Empowered to Follow
Romans 5:1-5 | John 16:12-15
Last week was Pentecost, and in Churches around the world the followers of Jesus gathered to celebrate the festival, to mark the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all people – or at least, the start of that process, for of course it would be some time later that Peter would be witness to the same Spirit being poured out upon Gentiles who had received the good news.
Some Churches had birthdays cakes, referencing the festival of Pentecost as the ‘birthday of the Church’; others had doves, remembering the role of the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism, many were decorated in reds and oranges and yellows, the tongues of flame that rested on each of the disciples in the author’s attempt to describe the indescribable.
Many Churches, I’m sure, reflected on the miracle of the languages, the way that everyone heard the good news proclaimed in their own native language, in a dramatic sign that the separation of the world into nations and tribes and language groups at tension or war with one another, describe in the story of the Tower of Babel, was to be overcome – transcended – in the coming reign of God. So we celebrated the variety of languages in which we worship God; a celebration that, in truth, happens every week, as Churches gather to celebrate Jesus in every tongue known to humanity.
But the festival of Pentecost is just one day, one moment on the mountaintop. And like all mountaintop experiences it matters not so much for itself, as for what it means in the rest of our lives – and in particular, what it means for us as we seek to be followers of Jesus. So today we begin a five-week series on that theme – followers of Jesus – by reflecting on how the pouring out of the Spirit on all people empowers us to follow.
Because I’m guessing that I’m not alone in that when I read the accounts of the power of the Spirit at work in the early Church: miraculous translation, cripples healed by the apostles, Saul’s blindness and then its removal, the generous Dorcas raised from the dead – I feel as if that’s not a description of Church that I recognise. Not, at least, with the intensity and frequency of dramatic miraculous activity that appears in the picture painted by the authors of the New Testament.
Not that I’m discounting such miraculous happenings in those times or in ours – I’ve certainly seen a few things which, while they may have natural explanations, seem too unlikely or well timed to be put down to chance, and others I know and trust have recounted experiences of God’s miraculous working that I believe, but cannot explain.
But that’s a handful of times in close on forty years of following Jesus. And it’s not like I’ve hidden away from where such miracles might happen – I’ve worshipped in pretty much every flavour of Church (with the exception of the Orthodox tradition – that’s on the bucket list). I went to the Vineyard conferences when John Wimber was doing the whole ‘signs and wonders’ thing. I am certain many people have experienced the power of God in dramatic, inexplicable – supernatural – ways in all these places, but as I say, for me, it’s a handful of times, in forty years.
And yet, I would say with complete confidence and authenticity (can you say you are speaking with authenticity? That sounds a bit ‘protest too much’, doesn’t it) – I can say with complete confidence that it is through the Spirit of God that I was empowered to become, and have been empowered to remain, a follower of Jesus.
And I think the two passages we read today describe why. For they describe the everyday miracle; the work of the Spirit which is not just the calling of conversion, but the ongoing work of leading, and even more, of love.
John recorded for us words of Jesus before he died, speaking to his first followers the promise of the Spirit of truth who would guide them, would continue to guide them, when he was no longer there to do so.
“I still have many things to say to you,” Jesus told them. For how could he possibly have told them everything – not just everything they would need to know, but everything that every generation from then until now and on into the future would need? How could he have spoken to them about the ethics of climate change, or industrialisation, or porn on the internet? Those first followers weren’t even ready to hear what they would need to hear!
So of course Jesus could – and did – share over and again the timeless truths and principles: love God, love your neighbour, include the outsider, care for the vulnerable, pray with humility, share the good news – but every generation would need his help in the challenges they faced.
And so he made them a promise – and kept it – the Spirit will guide you into all the truth. She will take what is mine (all that the Father has) and declare it to you.
And this, he said, would bring glory to him, to Jesus.
Because this guidance, this prompting and challenging and disturbing and comforting presence of God empowers Jesus’ people to bring the good news, the loving, forgiving, embracing grace of God, into every new generation, every new challenge, every new culture subculture.
It brings glory to Jesus because it is through the creative guidance of the Spirit, as she leads us into truth, that we can discover what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus in a school, or university, or workplace; in a multi-cultural, multi-faith society; in the complexities of our modern families; in the disconnect and fragmentation of society. What it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus on Instagram or TikTok or Facebook.
Jesus never gave us details of how to live in those settings. But he promised us the Spirit, and she leads us into all truth, and declares the things of God to us.
And above all, what the Spirit of God throughout history has declared to us of God, what she has whispered to us in every new situation, every new challenge, are the words we read in the opening verses of Romans chapter 5.
justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand
The grace of God in which we stand: the undeserved offer of justification, the opportunity to be at peace because, as the passage concluded,
God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us
It may be, given the centrality of Love to the law, and the prophets, and the gospel, given John’s declaration “God is love, and whoever lives in love, lives in God”, it may be that this is the heart of the role of the Spirit in our lives; that through her God’s love has been poured into our hearts.
Here is one of those constants, those touchstones of truth that doesn’t change through the generations. God is love, and by the Spirit, God’s love is poured out in our hearts.
And by God’s love we are empowered to follow.
For love is also the unchanging rule against which we measure our response to all that is new. Love of God and love of others was the preamble to the ten commandments, was named by Jesus as the fulfilment of the law and the prophets, was central to the early proclamation of the gospel, remains the truest heart of faith today. It is not, at least trivially, the answer to our complex questions of how to follow faithfully; but it is a standard against which we can measure our tentative answers.
And at the same time, love is the everyday miracle that spans the gaps between those rare moments of God’s dramatic intervention. Love inspires and empowers us to do more, be more; not to do the impossible, but to do the unlikely, the difficult, the painful. To do for others, not just for ourselves.
God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. If that were only seen more clearly. If we in the Church were known for our love, and not our rules, or our disapprovals, or our exclusions, then perhaps the world would cry again, as Tertullian, at the close of the second century, reported that the Romans would cry of the Christians, “See how they love each other”.
Didn’t Jesus say something along those lines too?