Being God’s Beloved: Day 40: The Spirit in Action

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And so we come to the end of this journey. Or, rather, we come to the end of this stage of the journey. Our daily reflections have run their course and we now continue to journey forward into the world. My hope and prayer is that you have cultivated a greater, deeper and more secure sense of yourself as being God’s beloved. And that this empowers and motivates you to not only be God’s beloved but to live as God’s beloved. Holy Spirit breathes into us the power and love of God, and that breathe stirs our spirits to be the presence of God in the world. Imagine a world in which every Christian consciously and deliberately worked to be the love of God, to be Spirit in action. What a world that would be!

Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. Asked what one must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus quotes the Great Commandment (which we discussed on Day 23). The second part of the Great Commandment is to love one’s neighbour as oneself. The man asks, “Who is my neighbour?” and Jesus proceeds to tell him story of the Good Samaritan.

A travelling man is assaulted and mugged by a band of robbers and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest and then a Levite, both people you’d think would be aligned with God’s values, pass by on the other side of the road, looking away. Then a Samaritan, who was not esteemed by Jewish people in those days, stops to help him, takes him to an inn on his own donkey and pays for him to stay there until he is well. Jesus implies that the Samaritan leaves before the man recovers, so there is no chance of being thanked.

Jesus asks, “Who was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The man of course had to respond, “The one who had mercy on him” – he could not bring himself to say, “It was the Samaritan.” And Jesus says, “God and do likewise.”

Jesus spends much of his ministry, in continuity with God’s self-revelation throughout the Old Testament, demonstrating that humanity is much loved by God. There are no conditions to God’s love – God loves us because God loves us. It is God’s delight and pleasure to love us, because we are God’s creation, because we are created in God’s image.

But God also desires us to be loving. It is part of God’s vision for humanity, part of God’s original design – that we would love and care for each other in community. And so Jesus calls us to love all those whom we meet, even those we’d rather pass by. God wants us to be like the Good Samaritan. God does not want us to be like Jonah, who had no love for the Ninevites. Jonah, in fact, throws God’s loving nature in God’s face, as he says, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:2-3). Jonah correctly understood the nature of God’s heart – that God loved the people of Nineveh and desired their salvation. But Jonah’s heart was not aligned with God’s heart – he could not love them. God does not want us to be like Jonah – God desires for our hearts to be aligned with God’s heart.

When we are filled with the Spirit of Christ, filled with the Love of God, how can that love not overflow to those around us? In the same way that God’s superabundance of love spills out into the creation of the cosmos, the abundance of God’s love in us, as we are filled with Spirit, should pour into our relationships, our work, our play, our church, our world.

Jesus speaks about this in John 7:37-38, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” Knowing that people might ask, “What is this water?” John explains in the next verse, “By this he meant the Spirit.” When we drink up God’s love, we are filled with Holy Spirit, and Spirit then flows out from within us like a stream of living water.

In this way, we are called to be God’s presence in the world. Holy Spirit dwells within us, so wherever we are, God is also. Christ, the incarnate Son of God, is no longer with us in the flesh, as he was some two thousand years ago. But wherever we are, God is, and God is there in our flesh. In effect, we are the body of Christ in that place. St Teresa of Avila, some 500 years ago, wrote about this in a beautiful prayer: [1]

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

On Day 16 we talked about what Christian love meant. Let me quote what I wrote then:

Christian love – that is, our love for others – is modelled on God’s love. Linda Woodhead has defined it as “an active desire for the well-being of the neighbour, and for communion with him or her, based on a recognition of the neighbour’s unique worth”.[2] Her definition is helpful, if challenging. Christian love is initiated by ourselves, and in this way unconditional – we choose to love because we choose to love, not because the person is love-worthy. We love because of the inherent worth of the other as one of God’s creatures, but we do not whitewash all people with the same inherent worth – a bland, faceless love for everyone. Rather, Christian love emphasises recognition of unique worth; that is, I extend myself to seek out particular aspects of that individual that are loveable and even likable. And it is two-way, seeking not only to express love at arm’s length, but also to establish relationship, communion, fellowship. And all of this is just the way God loves me and you and the other person.

This kind of love is transformative. It not the anaemic “I love everyone” that we sometimes say. This is a love, targeted not at the whole world, but at those in our immediate environment, which seeks to bring about authentic experience of human relationship. When we invest this kind of love in the way we do our work, the way we engage with those we encounter in our daily living, the way we relate to our families, and the way we relate to people at church then we will begin to see the Kingdom of God come. This is because the Kingdom of God is rooted in God’s most deeply cherished value, and that is Love.

We often pray the Lord’s Prayer, “May your Kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What is God’s will? The centre of God’s will is that we love God, love each other, love the world and love ourselves. This is what relationship is all about and this is what God created us for – to be in loving relationship with God (spirituality), others (sociology), the world (ecology) and ourselves (psychology). As we begin to invest our love in these four sets of relationships we begin to answer the Lord’s Prayer – God’s Kingdom does indeed come, because God’s Will is indeed done!

This sounds rather idyllic. You and I know that this does not happen easily. Love in the abstract is simple and clear. But love in the real world, in real relationships, in real workplaces and families and communities is not so simple. If love were simple and easy, we’d all be doing it! But in fact, there is a dearth of love in the world.

We cannot love like God in our own strength. We have to rely on the Spirit of God, the Love of God, to enable us to love. It is as we allow Spirit to fill us with God’s love that we something to offer. And it is as we hear Spirit’s call, recognise Spirit’s equipping, respond to Spirit’s prompting that we actually begin to not only be God’s beloved, but to actually live as God’s beloved. And this is God’s ultimate goal. This is the good life.

Meditation for the Day

Reflect back over the past 40 days. Perhaps scan through the table of contents. Identify those points that have most struck you, that you hope to take forward with you beyond today. Make a commitment to continue to journey in the love of God, to be God’s beloved and live as God’s beloved.

Prayer for the Day

Spirit of Love, Son of God, Heavenly Father. Fill me today with an abundance of your divine love. Create opportunities for me to express your great love as I live my life today.

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[1] This is widely available on the internet. I got this from http://www.journeywithjesus.net/PoemsAndPrayers/Teresa_Of_Avila_Christ_Has_No_Body.shtml. There is also a wonderful sung version of this prayer by John Michael Talbot, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XH8R0mmuH9U

[2] Woodhead, p. 56.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 39: The Spirit of Community

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The vision that John receives of heaven is of a new community, of a place of whole and reconciled relationships, in which God dwells among the people in intimate fellowship:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:1-5)

Notice how John uses social metaphors and words to describe what he sees: a city, which is a place where people live together; a bridal couple, which reminds us of Genesis 2:24’s the two “will become one flesh”; dwelling together, emphasising God’s presence in the intimate places where people live; the mutual belonging, which reminds us of chesed (covenant-based loving-kindness); and the passing away of suffering. John’s vision of heaven is a vision of a community!

Right near the end of Revelation we have the great invitation: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17). Spirit is present with the Father and the Son in inviting us to this great banquet, the heavenly wedding feast, where God sets all things right. This is the future glory that we mentioned yesterday, when we reflected on groaning and hoping in Romans 8.

Paul had a good sense of this Holy City. And he understood that living in the Kingdom of God today means that we should experience some of what was revealed to John. The Holy City has not yet come – we continue to hope and persist until that great and glorious day – but we can and should experience at least some of it today. An appetiser. A foretaste of what is yet to come.

Paul writes most clearly about this in 1 Corinthians, where he speaks into a Christian community that did not look much like a Christian community. The Corinthian church did not embody what John saw in the Holy City, and Paul writes to help them actualise that vision. 1 Corinthians 12 and 13 are particularly illuminating for us, because here Paul writes about Holy Spirit and about love – the two themes that are central to our last reflections in Being God’s Beloved.

1 Corinthians 12 opens with, “Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant.” Apparently, the Corinthians were, in fact, ignorant! Paul wants to set them right. The rest of chapter 12 speaks to the topic of spiritual gifts – wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues and interpretation of tongues. This is one of the key lists of spiritual gifts in the New Testament.

It is clear from reading 1 Corinthians that these gifts were being exercised by the Corinthian Christians. However, it seems that they had misunderstood the purpose of these gifts. They were using them as status symbols, to raise their own egos and to boast their spiritual greatness. Paul needs to set things right. He makes five important points.

First, Paul emphasises the triunity of God, as the theological starting point for understanding gifts in the Christian community: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord [Christ]. There are different kinds of working, but the same God [Father] works all of them in all men” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). He writes this to emphasise at least three points:

  1. All spiritual gifts come from God, not from ourselves, as gifts of God. We must remember the origin of all things and the privilege of receiving them.
  2. All three persons of the trinity cooperate in the work of God. The triune God operates as a community – egalitarian, harmonious, in fellowship, sharing, as a partnership. So too should the church.
  3. The diversity of gifts come from the unity of the triune God. As much as there are many different kinds of gifts, they all come from the one God with one purpose.

Second, Paul reminds us of the purpose of the gifts: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). Gifts are not for ourselves. They are for the community, and for the good of the community as a whole, as a collective. This is a sobering reminder that we, like Christ, are called to serve: gifted for others, not for ourselves.

Third, Paul emphasises that it is Spirit who distributes the gifts according to his own judgement of who needs what: “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines” (1 Corinthians 12:11). Gifts are not a free for all. Gifts are not given just because we want them. Rather, Holy Spirit assesses what gifts are required and who requires them, and dispenses them according to his own good judgement.

Fourth, Paul writes at length about the church as a body, having many parts, each with their own unique and invaluable functions, but operating as a unity with a common goal: “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). This metaphor of the church as the Body of Christ is one of Paul’s great and profoundly insightful contributions to Christian faith and life. Every part of the body, even the “unpresentable” parts, has a vital role and place in the body. The body cannot operate without every part.

This is model of unity in diversity. It is a model of the trinity! As much as God is three-in-one, and as much as a married couple is two-in-one, the church is many-in-one. This theme echoes throughout the pages of scriptures. It is part of God’s eternal plan and vision that we should be diverse individuals united by a common purpose. And so Paul writes, “But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be” (1 Corinthians 12:18). This is God’s vision because this is how God is: three-in-one.

Fifth, in the very next passage, we get the very well-known passage on love: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud” (1 Corinthians 13:4). We hear this so often at weddings that we often think that Paul is here writing about marriage. But while this certainly speaks meaningfully to marriages, in fact, Paul is here writing about the church!

He opens this chapter with the words, “And now I will show you the most excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31). In a church where so many people are chasing after gifts, Paul seeks to remind the Corinthians that there is a much more important path to follow – the path of love. Half of chapter 13 says that gifts without love is worse than useless. The other half emphasises that gifts will pass away, but love never fails. Rather than chasing after gifts, we should chase after love. Rather than chasing after the gifts of the Spirit, we chase after Spirit himself. Rather than chasing after personal ambition, we should chase after loving relationships.

What we really need, says Paul, is the Spirit of Love. If we have him, then we have first prize. Second and third prizes go to faith and hope. But Love is the greatest prize. Love is the thing we should strive after more than anything else. Once we have Love, everything else will fall into place, including spiritual gifts.

Paul’s vision for the church is a community in which love is central, binding together diverse individuals into a united body, centred on Christ and enabled by Holy Spirit. This is also John’s vision of the Holy City. And this is also a vision of the triune God. This is what Spirit is so good at – bringing unity in diversity, cultivating loving fellowship, building communities. We really cannot do it in our own strength. But with Spirit, the Spirit of Love, it becomes possible.

Meditation for the Day

What are things like in your church or your home group? Is it a community that resembles the Trinity? If not, why not? What can you do to form the kind of Christian community that Paul and John write about?

Prayer for the Day

Spirit of Love, Spirit of Fellowship. Work among the members of my church to build us into a community that reflects the love and unity that we see in the triune God.

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Being God’s Beloved: Day 38: The Spirit of Persistence

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If you are a Christian, Holy Spirit dwells in your heart.

Some Christians question and doubt this. But you need have no doubt about the persistence of Spirit in your life.

Jesus says to the disciples, before Pentecost, “You know him [Spirit], for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:17). The first part of this sentence is written in the present tense (you currently know him because he currently lives in you) to emphasise that Spirit is already dwelling in them. And the second part of the sentence is written in the future tense (he will be in you in the future) to emphasise that Spirit will persist in them – he will not leave. The same is true of all children of God today – if you are a Child of God, Spirit has already taken up residence in your heart, and will remain there forever.

As we journey through life, however, we may have fresh and new experiences of Holy Spirit – new outpourings of Spirit into our hearts. The disciples experienced this from Jesus after the resurrection. In John 20, Jesus appears first to Mary and then to the disciples. He greets them, “‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:21-22). Just a few days earlier, Jesus had affirmed that Spirit was already living with them. So they are not now receiving Spirit for the first time. Rather, this is a new outpouring of Spirit into them.

And some weeks later, at Pentecost, they receive another outpouring of Spirit – this time with “a violent wind from heaven” and “what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them” and with the ability to speak in different languages (Acts 2:2-4). Again, this is a new experience of Spirit, but that does not mean they did not previously have Spirit in them. This time, however, we see radical transformation in their faith and witness, and an explosive growth of the church. Clearly, the outpouring of Spirit is a vital part of our spiritual growth. We should eagerly desire to know Spirit like this!

‘Baptism in the Spirit’ or being ‘filled with the Spirit’, which are sometimes accompanied by supernatural gifts such as tongues, does not mean receiving Holy Spirit for the first time. Spirit is intimately involved in our salvation, so if you are saved then Spirit is with you. We cannot be saved without Spirit’s participation. But, baptism and filling will provide you with ‘more’of Spirit, though I don’t like how ‘more’ suggests that Spirit is something that can be quantified and dispensed, like water or power. Remember that Spirit is a person. It is more helpful to think of baptism and filling as the removal of chains that constrain Spirit within you, so that you give Spirit space to work within you. Baptism and filling free Spirit up to do what he does best – to work in and through us for the glory of God. And this is something we should all pray for.

Yesterday we reflected that when Spirit saves us and dwells in us, we become children of God (Romans 8:15-17). This too sounds wonderful, does it not? Not only can we be filled with Spirit, but we can also become children of God and coheirs with Christ! This would suggest that once we are saved, we can expect to live the good life!

Of course, we all know that this is not true. Being a Christian does not secure the good life. Sometimes, being a Christian actually seems to work against us – we choose to give up activities or friends we enjoyed before, we feel obliged to be honest in our work and our tax returns, we feel persuaded to forgive someone who has harmed us, we grapple with guilt because we repeatedly fail to live up to God’s standards. This does not feel like the good life.

Paul recognises this, and so in Romans, immediately after several verses about how wonderful it is to live in step with Spirit, he begins to write about suffering and about the hope for a future glory – the good life that we will experience sometime in the future, if not now. He uses words like (Romans 8:18-27): sufferings, eager expectation, frustration, subjected, liberated, bondage, decay, groaning, the pains of childbirth, groan, eagerly wait, hope, patiently, weakness, groans.

Why does Paul write like this?

It is because the Christian path is not an easy one. It is because there are many times that we will feel like giving up, we may question if all this is worth it. It is because there are times when we will feel that God has abandoned us.

It is significant that Paul uses ‘groans’ three times and ‘hope’ five times in these 10 verses. This combination of groaning and hoping is often the experience of being a child of God. We groan because things are not how we want them to be. And we hope because we look forward to a better time. Hope helps us tolerate groaning. Hope helps us to persist through the groans.

And then Paul offers us two promises – promises that serve to give us courage and hope in the face of adversity, promises that remind us that the heart of God is filled with love towards us, promises that assure us that Spirit persists with us.

The first promise is this: that God is always working to transform bad experiences into good opportunities for us. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Bad things do happen. They happen to us. They happen to the people we love. And they happen to people throughout the world. Bad things do happen. We can write many books to explain suffering. But the bottom line is that we do suffer. It is a fact of living in a fallen world. God does not protect us from suffering.

But what we can trust God for, is that God will work with us, in all things, to transform bad into good. The thing that happened remains a bad thing. But God works to change the effects of that bad thing into something good. This is something God does in partnership with us – God partners with us to transform bad into good. God did this with the Cross: the Cross is a bad thing; but God transformed the effects of the Cross into something good for us.

For example, someone may experience a violent crime – that is a bad thing. God will work to transform that bad experience into something valuable – for example, the person may discover a fire in their belly to start a programme for people who commit violent crimes. The violent crime has not become good, just because it lead to something good. The crime itself is still a bad thing. But God has “worked together with those who love him to bring about what is good” (an alternative translation of Romans 8:28).

We can always trust God to help us transform bad things into good results.

And the second promise is this: that we will never be separated from God’s love. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).

Whenever I read this passage out loud, I find myself emphasising that “No!” in verse 37. It is one of Paul’s emphatic No’s, as if he had been sitting down and now stands up to emphasise this word. And then I find that I get louder and slower and more emphatic as I move through the last two verses, “For I am convinced…”

Nothing, absolutely nothing, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord! Nothing!!

God’s love does not give up on us. God’s love is not thwarted. God’s love is not contingent on whether we feel God’s love. God’s love does not get turned away by things that happen to us. God’s love is not doused by our own faithlessness. There is nothing in the universe that can separate us from God’s love.

Yesterday we reflected on the idea that Spirit is the love of God. Paul in Romans 8 has been writing extensively about Spirit in the lead up to these verses. So it is not too great a stretch to conclude that we can never be separated from God’s love because we can never be separated from Spirit. Spirit, who is the love of God, dwells in us – we are Holy Spirit’s temple (1 Corinthians 6:19) – and so God’s love dwells in us.

No matter what happens, no matter what we go through, Spirit remains with us, God’s love remains with us. Spirit will never leave us nor forsake us, so we need never fear nor be discouraged (Deuteronomy 31:6-8). We can have confidence that “if God is for us, who can be against us. He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32).

And no matter what we ourselves do, no matter what we say, Spirit remains with us, God’s love remains with us. We are incapable of escaping Spirit, as the psalmist has written, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Psalm 137:7-10). God remains with us, because God knit us together in our mother’s womb (Psalm 137:13). God knows everything there is to know about us – all the wonderful and all the terrible things about us – and still loves us, is not ashamed of or repulsed by us.

Today we give thanks for Holy Spirit, for the Love of God, who dwells in us, in the innermost place in our hearts, who works continuously for our good, who is present with us in suffering and hardship, and who loves us to the ends of time.

Meditation for the Day

Consider the presence of God’s Spirit in your heart right now. Even if you do not sense his presence, affirm and meditate on the truth that he is there and that he will persist in you.

Prayer for the Day

Spirit of Christ, Spirit of Love. Thank you that you reside in me and that you have promised to never leave nor forsake me. Open my heart to your presence and stir up in me faith and hope. Give me courage and ability to do your work in the world.

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Being God’s Beloved: Day 37: The Spirit of Love

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According to John’s Gospel, on the Thursday evening before Good Friday, Jesus spoke at some length about the Holy Spirit, something he had not done before. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor [other translations have Comforter, Advocate or Helper] to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:15-18).

I always appreciate that Jesus refers to the Spirit as “another counsellor”. It suggests that Jesus see himself as a ‘counsellor’ and as he prepares to leave this earth he asks the Father to send us a replacement counsellor, who will continue the work he started. And having said that, he is able to say, “I will not leave you as orphans” – we will have the Spirit, and that is as good as having Jesus. They are both God.

Jesus continues, “But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:26-27). Here we hear Jesus’ concern for the well-being of his disciples. He really does not want to leave them. (Saying goodbye is hard, even for the Son of God!) But he clearly sees the Spirit as being in continuity with him – Holy Spirit will teach the same message that I have taught, and with the Spirit, you have no need to be troubled or afraid. Indeed, be at peace.

In chapter 16, Jesus continues to teach about the Spirit. He says, “I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counsellor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). Here there is a development in Jesus’ message. The Spirit will not be simply a substitute for Jesus. Jesus sees the Spirit as someone who is to be much desired – it is good that I go away so that you can receive the Spirit!

St Augustine, writing about 350 years later, grappled with the theology of the Holy Spirit. In the early years of the church, theologians had given most of their attention to Jesus and the Trinity. The Spirit was somewhat peripheral by comparison. But any talk of the Trinity inevitably required talk about the Spirit. Augustine tended towards psychological metaphors for the Trinity (rather than the social metaphors that I have used in these reflections).

In one of them he thinks of the Spirit as the love between Father and Son.[1] He draws for this on John 4:24, “God is Spirit” and 1 John 4:16, “God is love”, concluding that therefore the Spirit is love. In the love between two people, says Augustine, you have the lover, the beloved and the love between them. The Father loves the Son, and this love that binds them together is the Spirit. Augustine writes, “The Holy Spirit is something common to Father and Son, whatever it is, or is their very commonness or communion, consubstantial and coeternal. Call this friendship, if it helps, but a better word for it is charity [which in modern English is love]. And this too is substance because God is substance, and God is charity (1 John 4:8, 16), as it is written.”

Jonathan Edwards, a fiery preacher in New England who was born in the same year as John Wesley, took up Augustine’s ideas, as have many others. He describes the Spirit as “God the Father’s and God the Son’s infinite love and joy in each other”.[2] Edwards writes about the “Divine disposition or nature”, which is perhaps similar to what I have described as the heart of God or the centre of God, and says that the Divine disposition is love. Because the Spirit is love, when we commune with the Spirit, we are communing with the very heart (the Divine Disposition) of God. And then he goes even further by arguing that since Divine disposition, which is love, is the centre of God, God is ruled by the Spirit, since the Spirit if love: The Holy Spirit “as it were reigns over the Godhead and governs his heart, and wholly influences both the Father and the Son in all they do”. Edwards bases this on his conviction that the Spirit is, in fact, the Love that is at the heart of God. And since Love is so central – it is the organising principle of the triune God – it in effect governs God, and thus we can say that the Spirit governs the Godhead.

For us, living in the twenty-first century, this is meaningful, because we live in the age of the Spirit. Jesus has returned to the Father, and has sent us the Spirit. And so our primary and closest engagement with God today is with the Spirit. If the Spirit is the love that binds Father and Son in One, then we are indeed blessed to have the Spirit in our hearts. It means that Divine Love is in our hearts. And as much as the Spirit of Love binds Father and Son together, the Spirit of Love binds us and God together. The Spirit is the ultimate reconciler.

But let me sound a caution here in how we think and speak about the Spirit. The problem with Augustine’s metaphor of the Spirit as the love that binds the Father and Son, is that it makes the Spirit something much less personal that the Father and the Son. We know God the Father through the Old Testament as a personal God. And we know the Son through the Gospels as a personal man. But thinking of the Spirit as the love between them makes the Spirit something not personal. But, in fact, the Spirit is as much a person as the Father is a person and the Son is a person.

We live in an era of intangible powers – microwaves spring to mind. Many of us have, “The force be with you”, etched into our minds from Star Wars. An emphasis on the Spirit as love or on the Spirit as power tends to depersonalise our understanding and experience of the Spirit. This is aggravated by our tendency to use phrases like, “The Spirit which came at Pentecost” and, “It manifested in tongues of fire.” We would never say, “Jesus, which was crucified”, but we easily say, “The Spirit, which was poured out”. We must change our language! Go back and reread how Jesus uses personal pronouns when speaking about Holy Spirit.

To help with this, I have tried to make it a habit to drop the definite article “the” and rather talk about “Spirit” or “Holy Spirit”, as a name, rather than a descriptor. From here on, I will try to do that. I encourage you to try it too – to make Holy Spirit a person, as much as Father and Son are persons, with whom we can have a loving relationship.

In Romans 8, Paul writes about Holy Spirit, picking up on some of what Jesus said in John. He explains what it means to be filled with Spirit and to walk in step with Spirit. One of the first things he says is that when we are full of Holy Spirit, we share in the mind of God, because Spirit is God: “Those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires… The mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace. You… are controlled… by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you” (Romans 8:6-9). Since Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, having Holy Spirit dwell in us is the same as having God dwell in us – Spirit is as much God as Jesus or Father are God. So, when Holy Spirit dwells in us, we have the mind and the heart of God right inside us – close and intimate. This is the immanence of God – God is near!

The second important thing that Paul says about Holy Spirit is that when Spirit lives in us, we are made sons and daughters of God, and we experience an intimate and loving relationship with God, like a good parent and their child. “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Romans 8:15-17). Spirit, being the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Love, binds us to the triune God so intimately that we really do become adopted children, much beloved.

Let us then, in these last few reflections, engage with Holy Spirit, as God-with-us.

Meditation for the Day

Listen to how you think and speak about Holy Spirit. Is Spirit an important person in your life? How would your faith grow if you engaged more with Holy Spirit?

Prayer for the Day

Holy Spirit of God, Spirit of Love and Life. I ask you to fill me up today. Remove the chains that bind you in me. Do God’s work in me and through me today. Let me be God’s Love in the world today.

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[1] Shults, F. L., & Hollingsworth, A. (2008). The Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, p. 34.

[2] Shults, p. 61.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 36: The Resurrection

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“On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures.”[1]

It is important that we dwell on the suffering and despair of Holy Week, as we journey towards the cross. But it is also important that we journey past Holy Week and into Easter, because the Christ we worship has been raised from the dead.

Two days ago I used the term “Godforsakenness” to describe Jesus’ experience as he approached death.[2] This term emerges from Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34, also Matthew 27:46).

While it seems true that Jesus experienced God forsaking him, it is also true that God never forsook him. There is sometimes a difference between how we experience God and how God actually is. Sometimes we feel that God is absent, but in fact God is present. Remember the story of the footprints?[3] We are often unaware that God is carrying us, feeling that God has turned away, but in fact God was there all along. It is similar with Jesus. There was a terrible break in fellowship resulting from Jesus’ death, but God the Father and God the Spirit never abandoned Jesus, never forsook him.

Instead, God the Father and God the Spirit stood alongside Jesus throughout his time of suffering. They were in solidarity with him. They took his part. We have previously reflected on God’s preference for the poor (Day 22). For this one time, Jesus was the poor – remember that ‘poor’ is understood in broad terms, not only economically. Indeed, he was the poorest of the poor. God does not abandon those who are poor. God does not abandon those in need, those who are hungry, those who are downtrodden. It is at these times that God comes closest!

In his crucifixion, as he takes on the sins of the whole world, Jesus embodies poverty. Or rather, he embodies all those who are poor. He becomes the representative of those who are poor. He stands in the place of the poverty stricken. Jesus had sufficient power and authority to liberate himself from the cross – he could have done it in a blink of an eye, and how amazing that would have been! How it would have shown up those who scoffed at him. But rather than a flashy display of power, Jesus opted for the lot of those who suffer, because it was for these that he came. It was the poor he came to liberate. As Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Luke 5:31).

God remained present with Jesus in his death, steadfast at his side, championing him. God never forsook Jesus.

And on the third day, God raised him from the dead. Peter said, “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this” (Acts 3:15). This was a tremendous exercise of God’s power, giving us confidence in God. As Paul says, “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you” (Romans 8:11). It is also a vindication of Christ – God showing that Jesus was indeed the anointed one of God. Peter, again, says, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).

The resurrection is God’s great “No!” to sin and death and the devil. God did not allow the Son of God to see decay. God did not allow human sin and hatred to overwhelm the Son of God. God did not allow Satan to triumph over the Prince of Peace. God says “No!” to all of that. God says “No!” to everything that undermines God’s vision for the cosmos, God’s purpose for life. God stands up, and puts his foot down, and says “No!”

Many Christians do not give much thought to Satan and the powers of darkness. They live in a world where there is a good God (and perhaps also angels and saints) but no devil or demons. But in the Biblical worldview, and in Jesus’ worldview, Satan is alive and well and busy in the world. Satan crowed at the death of Christ – finally, Satan would get mastery over the Son of God and gain the upper hand in the spiritual battle for cosmic domination. But God says “No!” We are reminded of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, who falls into the clutches of the White Witch and is executed. But there was a ‘deeper magic’ that she did not understand and Aslan was raised to life, breaking the stone altar. Christ’s resurrection is God’s “No!” to the Devil.

Christ’s resurrection is also God’s “No!” to Law and Wrath. This notion emerges in Martin Luther’s writings.[4] The Law is the expression of God’s Will. But it is impossible to keep, even eliciting greater sin, and thus becomes something that creates a barrier between us and God. When the Law functions well, it leads us towards obedience and compliance, and not towards a heartfelt alignment with God’s heart. And so, Law does not lead to Love, because Love must be free to be love – Love cannot be motivated by obedience and conformity. So there is a contradiction in Love and Law, and Luther intuited that this contradiction was located within the Godhead – these two Wills of God for Law and Love:

Luther presents us here with an antinomy, a conflict, between the Divine curse, the Wrath, and the Divine blessing, the Love. The wrath is the Wrath of God; yet it is the blessing that represents His inmost nature. The curse must give way; for if the blessing could give way God Himself would have been defeated. … Thus the Love of God breaks through the Wrath; in the vicarious act of redemption the Wrath is overcome by the Love which is ultimately, as Luther says, die Natur Gottes [God’s nature].[5]

“Christ’s victory was therefore also the victory of God’s love over God’s justice.”[6] Christ’s resurrection is God’s “No!” to Law and Wrath, and God’s “Yes” to Love and Blessing.

The resurrection is also a further step in God’s plan to undo the effects of the Fall. On Day 32, for example, we reflected on Jesus’ creation of community while hanging on the cross as a re-creation of the fellowship and harmony that was lost after Adam and Eve sinned. The resurrection undoes another effect of the Fall, namely death. Christ died and was raised again, opening a pathway for us to follow. We, like him, die and will be raised to new life. Indeed, in becoming Christians, we die to self and are raised to new Life in Christ. Paul really understood this well:

We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:4-11)

Christ’s resurrection is God’s “No!” to death and God’s “Yes!” to Life.

And the resurrection points towards the New Creation. There will come a time when God renews the earth, which Revelation refers to as the New Jerusalem, the Heavenly City. In the same way that God restored Jesus, God will restore the earth. God will make all things new. We’ll return to this next week, but for now let us recognise that the resurrection is God’s “No!” to the decay of creation and “Yes!” to the new creation.

The resurrection is the most important event in the history of God’s great plan for the salvation of the cosmos. Without it, we would surely be lost. The resurrection is God’s great demonstration of forgiveness and God’s “No!” to all the negative results of the Fall (particularly sin, death and the devil) and God’s “Yes!” to all the divine blessings (which we discussed on Day 6). It does not get more central than that!

In short, the resurrection is God’s great demonstration of Divine Love. We often emphasise the power of God demonstrated in the resurrection, but it is more correctly the love of God or the power and efficacy of God’s love that we see in the resurrection. God exerts an extraordinary and extravagant effort of love for the Son and for humanity and for the whole cosmos, turning back all that is evil and making real all that is good. Easter Sunday is indeed a day of love.

Meditation for the Day

Reflect back on everything we have covered this week on the cross and the resurrection. What stands out for you the most in relation to God’s love for you? How will embracing this truth impact on the life you live?

Prayer for the Day

Christ, my Redeemer, thank you for the extravagant demonstration of love that you lavished on us through your incarnation, your life and ministry, and your death and resurrection. Inspire me with your Spirit to say “No!” to sin, death and the Devil, and “Yes!” to love, life and God. Please re-create me.

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[1] Anglican Church of Southern Africa (1985). An Anglican prayer book.Jeppestown, RSA: HarperCollins, p. 108 (from the Nicene Creed).

[2] Moltmann, p. 227.

[3] Written by Mary Stevenson, http://www.footprints-inthe-sand.com/index.php?page=Poem/Poem.php

[4] Aulén, G. (1931). Christus victor: An historical study of three main types of the idea of the atonement. London: SPCK Classics, pp. 111-116.

[5] Aulén, pp. 114-115.

[6] Gaybba, p. 93.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 35: Divine Forgiveness

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When humans decided to execute the only Son of the living God, they perpetrated a terrible crime. And a terrible crime is deserving of severe judgement.

Let us not diminish the terribleness of this crime by saying that actually it was God’s plan that Jesus should die, making it seem that humans were merely God’s agents in God’s plan, and that Jesus’ crucifixion is somehow okay or even good. From every angle, Christ’s death was a dreadful crime against God.

And let us also not stand back and say that we were not somehow involved in his murder. Of course we were not present and active on that terrible day. But it is not just those individuals who were responsible for Jesus’ death. It is the sin of all of us – those before Jesus’ time, those during his time, and those who came after him. Jesus carried the sins of the whole world, including mine and including yours: “[Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). We must each accept our part in his death.

How do we make sense of this crime and of God’s response to it?

In Mark 12, Matthew 21 and Luke 20 Jesus tells a parable that bears an eerie resemblance to his own death. A landowner builds a beautiful vineyard. He really invests in setting it up. Then he rents out his land to some farmers, to tenants, while he went away on a journey. At harvest time, the landowner sends his representative to collect rent, but the tenants are happy to use the land but unwilling to acknowledge the landowner’s rights. They treat the representative badly and send him back with nothing. So the landowner sends another representative, but this one they assault. For a third time the landowner sends his representative and this time the tenants kill him. The landowner continues to send many representatives, but all are ill-treated, assaulted or killed. Eventually the landowner decides to send his only son, his beloved, thinking that surely they will respect and listen to him. Alas, they beat and kill the son also.  This terrible and personal assault is too much for the landowner. He comes in person and destroys the tenants and gives the vineyard away to others.

The parallels are striking, aren’t they? God delegates the care of the garden to Adam. God commissions humanity to rule over the world, taking care of it on his behalf. Humans are happy to use and exploit God’s blessings, but all too often we do not pay homage to God, we do not acknowledge the source of the blessing, we carry on as if God did not exist. God sends prophets as ambassadors to speak God’s mind, God’s heart. But all too often, the prophets were reviled, ignored or even killed. But God persists over hundreds and hundreds of years to get God’s message across to us.

Eventually, some two thousand years ago, God sends the Son, the one and only, the Beloved. Surely we will listen to God incarnate? Surely we will respect the Son of God? Even a cursory reading of the Gospels shows, however, the extent to which Jesus’ message was not heard. He was attacked, criticised and ridiculed. On several occasions people plotted or attempted to kill him. His message was twisted and distorted. And precious few recognised and accepted him for who he was – God’s son.

And then we killed him. We killed the Son of God. We killed the second person of the Trinity.

How will God respond?

Perhaps God will respond with Divine Wrath. Perhaps God will wipe humanity from the face of the earth; burn up the earth; obliterate all trace of the creation.

And rightly so, don’t you think? What else could be an appropriate response to a crime as massive as the murder of God? I don’t think any of us could deny that that would be an appropriate and fully justified response. Divine retribution. Divine judgement.

I have a 15 year old son – my only child. Occasionally, in a darker mood, I find myself imagining what I’d do if someone hurt him. I think I’d go insane – I cannot imagine how I would hold on to my mind. I think I would become a raging homicidal monster. I’d like to think I might be heroic and forgive. But I don’t think I am that hero.

How our murder of Jesus must have hurt and enraged God. And how terrible that rage would be for us if God chose to vent it. We have seen God’s wrath at times in the Old Testament, but I imagine those times would pale in comparison to this.

But…

God’s wrath does not descend. There are no fiery balls falling from the sky. No shattering earthquakes. No volcanic eruptions. No lakes of burning sulphur. No tsunamis.

Indeed, there was no response at all. On the second day after the crucifixion, the Saturday, the cosmos held its breath, waiting. What would God do? Waiting… waiting… no response. It was as if God was grappling, as Christ had grappled in the garden of Gethsemane. God, grappling with emotion, God weighing up the options, God deciding whether or not to live out what Jesus had told in that parable. Holy Saturday is the day we wait on God, to see how God will respond. We wait, silent, by Jesus’ grave.

And on the third day, the Sunday, early in the morning, Jesus comes back. He comes back! The Son, whom we killed, is returned to us. He returns with words of grace and peace, with words of encouragement, with words of salvation. We move past Lent and Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and encounter a glorious Easter Morning!

How is that possible? How is it that God, the triune God, would return to us after we had murdered the Son? How is it that the parable of wrath and judgement is not fulfilled? How is it that we are not forever Godforsaken?

Jesus’ resurrection is evidence of God’s forgiveness!

God’s grappling on Holy Saturday between divine wrath and divine forgiveness resolves into forgiveness. As we have seen so often before over the past 34 reflections, God’s inclination is towards love, towards forgiveness. God remains true to God’s heart, which is full of love. Even in the face of the greatest crime against the very being of a God, God chooses to forgive. God chooses love over wrath.

And the most powerful way that God can demonstrate forgiveness of our choice to kill the Son is to return the Son. The resurrection is divine forgiveness.

Jesus’ resurrection does not make the cross something wonderful or beautiful or glorious. Rather, Jesus’ resurrection shows us that God’s love is wonderful, beautiful and glorious!

There has been no greater demonstration of love than the resurrection. God created out of an abundance of free love. The incarnation demonstrated the selflessness of divine love desiring intimacy with humanity. The cross is a sign of divine love willing to risk everything in the hope of salvation. But the resurrection is the decision of God to forgive and reconcile in the wake of the ultimate betrayal. The ultimate sin requires ultimate forgiveness; ultimate forgiveness requires ultimate love.

If ever you are in doubt of God’s willingness to forgive your sin, look to the resurrection. If ever you need assurance that God has not forsaken you, look to the resurrrection. If ever you doubt God’s love, look to the resurrection. The resurrection is divine forgiveness.

Meditation for the Day

Put yourself in God’s shoes on Easter Friday. What would you have done? Consider the resurrection. Consider its message. Consider the resurrection as divine forgiveness. What is God saying to you?

Prayer for the Day

God of infinite love and mercy, I give you heartfelt thanks and worship for the great gift of your return to us after we had murdered your only begotten Son. Thank you for that ultimate forgiveness. Empower me to honour your gift in how I live my life.

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Being God’s Beloved: Talk 5: God’s Love Revealed Through The Cross

This is the fifth and final talk in the series on “Being God’s Beloved”, presented at St Martin’s Anglican Church, Irene, South Africa, on 9 April 2014. We conclude the talks by focusing on the Cross and Resurrection, and the way in which the sequence of events over the Easter weekend reveals God’s love to us.

Click here to open the video from YouTube