Thursday, 23 February 2012

Discovering the secret to life

If you ask people what they want from life, most people would I think say they want to be healthy, happy, enjoy good relationships, have happy healthy children, and have enough money to live comfortably, so they can afford to go on holiday, have a nice home, and so forth.

So Jesus’ invitation to deny one’s self, take up our cross and follow him (Luke 9:22-25), on face value does not sound particularly appealing!  I am sure if advertising executives were around in Jesus’ day, they would be saying to Jesus “If you want to attract punters, you need to ditch all this talk about denying yourself and taking up your cross, it gives your movement a bad image.”

Certainly Jesus’ call to deny one’s self is as counter cultural today as it has ever been.  Even trying to deny ourselves the little things that we enjoy, such as chocolate during Lent, can be a struggle for many of us! 

But it is only when we are truly prepared to stop living life for ourselves, and start living it for Jesus that we truly find life.  That is at the heart of what I think Jesus is calling us to do here in this passage.  His call is to stop living life our way, and living it his way, following Jesus by imitating his life and obeying his commands. 

Going back to what people want from life, I suspect what most people want is an easy life – myself included.  The trouble is I think we’ve sometimes wanted the Christian faith to be easy as well, so that being a Christian does put too many demands on us.  The German Theologian Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this cheap grace.  “Cheap grace  is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline.  Communion  without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ." 

 But we are actually called to costly grace, "costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: "My yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Bonhoeffer himself knew the true cost of what it means to follow Christ, as he was imprisoned and later executed for his opposition to Hitler’s regime.

As we enter into this season of Lent it is an opportunity for us think again about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  To think about Jesus’ radical call to discipleship.  Not everyone who heard Jesus preach, chose to follow him, many turned away sad and disappointed because they weren’t prepared to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him.  The Christian life can be tough and challenging, but it is only when we live for Jesus that we discover life as it is meant to be lived, because ultimately it is only Jesus who can meet are deepest needs.  

John 8:1-11 Sermon for Ash Wednesday

As I get older, I am finding that life gets more and more hectic.  I feel as though there are more things demanding my time and attention, and that I have less and less time to do the things that I want to do and know I should be doing.  And I know it’s not going to get any easier as the years go by. 

As a child time seemed to creep by so slowly, but now that I’m older I’m desperately searching for the brake to try and slow things down a bit! 

I came across this little poem the other day called ‘What happened to time?’

When as a child I laughed and wept, time crept
When as a youth I dreamed and talked, time walked
When I became a full grown man, time ran
And later as I older grew, time flew
Soon I shall find while travelling one, time gone.

The Christian writer and speaker Rob Parson who works for the charity Care for the Family wrote the following:

You can run several agenda in life, but you cannot run them all at a hundred per cent without someone paying the price.  We have so many excuses.  The main one is that we convince ourselves that a slower day is coming.  We say to ourselves, ‘When the house is decorated, when I get my promotion, when I pass those exams – then I’ll have more time.’  We tell ourselves it’s okay because that slower day is getting nearer.  It’s as well that we realise, here and now, that the slower day is an illusion – it never comes.  Whatever our situation, we all have the potential to fill up our time.  That’s why we need to make time for things that we believe are important – and we need to make it now.

Making this time to slow down, to pause, to give ourselves that much needed time to refocus on what really matters, doesn’t just happen we need to work at it, to make it a priority. 

Ash Wednesday, and the start of this season of Lent invites us to resist the pressure of the passing moment, to pause and reflect, and to get rid of those things that so easily distract us, so we can examine what areas of our lives have became stale and to open ourselves to the gift which Christ longs to impart, newness of life, the gift of Resurrection life.

The gospel reading has an important lesson to teach us.  Jesus comes to the Temple very early in the morning, and the peace and quiet of the Temple is suddenly shattered as a group of religious leaders bring to Jesus, probably kicking and screaming, a woman who has just been “caught in the act of adultery.”  In the religious Law of the time, adultery was unfaithfulness on the part of a married woman. The Law was not concerned with affairs between husbands and unmarried women. 

And placing this women before Jesus, they say "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?"  This question was a clever attempt to trap Jesus, if Jesus refused to uphold the stoning, it would confirm the authorities suspicions that Jesus was someone with no respect for the Law of Moses, someone who was undermining the traditions of the faith. But if on the other hand, Jesus’ compassion for the downtrodden and lawless was known, a hard line judgment would have discredited him in the eyes of the common people. 
What does Jesus do? He stoops and with his finger writes upon the ground.

It is easy to get on a treadmill of over consumption, overwork, to allow the busyness of life to overtake us, or to allow ourselves to be drawn into situations where we could say or do something we would later regret. 

Jesus detaches himself from the confrontation. He stoops down, and starts writing in the earth with his finger, rather than allowing himself to be drawn into an argument. 

The message here is not that we should opt out of confrontations which may be sometimes necessary, but that if we want to see clearly and engage profoundly there are times when we must stoop down and refrain. To disengage from the heat of the moment, in order to clarify the situation, and to connect and explore the real issues.

What does this mean for us, particularly bearing in mind what I said at the beginning of this talk about the busyness and demands of life?  Very often there is too much going on around us, we find our attention being pulled in so many different directions, and so we need to take time in which we can step back in order to reflect and reengage with what’s most important.  Lent gives us this opportunity.  Our Lenten fasting should not be some token abstinence from sweets but a conscious effort to stand back from all the hectic busyness of life, in order to stoop to clarify and reconnect.

If we wish to free ourselves from the hectic hype and pressure of the passing moment then Lent is a good opportunity to cut out some of those distractions.  For example, you may decide to cut down the amount of time you spend listening to the radio or sitting in front of the TV, and making more time to be still and quiet, using this time to focus again on God, to live more simply. 

God longs for us to enjoy the new life which bursts from the tomb, but with the hectic and busy lives we lead, a crust can form over the well spring at the heart of life where the Holy Spirit flows with inexhaustible vitality. Jesus’ life was marked by a rhythm of walking and talking with the crowds and then retreating to a desert place. In Lent we stoop down and detach in order to clarify and connect more profoundly with God, with what matters most in life, so that the well spring of the Holy Spirit can flow freely once again.   

I want to finish now, by reading a reworking of the 23rd Psalm.

The Lord is my pace setter…I shall not rush
He makes me stop for quiet intervals
He provides me with images of stillness which restore my serenity
He leads me in the way of efficiency through calmness of mind and his guidance is peace
Even though I have a great many things to accomplish each day, I will not fret, for his presence is here
His timelessness, his all importance will keep me in balance
He prepares refreshment and renewal in the midst of my activity by anointing my mind with his oils of tranquility
My cup of joyous energy overflows
Truly harmony and effectiveness shall be the fruits of my hours for I shall walk in the Pace of my Lord and dwell in his house for ever.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Mark 1:40-45 Seeing Christ in Others

One day whilst out walking, a man fell into a ditch.

His cries for help eventually attracted a doctor, who walked up to the pit, looked at the man trapped down at the bottom of the pit, and threw a prescription into the ditch.

Next a priest walked by and the man yelled again for help. The priest looked into the pit, and seeing the man trapped there, offered to say a prayer.

Sometime later a man walked by, seeing the man in the ditch and hearing his call for help, the man jumped into the ditch.

The man who was trapped in the ditch said, "How are we going to get out now that you are here too?”  To which the man replied, "I have been in this ditch before and I will lead you out."

That is the mark of a true friend, one who will lead another out of the ditch.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus did something not too dissimilar to the man who had leprosy.  When the man with leprosy approached Jesus, Jesus could see this man’s life of pain and misery, and did something extraordinary, he reached out and touched him.  For the man who had leprosy, it is unlikely that anyone had touched him for a very long time, because of the fear and stigma that surrounded leprosy.  When Princess Diana held the hand of a man dying from Aids, it also had a similar impact, because people were so fearful of Aids. 

What many people would have seen would have been the man’s sickness and leprosy.  He would have had a name, but for many people who saw him, he was simply a leper.  But Jesus saw the man, the man who needed love, acceptance and healing.  And by reaching out and touching the man Jesus, identified with him, and  led him out of the ditch of despair, loneliness, misery, pain and suffering.

The challenge for me in this passage is how do I see and treat others?  One of the recent TV highlights for me has been the BBC comedy Rev, about the trials of a fictional vicar called Adam, working in a parish in central London.  One of the people Adam regularly has to deal with is a man called Mick.  Mick is a drug addict, who regularly visits the vicarage, in order to try and con Adam out of money, in order to buy drugs.  There was one particularly moving episode recently where Adam found Mick lying semi conscious outside the church.  Mick had been lying there all night, as a result of taking drugs.  When Mick eventually came round, he told Adam that he wanted help to beat his drug addiction, and once he stopped taking the drugs, Mick changed, he became a completely different person.  And the challenge for Adam and his wife was how they were going to relate to this new Mick, because they were so familiar with Mick the drug addict, and it was hard for them to see beyond that to Mick the man.  I found this very challenging, just as I find this Bible reading challenging.  Because it is all too easy sometimes to judge people, rather than seeing their true humanity, rather than seeing them as a child of Christ.  Mother Theresa was once asked what motivated her, to care for the poor and destitute in Calcutta, and she answered, it was because each of them was Christ.  She saw beyond their ragged clothes, dirt, and sickness, and saw Jesus.

So the challenge for us today, is how do we learn to see Christ in others?  Who are the people you know, lying trapped in a ditch, whether that be a ditch of depression, sickness, loneliness, addiction, fear, etc., etc.,?  And are you prepared to reach out to them with the hand of friendship, and lead them out of that ditch? 

The Pain Of Loss

Walsall Advertiser Living Faith Article: 17 November 2011

Benjamin Franklin one of the founding Father’s of the United States famously said, "'In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."

The loss of someone we love is without doubt the most painful experience we face in life.  
Claire Rayner, a well known agony aunt who died last year, wrote, “Only the unloved and unloving escape grief.  It is the price we all have to pay, eventually for the love that makes our lives worth living.  Whether it be the loss of parent, spouse, child, brother, sister or friend, the pain lies in wait for us.  And when it comes it has to be experienced before it can be eased.
How we respond to loss is different for each one of us.  There is no right or wrong way to grieve, the important thing is that everyone is given time to grieve in their own way and at their own pace.  Having said this, it is not uncommon to feel a sense of disbelief, numbness, anger, pain, guilt and deep sense of loss. 

As much as we would like to avoid the pain of grief, there is no way around it, only a way through it.  It is in experiencing and expressing their deep sense of grief that the bereaved slowly come to terms with their loss. 

The Bible tells the story of how Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. Jesus didn’t hide from the pain, or ignore it, but faced it full on.  If Jesus was able to weep at his friend’s tomb, it reminds us that it is okay for us to cry, and to express our sense of pain and loss.  We shouldn’t be afraid or ashamed of letting our emotions out, because it is an expression of our love for those we have lost, and it is part of the healing process.  It is only when we try to suppress these emotions, and not allow ourselves to grieve properly that problems arise. 

Following a bereavement many people find being able to talk to others who have been through similar experiences helpful, which is why at St Martin’s we are launching a new monthly bereavement support group meeting today at 11am, and on the third Thursday of every month.  If you would like more information about this group please contact me on 01922 611909 or email

For Those In Peril On The Sea

Walsall Faith Advertiser Living Faith Article 26 January 2012

At the time of writing this article, there is one item dominating the news, the tragic sinking of the cruise ship Costa Concordia.  What makes this tragedy even more heart breaking is that it appears to be solely down to human error. The Costa Concordia was the world’s 26th largest cruise ship, able to accommodate 4,300 passengers and 1,100 crew.

In the same week the Costa Concordia sank, five fishermen lost their lives when their trawler sank in the Irish Sea.  These tragedies remind us of the dangers that people face working at sea.  On average 230 ships are lost every year, with the loss of over 2000 lives. 

Before I became a vicar I worked for ‘The Mission to Seafarers’. My job was to visit the crew who worked on ships that came into the Port of Auckland in New Zealand, and offer practical, emotional and spiritual support.

Over 90% of the goods brought into the United Kingdom come by sea, and yet we rarely think about the people who transport these goods to us, and the hardships they face.  The expression ‘out of sight, out of mind’ could well be applied to seafarers.  Constantly on the move, living and working in dangerous conditions, small multi-national crews, far away from their loved ones, life for most seafarers is very tough. 

In the parable of the Sheep and Goats Jesus commends those who feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, look after the sick, and visit the prisoner.  He said “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40).  This is at the heart of what it means to love God and love others.  It was for this reason that the Mission to Seafarers was established in the 19th Century by the Revd John Ashley. 

Although seafarers may be out of sight, they do not need to be out of mind.  Please remember in your prayers those who work at sea, far from their homes and loved ones, and those who seek to care for them.  As the captain of one ship wrote, ‘We thank you for your prayers, which keep us strong to stand in the time of our need.’    

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 Love & The Gifts of the Spirit

Over the last few weeks we have been exploring the Holy Spirit.  Last week George preached about the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 12.  The gift of wisdom & knowledge.  The gift of faith, & healing, the gift of prophecy and being able to distinguish between spirits.  And the gift of being able to speak in tongues, and being able to interpret tongues.

These are gifts or tools given to us by God, not for our own benefit, but so that we can use them to encourage and build up the body of Christ.  That is why Paul writes ‘Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.’ (1 Cor 12:7)

In the rest of this chapter, Paul goes on to talk about the church as the body of Christ, making the point that each one of us is an important and indispensable part of Christ’s body, the church.  We need one another, and we each have been given special gifts by the Holy Spirit, which we are called to use in order to serve one another and grow the church. 

If you buy a new tool, or gadget, in order to use it properly, and safely, and get the most out of it, you need to read the instructions. These are some genuine instructions on consumer goods.
On Boot's Children's Cough Medicine:

Do not drive a car or operate machinery after taking this medication.

On a Japanese food processor:

Not to be used for the other use.

On a Swedish chain saw:

Do not attempt to stop chain with your hands or genitals.

In a microwave oven manual:

Do not use for drying pets.

On a Harry Potter wizards broom:

This broom does not actually fly.

On a toilet cleaning brush:

Do not use orally.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit also come with one very simple, but extremely important instruction: these gifts must be exercised in love.  If they are not exercised in love, then all sorts of problems can arise. 

This is one of the reasons why Paul wrote this letter to the church in Corinth.  Because the Corinthian church, was a church where the spiritual gifts were very much in use, but the way in which they were being used, was causing tension and division within the church.  Which is why Paul stresses that without love all other spiritual gifts count for nothing. 
Listen again to what he writes:

‘If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 

Corinth was a large city, which contained many pagan temples.  Gongs and cymbals were often used in pagan worship, and so the streets of Corinth would have resounded with the noise of these instruments. 

Paul uses this image, to say that those who use the gift of speaking in tongues without love, is as offensive as the banging of gongs and cymbals.  Without love their speech would serve no purpose, it would only be a noise, like a musical instrument that produces a loud crash, but no harmony.  To practice this spiritual gift without love, would not help or benefit anyone. 

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 

Faith, we are told in the Scripture, is so important that it is impossible to please God without it.  But Paul writes that love is even more important than faith.  The priest & the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan had faith – they believed in God. But the problem was they had no love. So they walked by on the other side & just left the man lying there to die.  Faith, unless it is backed up by love, is of little value.

If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.’

Now notice that he doesn’t say, "If I give 10%." He says, "If I give everything, if I give all my retirement funds, if I sell my house, if I cash in my insurance policies, if I sit on the corner with nothing left but what I’m wearing, & I’ve given it all away to help the poor, but I don’t have love then I am nothing at all."

As Christians we are called to be generous, with our time, money and talents.  But if the only reason I give is to receive praise or benefit myself then love is absent, & the giving is empty. The motive for giving should be love, love for God and love for God’s people.

Mother Teresa wrote, ‘We must grow in love and to do this we must go on loving and loving and giving and giving until it hurts---the way Jesus did. Do ordinary things with extraordinary love… Any sacrifice is useful if it is done out of love.
The Corinthians believed that the possession of certain spiritual gifts, made them important people, and somehow better than the rest.  But Paul makes it clear that what matters most to God is that we have love for one another.  And without love, there is no value in these other spiritual gifts, because they effectively become worthless.  Love is what makes our actions and gifts useful, which is why love is totally indispensable.

Jesus makes it clear how important love really is.  He calls us to remain in his love, and to “love each other as I have loved you.” (John 15:11-12)

Jesus is saying that if we remain in him, and in his love, we will be able to bear much fruit, we will glorify God, we will show ourselves to be his disciples, we will obey his commands, and we will have joy that is complete.

But if we do not remain in his love, then we cannot bear fruit, we cannot do anything, and we become like a barren branch to be thrown into the fire and burned.  This is why Paul writes that apart from Jesus and his love, we can do nothing and we gain nothing.
Paul goes on to show what the true nature of love looks like. 

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Cor 13:4-8)
It has been said that love is a verb not a noun. In other words our love must not be a thing of words and fine talk. It must be a thing of action and sincerity. Paul uses verbs which are in the present continuous tense to describe the nature of love: patient, kind, trusting, hoping, persevering.  In other words they denote actions or attitudes that become ingrained and habitual. The point being that the more we experience the Holy Spirit at work in our lives, the more loving we should become, and we should see that in the outworking of our lives. 

The love that Paul writes about here is a self giving love, a love that looks out to the interests of others.  A love that knows no limits, a love that gives while expecting nothing in return, a love that is willing to forgive, a love just like Jesus has for us. 

If you replaced the word ‘love’ for Jesus, we would see the very character of Jesus, who is love.  The more we experience God’s Holy Spirit in our lives, the more our love for God and one another should grow, and the more like Jesus we should become.

And so, of all the gifts that God’s Holy Spirit gives, the one thing that is most important, and the one thing we should pursue above all else, is the gift of love.  Because the gifts are temporary “containers” of God’s work, whereas love is the work itself.  

What Does the Holy Spirit Do?

Sermon based on the Alpha Course Talk on the Holy Spirit

Last week I began a new series of sermons looking at who is the Holy Spirit.  This morning, I want to continue to reflect on the question what does the Holy Spirit do?

A Sunday school teacher was talking to chldren about being a Christian, and she asked them ‘Are you born a Christian?’ to which one little boy replied ‘No, Miss.  You are born normal!’ 

When you become a Christian, you begin a new life.  Sometimes you hear this as being refered to as being ‘born again’.  This expression ‘born again’ has become a cliché, but it is a way of describing what it is like to become a Christian, it’s about the new life that God gives us.  Jesus said this:

“‘I tell you the truth, no-one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.’’ (John 3:5-6).

We are both physical and spiritual beings.  And when we become Christians, our spirit and the Spirit of God come together.  Therefore every single Christian is born again. We may not be able to put our finger on the exact moment it occurred, but just as we know whether or not we are alive physically, so we should know that we are alive spiritually.

When we are born as babies, we are born into a family. When we are born again spiritually, we are born into a Christian family, the church.

Much of the work of the Spirit can be seen in terms of a family.
-                     He assures us of our relationship with our Father
-                     He helps us to develop that relationship.
-                     He produces in us a family likeness.

Sons and daughters of God
The Bible tells us that we are all created in the image of God, but it is only when we enter into a relationship with God through Jesus, that we truly become the sons and daughters of God.  We become sons and daughters of God not by being born, but by being born again by the Spirit.

That is why Paul in our reading today, said “you received the Spirit of adoption. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” (Romans 8:15).

What is the importance of being a child of God? 

1.            The highest privilege

First of all, there is no higher privilege than to be a child of God. Under Roman law if an adult wanted an heir he could either choose one of his own sons or adopt a son. God has only one begotten Son – Jesus, but he has many adopted sons.

Imagine if as a child you were adopted into the Royal family, and you became a princes or princess.  This is fact is in effect what has happened to us.  We have been adopted into God’s family. There could be no higher honour.

Billy Bray was born in 1794 in Cornwall.  He had a terrible reputation, constantly drinking and fighting, and being unfaithful to his wife.  Then at the age of twenty-nine he became a Christian, and his life was completely turned around.  He changed, and became a new person. 

Crowds of miners would come and hear him preach, and some remarkable healings took place.  Billy Bray called himself a prince, because he said ‘I am the son of a King.’

There is no status in the world that even compares with the privilege of being a child of the Creator of the universe.

2.       The closest intimacy

Secondly, as children we have the closest possible intimacy with God. Paul says that by the Spirit we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ If we were to translate the Aramaic word, Abba into English, the nearest equivalent is ‘Daddy’. It is a term of great intimacy. 

The fact that we are able to call God Abba, emphasises the intimate relationship we can have with God when we receive his Holy Spirit. 

Prince Charles has many titles. He is the Heir Apparent to the Crown, his Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, Knight of the Garter, Colonel in Chief of the Royal Regiment of Wales, Duke of Rothesay, Knight of the Thistle, Rear Admiral, Great Master of the Order of Bath, Earl of Chester, Earl of Carrick, Baron of Renfrew, Lord of the Isles and Great Steward of Scotland. We would address him as ‘Your Royal Highness’, but to William and Harry he is ‘Dad’. When we become children of God we have an intimacy with our heavenly King.

3.       The deepest experience of God

Thirdly, the Spirit gives us the deepest possible experience of God. ‘The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children’ (v. 16).

As a parent, I want my children to know and experience just how much I love them.  And the same is true with God, He wants us to know that we are His children and that He loves us unconditionally.

4.       Heirs of God

Paul says that if we are children of God we are also ‘heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ’ (Romans 8:17). Which means that as children of God we are his heirs, we inherit the promise of eternal life. 

Developing the relationship
When a child is born it is the beginning of a new life and new relationships. Our relationship with our parents grows and deepens as we spend time with them; it does not happen overnight.

In the same way, our relationship with God develops as we spend time with him, which we do primarily through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the one who helps us to develop our relationship with God and he enables us to sustain that relationship. The Holy Spirit is the one who brings God’s presence and reality into our lives.  He is the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, who helps us to understand what God is saying to us through the Bible. 

The Holy Spirit is the fire, that keeps our relationship burning, and without whom are faith would be cold and liveless. 

The family likeness

As I get older, I am realise I am becoming more and more like my father, both physically and in my personality. 

I find it fascinating to observe how children can look like both parents at the same time when the parents themselves may look so different. Even husbands and wives sometimes grow to look like each other as they spend time together over the years!

As we spend time in the presence of God, the Spirit of God transforms us, we become more like God not in outward appearnace, but in our inner selves. We are transformed into the moral likeness of Jesus Christ. The fruit of the Spirit is developed in our lives. Paul tells us that ‘the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22). These are the characteristics that the Spirit of God develops in our lives. It is not that we become perfect immediately, but over a period of time there should be a change.

The first and most important fruit of the Spirit is love. Love lies at the heart of the Christian faith. The Bible is the story of God’s love for us and His desire is that we should respond by loving Him and loving our neighbour. The evidence of the work of the Spirit in our lives will be an increasing love for God and an increasing love for others. Without this love everything else counts for nothing.

Second in Paul’s list is joy. This joy is not dependent on our outward circumstances; it comes from the Spirit within. Richard Wurmbrand, who was imprisoned for many years and frequently tortured on account of his faith, wrote of this joy: ‘Alone in my cell, cold, hungry and in rags, I danced for joy every night . . . sometimes I was so filled with joy that I felt I would burst if I did not give it expression.’

The third fruit listed is peace, the peace that the Holy Spirit gives is much more than absence of worry.  The Hebrew word to describe this peace is shalom, which ‘wholeness’, ‘soundness’, ‘well-being’ and ‘oneness with God’. There is a longing within every human heart for peace like that.

And so through the Holy Spirit, we receive the reassurance of our relationship with our Heavenly, Father.  The Spirit helps us to develop that relationship, and as we experience more of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives, the more like Christ we become, and becoming more like Christ is what being a Christian is all about.  That is what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

I want to finish now with a prayer, asking God’s Holy Spirit to be poured out afresh on us all.

Come, Holy Spirit,
Spirit of God, Spirit of the Risen Christ,
be with us today and always.
Be our Light, our Guide, and our Comforter.
Be our Strength, our Courage,
and our Sanctifier.
May this year be a time
of deep spiritual growth for us,
a time for welcoming Your graces and gifts,
a time for forgiving freely and unconditionally,
a time for growing in virtue and goodness.
Come, Holy Spirit,
be with us today and always. Amen.

Who is the Holy Spirit?

How do you know if someone loves you? 
Some children were asked this question, and these are some of their answers:
Rebecca - age 8  "When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn't bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That's love."
Chrissy - age 6 "Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your French fries without making them give you any of theirs."
Terri - age 4 "Love is what makes you smile when you're tired."
When asked what most people think when they say “I love you” Michelle age 9 said "The person is thinking: Yes, I really do love him. But I hope he showers at least once a day."
So going back to my question, how do you know if someone loves you? 
The answer is that there will be various ways in which a person will show their love.  Being told someone loves you, is of course very important, but words alone are not enough. 
Psychologists estimate that up to two thirds of all communication is non verbal.  So we will know someone loves us, not only because of what they communicate through their words, but also by what they communicate through their body language, gestures, touch, eye contact, and so forth.  It is through this, that we experience that feeling of being loved.
So another question, how do you know that God loves you? 
I suspect many people here today would say: “I know God loves me, because like the old Gospel song goes, ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’”  This is what I would describe as intellectual or head knowledge, the understanding that God loves us.  But there is another way we can know God loves us, and that comes through personal experience of God, and this is what I call heart knowledge.  And this personal experience of God comes through the Holy Spirit, because it is through the Holy Spirit that we encounter the love of the living God.  There is a big difference between knowing God loves us intellectually, and knowing that God loves us in our heart.  The most important journey that any of us will undertake, and also one of the most difficult, is the journey from the head to the heart, from knowing God loves us up here (head) to down here (heart).
Over the next few weeks we are going to be focusing on the Holy Spirit, and thinking about why the Holy Spirit matters so much.
So why is the Holy Spirit so important?  As many of you know I am very much into steam treams, and in order for a steam engine to move, you need fire in the fire box to heat the water in the boiler to create the steam that is used to move the engine.  Without fire, the engine is going no where. 
The Holy Spirit is the fire in our lives, the one who helps us to grow as Christians, the one who brings the reality and experience of God’s loving presence into our hearts.  This is why in the Bible it tells us not only to be filled with the Holy Spirit, but go on being filled with the Holy Spirit.  We need to keep on being filled again and again by God’s Holy Spirit.
So who exactly is the Holy Spirit?  Many people know a certain amount about God the Father and Jesus the Son, but there is a great deal of ignorance about the Holy Spirit.
In the King James version of the Bible, and in the Book of Common Prayer it talks about the ‘Holy Ghost’, but the Holy Spirit is not a ghost but a Person. If you were looking for a schoolchild’s definition, the Holy Spirit is ‘Jesus’ other self’, in other words the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus. He is the way in which Jesus is present with his people.
In Greek the Holy Spirit is called the parakletos (John 14:16), which means the ‘one called alongside’ – a counsellor, a comforter and an encourager.  The Holy Spirit is presence of Jesus, sent to help and encourage us in our Christian life. 
We see evidence of the activity of the Holy Spirit in the opening verses of the Bible: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 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’ (Genesis 1:1-2).
We see in the account of the creation how the Spirit of God caused new things to come into being and brought order out of chaos. He is the same Spirit today. He often brings new things into people’s lives and into churches. He brings order and peace into chaotic lives, freeing people from harmful habits and addictions and from the confusion and mess of broken relationships.
When God created humankind, he ‘formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being’ (Genesis 2:7). The Hebrew word for breath is ruach, which is also the word for ‘Spirit’. The ruach of God brings spiritual life to people and churches!
The Holy Spirit equips us to follow and serve God, we will look at the gifts of the Holy Spirit  over the next few weeks.
When the Holy Spirit comes, he doesn’t just bring a nice warm feeling.  When people are filled with the Holy Spirit, amazing things happen, people are changed. 
For me, the first experience that I can remember of the power of the Holy Spirit was when I was about 7 years old.  I was living in Dearham in West Cumbria at the time, and we held a tent mission in our village, which students from Wycliffe Hall in Oxford helped to lead.  Although I don’t remember a lot about what took place I do remember being aware of a very powerful sense of God’s presence as people worshipped during that week, which I found almost overwhelming. The other experience was not long after this, when I started praying in tongues, which is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Tongues is a language that God gives us in order to talk to him, I will talk more about this in a couple of weeks time.  But at the time, I remember how as I started to pray for the first time in tongues, this strange, unknown language, the words seemed to pour out of my mouth.  And although I don’t what the words meant, I had this real sense that they were words of praise and worship, because this is what I think the gift of tongues primarily is, a way of being able to worship God, which go beyond the limitations of normal spoken language.  And as I prayed in tongues for the first time, this deep sense of joy seemed to well up inside me, which was the Holy Spirit.  And over the years I have had many other experiences of God’s Holy Spirit, that has helped me to grow as a Christian, and also helped convince me of the reality and power of God.
The gift of the Holy Spirit is for ALL Christians.  In the book of Joel in the Old Testament, God says:

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.  (Joel 2:28-29)
God pours out his Spirit regardless of sex (‘sons and daughters . . . men and women’); regardless of age (‘old men . . . young men’); regardless of background, race, colour or rank (‘even on my servants’). God pours out with great generosity his Holy Spirit on all his people.
The gift of the Holy Spirit is offered to us all.  On the day of Pentecost ten days after Jesus returned to heaven, the Holy Spirit was poured out on Jesus’ followers, and when this happened there was a real transformation took place in them.  And Peter, stood up in front of the large crowds that were in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost and told them that ‘The promise (of the Holy Spirit) is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call’. 
God wants each one of us to come to a greater, fuller understanding of his love for us, which comes through the Holy Spirit, because the gift of the Holy Spirit is all Christians, including you and me.