Sunday, May 27, 2001

"The Intercessor, Part 1"
The power of the Holy Spirit to bridge the gap between God and humanity

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, May 27, 2001
Text: Colossians 3:1-17

This week I opened one of the daily newspapers and found, in one of the main sections, a headline that really caught my attention. It was entitled: My Dog Thinks I Should Lighten Up. Then followed an article by a pet therapist about the ongoing relationship that she has with her pet. It was most informative, particularly on one point.

Her dog's name is Kevin. He is a cross between a collie and a Basenji, whatever that is. She says: “So, half of him is descended from one of the smartest breeds known, and the other half, from easily the stupidest. He is highly alert and unable to grasp a single thing. Kevin's entire communication repertoire, whether he wants water, food, company, exercise, permission to jump on the sofa, relief from boredom, painkillers, a toy or a conversation about the hydro bill, consists of padding up to me and staring vaguely. He does this about 50 times a day: just stares brightly without using a muscle. After seven years of living together, I still don't know what he wants.

“We co-exist,” she writes, “in a state of profound, mutual incomprehension.”

Well, the more I thought about that, and how real that is for any of us who own dogs, I also thought that it bore an element of truth about the way in which we relate, at times, to Almighty God. At times, there is a state of mutual incomprehension, especially, for example, when I read this morning's passage from Paul's letter to the Colossians, where Paul outlines the whole notion of the new life that exists in Jesus Christ.

When he does so, he sets out the things that we must not do and, in turn, the things that we ought to do. When I read a passage like this, I feel this sense of mutual incomprehension. I feel like saying to God: “God, have You any idea how hard it is for a human being to live up to those criteria?” While, through the Apostle Paul, we are here being given a wonderful example about what the new life in Christ is really like, I wonder, at times, whether or not the Almighty knows just how hard it is to live up to it.

But Paul seems to be adamant about the new life in Christ. He seems to be adamant that this is how we ought to live. On the one hand, we should be putting away certain things. We should be putting away our lusts, our greeds, our envy. We should be putting away talking about others in an improper manner. We should be putting away the passions that lead us into sin. All these things should be put away.

But Paul also says, very clearly, and very cogently, that there are certain things that we need to put on in the new life: We need to put on kindness, gentleness, purity, patience. We need to put on love towards one another.

Now, there were some, in Paul's time, who looked at what Paul had to say and simply felt that there was no possible way that we could ever, as human beings, live up to this particular image.

There was a group of people, whom Paul is opposing in the Book of Colossians, who were known as Gnostics. The Gnostics, in the early First Century, said: “Look, there is such a huge difference between the flesh and the spirit that there can be no way in which we can live a spiritual life, because we are flesh. Therefore, we will just go ahead and live as we please, do whatever we want, and live an amoral existence.”

In other words, they believed that there was such a great gulf between the Almighty and ourselves that we should just give up and forget about any new life.

There were others who belonged to this group, however, who had an entirely different view. They believed that God and ourselves are so united that we are, in fact, divine; that we are little Gods, and, as little Gods, all we have to do is perfect ourselves, by a matter of the will. Just by deciding that we are going to be God, rather than be human, we would be able to live up to this new life.

Now, the Apostle Paul is somewhere in between. On the one hand, he believes that each one of us should live up to the call of the new life in Christ. He also understands, however, that we are not God, and that we need help; that we need an intercessor. We need a power that we ourselves do not have, in order that we can live the new life; because Paul understood, if anyone understood, that it's hard to be good.

I read a story not long ago about a man who was extremely overweight. (Many of you will be able to identify with this story.) This man decided to go on to a crash diet. He decided that one of the things that he had better not do, if he was going to lose weight, was to drive by any doughnut shops, or any pastry-store windows.

So he went out of his way for weeks, and he began to lose weight. All his fellow workers were absolutely thrilled with him, until one day, he came in with this enormous chocolate cheesecake.

All the people who worked with him said: “Oh, Joe, you're blowing your diet. You've done so well. What happened?”

He said: “Oh, don't worry. You see, by accident, I drove past a confectionary store, and when I looked in the window, I saw this gorgeous chocolate cheesecake. I prayed to the Lord, and said, ”˜Lord, would it be all right for me to have this chocolate cheesecake? If it is, give me a sign that there be a parking space available, right outside the store.'

“So you see,” he said to the people, “it was okay, because, after all, I drove around the store for eight blocks and finally, there was a position available, right outside. The Lord wants me to have this chocolate cake.”

Now, does this ring a bell with anybody? I think a lot of us find that it's hard to be tempted. Sometimes, we say to God: “Oh, God, just bend the rules a little bit here. Just let me make a little change there. One little sin won't do any harm, either here, or there.”

Well, the Apostle Paul realized that we are like that, that there is a mutually incomprehensible understanding at times between God and ourselves, on such matters.

But you have to understand that what Paul wrote in Colossians, Chapter 3, is in the light of what he said earlier, in the Book of Colossians. I want to read it for you. This is what he said in Chapter 1, Verse 9:

For this reason also, since the day that we heard of you, we have not ceased to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will, in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God, through the power of His Holy Spirit.

You see, my friends, the Apostle Paul understood that for us to lead the Christian life we need help. Over the next three Sundays when I'm preaching, I shall be looking at the power of the Holy Spirit as our intercessor, as the one who empowers us to live the Christian life individually, and as a Christian community, and in the world. The Apostle Paul understood that for us to live up to the new life in Christ, it is not just a matter of the personal will, it is a matter of the power of the Holy Spirit infusing and moving our lives.

So the first thing that I want to concentrate on this morning is that the Holy Spirit's role is to illuminate God. Many of us feel that we live in a sense of darkness; that there is this gap between God and ourselves. We wonder how we are to know what God wants us to do, and how we ought to live.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus gathered together his disciples, and made them this promise, saying: “But now I am going to him who sent me. Because I have said these things, sorrow has filled your heart, but I tell you the truth: It is to your advantage that I go away, for, if I do not go away, the helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world, concerning sin and righteousness and judgement. But when the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak of his own initiative, but whatever he hears. He will speak, and he will disclose to you, what is my will.”

You see, my friends, in these words from John's gospel, Jesus is saying that by his going, he is preparing the way for the helper, known in Greek as the Paraclete, the comforter to come. Jesus knew and understood that if his kingdom, if his reign, was going to exist on earth, there was the need for his disciples, his followers, to receive the power of the Holy Spirit; that, without the Holy Spirit, they were unable to live up to what he said.

Now, this is in keeping even with the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, there is a word to describe the Holy Spirit, and that is the word, dabar. The word dabar simply means ”˜the word.' In other words, the Spirit is also the word of God. The power of the Holy Spirit is God's word to you, and to me, about what God requires, and what God is. One of the great problems that we have had is that we have so intellectualized our pursuit of the knowledge of God, that we have not opened ourselves to the power of God's Holy Spirit, which alone is our helper, in order that we may know what God is like.

I was speaking not long ago with a young theologian from Liberia. This young theologian and minister had been in terrible danger. Liberia, like many of the countries in that part of Africa, is often torn with violence, has had many changes in leadership, is often very unstable.

This minister held a confirmation class. When he asked the young members of the confirmation class to describe what God was like, he said it was one of the most enlightening and upsetting experiences of his whole life, because the young people described God in the terms of the world that they saw around them.

They talked about God as the God of protection; but also as the God of violence. They said God was a God who was so full of judgements that He would wipe out His enemies; that God was a God who was vindictive; that God was a God who was cruel and arbitrary. You see, the young people looked at the world that was around them, and tried to decide what God was like, on the basis of what they saw.

The young man realized that, more than anything else, the one thing that he had to impart to his confirmation class was what he believed to be an authentic view of God, as revealed in the Holy Spirit. He just silenced the conversation, saying: “Above all, what we need to do now is begin to pray.”

He said: “As we began to pray in the Spirit, all of a sudden, these young children talked about God in a different way. Now, Andrew,” he said to me, “this may sound very difficult to comprehend.”

It is. But the reality is that we only truly, really know God, when we are open to the Intercessor, to the power of the Paraclete, the power of the Holy Spirit. So many of the debates about God have been detached from our openness to God. There is a need, then, for Christians everywhere to open themselves daily to the power of the Holy Spirit.

But there is a second thing: Namely, that the Holy Spirit is also there to be our guide. The Apostle Paul moves from a mysterious view, a mystical view of the Holy Spirit, to a moral view. He describes how the power of the Holy Spirit, working on our lives, in fact helps change us, conforms us, to the image of God in Jesus Christ.

Paul uses two very interesting words to describe this. The first is the word kenos, which means literally a once-and-for-all change: in other words, a decision that you are going to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in your life.

But there is another word, which is naos. Naos has an on-going sense in which, every single day, we grow into the likeness of God in Jesus Christ. In other words, Christians are called to receive the guidance of the Spirit every single day, as an on-going activity of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The problem is that, so often, we trivialize this. We reduce it to silliness at times.

There is a wonderful story of the great “philosopher,” Yogi Berra. Yogi Berra was managing the New York Yankees. They were playing one of the teams with which they were always struggling. It was the bottom of the ninth. There were two outs and the Yankees were leading by one run. The opposing batter, a great batter, came to the mound and, when he did, he crossed himself.

Yogi Berra immediately walked over to this batter, and, being a very devout Roman Catholic himself, said to the young batter: “Why don't we, on this day only, allow God just to watch, rather than participate in the game?”

Sometimes, we gesture, we trivialize, we belittle. It's so easy to say, when that happens: “Oh, we'll just let God watch the game, rather than let God participate in the game.”

But the game of our life is so important that it needs the power of the Holy Spirit within it. You and I simply cannot, by virtue of our own energy, or by virtue of our own purity, or our will, live up to the new life in Christ. It can only happen through the in-dwelling power of the Holy Spirit.

I believe, however, that this goes not only for our personal morals. It also has an impact on our social morals, and on the way in which we see other human beings.

John has outlined in his presentation this morning some of the statistics about homelessness and the poor in our society. I think that there is sometimes, to use that phrase from the beginning of the sermon, a mutual, incomprehensible gap between so many of the people in society who have the benefits, and those who do not.

I found out from reading Jack Layton's book that on any given night in downtown Toronto, there are 5,300 homeless people. I found out that, in this city, using an average of $21,000 a year as a base income for a family with two children between the ages of zero and 12, there are 135,000 living below the poverty line. I realized, by reading another statistic last week, that 30 per cent of the people who live on the street have mental problems. On any given day, in this city, there are 100,000 people wanting affordable housing.

Now, I say to myself, how do we get a society, how do we get individuals, to have a passion and concern for this, for there is a mutually incomprehensible gulf, at times, between people who live like that, and the rest of society. I'm with Lord Shaftesbury, of the 19th century, who really believed that only with the true power of the Holy Spirit acting on people's hearts do we get the compassion that is needed in society to care for the weak, and the poor and the outcasts.

Paul understood that the new life in Christ, the life that burns in passion for one another, comes about through the in-dwelling power of the Holy Spirit. There is no gulf between God and God's people when the power of the Holy Spirit is present, calling us.

This last week, I attended a meeting of the City Mission here. I listened to the leader of the City Mission in London, England, speak. The City Mission has 150 missionaries caring for 78,000 people in the poor parts of London.

The speaker said: “You know, there is something I have realized in dealing with such people, in such conditions. It is that the poverty that they experience is not just the poverty of not having a home; it is not just the poverty of not having food: Sometimes, some of the poor people have, in fact, both of those things.

“What they have is a greater poverty. They have a poverty of spirit. They have a poverty of not knowing what to do with freedom, if they get it. They have a poverty of having to live in such a confined life, that they see no hope of ever being able to get out of it.”

He said: “I have realized that one of the only ways that people can, in fact, have the power to get out of that state of impoverishment of the soul, and of their condition, is through the grace of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.”

The only way that they feel that they have the energeia, which is another word to describe the power of the Holy Spirit, the only way that they have the energy, the hope, to be able to climb out of where they are, is to believe that there is an intercessory power working with them and for them.

My friends, the power of the Holy Spirit is all-encompassing. The power of the Holy Spirit is not just limited to the social, or the political, or the moral, or the pietistic. It involves the whole of human life. There is a need for us to wait on that spirit.

This brings me to the final point: Paul believes that the only way that you receive the spirit is if you are willing to pray; that the power of the Holy Spirit is the very power that empowers our prayer.

Many years ago, I read a book called “Filled With New Wine” by the Reverend James Jones, who is an Episcopalian minister in the United States. It was a book that I read when I was at undergraduate school and it, in many ways, changed the way I looked at life. There is one wonderful phrase within it, when he writes the following:

What the Lord Jesus Christ wants from us is not a lot of pious prayer groups, where everyone wears his soul on his sleeve, which become hothouses of emotionalism in which a lush, but exaggerated, inner piety develops. What the Lord wants from his people is the building of his body so that his plan can be carried forth in the world.

My friends, I believe that that is indeed the very need that the church of Jesus Christ has. It is a need to so wait upon the Holy Spirit, to so open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, that we can do Christ's will. For it is often very hard, on our own, to do it. It can be very lonely, living the Christian life in the world in which we live. It can be fraught with many difficulties and many challenges, and we need the Spirit's help.

Last week, as I was walking one of my dogs through a park, I saw something in the distance. It was an elderly grandfather, walking with his grandson. The grandson was looking up adoringly at the grandfather, and my mind went back to when I used to go walking with my grandfather. What a wonderful thing it was to sit next to this old man, and hold his hand.

There is a wonderful story told of a grandfather and a grandson who went for a walk. During the walk, the grandfather looked down at the grandson and said: “Do you know, son, how far we have walked?”

The young lad said: “No, Grandfather, I don't know how long we have walked.”

The grandfather said to him: “In that case, do you know where we are right now?”

The grandson said to the grandfather: “No, Grandfather, I have no idea where I am.”

The grandfather looked at him and said, with a smile: “Well, in that case, you must be lost.”

The grandson said: “No, I'm with you. I can't be lost.”

My friends, I think that is how it is with the power of the Holy Spirit. If we are with the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is with us, we can't be lost.

In the world in which we live, and in the challenges that we face, and in the call of God to follow Christ that lies before, we have an intercessor, the Holy Spirit. May we open ourselves to the Spirit's power.


This is a verbatim transcription of the original sermon.