Editor’s Note: These reflections are reprinted with permission from a regular online series written by Dale Cooper. “Coop’s Column” can be found at http://worship.calvin.edu/coopscolumn. —JB
Spirit at Work: Power to Make Our Lives Anew
When, as part of their Sunday worship, Jesus’ followers join to declare “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” they’re saying a mouthful—a large mouthful. They’re making confession about who the Spirit is: third person of the Trinity, co-equal with the Father and the Son. But they’re saying even more too: they’re affirming that the Spirit is ceaselessly active, carrying on the Trinity’s work.
[Let’s] focus [our] attention on the several activities of the Holy Spirit. We begin by highlighting one of the Spirit’s central workings: his making Jesus’ resurrection energy present to us, supplying us with “power to make our lives anew,” as hymn writer Margaret Clarkson put it.
Let’s be clear: On Easter morning, history made a dramatic turnaround. God the Father pronounced, once and for all, his “Well done!” upon the mission of his Son. As a result, the entire universe—heaven and earth—became recreated, made new, set in a different—and right—direction. Jesus Christ had the final word—he was the final Word!
Let’s be equally clear: The application of that astonishing change to people’s lives—to Peter at Cornelius’ house, to Paul on the Damascus road, to a Philippian jailer, and to countless millions since who have believed that Jesus is risen—is ongoing work. Old habits die hard. Says John Calvin,
This restoration [to new life as God intends] does not take place in one moment or one day or one year; but through continual and sometimes even slow advances God wipes out in his elect the corruptions of the flesh, cleanses them of guilt, consecrates them to himself as temples, renewing all their minds to true purity that they may practice repentance throughout their lives. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. I, ch. III)
If they are ever to be changed, fully and forever; if, as he calls them to do, they are to turn their lives into fitting sacrifices of thanks and praise (Rom. 12:1-2); if they are to live out their Lord’s promises and commands amid the concrete and fine-print circumstances of their lives (Col. 3:1ff.)—then Jesus’ followers shall surely need a fresh and inexhaustible supply of his resurrection presence and strength. Jesus Christ’s Spirit is the pipeline for that supply.
In a recent interview with Bob Abernethy, former NBC News reporter, Rev. Eugene Peterson (translator of The Message and author of some 30 books) offered trenchant comment on the sad state of religion in the Western world and, more particularly, of Christianity in America. His words:
A lot of the language in the church—well, not just the church, in religion itself, has to do with trying to figure out the truth of things. What’s true? What’s true? And I’m not really interested in what’s true. I want to know if I can live it. I want to test it out. . . . A pastor in personal relationship is not just trying to find ways to make people feel good, loved, whatever. This is a kingdom life we are living. It has to do with salvation. It has to do with justice. It has to do with compassion. . . . We [pastors] are called to have people follow Jesus. We’re called to have people learn how to forgive their enemies. We’re called to show people that there is a way of life which has meaning beyond their salary or beyond how good they look.
The challenge facing American pastors is immense:
American culture is probably the least Christian culture that we’ve ever had because it is so materialistic and it’s so full of lies. The whole advertising world is just, it’s just intertwined with lies, appealing to the worst of the instincts we have. The problem is people have been treated as consumers for so long they don’t know any other way to live.
Thus Peterson pleads with pastors:
Introduce them to a living Christ, a Christ who makes life livable in the terms in which you are living—that everything in the gospel is livable, not just true.
Who can make the gospel not just worthy of being believed, but also capable of being lived? No one other than the Holy Spirit himself, the resurrected Presence of Jesus among us, Jesus’ vast resurrected Power now made available to us.
And thus every Sunday morning, in a declaration so counter-cultural to the independent spirit of the society in which they dwell, Christian worshipers say together: “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” In doing so, together they are expressing their dependence upon him. They are claiming that God’s Spirit abides in them, and that he’s there to help them go at life as God intends.
O Holy Spirit of God, abide with us; inspire all our thoughts; pervade our imaginations; suggest all our decisions; order all our doings. Be with us in our silence and in our speech, in our haste and in our leisure, in company and in solitude, in the freshness of the morning and in the weariness of the evening; and give us grace at all times humbly to rejoice in Thy mysterious companionship. (from John Baillie, minister in the Church of Scotland)
He Ascended to Heaven
God’s Word declares that Jesus, his appointed task on earth having been finished, returned to his Father in heaven. Trusting that Word, Christians triumphantly confess the words in the Apostle’s Creed: “He ascended into heaven.”
About Jesus’ ascension the Heidelberg Catechism, a 16th-century Reformed Christian statement of faith, declares:
while his disciples watched,
was lifted up from earth to heaven
and will be there for our good
until he comes again
to judge the living and the dead.
Just before he departed earth and returned to heaven, Jesus spoke to his disciples. He made an astonishing claim about himself, and he gave them an all-important command. The claim: “All power is given to me in heaven and earth” (Matt. 28:19). The command: “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). The claim placed them under his protection and his authority; the command put them under obligation to him. He spoke the claim to strengthen and comfort his followers. He gave the command to tell them what he wanted them to do.
Having heard both their Lord’s claim and command, Jesus’ followers were left in no doubt that they were:
1. Under orders
The ascension narrative states: “When he had spoken these things. . . .” The words are a direct reference to the fact that Jesus, the Father’s heaven-sent prophet, had declared God’s word and will. It was in the context of this prophetic authority that the disciples heard the Lord’s command: “You shall be my witnesses.”
That direct command from their risen, about-to-ascend Lord set the disciples’ central agenda for the rest of their lives. No matter where they were, no matter with what other activities they might now and then choose to fill some of their hours and days, above all else they knew that they were under divine obligation to announce the Good News that their Lord’s death and resurrection has brought life. They had been privileged eyewitnesses of his resurrection; now they, in turn, were to bear witness to what they had heard and seen.
2. Gifted by and under guidance of his Spirit
Prior to his ascension, Jesus declared: “It is useful for you that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). True to his word, after he ascended Jesus did send his Spirit. And the Spirit brought gifts to enable Jesus’ followers to bear him witness and to offer him service.
Through his Spirit the ascended Jesus also promised to guide his people. Humbly, prayerfully, and communally, therefore, they could boldly plead for his help to “discern what is best” in every circumstance (cf. Phil 1:9-11).
3. To be on the alert, eagerly awaiting his return to judge and to reign
At Jesus’ ascension, the angels announced: “This same Jesus, who went away . . . shall come again.” That promise was meant to keep the disciples’ hope alive and to strengthen their courage. Amid the immense weight of the world’s sadness and the threats they faced as they bore witness to Jesus, they were to keep their eyes fixed on nothing and no one else than their risen Lord. They were to be on tiptoe always, awaiting his return eagerly.
The same claim and command he originally spoke to his earliest disciples Jesus also longs to speak no less directly and clearly to us. For this reason we gather weekly to hear him. Doing so, we listen to him tell us that we too, no less than his earliest disciples, are under his protecting and sovereign authority. We hear him tell us that we too, no less than they, are under orders to be his witnesses. We learn that we too, no less than they, are gifted by his Spirit and under his guidance as we carry out our calling. And we hear angels summoning us to be wide-awake and eager for his coming again.
In response to this news, joyfully we sing:
Alleluia! Not as orphans
are we left in sorrow now;
Alleluia! He is near us;
faith believes, nor questions how.
Though the cloud from sight received him
when the forty days were o’er,
shall our hearts forget his promise,
“I am with you evermore”?
(“Alleluia, Sing to Jesus,” William C. Dix, 1866)