Repost: Jesus Walked on Water; His Gaze Penetrated the Storm

Our Lord’s walking on water in the middle of a storm was one of the miracles he performed while he lived among us in human form. The miracle spoke to his disciples of his power, and it says the same to us today when we are beset and besieged by life’s storms.

Before this event, Jesus had taken his disciples to a solitary place to rest from a time of strenuous ministry. But the eager multitudes followed them.

As the day drew toward evening, Jesus miraculously fed five thousand men by multiplying five loaves and two fish to provide more than enough to satisfy the hunger of the throng (Mark 6:35-44).

He then immediately directed his disciples to board their boat and leave for the other side of the lake. At the same time, he left them and went up on a mountainside to pray.

As darkness settled, the disciples were already three or more miles from shore (John 6:19). A fierce wind suddenly buffeted them, forcing them to pull at full strength on the oars. They were in disaster mode, and they understood the risk of death on this lake whenever the winds whipped it with a sudden fury.

Mark tells us that, from his place of prayer, Jesus saw the disciples straining at their oars. It appears that he let them struggle for a time, because not until about three in the morning did he go out to them walking on the water.

When they saw him walking through the thrashing waves and spray he appeared to them to be a ghost. They cried out in fear.

Jesus called out to calm their fears. “Take courage,” he said. “It is I. Do not be afraid” (Mark 6: 50b). Then he climbed into the boat and the wind died down.

There are things about this story that could be baffling. We gain some insight by comparing the report of this same miracle in three of the four Gospel accounts.

For example, Mark tells us that while they were on land together after the feeding of the five thousand, immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat (Mark 6:45). This was not a suggestion, but a command. We wonder, therefore, if Jesus intended them to experience this dangerous windstorm.

The Apostle John may provide the answer. He notes that the miraculous feeding had prompted the crowds to say: “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14). And subsequently, he tells us: “Jesus, knowing that [the throng] intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (6:15).

It was apparently a dangerous moment for the disciples. They had on occasion revealed their carnal desire to be officials in an earthly kingdom. If the idea the people were pondering should succeed — to make Jesus their king — this might bring about the destruction of Israel by Roman rulers. And it didn’t fit with Jesus’ plan to lay down his life for humankind. Could it be that their peril in a storm was safer than their safety on dry land?

One wonders if there are times when, in his sovereign wisdom, God sees we would be safer facing a tempest than being in an unthreatening, comfortable place where strong temptations might overcome us.

When it comes to our Lord’s watching over us there may be a lesson in all this for every committed believer. Caught on the stormy seas of life, we are under his watchful care even when we are not aware of it.

We might say, “Our Lord always has the ability to see us, whatever the circumstance. Neither darkness, nor storm, nor passing of time, nor even the passing of two thousand years, have done anything to reduce his power.”

Jesus has told us as much in his own words: “Surely,” he says to his followers down through the ages, “I am with you always, even to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b).

What greater assurance do we need than that?

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A Penetrating Word for Our Times

The Word of God is sometimes comforting, sometimes convicting but always relevant to life’s perplexities. Listen to what Hebrews 4:12-13 claims:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword; it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from Gods sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

When Kathleen and I read this passage together during morning devotions recently I was arrested by that word “penetrating.” What makes the word of God so potent? It is a worthy question because the expression occurs 41 times in the New Testament.

It was nearly four centuries after the death of Christ that nearly all of the 27 books of the New Testament (the gospels, apostolic letters, Acts of the Apostles and Revelation) were gathered under one cover. Thus, the author of the Hebrew letter must have drawn this term “the word of God” from the Old Testament — the Bible for the Jews.

That is, the Old Testament was the only Bible the early Christians had. Jesus himself, when tempted by the devil in the Judean wilderness replied: “It is written [in the Old Testament]: Thou shalt not live on bread alone, but from every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

We emphasize: the term “the word of God” as later used in the New Testament church was already a settled expression in the Old Testament. We note further that these records of God’s word came from the mouth of God himself. They were recognized as authoritative.

Jesus quoted from an Old Testament that was dynamic in its revelation and known as the Jewish Bible. It was revered. We can assume that Jesus was taught from this Old Testament when he was absorbing scripture as a lad.

The importance of the word of God manifests itself early. In fact, as early as Abraham’s time we read “the word of the Lord came to Abram” (Genesis 15:11). And the psalmist declares: “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:5). The author of this latter resolution appears to have believed that the word of God was indeed powerful.

Elsewhere, the prophet Isaiah declares: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever” (Isaiah 40:8).

Still, the word of God was at times hidden from his people. In an eighth-century Israel, known for its wealth and corruption, the prophet Amos prophesied: “People will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it” (Amos 8:12). It should be noted that God’s word can be in effect withdrawn for a time from the stubbornly disobedient. In Amos’s time when out of need they sought its message they found it had been temporarily closed to their awareness, leaving them panting for refreshment.

Some leaders in modern churches today are recommending that the Old Testament be disregarded in worship in favor of the New Testament. To that suggestion, the passage from Hebrews speaks for itself. It says, “The word of God is alive and active.” Neither Old nor New Testaments is a museum piece. The energy of both by the Spirit is current. Both testaments are still speaking God’s penetrating word.

But it is the Apostle John who puts the word of God in its fullest and clearest light, reflecting both Testaments. He writes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The Word of God is eternal. The Word of God is incarnate in Jesus our Lord.

In Bible times, the sword was the weapon carried by those who enforced the law as it is applied to the disobedient and lawless (Romans 13:4). The sword also symbolized the weapon of spiritual warfare, when energized by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 6:17).

This analogy of a  double-edged sword shows how inwardly the word of God can penetrate both thoughts and intentions to separate soul and spirit; joints and marrow. How sobering to know that it can even judge “the intents and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).

How needed by nations of the world today. Unrighteousness is putting a deep blight on our era — the dishonesty, the deception, the lawlessness in government, the violence, the brokenness of family life, the confusion of what marriage is.

For those of us yearning for a spiritual reawakening, we look afresh at what place the Scriptures are given in our lives: in pastors’ studies as they prepare and serve; in our pulpits; and in our family and personal times of devotion.

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Repost: The Hope That Never Lets Us Down

HopeHave you noticed how often you use the word “hope,” and how wide-ranging hope is?  Examples: for good weather; that your spouse will remember to pick up milk on the way home; that your grades will get you into graduate school; for the healing of a relationship; for a better job, a good report from medical tests, a better yield on your investments.

Hope leans expectantly toward some unfulfilled desire or need, and this emotion/mental activity is unique to humans, since hope projects the mind to the future, and other creatures seem to be aware only of the present.

This human capacity for hope is a marvelous gift. “Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” wrote Alexander Pope. So it does, but hope must be exercised.

Again and again, the Scriptures exhort us to exercise hope to fend off despair. Here’s only one of many examples: “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (Psalm 42:5).

The New Testament gives sharper focus to the eternal aspect of our hope. Hebrews 6:19 says that we  have hope in Christ for the world to come, and this particular hope serves as an anchor to stabilize our everyday life, to face whatever storms we may encounter (Hebrews 6:19).

And our hope in our eternal lives together with Christ is key. For, as St. Paul says, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Corinthians 15:19). The fulness of our hope is in the world to come.

But what about those rugged places in life’s journey? The unanswered prayers? The broken hearts? The frustrated desires? The Apostle Paul writes that we are to learn to rejoice in the sufferings that come to us because these sufferings produce perseverance, character, and hope. He assures us that this hope does not disappoint.

The Apostle Paul, who knew disappointment, physical pain, and adversity to a degree few of us face, offers us a timeless benediction: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

And, God’s love in our hearts testifies to those around us to the faith (hope and trust) he has given us (5:5).

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The Power of the Spirit in Our Life

Romans 8 has been called the most beautiful chapter in the New Testament, tremendously rich in spiritual understanding and resources. It explains what Christ has done for us on the cross (justification — see also Romans 5:1-2) and in us by his Spirit (sanctification — see Romans 8).

And there are at least ten references in this chapter to the Holy Spirit and His work in the lives of believers. The Spirit’s transforming work often begins with great rejoicing as He bears witness to forgiveness of sins and new life in Christ.

But, alas, new Christians may soon find impulses or habits they thought they had been delivered from — jealousies, bursts of bad temper, and lusts — roaring back. This can be baffling because the Apostle has told us at the beginning of the chapter that Christ “has set you free from the law of sin and death” (v. 2).

The Apostle explains that mystery as arising from “the flesh.” The primary meaning for this word in Scripture is the human body. The word also has theological meanings. It can describe the frailty or vulnerability of humanity, or false or evil impulses that lodge in us, or evil itself. All may fall under the term — often referred to as our carnal nature.

In the Roman letter the term is used mostly in this last sense. Paul takes note of this fact when he writes: “Therefore, brothers [and sisters], we have an obligation — but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the flesh you will live” (8:12-13).

At this point the Apostle widens his lens to show that the temptations we continue to experience in our new life are shared with all of the world, created by God but fallen and thus impaired. But, says the Apostle, even now the universe itself is groaning to be renewed (v. 22a). Something better is ahead.

In turning to this fresh thought of promised future renewal, Paul uses the imagery of childbirth (22b). Giving birth involves groaning pain but the end result brings great joy. So will the future renewal of our fallen world bring great rejoicing.

The Apostle makes clear that our new birth by the Spirit has already in some measure signaled the glorious future ahead for us. Yet, for now, we work out our faith in a fallen world.

Verse 23 says: “Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.”

Having been promised a further redemption to come, are we left then at what appears to be a halfway point? And what do we say of those in any Christian gathering who have a genuine faith yet inwardly groan from the burden of some weakness or calamity such as family strife, poor health, broken relationships, and even some issues too deep for words?

We do our part of course by bringing them before the Lord daily, seeking greater faith to endure. And in our struggle with fallenness, we know the Spirit is our ally. Verse 26a says: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”

Here’s how the Holy Spirit comes to our aid: Even our praying may become confused over our struggles. As the Apostle says in verse 26: “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through prayers too deep for words.”

To summarize, even though we have already been assured of our salvation through faith in Christ and are being transformed / sanctified by his Spirit, we experience a deeper need, living as we do in a fallen world (v. 23).

And so God’s Spirit who is in us untangles our prayers at times and re-forms them into prayers the Father can answer. What a measureless investment God our Savior in Christ makes in us by redeeming us and giving us his Spirit to help us in our fallenness!

God is obviously interested in more than certifying our passage to heaven through Christ’s death and resurrection for us. We are also to embrace in faith the power of the Holy Spirit to live out the radiance of the Gospel here and now.

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How Should We Pray During Threatening Times?

In these days of moral and societal turmoil, many Christians are asking ultimate questions: When will the Kingdom of God come on earth? On one occasion, the Pharisees pressed this question on Jesus.

Jesus answered from Israel’s history. The Coming will be abrupt and unexpected, as the great flood was in the days of Noah, or Sodom’s sudden destruction due to her moral decay.

And so, Jesus said, in essence, get ready, and when the time comes, make no efforts to save personal valuables from your house. (Luke 17: 20-37)

Then, turning toward his disciples, Jesus used the following parable to show them what he expected them to do while awaiting his return. Luke says (18:1): “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should pray and not give up.” (I take liberties in retelling the story.)

One person in Jesus’s parable is a godless, unfeeling judge. He was likely living in a fine home, giving access to his services only to those who could produce a fistful of coins.

The other person in Jesus’ story is a destitute widow. We may assume she is in crisis, such as at the hands of an unscrupulous wealthy person who is about to seize her cottage, putting her out on the street.

She has no husband to confront the ruthless fellow, and no sons to protect her. She is penniless. Her last and only resort is to win the judge’s favor by means of relentless pleading for a fair judgment.

And so she walks all the way across town. Upon ringing the bell at the judge’s gate a servant comes out and inspects her through a knothole in the gate.

One look and the servant announces, “The judge is not in.”  He turns and walks back into the house.

Since this judge is the widow’s only hope, the next day she knocks again. “The judge is sick today,” the servant at the gate announces.

Even so, the following day the widow appears yet again. “The judge will be busy all day with a merchant,” the servant says impatiently.

This drama is repeated for several more days. Her crisis is approaching. The unjust seizure of her humble dwelling is soon to happen. But she will not give up; she is determined.

Finally, the judge relents. It’s not that he repents of his indifference or feels any empathy. His heart remains cold. But, in exasperation, with both hands in the air, he says to his assistant: “She’s pestering me to death; here, prepare the written judgment I dictate.” The widow’s persistence had won her appeal when nothing else could.

The point of the parable is not that God is like that judge — cold and uncaring and only responsive to those who bruise their knuckles from knocking at his entrance. In fact, Jesus speaks often of a loving Father who hears those who call on him in humility.

But the parable does suggest that in very urgent times the prayers of his disciples should be like the appeals of the persistent widow.

In this time of family, national, and worldwide turmoil and even with some needing to flee from homes under attack, should we not be hearing with clarity Jesus’ cautionary call to persistence in prayer? When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith upon the earth?

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What to Do to Seek God’s Blessing

Blessings from God are noted frequently throughout the scriptures. This word, blessed, occurs as many as 51 times in the Psalms alone. And as the first word of the whole Psalter it appears to stand as a sentinel over all 150 of them.

Human life is saturated with daily blessings — adequate sunshine to sustain life, shelter from stormy weather, nourishment for the body, and so much more. But in Psalm 1 special favor is promised to those who meet certain conditions.

This psalm begins in verse 1 with a blunt exhortation to avoid ungodly companions. “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.”

This does not mean we must strictly isolate ourselves. But it holds that if we intend to live out the blessing promised we should avoid walking in the paths of wicked companions — persons lacking reverence for God and the morally casual.

Nor are we to stand around those doing evil, or make common cause (sitting with) persons who mock known standards of godliness. Sinners know what is good or righteous, but they act contrary to this knowledge, offending God’s righteousness.

The psalmist says don’t walk, stand, or sit with them — not so much in the physical sense as in the participatory sense — or you may find yourself sharing their ways.

This is a good psalm for young people to ponder as they choose companions from school, work, and leisure.

There is a progression in the commands: Dont walk! Dont stand! Dont sit!

Each instruction seems to emphasize and become more urgent in warning the reader to avoid the wayward life. 

The psalmist recommends not only what to avoid, but also what to pursue; verse 2 says, “But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.”

He who would be blessed must at the same time make heart commitments that are carefully centered on God’s Law. At the time of writing the Psalmist may have been referring to the first five books of the Bible, a rich resource for the understanding of the mind of God and his way of dealing with his chosen people.

The pondering of God’s Word “day and night” is an exercise of the soul that God promises to bless. The pondering of the complete Bible we have today would be even better.

What will be the results of all this? The psalmist reaches for a simile and offers that the faithful seeker after God’s blessing will be “like a tree planted by the water” (verse 3). Even during parched times this blessing seeker might expect abundance of fruit. As well, as the tree’s leaves will not wither so whatever projects he attempts will succeed.

But what about the person who ignores God in his life plan, who chooses the paths marked by wickedness? Blessedness is of no concern to him. In fact, while appearing to have the world in his wallet, he may be hard or indifferent to righteousness. To all appearances, he has it made. One could almost be envious.

But the way of the wicked is not to be envied when long-term consequences are taken into account. Verse 4 says, “They are like chaff that the wind blows away.” When the winds of adversity blow he will respond like the worthless, inedible paper-like husk of grain that flies into the air in all directions at the harvest.

Psalm 1 ends with a summary of the two destinies: “For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous; but the way of the wicked leads to destruction” (verse 6).

Some may argue that there are many paths in life. Ultimately there are only two, the psalmist contends. And only one of the two promises rich blessings and escape from destruction.

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Are We Walking in the Light?

By my reckoning I have been in total darkness only once in my lifetime — coal-black, impenetrable darkness!

Kathleen and I and our three young children were returning from a camping vacation in the Ozark Mountains in Missouri to our home in Central Illinois. As we sped toward the Mississippi River, signs began to announce that we were approaching the famous Meramec Caverns that draw many thousands of visitors each year.

“Why not have one more thrill before we get home,” we suggested to the children. There were cheers all around. We were soon parked and quickly entered the anteroom of a large cave. Our group of tourists was ready for the march inward.

We followed a string of lights high above our heads deeper into the cave. It was an unfamiliar, weird, and wonderful world of several giant “rooms.” The path sloped slightly downward and as we moved along, our guide pointed out the wonders of stalactites and stalagmites (and more) before us.

At the deepest point in the tour we were taken into the final room carved out of the earthen depths, with twenty chairs arranged in two rows. Our guide told us that he would turn off the light for a few seconds, preparing us to feel utterly isolated and almost disoriented by the absolute lack of light.

Kay and I sat shoulder to shoulder. When the one ceiling light was switched off I could still feel her shoulder against mine. But turning toward her I could not see the outline of her head or any features of her face. The darkness was abject. I felt surrounded by a curtain of thick inky blackness.

Most people would think they’ve experienced total darkness, but a few “photons” here and there are almost always available. Even closed eyelids are rarely able to screen out every vestige of light. And of course, in the modern world, anywhere inhabited by humans will have a bit of illumination from the lights on porches, shining from windows, or the headlamps of cars.

Experiences of extreme darkness are much better known in the world of the Bible, before the availability of artificial light. And, notably, the Scriptures begin with knowledge of a primordial utter darkness that had to be dispelled as the first step toward Creation:

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:2-3).

Later, the Bible treats darkness also as a symbol, using the absence of light to represent evil or mystery or wickedness. It is opposite to the goodness of light.

Old Testament Job, in spite of his perplexity at his profound suffering, says: “Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face” (Job 23:17).

Jeremiah warns the stubborn people of Israel that they must repent of their unfaithfulness to avoid being visited by darkness: “Give glory to the Lord your God before he brings the darkness …” (Jeremiah 13:16a).

The Apostle Paul uses darkness as an analogy for a willful lack of knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 4:3-6).

And perhaps most famously, the Apostle John in the New Testament makes great use of this analogy to teach and caution the young church. He writes:

This is the message we have heard from him and declared to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:5-7).

When we have inner darkness our every step is cast in gloom. The darkness diminishes our hope. The darkness of which the Apostle John speaks is often of our own doing and our shame. But it does not need to be so. The Gospel light is available to all.

The Apostle Paul writes of the Lord Jesus: “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13).

Jesus is still the light of the world offered to all who will believe.

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Re-post: Everybody Talkin’ ‘Bout Heaven Ain’t Goin’ There

Bloch-SermonOnTheMount

Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch

In the flow of daily life we take seriously many behavioral restrictions: stop signs, red lights, legal notices, restricted crosswalks. It’s in our interest to do so. But do we pay attention to words of warning such as the ones Jesus spoke near the end of the Sermon on the Mount? He says:

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evil-doers.’’ (Matthew 7:21-23)

Attention to that warning is more important to us than stopping at a million stop signs, for we neglect Jesus’ words to our eternal peril. When Jesus speaks of “that day” in the passage quoted above he means the day of final judgment. In the New Testament this is also called “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:8; see also Philippians 1:6, 10).

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, the young prophet and proclaimer of eternal truths, tells us that at the end of history and at the time of this final judgment he will know the hearts of all men and will have power to forever banish some from the heavenly kingdom, saying to them: I never knew you. Away from me, you evil-doers (Matthew 7:23).

Jesus proclaims here that there will be some who will be rejected even though they claim to have done great, even miraculous, ministries in his name. They will say in surprise, and maybe with reproach: Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles? (7:22)

Instead of accepting all, including this group of false religious achievers, Jesus makes clear there will be only one category of believers who will be received into the kingdom of heaven. It will be those who have paused to pay careful attention to the will of my Father who is in heaven (7:21b).

Heart obedience, it seems, is the key. That is, the heart’s obedience to the Father’s will, rather than general and especially self-directed service or accomplishment. That heart obedience will be the fundamental criterion for anyone’s acceptance into heaven.

To explain why that first group with apparent claims to heaven will be rejected, Jesus makes clear that in “that day,” even dramatic religious performance like the casting out of demons in the Lord’s name will not be enough.

This issue of heart obedience is addressed repeatedly in Scripture. Isaiah said of a very religious generation: The Lord says: “These people come near me with their mouth / and honor me with their lips, / but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13a). And in the closing hours of his earthly life, Jesus said to his closest followers: Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching (John 14:23a).

One needs to stop and ponder. In both Testaments, the obedience of the heart is the big issue. Even attempting wonders in Christ’s name will not count if the heart has not been open in submission and obedience to the Father.

There’s a line in a well-known spiritual that likely was inspired by these words of Jesus about the judgment: “Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven that ain’t goin’ there — O my Lord.” This should awaken us to examine ourselves for both inward and outward obedience to the Father. Only those who do the will of my Father in Heaven, Jesus says, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

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Have You Taken the Course “The Holy Spirit 101”?

Holy SpiritI preached a sermon on the Holy Spirit when I was a beginning pastor. I called the sermon “The Holy Spirit 101.” My first point was that the Holy Spirit is a personal presence — the third person of the Godhead, which includes Father, Son (Jesus) and Holy Spirit.

After the service, a visitor approached me warmly. She said she had never before understood the Holy Spirit as personal — able to communicate, listen, correct, enlighten, but always in accordance with the Christian Scriptures.

She said that she had always assumed that the Holy Spirit was just a feeling, an influence or impulse that came upon people in different ways. The scriptural teaching I had presented — that the Holy Spirit was a “person” especially present in the lives of believers and in the living church — seemed to awaken her to a new reality.

How many professed Christians think accordingly? I have seen a survey that said 50 percent.

What would Jesus say about this? Only hours before his crucifixion, he prepared his frightened followers for his departure by laying before them deep truths about the Holy Spirit (John 14-16). At the core of this teaching he gave this assurance: the Holy Spirit would come to them as an Advocate, or Counselor. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever — the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16).

An advocate would have to be much more than merely a feeling, however sensational. An advocate would have personal attributes to come to their aid, speak on their behalf, give them guidance and wisdom well beyond their own. This advocate, Jesus promised, would be mysteriously present among them as the essence of truth, and would live in them as Jesus had lived with them.

But the world is full of spirits. How would the Holy Spirit be unique among them? Jesus’ answer to this perplexity resides in the word “another.” The Holy Spirit would be another advocate. The Greek word here means someone else who would be the same as, not different from, Jesus. That is, the one he promised to send would fill the spiritual role of the one who had been with them for three years — Jesus himself!

This promise was so important to Jesus that near the eve of his departure this promise to send an advocate, or spiritual guide, was repeated four times: John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7b. He would be a universal presence in the world, dwell within his followers, purify and energize them and guide them in all truth. That is infinitely superior to a mere feeling.

Advent may not at first seem to be the time for the pondering of this wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit to live within us. But a quick glance across our world in its distress and despair might revise that opinion. Jesus is not physically here with us. But his Spirit is!

In the visible church today there is much need for us not only to understand the personhood of the Holy Spirit but also to invite his work, as we open ourselves to his abiding presence. It is astonishing that the very Spirit of Christ our Lord wills to live in us as our Advocate. Hallelujah!

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Re-post: Thoughts About Serving Holy Communion

Young pastors sometimes struggle to see the value of liturgy, especially the service of Holy Communion. It may seem “unspiritual” to them because the words spoken are prescribed in advance. Consequently, they may feel the need to “reformat” this ancient rite of the Church.

I once heard of a young pastor’s novel come-and-go Communion service. The elements were laid out on the Communion table and people were invited to come anytime Sunday afternoon and serve themselves, without benefit of explanation, pastor, or possibly even fellow believers.

Or there was the pastor so opposed to rituals of any kind that he simply “announced” Communion and passed the elements around without invitation, consecration, explanation, or prayer. Any unchurched person would be sure to go away asking, “What was that about?”

Whatever the cause for disinterest or aversion, here are some simple suggestions to help pastors conducting a Communion service. They may also be useful for laypersons who feel the need for fuller engagement with this sacrament.

1. During the week prior to the service, live in the four brief New Testament passages that report the first Lord’s Supper, attended and hosted by Jesus Himself:

Matthew 26:17-30
Mark 14:22-26
Luke 22:19-23
1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Let the scene set itself in your imagination and let the words sink in. If the truths expressed in “this is my body … this is my blood (broken/shed for you)” seem wrapped in mystery, remember that in the early days of the Christian era the Greek branch of the church often referred to the Lord’s Supper as just that — “the Mystery.”

2. The day before the Lord’s Supper is served, spend time with the ritual itself. Read it aloud. Personalize its opening invitation for yourself. Think afresh what the sacrificial death of Jesus meant and turn that understanding into prayer. It is sometimes the savoring of words — “putting them under your tongue and sucking them like a sweetie,” as one Scottish divine advised — that releases their power.

3. Practice reading the service out loud slowly and thoughtfully. In doing so you may hear fresh truth for your own need. One teacher of pastors offered this advice to those called upon to read the Bible in public services: “Read it as if you are listening to it yourself, not as though you wrote it.” The same advice fits reading the ritual of Holy Communion.

4. If you have any impulse in your mind to diminish or neglect the serving of the Lord’s Supper, remember that, throughout history, it has often been called the central act of Christian worship. Let that understanding refashion your thinking.

5. Finally, whether you are a pastor or layperson, resist the tendency to seek innovation. Sometimes in our youth we are inclined to diminish the value of repetition in favor of new ways of saying or doing things. Innovation certainly has its place, but not with a fundamental practice of our faith such as the Lord’s Supper. Repetition is intended to fix its truths in believers’ minds.

After one communion service at which I had served believers of all ages, an elderly woman, the widow of a minister, spoke to me. She had heard the ritual all her life. She said to me with feeling, “The longer I live, the more meaningful the Lord’s Supper becomes to me.”

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Photo credit: Kathy (via flickr.com)