom so that we can use them to work with him in freeing creation, in working for his kingdom to grow. As Paul says: “by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body”. You. But only by the Spirit. The responsibility is ours. The power is God’s.
And this is something that we have to keep on working at, keep on coming back asking God to help us, as we become aware of things in our life where we fall short of God’s call. As we struggle, yet again, with those sins which most easily entangle us. And if you don’t know what they are, then ask those closest to you. They’ll have a pretty good idea, even if you don’t! And, if you do, you might want to ask those closest to you for their help, their support, their prayers.
Because, we’re not called to do this on our own. We’re called to do this with God’s help, and with the help of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We, together, are called to live in God’s power, to play our part in God’s plan for renewing creation, together.
And so at the centre of this passage, Paul writes:
“we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies”
The firstfruits. The early fruit that comes before the main harvest. The main harvest being, of course, God’s redemption of the whole world. he gifts that we have been given now are only the down-payment, the first instalment of the riches that we will receive through Christ. The gifts that we have been given now are to bring about God’s rescue plan for creation, to enable us to take part in God’s work here and now, to enable us to play our part in helping build for God’s kingdom
That’s the point of all the spiritual gifts: from healing, to administration, from helping, to prophesying. To bring God’s kingdom to earth. So, the Spirit has this central role as well. He gives us the firstfruts of the future harvest. That is, he’s God’s guarantee in the present of final redemption, not just for us but for God’s creation as well.
Also he makes the present workable as well. He helps us in our groaning by interceding in our behalf. I’m sure that you’ve had times when you’ve been rendered speechless by what you’ve encountered. There’s been a situation beyond words. Well, that’s part of what Paul is talking about here.
Another part of what Paul is talking about is speaking in tongues. “The Spirit helps us in our weaknesses” he writes. In the early church, praying privately in tongues seems to have been pretty common. Never universal, but common. It probably also includes our deepest longings and desires lifted to God, whether or not we’re fully aware of them or not.
The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who has also been given the gift of speaking in tongues, talks about it as a “routine part of spiritual discipline”. In other words, he sees it as part of usual Christian life, alongside reading the Bible, praying, fasting, giving, good works, and the rest.
I became a Christian when I was about 15 or 16. I became a Christian partly through the youth group I started attending at one of the local churches, and mainly through reading some books and becoming convinced that the only thing that made sense of the events round the first Easter was that Jesus really did rise from the dead. And so I started going to church, finding out more about God and so on. But one of the things that really made a difference to me was a year or so later being prayed for by some of the other members of the youth group. As they prayed I felt something, the Holy Spirit, filling me from my feet and rising up through my body. And as it reached my mouth I started to say things in a language that I didn’t understand. I was speaking in tongues, expressing my prayers in groans that words cannot express, as Paul says in this passage. That helped transform my faith from something I thought about to something I did. It’s also been a helpful part of my prayer life over the years, helping me when I don’t know what to pray for or how to pray for things.
It’s been a helpful part of my Christian life and the lives of many others One problem is that it can leave people who can’t speak in tongues feeling left out. But, none of God’s gifts are universal, even if some are more common than others. In one of his sermons, the former Bishop of Stockport said “I’ve never been able to speak in tongues; I think the Lord is telling me I talk enough as it is!” Paul also writes to the Corinthian Christians, who were very keen on the gift of speaking in tongues to “eagerly desire the greater gifts”. Why? Because those are the ones that encourage us work together, those are the ones that enable us to work more closely as part of the body of Christ, together. The gifts are given so that we can work for God’s kingdom, so that we can show in our lives together the difference that being part of the firstfruits of the new creation actually makes. Let us strive for that and pray for that.
And as we do, let us be encouraged by the final verse of our reading:
“in all things God works for the good of those who love him”
This is a promise that God is working in all things, in circumstances no matter how bad, to bring good out of them, to bring God’s kingdom a little closer. There’s a common confusion about this verse, though. It does not mean that God brings about bad situations. It does not mean that God wanted something bad to happen so that some good somehow could happen. It does mean, though, that God creative enough to bring about good despite the bad. It does mean that no matter how bad things are God is with us and in us, groaning with us, feeling the pain with us, and giving us the power to carry on.
“If God is for us, who can be against us”? Paul goes on to say. God is for us and with us. Because, when we are going through our own times of doubt and uncertainty and struggle, let us remember that Jesus knows how we’re feeling, because he’s felt the same way. In the letter to the Hebrews we’re told that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.”
God knows, Jesus knows, what we’re going through, and God promises to help us as we go through it. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we’re given the Holy Spirit to be with us and help us. God knows that it isn’t easy, but God also knows that it’s worth it.
So, as Jesus had to show that he was obedient, we are also called to be obedient, to do God’s will for our lives. Of course, here in this country, our level of obedience is not going to be that of death. But, it can still be life changing. It can still require a leap of faith. That’s been the case for us as a family, coming here to a new town, a new house, a new church. And as we wrestled with where God was calling us, one thing that really helped was a Christian band called the Rend Collective Experiment. We heard them a few times now at Greenbelt and have got their albums. They’re great, and the song that really spoke to me through all this is called Broken Bread. Appropriately enough for a communion service it starts with the lines:
“May I be broken bread
May I be poured out wine
May I incarnate
Your Kindness Lord”
May I be broken bread. May I be poured out wine. May I be more like Jesus, whose death and resurrection we’ll remember as we eat bread and drink wine, and whose Spirit we’ll encounter again as we do so. Because one of the things that communion is, is a foretaste of God’s heavenly banquet. It’s a glimpse of what the renewed, freed creation looks like. It’s a way of physically meeting with God in a different way, in encountering his presence in wine and bread that have been transformed by his Spirit.
But, the repeated line that really spoke to me in the song Broken Bread was the line “your will done your way”. Your will done your way. That’s what we’re called to make our priority. That’s really what’s at the heart of Jesus’ obedience. We’re to seek God’s will, and to seek that it is done his way. Jesus did God’s will God’s way and because of that freed us and the whole of creation. We’re called to God’s will and do it in God’s way. And we’re given the Holy Spirit to empower us, to give us spiritual gifts and fruit, to help us to do God’s will God’s way. “If God is for us, who can be against us”? Amen.