The Second Sunday of Epiphany
Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:1-13
In last week’s sermon, we began to look at the importance of baptism in the New Testament and in the early Church as the God-given way for a person to respond to the Gospel. We saw how the New Testament stresses the importance of receiving the Holy Spirit. We also made a distinction between baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to the sermon yet, it is still available on YouTube and as a podcast. The transcript of the sermon is also available for those who would like to read what was said.
In our reading this week, St Paul writes:
‘For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all given to drink of the one Spirit.’ (1 Corinthians 12:13)
I want, then, this week to explore in more detail what happens both when a person comes to Christ and is baptized in water and also when they are baptized in the Spirit, and then to look briefly at what St Paul tells us in our reading about the work of the Holy Spirit.
Describing what takes place when a person to comes to Christ is not exactly simple! Firstly, so much happens when a person comes to Christ in faith that it is all too easy to focus on just one or two aspects of what takes place to the exclusion of others. This leads to an incomplete picture of what belonging to Christ and following him means. Some, for example, will focus on how Christ forgives us our sins. Others, on the new life the Spirit enables us to lead. Still others, will focus on the peace and security belonging to Christ brings. We need, however, to see the full picture of all God has done for us in Christ and not only focus on a part of it, even if it is our favourite part!
Secondly, related to this is the problem of understanding the meaning and significance of the language that the New Testament uses to describe what God wants for us and of us. What, for example, does Jesus mean when he tells us that ‘no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit (John 3:5)? What does St Paul mean when he writes that we are ‘justified by faith’ (Romans 5:1)? What does St Peter mean when he writes that we are being protected by God’s power through faith ‘for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time’ (1 Peter 1:5)?
The New Testament writers wrote in Greek. As with any translation from one language to another, when the New Testament is translated into English, the words and phrases used in English may sometimes actually distort the original meaning of the words they translate. It is particularly a problem with the words used in association with coming to Christ. This can, in turn, result in a distorted understanding of what it means to come to Christ and to belong to him.
In translating the New Testament into English, the English word ‘believe’ is often used to translate the Greek word that is used in the New Testament to describe what people must do in response to the preaching of the Gospel. So, for example, in the book of Acts, when the Philippian jailer asks Sts Paul and Silvanus what he must do to be saved, they reply:
‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household.’ (Acts 16:31)
In Greek, the verb ‘believe’, the noun ‘faith’, the adjective ‘faithful’, and the adverb ‘faithfully’ all belong to the same word group. You can tell the words are related and have a common meaning because they contain a similar sound. In English, you know that the words ‘faith’, ‘faithful’, and ‘faithfully’ are related to each other as soon as you hear them spoken, but the word ‘believe’ sounds completely different.
To complicate things further, the word ‘believe’ in English is often used in the sense of what we think about something intellectually. It refers to my assent to an idea, a creed, or a proposition. So, when someone says ‘I believe in God’ this may mean simply that I think that there is a God. It is all too easy, then, when someone encourages us to ‘believe’ something, to understand what is being asked of us in a predominantly intellectual or theoretical way, that is, as a command to think that what we have heard is true.
Now the way the New Testament writers use the word translated ‘believe’ does require that we think what they have said is true, but there is more to it than that. ‘Believing’ requires a decision and commitment that involves the whole of our being, including our intellect and our emotions. To put it another way, to ‘believe’, in the New Testament sense of the word, is about the heart as well as the head. In many cases, the word ‘trust’ more accurately catches the sense of the New Testament word than the word ‘believe’.
I personally think the intended meaning of the New Testament word, normally translated using the word ‘believe’, is better conveyed in English by translating it using the phrase ‘have faith’. There is nothing wrong with using the word ‘believe’ as long as we realize that it involves trust and commitment and not just intellectual assent.
So, for example, imagine someone lost and in danger. They meet a stranger who, seeing that they are lost, tells them he can help them get to safety. If the stranger says ‘believe in me’, he is not saying that the person who is lost needs to believe in his existence; that is assumed. What the stranger is asking is for the person who is lost to ‘believe in’ him in the sense of trusting in him or, as we may say, in the sense of ‘having faith in him’. The person who is lost is being asked to trust that the stranger can help and do what he claims.
Now I realize that this may all sound very theoretical, but it does make a very real difference to our understanding of how we should respond to Christ and the Gospel. Protestants, for example, often single out the phrase ‘justification by faith’, which is used especially by St Paul, and see it as expressing the heart of the Gospel and of how we should respond to it. What matters, they argue, are not any ‘good works’ we may do, but that we ‘believe in Jesus’. We are saved, they argue, by faith not by works. This, however, is all too easily understood as meaning that we are saved by ‘believing in’ certain things about Jesus. Worse still, sometimes, the need for us to ‘believe’ will be understood as the need for us to ‘believe in’ certain doctrines and ideas as well as certain things about Jesus himself.
What, though, St Paul is telling us when he uses the phrase ‘justification by faith’ is not even that we should simply ‘believe’ certain things about Jesus, but that we should ‘trust’ in Jesus. Put like this, we can see that the way faith and works are often understood as being in opposition to each other is a false dichotomy.
So, to come back to the stranger and the lost person: suppose the person who is lost says he does ‘believe in’ the stranger, but then ignores what the stranger tells him to do. By not doing what the stranger tells him to do, the lost person is demonstrating that he does not in fact ‘believe in’ the stranger.
Equally, if the person who is lost really does trust in the stranger and does everything that the stranger tells him to do, when he gets to safety and escapes the danger, the person who was lost doesn’t say, ‘I saved myself by what I did.’ He tells people the stranger saved him.
Before we have faith in Jesus in this way, before we trust ourselves to him, we will, of course, want to assure ourselves of the truth of what he claims for himself. We will need to be convinced that the New Testament writers are right when they tell us that there is a God who created us and who loved us by sending his Son to die for us. We will have questions that we will want answering. There will, however, come a point when we will have to make a decision. We will have to decide whether we will have faith in Jesus, that we will both trust him and trust ourselves to him. This is what the New Testament means by ‘believing in Jesus’.
Yes, we are saved by faith and not by works, but we are not saved by faith without works. Our works on their own cannot save us no matter how good or well-intentioned they may be. Nor are we saved by ‘faith and works’, if faith and works are thought of separately and a distinction is made between them. Rather we are saved by a faith that works. This is what St Paul is getting at when he writes in his letter to the Ephesians:
‘For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them.’ (Ephesians 2:8-10)
To put it another way: we are justified without works by a faith that works.
The relevance of all this to baptism is that in the New Testament it is by being baptized that a person declares their faith in Christ and commits themself to Christ. After his resurrection, Jesus gave this commandment to his first disciples:
‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:18-20)
By being baptized, a person is making a decision to become a follower of Christ and is committing themself to trusting in Christ and Christ alone for salvation. This is a trust that will be expressed in a life of obedience to Christ and to his teaching. As the old hymn has it:
‘Trust and obey,
for there’s no other way
to be happy in Jesus,
but to trust and obey.’
Baptism is an excellent way for someone to declare that they want to trust and obey Jesus as their Lord because baptism expresses in a physical way what the Gospel requires of us. Baptism isn’t simply a choice we make; it is a command we obey. But no-one baptizes themself; everyone is baptized. We have to decide to be baptized, but baptism itself is something that is done to us. For our baptism to happen, we need to submit and trust as the baptism takes place.
In this way, baptism expresses the truth that the phrase ‘justification by faith’ seeks to convey: it’s not what we do, but whom we have faith in that matters. There is, however, so much more to coming to Christ and becoming Christ’s than can be described using just one phrase or idea. ‘Justification by faith’ is an important metaphor that describes one aspect of the process. Nevertheless, there are other equally important metaphors that describe other equally important aspects.
Part of the problem is that some believers are like Sauron in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Sauron wanted ‘one ring to rule them all’; they want one metaphor to rule them all! They seek one idea that is central to what it means to come to Christ and belong to him. St Paul, however, in a letter to believers in the Church at Corinth describes what God has done in their lives using several metaphors and ideas that are all equally significant. St Paul writes:
‘Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? … But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.’ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
Belonging to Christ is a multi-dimensional experience and describing it is like describing a diamond. A diamond has many different facets each beautiful and an essential part of it. While it can’t express all of them, baptism expresses some of these different facets of coming to Christ and becoming his.
When a person was baptized in the early Church, they first took off their old clothes and entered the water. They were fully immersed and soaked in the water. They were then clothed with a new robe. So too, when we come to Christ, we leave aside our old life; we are washed and cleansed from past sin and guilt; we are clothed with Christ himself. The New Testament writers constantly use this imagery to describe our life in Christ. St Paul famously uses the imagery of baptism in his letter to believers in the Church in Rome. St Paul writes:
‘Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.’ (Romans 6:2-4)
Baptism, then, brings together some of the metaphors that the New Testament uses to describe what it means to belong to Christ, but baptism is itself used by St Paul as a metaphor to describe the baptism in the Spirit that a person also experiences when they come to Christ.
So far in this sermon, I have not spoken much about the Holy Spirit. Last week, I spoke briefly about the charismatic movement. The charismatic movement began as a movement that was convinced that not only did the church at the time not talk about the Holy Spirit, the church had, they believed, forgotten there is a Holy Spirit. Those in the charismatic movement not only spoke about the Holy Spirit, they believed the Holy Spirit could be experienced, often in a dramatic way.
The charismatic movement began as a movement that was positive and optimistic. It promised much and hoped for more, but despite the good that came from the movement, the Holy Spirit still remains the unknown person of the Holy Trinity for many in our churches. Whatever we may think of the charismatic movement and movements like it, the Holy Spirit, in the New Testament, is central both to following Christ and to being a member of his body, the Church. St Paul writes in our reading:
‘To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.’ (1 Corinthians 12:7)
Our Lord likened the Holy Spirit to the wind, which blows where it wills (John 3:8). Jesus said that we can hear the sound the wind makes and know it’s there, but where it came from and where it is going is not something we can grasp. In other words, you cannot pin it down. So, too, how a person experiences the Spirit cannot and should not be stereotyped or limited, and that can all too easily happen amongst those who value experiences of the Spirit. It was happening at Corinth. No one experience or manifestation of the Holy Spirit should be treated as normative. The Holy Spirit cannot be limited in that way. What is clear in the New Testament, however, is that the Holy Spirit is real and that we need to know his reality in our lives and in our churches.
Jesus said to his disciples that the Holy Spirit dwelt with them and would be in them (John 14:17). John Calvin, the sixteenth century theologian, wrote:
‘First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and dwell within us.’ (Institutes III.1.1)
The way Christ ‘becomes ours and dwells within us’ is by the Holy Spirit. For St Paul, whether a person has the Holy Spirit living in them is what defines whether that person belongs to Christ or not. St Paul wrote to believers in the Church in Rome:
‘… you are in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.’ (Romans 8:9)
Baptism in water expresses an individual’s faith in Christ and their desire to become his follower as a member of the community of faith. But how is someone to know their application to become a follower of Christ and join the community of faith has been accepted? Nowadays, we largely expect them to take it on trust. We point to the promises of God in the Bible and to our understanding of God as someone who would in any case never reject anyone. But this is not good enough.
In answer to the question, ‘How do I know that I belong to Christ?’ We would answer, ‘By whether you have faith’. The New Testament answer is, ‘By whether you have the Holy Spirit’. As far as St Paul is concerned, for example, a person would know that God had accepted them by the experienced presence of the Holy Spirit in their life. St Paul describes believers as having been ‘sealed’ with the Holy Spirit who acts as a ‘guarantee’ (2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:13-14; 4:30).
Something I have done for many years now is to put my signature in any book I buy together with the date I bought it. By giving us the Holy Spirit to live in us, God is putting his signature on us to show we are his. Equally, the fact that we have the Holy Spirit living in us is God’s guarantee to us that one day he will bring his work in us to completion and fulfil his promises to us. The New Testament writers all attribute the benefits we receive in Christ to the work of the Holy Spirit. What is promised to us in baptism, they see as being made real and given to us by the Holy Spirit.
The problem is that God giving us his Holy Spirit as a guarantee only works as a guarantee if, like any guarantee, we know we possess it. But most people don’t know they possess the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit may be written on them, but if he is, he is written in invisible ink! This is not to be unkind, quite the reverse.
The unkindness lies in the way so many are missing out on the reality of the Holy Spirit and remain ignorant of who he is and what he wants to do in our lives both individually in us who have faith in Christ and corporately in us as the community of faith. In our reading, St Paul writes of how the Holy Spirit gives gifts to enable us to serve one another and build up the body of Christ. While we, as individuals, continue to remain largely ignorant of the Holy Spirit’s work, we all, as a Church, suffer as a result.
There is much more that needs to be said about how belonging to Christ unites us in a community of faith with all those who also have faith in Christ and belong to Christ. In this community, we are called to unity without uniformity, diversity without division, and equality without the elimination of difference. It is a community in which by the Spirit every member has a part to play and a contribution to make.
As followers of Christ, what we believe, how we live, and the way we organize as a church all matter. They are all important. But all too often, we become so focused on different aspects of our life as his followers that we forget that what matters most is our relationship with him and our commitment to him. This is not entirely surprising given our neglect of the Holy Spirit, for it is the Holy Spirit who makes Christ real to us both as individuals and as a community.
As Christ’s followers, we face many challenges to our faith from an increasingly hostile world. We will only be able to meet these challenges by the renewing power and guidance of the Holy Spirit. The biggest challenge to us, then, turns out to be coming not from the world around us, but from our own spiritual poverty and the church’s failure to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
‘To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.’ We each need to share what the Spirit gives us to help build up the community of faith, so that together we will have the strength to witness to Christ and bring people to know him. But for this to happen, the Holy Spirit needs to become real to each of us and to be allowed to move freely among us.
There is today a resistance in churches to the idea of conversion. We prefer process to crisis, that is, we see coming to faith as something that happens gradually over time, even over a lifetime, rather than suddenly in a moment of time. We distrust dramatic stories of people finding faith and prefer not to use the language of decision.
It is right that we should see following Christ as something that is far more than a one-off commitment to him. Following Christ involves a constant giving of ourselves to him. We need continually to be renewed by his grace, and change is something that should happen in us moment by moment as the Spirit enables us to become more Christ-like in our outlook, character, attitudes, and behaviour.
But this process needs to begin somewhere, and the emphasis on process rather than crisis can mean that the process never starts. Baptism originally was the way a person committed to this process. It was a moment of personal decision and a declaration of commitment to a lifetime of service. For some, the change that came about as a result was immediate and clear for all to see; for others, it was outwardly slower and less obvious. But for all who were baptized the actual change was equally real and dramatic as, in that moment of decision, they died to self and drank of the lifegiving Spirit whom God gave to them.
Years of history and the different social and church contexts in which now we find ourselves mean that baptism is no longer like it was at the beginning. Very often, it no longer represents a time of decision and a declaration of faith.
Furthermore, in the New Testament church, while the giving of the Spirit was distinct from baptism, it usually took place at baptism. As many rightly point out, the teaching of the New Testament is that everyone who belongs to Christ has the Holy Spirit living in them. Receiving the Holy Spirit, in New Testament terms, is not a second blessing, or an event or experience subsequent to coming to Christ and becoming his. A person receives the Holy Spirit when they come to Christ in faith and are accepted by him.
The reality is, however, that, as with baptism, the way we now do things means that we experience the Holy Spirit very differently to how the Spirit was received and experienced in the early Church.
As I have said, we cannot limit how the Holy Spirit works. The Holy Spirit will work in each age and time as he sees fit. Like the wind, he blows when and where he wills. The question is, however, whether we are letting him work or are resisting and rebelling against his working.
We may not be able to be baptized in the way people were baptized in the New Testament era, but we can all make the same decision and declaration of faith. We will not experience the Holy Spirit in exactly the same way as the first believers experienced him, but we can still experience the Holy Spirit.
Much has changed, and will continue to change, but the challenge to each one of us remains the same: personally to decide for Christ and to receive the Holy Spirit.
Veni Sancte Spiritus.
Come Holy Spirit.