I love gardening and one of my favourite things to grow are sweet cherry tomatoes. At times they have been so abundant that I have had to give them away in buckets, however, they need a lot of looking after. The delicate stems need support as they grow through staking and tying. They need daily watering and weekly plant food. The sneaky side shoots need pinching out and any rogue snails and slugs need to be removed and dispatched. And finally, leaves or ripening fruit plagued with mildew or blight need to be carefully removed and discarded. Growing an abundant crop takes quite a bit of effort but it is worth it to pop those delicious red balls of delight into your mouth and feel them burst with sugary sweetness!
Gardening metaphors are used frequently in the Bible. In the parables that Jesus taught, he likened himself to a gardener and us as plants that should bear fruit in our lives. Have you ever wanted to be more loving, joyful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled? Me too. And this is how God wants us to be. Jesus wants us to bear this kind of fruit and it matters so much to God that Jesus used the strongest language possible to get his point across. He even compared a fruitless life to a life that is dead and good only for firewood.
Far from being selfish, bearing fruit in our lives is not for our sake, but for the sake of others. We are called to love one another; share our joy; have patience with others — even when they wind us up; be kind to people — even when that kindness is rejected; be generous expecting nothing in return; be faithful to those who let us down; be always gentle; and be self-controlled — not flying off the handle when things make us cross. That is a pretty high bar and sounds impossible to achieve. The truth is that we cannot be like this on our own and we need God’s help.
Like my tomatoes we need constant tending. Left on their own my tomatoes would not bear much fruit, and at the worst they would wither and die. In the same way we need God to supply us with what we need and that is by allowing the Holy Spirit — the Spirit of Jesus — to live in us and work through us. This act of recognising we need God is called repentance. Repentance literally means to renew one’s mind and change direction. Repentance means to recognise that we need God’s help and to invite the transforming Spirit of God into our hearts to do his work inside us.
Like my abundance of tomatoes, the fruit in our own lives is to be given away to others. It should therefore come as no surprise that the Spirit of God is always outward-looking and always looking to the interest of others. We are never filled with the Holy Spirit for our own sake but for the sake of others, hence, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22) – all things that are given away.
If we try to live in our own strength, if we serve others without drawing on God, and if we give out without being filled, then we eventually burn out, or become resentful and bitter. You do not become a better person by trying harder — by reading your Bible more, praying more, fasting more, or going to church more. Despite those things being good and helpful, the truth is that you become more Christlike by opening yourself up to the life-transforming Spirit of God. It is the Spirit who transforms us from the inside out.
Salvation is a process and it is a process of transformation into the likeness of Christ. When you first turn to Christ you feel the weight of sin being lifted from you, but the journey of faith is an ongoing and life-long process. We are works-in-progress as long as we continue to allow God’s Spirit to work in and through us.
For most Christians, this opening of oneself to God comes through the form of a quiet time — a moment in each day where we perform a simple act of repentance. We submit to God, acknowledge that we cannot do this thing called life in our own strength and ask the Spirit of Jesus to fill us — to change us and transform us such that we become more like Jesus. This quiet time usually includes some Bible reading where we allow God’s Spirit to speak to us through God’s Word, and some prayer where we talk to God and listen.
Us Christians are not perfect. We are nearly all broken in one way or another and we stuff up and mess up on a daily basis. We are literally works-in-progress as we do our best to allow God to transform us from the inside out. Therefore, my prayer today is as much for me as it is for you:
Holy God, I want to be more like Jesus. I want to be more loving, joyful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. I cannot do this on my own and so I open my heart to you. I need your help to transform me from the inside out. Amen.
I find it difficult to write a sermon on the theme of the Holy Spirit because, such is the importance of the Spirit to the Mission of the Church, that nearly all my messages are about the Holy Spirit in some way or another! If there was one topic on which I could talk at length it would be about an aspect of the work of the Holy Spirit of God, but today, I am going to go back to basics. For some, this teaching will be familiar, and yet for others it might be the first time they have truly considered who the Spirit is and why the Spirit is important.
Firstly, it is important to notice that I did not ask ‘what’ the Spirit is but ‘who’. You see, the Spirit of God is not a thing but a person — the third person of the Holy Trinity who is God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has always existed, as has the Father and the Son, and we first encounter the Spirit of God hovering over the waters of chaos at the beginning of creation, as recorded in the Book of Genesis. This also gives us a clue as to the work of the Spirit, for ever since we have been aware of the Spirit’s presence, we have recognised that the work of the Spirit is to bring order out of chaos in creation. The Spirit of God is not simply an unseen force but a conscious oneness with God that seeks to bring creation into fruition.
Think about it another way. The very act of creation is to bring order out of chaos. Take a simple example such as painting a picture. When you paint a picture you are being creative. You are bringing shape and lines — order — out of the paints. To paint is to bring order out of chaos or messiness, and this is what the Holy Spirit is about in every aspect of creation — whether it is light and darkness, mountains and seas, or the chaos or messiness in our own lives.
As human beings, we are endowed with creativity, just as God is creative, and we are made in His image. Therefore, the very best thing we can do is to align our creativity with God’s creativity, and as God’s creativity IS the Holy Spirit, we must align ourselves with the very Spirit of God, and the closer we can be to the Spirit the better. In fact, the closest the Spirit could possibly be is in our hearts and minds; for The Holy Spirit to come and make His or Her home in us; for us to become in some way houses or ‘temples’ of the Holy Spirit. That makes sense doesn’t it?
And of course, as Christians we know that the very mission of The Son — Jesus Christ — in the world was to enable, through his life, death, and resurrection, to be made clean so that God’s Spirit can live in us — not as an end in itself but so that the Church can continue the Mission of God in the World — to bring order out of chaos and the redemption and renewal the world needs.
As I mentioned, we are creative in the same way that God is creative, and we can choose how to use our creativity. Yes, it is possible to do good and the ‘right’ thing without accepting the forgiveness that comes though The Son, Jesus Christ, or being filled with God’s Spirit.
I once joined a charity bike ride from Devon to Turin in Italy. It was going to take us 13 days, mostly across the back roads of rural France. We had a support van with bike spares, however, most importantly, the route had been planned in advance and each morning we were given a map with directions. Day 7 was a long day. The ride was 93 miles down lanes and through the countryside. At about Midday and after about 60 miles I realised I was lost, I had taken a wrong turn, about 10 miles back! I had gone 10 miles in the wrong direction and was now off the map! Cycling on back roads without a map was not easy. I did not speak any French and the only two people I met on the journey could not speak any English.
You see, trying to do life in our own strength – trying to use our God-given creativity for good without the Holy Spirit is like getting on a bike, going for a ride, and setting off without a map. You may well end up going in the right direction for some of the journey, but you will not go the best way, be properly equipped, or even end up at the final destination! We NEED the Holy Spirit to guide us.
However, as the Holy Spirit is inside us, the Holy Spirit also transforms us into the likeness of Christ. As the Spirit guides us in God’s mission in the world, he guides us in our personal lives. He brings love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control into the life of the believer, and who would not want those things?
As the Holy Spirit is always outward-looking and looking to the interest of others, when we are filled with Spirit we become outward-looking and looking to the interest of others. The Spirit, being the very person of God, is not pushy or intrusive. The Spirit is gentle and loving and patient and will never override our own wills. The Spirit only goes where invited. The Spirit will only make Her home with you if you invite Her. And how do you invite the Spirit? You ask. Here is an excerpt from The Beatbox Gospel, a rhyming version of the Gospel of Luke 11.9-13:
If you ask you’ll get and if you seek you’ll find
Knock and the door will swing open wide
For askers get and will find if scoping
And if anyone knocks the door will open
Is there anyone here, if your kid makes a wish
That would give her a snake if she asks for a fish?
Or would give her a stone if she asks for bread?
Or a scorpion sting if she asks for an egg?
So if you know good gifting even though you are bad
How much more will your heavenly Dad
Give you the Holy Spirit? There’s legit, one task
Simply, open your mouth or heart. Just ask!
My prayer for you today is simple; that you would ask the Holy Spirit to fill you, that you might be equipped, as a member of the church, to join in with God’s mission in the world.