ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH SEPTEMBER 1, 2013
Galatians 5: 16 – 26; Acts 5: 1 – 11; Psalm 51: 1- 17; Matthew 12: 22 – 32
It’s hard to believe it’s Labour Day weekend, the summer is almost over and it’ll soon be Christmas. In honour of those two occasions I have a joke. Q: How is Christmas like a day at the office? A: The little guys do the work and the fat guy in the suit gets the credit. Giving credit where credit is due doesn’t happen often. Indira Ghandi’s grandfather told her there were two types of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told her to aim for the first group as there was much less competition. To some gaining due credit is a mystery. The writer Honore de Balzac in speaking to his fellow man said, “When women love us, they forgive everything, even our crimes; when they do not love us, they give us credit for nothing, not even our virtues.” Then there are those who readily admit they don’t deserve the credit they may get. Flannery O’Conner said, “I don’t deserve any credit for turning the other cheek as my tongue is always in it.”
When it comes to being people of God’s kingdom, Jesus thought we credit ourselves too quickly for our perceived acts of virtue, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.” (Luke 6: 32) However, when it comes to the actions of the Holy Spirit Jesus thought it was very important to give credit where credit is due. Today’s gospel reading tells of a time when Jesus had performed a miracle: by the power of the Holy Spirit he liberated a possessed man from a demon. Now you know from the story I shared last week that such things are difficult to understand. The crowd who witnessed this exorcism was in awe; they wondered if Jesus was the Messiah. On the other hand the Pharisees, the theologians in the group, were sceptical and maybe a little jealous. (Balzac might say its fortunate there are no sceptical or jealous clergy around today). The Pharisees response was to suggest that if Jesus had control over demons then his power must be “black magic” coming from Satan, the ruler of the demons. Jesus took offence to this. After all, no one wants to be accused of being in league with Satan. His first response was to challenge the twisted logic in their theology, “Any country that goes to war against itself is doomed to self-destruction; A judge who gives opposite verdicts on the same person cancels out his own judgements thereby losing the confidence of the people; a family that’s in a constant conflict will disintegrate. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; wouldn’t that be self-defeating? If you sling mud at me, calling me a demon who casts out demons, doesn’t that mud stick to your own exorcists to? But if it’s by the power of God’s Spirit that I send evil spirits packing, then God’s kingdom is here for sure!” (Matthew 12: 25 – 28) But Jesus’ issue wasn’t simply warped logic, bad theology or hurt feelings. It went much deeper. He went on, “This is war; there is no neutral ground. If you’re not on my side, you’re the enemy; if you’re not helping, you’re making things worse.”(vs. 30) Jesus was drawing the line in the sand and challenging those present to take a stand with him on the side of God. There was no place for fence sitters anymore – they either joined Jesus or they were against him. There was a spiritual reality here that no one could skirt around. How people treated the Holy Spirit defined which side of the line people stood on. Jesus said, “There’s very little anyone can do or say that can’t be forgiven. But if you deliberately persist in your slanders against God’s Spirit, you are mocking the very One who forgives. Even if you reject the Son of Man the Holy Spirit can forgive you, but when you deny or discredit the Spirit, there’s no room left for forgiveness – neither in this world, nor in the next.” (vs. 32) In The Message, Eugene Peterson offers this thought by way of explanation, “If you reject the Holy Spirit, you’re sawing off the branch on which you’re sitting, severing all connection with the One who forgives.” When it comes to the Holy Spirit not giving credit where it’s due is the one thing that is simply and eternally unforgivable.
But what does it mean to deny the Holy Spirit? What does it look like? In the narrative we just explored we’re told that to deny the Holy Spirit is to assert the Spirit’s power and actions do not come from God. It’s a horrible betrayal of God’s light and love when the Spirit’s work is accredited to the evil power of Satan. This is an indescribably ugly accusation. It takes the holiness of the Spirit and defiles it in the worst way possible.
Another way we deny the Spirit is to credit ourselves for something the Spirit has done. The early Church in Corinth was plagued with this problem. There were many divisions among the members about various things. Some were claiming their allegiance to Paul or Apollos made them special. Paul wrote to them to refocus their attention away from himself, Apollos or themselves and back to the centrality of “the crucified Christ” and the Spirit’s work of salvation. (1 Corinthians 1: 10f) This church had also experienced a huge outpouring of the gifts of the Spirit and people were lifting up the gifts they’d received, particularly the gift of tongues, as signs of God’s favour. It was as if their particular gift displayed their own spirituality, instead of God’s. Some went so far as to deny the faith of fellow worshippers because of the gifts they lacked. (1 Cor 12 – 14). When we take the glory for the Spirit’s power and for the things God gives us by grace, we take credit away from Spirit. We dishonour the Spirit with our pride.
Opposing the work of the Spirit in other Christians or in other denominations may be another way we deny the Holy Spirit. Acts 13 tells of a Magician who opposed Paul and Barnabas while they were sharing the gospel with a Roman proconsul. The magician tried to turn the proconsul away from faith. Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, cursed the magician striking him blind. When the proconsul saw this power, he became a believer. The Church today has a great deal of opposition from outside groups, individuals and movements. Some of those criticisms are justified; others are misinformed or prejudicial. Jesus told us to expect this from those outside the Church. However, it’s sadly destructive when opposition comes from within. (Remember the house divided against its self?) We’re called to build up the Body of Christ, not tear it to shreds. When Christians bad mouth one another not only do we present a poor witness, but we diminish or even deny the Spirit-led things the other may be doing. Christians don’t always see eye to eye. One group doesn’t speak for all. Sometimes other believers say or do things we find embarrassing or even contrary to the Gospel. If we can discuss our differences privately in reasonable ways we may be able to affect change and growth. When we do need to state publicly where our views differ we can do so respectfully. If people are going to be turned off from faith in Christ, let’s be sure it isn’t because of our disparaging comments against the Church. Emphasizing our unity in Christ, the positive things other Christians have done and loving them as brothers and sisters creates a container in which to place concerns and differing opinions. It’s a strong testimony to those outside the church. And it acknowledges the Holy Spirit at work in our world.
We also fail to give the Spirit credit when our service to God is insincere. In the early Church many Christians willingly lived in a communal arrangement sharing their resources through a central leadership body. No one was obliged to do participate. At this time a couple named Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of property. Instead of banking all the money they decided to give a portion of it to the Church which, in itself, was a generous gesture. What they did though was to pretend they were giving the full amount of the sale while keeping a portion of the money back for themselves. In other words, they lied. They lied not only to the Church but to the Holy Spirit. Listen to Peter’s disappointment when he confronted them, “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds…you did not lie to us, but to God.” (Acts 5: 3f) When we claim to follow Jesus but live with falsehood and hypocrisy – especially for our own glory or benefit – we lie to the Spirit denying him our devotion which is rightfully his.
This denial also occurs when we chose to live without regard for the Spirit. In Galatians, Paul calls Christ’s followers to “Live by the Spirit and do not gratify the desires of the flesh (the compulsions of selfishness). For what our selfishness desires is opposed to the Spirit.” (Galatians 5: 16 & 17) He went on to list some of the behaviours that would oppose the Spirit; things like “repetitive, loveless sex; a tainted accumulation of soul-garbage; unbridled self-indulgence; replacing God with things; evil spiritual practices; cutthroat competition; constant friction; fearful insecurity; a brutal temper; squabbling; treating people as enemies; cliques; envy; addictions; ungrounded excessive frivolity”. (vs. 19 – 21) When we don’t allow the Spirit to rule our spirits, we deny his rightful place in our lives. By contrast, we honour the Spirit when we allow the Spirit to live in us. The life of the Spirit in us nourishes our spirits so that we produce what Paul referred to as spiritual fruit: “self-giving born of affection, exuberance for life, serenity, the capacity for calm endurance, compassion, virtuous actions, loyalty, power tempered by tenderness and the ability to direct our energy wisely.” (vs. 22 & 23) When it comes to the Holy Spirit, giving credit where credit is due is not merely a matter of recognizing the Spirit’s power or acknowledging the Spirit’s work. It’s living in reliance on the Spirit to be the people Christ calls us to be. It’s living with the awareness that we need the Holy Spirit, not only for our salvation but for the day in day out tasks required of Jesus’ disciples.
As we bring our series on the Holy Spirit to a close I hope we will always be receptive to the Spirit’s presence, breath, gifts, expansion, vision, forgiveness, adoption, sanctification, truth, power and generosity to all. I hope we will bear the fruit of the Spirit to the glory of God. And I pray we’ll invite transformation of the Spirit in our lives. I’d invite you to pray that prayer with me now as we listen to the following song…