Is Christianity about being “a good person”?

Following up on last week’s blog, “Discovered; a new species of human,” are there really just two types of people – those who are “dead to God and alive to sin,” and those who are “dead to sin and alive to God”? 

Is there a third group of people, however – those who have no interest in God as yet, but do not give “free rein to their own desires and feelings” (paragraph five in my previous blog)? Instead, they’re really nice people to be around. They’re what we’d call today, “good people,” many of whom do more good works than Christians, love doing good (for both people and the planet), support all kinds of charities, help the poor, respect the marginalized, fight for justice and fairness for all, and don’t demand that everyone bow to their demands and preferences. 

They aren’t “alive to God” yet, but many of them have a happy, loving nature, strong marriages and caring children. They love people, enjoy giving, have lots of friends and enjoy good times together, and they are great neighbours and employers. They work hard, always do a good job, they’re reliable and honest, and they wear masks in pandemics for other people’s sakes. They’re well known for their hospitality and generosity. With no interest in God they “know how to give good gifts to their children” (Matthew 7:11).

Maybe it’s because they grew up in a good family, or that goodness is part of their culture (where people take strangers in without hesitation). Or they’re good because they have a sensitive conscience, or they like helping people because it feels good, or that being good keeps them out of trouble. 

Or is it because the Holy Spirit has been “poured out on all flesh” and they’ve unknowingly tuned in to that Spirit? Or is it because an “unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband,” and because of it their children “are holy” too, 1 Corinthians 7:14? Maybe, then, the Holy Spirit is working in them in a special way, and that’s what makes them want to be good. 

Does this make them a third type of person, therefore, who doesn’t have an interest in God as yet, but God is working with them? We know God admires and appreciates goodness in people, like Job (who was “blameless and upright” in God’s sight, Job 1:8), and Cornelius the Roman centurion (“whose prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a remembrance before God,” Acts 10:4). God also appreciates those “who show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness,” Romans 2:15.

But it doesn’t stop there, does it? Job was a good man, yes, but God let Satan loose on him. Cornelius was a “God fearing man, respected by all the Jewish people,” Acts 10:22, but he “also received the Holy Spirit,” verse 47. So his goodness was a good start, yes, but Cornelius needed more. So did Job. And responding to one’s conscience is good too, but if that’s good enough why did God send Jesus to die for us and be raised to life again? 

The answer to that is in Romans 6.

Romans 6 shows us that life for us humans is more than trying to be good and trying not to be bad. It’s more than having good morals. The next chapter, Romans 7, gets into that too, where Paul tells us he tried so hard to be a good person by obeying God’s laws as best he could, but every time he tried to be good there was something in his brain that wanted to resist and do the opposite. Well, God had made that obvious right from the beginning when he said don’t eat off the tree of knowledge of good and evil, because knowing good and knowing evil wouldn’t be enough to resist or stop evil thoughts and evil actions.  

And having conclusively proved that through the sad history of Israel, God then sent Jesus to show us what has to happen to us to solve this problem. We need to be bonded to Jesus in such a way that we die to sin and live to God like he did – which God made possible by having our old weak self killed off and buried along with Jesus’ old self being crucified and buried, and raising us up to a brand new life, just like he raised Jesus up to a brand new life.  

Just like a baptism in water – the analogy Paul uses in Romans 6 – our old self is drowned to death, and we’re given a brand new self in its place. And this brand new self IS able to resist and stop evil thoughts and actions. It becomes an “instrument of righteousness,” Romans 6:14, that “leads to holiness,” verses 19 and 22 – righteous and holy both being what God is. Which means we can “live to God” like Jesus did (verse 10). We actually take on the same characteristics as God himself, which is what God intended for us from the beginning, so that through us he could spread his nature, his wisdom and his greatness all through his creation. This is how he would establish his kingdom of heaven on earth. 

And we come “alive” to all this “in Christ Jesus,” verse 11, and only in Christ Jesus too, because it’s only in our being bonded to his death and resurrection that all this opens up in our brains. It doesn’t come from us trying to be good and trying not to be bad.   

What we need as humans is the ability to die to sin and live to God like Jesus did, because that – and that alone – “results in eternal life,” verse 22. And God provided that for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus – as his “gift” to us, verse 23. 

So, yes, there are only two types of people, or two phases in a human life. We’re either “dead to sin and alive to God,” or “dead to God and alive to sin.” And what makes the difference between the two is the death and resurrection of Jesus, not our goodness. 

Christianity doesn’t boil down to us being good people, then, it boils down to the bond we have with Jesus and his death and resurrection, that God made possible for us as his greatest gift to us. 

Discovered: a new species of human (so desperately needed too)

I gather from Scripture that Jesus’ death caused a monumental jump in our human evolution. It was so great a leap, and so very sudden too, that most of the world missed the completely new species of human that emerged from it. 

But the contrast between the new species of human and the old species of human has been apparent ever since. The contrast is easy to recognize too, because the old and new humans are exact opposites. 

The old version of humanity, for instance, is visibly driven by an engine that, in scriptural terms, is “dead to God, and alive to sin.” The new version of humanity is the total opposite: it’s “dead to sin, and alive to God.” So we now have two species of humans living side by side on this planet with this clear and obvious demarcation separating them. 

Being “dead to God,” for instance, is visibly obvious in one species of human, because there is not the slightest flicker of interest in these humans in what God revealed about himself and his plan in the Old Testament, or what God created humans for. That’s not meant to be a condemnation; it’s just a simple observation. It means, though, that the God of the Bible has no influence over their lives whatsoever. They are “dead” to him, and he is dead to them. 

What excites this version of humanity instead is the free rein and expression of one’s own desires and feelings. It began, as illustrated so colourfully in the story of Adam and Eve, with a choice God offered between two trees, one of which was luscious but deadly, and if eaten off would make humans “alive to sin.” 

And this “coming alive to sin” quickly became apparent too, as both Adam and Eve put self before God and their carefree lives were suddenly filled with guilt, shame, blaming, and wanting to hide from God, and from then on all humanity would be very much “alive to sin” too. All human societies and cultures have experienced a nasty, combative style of living that’s created bullies and victims in every sphere of human endeavour. But would it make us humans want to reject our selfish ways? Unfortunately not.  

And we’re still living in a world deeply influenced by these humans who are “dead to God and alive to sin,” that still believe in putting self before God, despite the historically obvious hazards to one’s mental health and the health of the planet. Worse still, this old species of human has no idea how to reverse or solve its self-destructive ways. So the world careens from one crisis to another, each threatening ever more irreparable and unsolvable damage. 

But also, historically, there’s been evidence of a new version of humanity driven by a different engine, that began with Jesus, who demonstrated very successfully a life that was “dead to sin and alive to God.” And what made that such a monumental leap in our human evolution was his promise to make such a life possible for humans ever since.  

Fifty days after he died his promise came true too, when the engine that powered him was installed in the lives of five thousand people, who visibly and immediately began to display what a life of being “dead to sin and alive to God” was like. As the years progressed a whole list of what they displayed could easily be identified as well, with things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.       

And instead of being engrossed with themselves and their own desires and self-image, their minds naturally and easily seek what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable – and with amazing results. They are not anxious about anything, and they have peace and contentment even in impossible situations and circumstances. And God is so real to them too, like a trusted friend. 

One can only wonder, then, what the world could be like if this new species of human takes over. Perhaps it will one day, and then we’ll know. In the meantime, what a discovery it is when finding such people, and what a delight it is to know them, because they are just what this world so desperately needs right now.  

“Alive to God”

Romans 6:11 has intrigued me for ages, because what does it actually mean to be “alive to God”? But there was a clue all along in that verse, that I hadn’t noticed until I started writing this article.

Here’s the verse in full: “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” The clue was in the last three words, “in Christ Jesus.” And the clue to what that means is in the previous verse, that “the life he (Jesus) lives, he lives to God.” 

So we come alive to God “in Christ Jesus,” because our being “in” him, or united to him, means we can live and experience the same life he lives and experiences. Which is why Paul could say back in verse 11, “In the same way” we can count ourselves alive to God, because Jesus is alive to God, and he raised us up with him so we can now live the same kind of life he lives. We can “live to God” just like Jesus lives to God, therefore, and be “alive to God” just like he’s alive to God.  

But how does that play out in our human lives now? Well, how about the way it played out in Jesus’ human life too? It’s in his childhood, for instance, that we see how “alive to God” he was. He was only twelve years old when he was drawn to the temple, because, as he told his parents in Luke 2:49, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” It was obvious that’s where he’d be, right?  

To someone “alive to God” it was. It’s not surprising, then, that the first chance Jesus gets to attend the Passover in Jerusalem with his parents, and where does he go? To the temple where his Father dwelt.  

And what drew him there? According to verse 40 it was “the grace of God upon him.” So this is what the grace of God does to people; it makes them “alive to God,” irresistibly drawn to him as their Father. 

Twenty years later Jesus was back in the temple too, but this time as an angry man yelling, “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market?” John 2:16. He was “alive to God” all right, and again because of God being his Father, but look how it played out in his life; he was furious at how the one place on earth where people could make contact with the Father was being treated.

“How dare you do that,” he roared. Which made me wonder how that might play out in my life if I become as “alive to God” as he was. I didn’t have long to find out, though, because I was confronted that very week by a person opposed to male and female being the only genders, and I found myself saying in effect, “How dare you ignore what our Father created us to be?” I was surprised at how infuriated I was. But why shouldn’t I be when the Father of us all created us male and female to fulfill his great purpose for us as the temple in whom he wishes to dwell forever?  

But isn’t that the purpose of the Holy Spirit, to make us alive to our Abba, Father? it’s “because we are sons that God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out ‘Abba, Father,’” Galatians 4:6. The Holy Spirit is inspiring the same “alive to our Father” as he inspired in Jesus. We have the same “Spirit of his Son.” I have to assume, then, that the ways in which Jesus was “alive to God” will spill out in me. 

It might be quite shocking, though, to blurt out to people, “How dare you treat our Father like that?” But why not, when Jesus did? Romans 6:12, the verse right after the “alive to God in Christ” verse, reminded me of that too, where Paul wrote, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.” The sin in context here is being more alive to our evil desires than alive to God, like wanting to be accepted by the world and its nutty ideas about gender.  

In all his years of ministry on earth Jesus was always talking about his Father, and at the end of his life he was able to say, “I have made you (Father) known to them” in John 17:26, to which he added, “and I will continue to make you known.” How? Through Christians who are as “alive to God” as he is, who love  to make the Father known as he truly is too.   

“Oh my God, I’m beautiful”

I did wonder about the title too, but that’s what popped to mind when reading Psalm 86 in the Lectionary, which took me to Eugene Peterson’s stirring rendition of Colossians 3:3-4 – “Your new life, which is your real life is with Christ in God….When Christ (your real life, remember) shows up again on this earth, you’ll show up too – the real you, the glorious you.”

One day, in other words, I’ll meet the real me, the fabulous new me Jesus has been moulding ever since God “picked us up and set us down in highest heavens in company with Jesus, our Messiah” (Ephesians 2:6, The Message). I hope it’s not stretching it too far, then, to say we each have two selfs – the old rust bucket we’re stuck in now and the new glorious self Jesus is creating. So I can’t help imagining meeting my beautifully Jesus-crafted self and on seeing it for the first time crying out, “Oh my God, I’m beautiful.” 

It also comes from the typical reaction in people to their car, house or garden being given a total make over by experts, and nearly every time their response is, “Oh my God, it’s beautiful.” It amazes me too, what a bunch of colourful characters in a reality TV show like “Rust to Riches” can do with a wreck of a car. They transform it into a shiny, gleaming beauty. “Oh my God” then becomes a rather appropriate reaction, because such an amazing transformation really does seem like a miracle.  

But where does Psalm 86 fit into this picture? Well, to me it adds to “Oh my God” being an appropriate reaction to seeing the Jesus-crafted me, because in verse 1 (The Message) David writes, ”I’m one miserable wretch,” but then in verse 13, “what love! You snatched me from the brink of disaster.” I can relate to that too. Like an old wreck of a car waiting its turn in the crusher (Romans 9:22) I was a miserable pile of unsalvageable junk too, but God gave me to Jesus for a total makeover and I’m now in his reality show of amazing transformation (2 Corinthians 3:18). 

No wonder David wrote in Psalm 86:4, “I put myself in your hands.” To me, that’s like the owner of an old wreck of a car, or a rundown house, or an overgrown weed patch of a garden, happily backing off and handing their wreckage over to the renovating experts, trussing them to do their thing.  

And it’s fortunate that the owner doesn’t get involved, because to begin with it’s not a pretty sight. Car bodywork is ripped off with crowbar and sledge hammer, the insides of a house are ripped out and dumped, and a garden is stripped bare. Nothing but the basic shell is left. 

But what David experienced again and again was being snatched from the brink of disaster and God “putting me back on my feet” (verse 17), and giving him “the strength to go on” (verse 16) – a miraculous transformation by God every time David trusted him. If “Oh my God” had been a familiar expression of amazement back then, I imagine David would have said it too. 

It springs so naturally to mind today as well, when the owner of the renovated house, car or garden is led in to the see the final product. Eyes open wide in amazement, or fill with tears, followed by a great shout of joy or weepy emotion, “Oh my God, it’s beautiful.” 

Are they ever glad, then, that they “put themselves in the hands” of the experts and trusted them. 

But that’s how Jesus’ reality show works too. He’ll do the transformation and all he asks of us is to trust in his skill and expertise. No matter how battered our old rust bucket self is, he’s creating a marvel out of us, so that one day not only do we say, “Oh my God, that’s beautiful,” so does the world (1 John 3:2). 

But that’s our Jesus for you; he loves a reality show too. The Message translation of Psalm 86:17 ties in rather nicely with that as well, in David saying, “Make a show of how much you love me” – a “show,” take note – because that’s exactly what God gave us to Jesus for, to show in our transformation just how great he intended us humans to be when he created us.    

“You have got to be kidding”

A while ago I was given four more churches to pastor, bringing my grand total to seven congregations in an area larger than all of Great Britain, and just two local elders to help me out too, both of whom were filly employed elsewhere.  

I responded with wide-eyed disbelief, followed by fits of coughing and spluttering, and when speech returned a strangled cry of, “You have got to be kidding” – that wonderfully protective measure against exploding into small pieces, or rolling about on the floor in such helpless mirth it needs paramedic intervention to restore normal breathing.  

Historically, though, I had scriptural support for responding like I did, thanks to Sarah’s snorts of derision on hearing she’d be giving birth to a son in her old age in Genesis 18:12. Whatever the Hebrew equivalent was for “You’ve got to be kidding,” she was thinking it.    

Three chapters later, however, the laugh was on her, because in Genesis 21:2 she “bore a son at the very time God had promised.” And Sarah, to her credit, saw the funny side of it too: “God has brought me laughter,” she cried in verse 6, ”and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me” – Abraham being the first to laugh with her, because he named the boy, “Chuckles,” or Isaac as we know him, Isaac meaning “laughter.”  

So why did God do this to Sarah? And what about all the other things God does that might seem utterly ludicrous to us? What was he thinking, for instance, when he made the fruit of the tree that would kill so delicious looking? And why did he create a crafty creature to entice Adam and Eve into eating it too? 

The rest of the Old Testament provides atheists with all sorts of excuses to scoff as well, like the gathering of two (or more) of every creature and fitting them all on one boat. Or God having his Son killed by those he came to save, and then putting together a church from “lowly and despised things” that make us Christians seem like a joke at times too. 

Apparently, God likes the ludicrous and laughable, including why a shy kid from a tiny village in England would end up pastoring seven churches in an area larger than the entire country he grew up in. 

It still makes me shake my head as to why God works this way, but, silly me, he gave the reason why in Romans 9. It’s in Paul’s answer to why God made Sarah wait until her old age to have a son too. 

It’s because he loves making promises that only he can fulfill. The only reason Sarah ended up with a child, for instance, was because God promised it. Or as Paul phrased it in Romans 9:8, “it isn’t children born by natural human reproduction who are God’s children, it is the children of the promise” – the promise being verse 9, that “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.”

In other words, when God promises something utterly ludicrous to our minds that make us scoff and snort, he gets the last laugh as he watches our amazement and embarrassment when he pulls it off.  

This was a wonderfully freeing revelation for me, because I admit to often snorting with derision at what we present to the public as the Christian church. What a joke we are to people with our odd traditions and rituals. I can’t help thinking at times I’m in the middle of a Monty Python skit. But no matter how ludicrous or laughable that I, or anybody else, thinks the Christian church is, God gets the last laugh, because “At the appointed time he will return, and the church will appear with him in glory (Colossians 3:4).” 

How embarrassing, then, for all those who scoffed and snorted in derision at the antics, foibles and glaring faults of the Christian church. But hopefully, like Sarah, we can all share in one great universal belly laugh one day at what God has managed to pull off despite us. 

“You have got to be kidding,” we all yell. “How did he do it?”

“The life of the Trinity actually comes to life in the church? How?”

First of all, Jesus came to bring the life of the Trinity to life in himself. We get a jolly good peek, therefore, into how God operates as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the human life of Jesus. We see God actually come to life in human terms in him.  

So, why, then, did Jesus create a church too, or why the need for a church as well when he’d already illustrated the life of God in his own human life?

Because the life of the Trinity is now meant to come to life in our human lives too. Every large or little cell group in Jesus’ church is now the means by which others see the life of the Trinity “come to life.” 

Jesus made that clear in his John 17 prayer to his Father. First he says to the Father in verse 6, “I have revealed you to those (disciples) whom you gave me out of the world,” and in verse 7, “Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you,” because everything Jesus said and did was a perfect illustration of his Father and their life together. And Jesus’ first disciples eventually got that (verse 8).  

Now it was their turn to illustrate the life of God as Father and Son, verse 11, so “they (my disciples) may be one as we (Father and Son) are one,” as Jesus phrased it. In the disciples now the life and relationship of the Father and Son would come to life. And the way that would be done, verse 17, would be the Father “sanctifying them by the truth,” the same truth God had revealed about himself through Jesus. The lives of Jesus’ disciples, therefore, would now be “sanctified” or set apart for the same purpose as Jesus’ life, to reveal life as God lives it. 

This is why Jesus sanctified himself (verse 19), or set apart his own life as a human, to make the life of the Trinity come alive so that his disciples would be perfectly set up for the same thing happening in their lives. His disciples would gradually come to see this is why the Father had sent him, first to illustrate the life of the Trinity through Jesus’ life, and secondly to follow that up through his disciples illustrating the life of the Trinity in their lives together in the church (verses 20-23). 

And I get that too, but how does it play out in our large and little churches today?   

Well, it’s clearly not by anything that I do on my own human initiative or strength, because Jesus finishes off his John 17 prayer where he began it back in verse 6, when he says in verse 26, “I have made you known to them,” but then he says, “and I will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them,” meaning it’s the Father’s love, not our own love, that illustrates the life of the Trinity. That’s because we can’t do what we’ve been called as the church to do, which Jesus obviously knew as well when he then says, “and that I myself may be in them.”

That is such a huge relief hearing him say that, at least it is for me, because I’m not a naturally loving person, thanks to all twelve years of my childhood being spent in loveless English boarding schools. I’ve grown up preferring dogs to people. But here I have Jesus’ great wish and prayer for me that he’ll live his life of love in me. He can and will, therefore, bring to life the truth of what God is as Father, Son and Holy Spirit for me, as well as in me.

And I’ve seen that in how ever so gradually my life as a minister has been changing from simply teaching the Bible as my paid duty in a denomination to finding myself totally committed to two tiny churches seven years beyond my retirement age. But it’s worth every minute, because what if we experience and demonstrate the life of the Trinity so well that “the world may (also) believe that the Father sent Jesus” in verse 21? In other words, people outside our cell groups also see in us why the Father sent Jesus, as they see the love the Father has for his Son lived out in us, and therefore the love the Father will now live in them too, so they can share in it just as we have.  

So what God is making possible through our little gatherings of Christians is remarkable. And to think that my children and grandchildren can see it too, through the life of the Trinity coming to life in me and the Christian group I’m part of. 

It’s certainly concentrated my life on God making all this real, in my old age too, because Jesus did pray in John 17 that his disciples would have an impact, and on that I depend. 

”I want to make a real difference in this world, but how?”

My eldest granddaughter just returned from supporting a “Black Lives Matter” march, because she wants to change the world – or better put, she wants to change “her” world, because she doesn’t like the world she’s found herself in, and what it’s doing to her and to others. Not one bit.   

So she writes passionate articles too, against the irrational behaviour of people she believes should know better. High School also taught her how awful her own age group can be when they discover the power they have to wreck the lives and relationships of their class mates. So she’s really fired up. 

Her mother, meanwhile, is all for her daughter’s passion, but hopes she won’t go overboard with it, because it could turn into bitterness or disillusionment, or worse, into violent protest and jail, if her fired up girl doesn’t get the results she’s after. 

It’s a dilemma for both of them, which got me thinking about what the Holy Spirit was given for on Pentecost in the book of Acts. Was it to change the world? 

Just one chapter earlier, in Acts 1:8, Jesus told his disciples “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you,” which sounds like Christians would be making a real difference in the world. And that would include the children of Christians, because the promise of the Holy Spirit “is for you and your children” too, in Acts 2:39. 

So imagine telling my granddaughter: “Hey, kiddo, even Jesus promised you real power.” But real power to do what? Would she take the promise of power to mean getting into politics in a big way, or becoming a passionate lawyer fighting for justice, or going on massive protest marches to force change? And is that what Jesus meant too?

But history is chock full of people who are sick of the world they’re living in and they’ve tried to force change by revolution and violence. That was the Jews’ approach to getting rid of the Romans thirty years after Pentecost, which resulted in a horrific backlash from the Romans in 70 A.D.  

So what was this gift of the Holy Spirit for, and the power attached to it? 

Peter’s immediate answer to that in Acts 2:40, just after the Holy Spirit was given. was to “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” It wasn’t, “Now you and your kids have the power to change the world,” because that’s been tried by many Christians, but the world’s problems continue. Good is being done all over the world, yes, but a virus pandemic or economic collapse can undo years of progress, and remind us that even the best of human initiative and good intentions can only do so much. Meanwhile, hundreds of issues remain unsolved and unsolvable.  

So what was the power of the Holy Spirit given for? 

Again, it’s Peter who answers, this time in 2 Peter 1:4, when he writes, “Through God’s great and precious promises you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil human desires.”

And there, my dear granddaughter, is the great news of how real change happens, and how you can make a real difference in your world. And it’s the same answer Peter gave back on Pentecost too. And again, it’s not by human passion, revolution, or writing scathing articles exposing the world’s ills. That’s not where changing the world begins, my girl; it begins with a change in you. And it’s a change that enables you personally to “escape the corruption” caused by unsolvable human greed, lust and – as Adam and Eve demonstrated – our innate ability to self-destruct.

And how does that change in you happen? It’s in that “great and precious promise” of the Holy Spirit so you can share in God’s very own nature, and it’s totally his gift to you for simply believing this is what he sent Jesus to set up for us. And by what that divine nature does in you, you then “witness” to such power being available and what it’s for, just as Jesus said in Acts 1:8. 

What impact that now has on you and the people who know you, will create a ripple of change in their lives and yours, and who knows how far that ripple will spread? It won’t change the whole world, but it will make a real difference in the world where you are. So let that fire up your engine and see where it takes you….

“Come on, Grampy, let’s party”

In this year’s Pentecost sermon on the GCI website the question was asked: “Are we so indulging and enjoying the life of the Spirit that people think we’ve been drinking?” And two sentences later, “Would people mistake our church services for a party? Would they accuse us of being drunks and partiers like they accused Jesus?”

Both sentences were stirred by what happened on Pentecost in Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit suddenly enabled the apostles to “declare the wonders of God” in several languages, which some people loudly scoffed at, however, accusing the apostles of drinking “too much wine.”  

But it looked like they really had been at a party, drinking and celebrating. So was this what the Holy Spirit did to people? And if so, can it happen to me too, then, where I’m “so indulging and enjoying the life of the Spirit that people think I’ve been drinking”?

Well, it’s possible, yes, because Hebrews 6:4 says I can “taste the heavenly gift” when “sharing in the Holy Spirit,” which can fill me “with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:8). It made me think of the great celebration at the end of World War 2, when people were beside themselves with joy at the war finally ending, and they were free at last. They were yelling and dancing wildly in the streets, behaving like they were drunk too.  

But isn’t that what being free does to people? It’s like winning a lottery worth several millions and in a flash all your financial worries are over. For a few glorious moments you’re “drunk” with joy. 

Well, all our worries are over too, since receiving the Holy Spirit. We’ve entered a whole new world of “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21) as the Holy Spirit ”transforms us into the likeness of Christ” (2 Corinthians 3:18). It’s meant to fill us with an “inexpressible and glorious joy.” 

And I got a clue what that looks like when our 6 year old granddaughter came to stay with us for a week. She was ecstatically happy to be with us, but what on earth could we do to keep her occupied and happy for a whole week?  She had the energy of three nuclear power stations, while I tottered in her wake on worn out batteries. Would she be so bored by Day 2 that she’d be crying for home?

By Day 6, however, she was still happy. She scampered down the front path each morning as happily as she did on Day 1, because to her wherever Grampy was going it would be a good day. And if all Grampy could manage was a trip to the library where he fell into a chair in a semi-coma and read a newspaper, it was still fine with her, because just being with Grampy was enough.

Her trust and contentment in whatever we did together was a joy – and a wonderful illustration for me of “the life of the Spirit.” Like Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:8, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

In other words, we have no idea where the Spirit’s taking us, just like my granddaughter had no idea where I was taking her each morning, but in her mind it was guaranteed to be good. Grampy knew where he was going and that was all that mattered. She felt utterly free, which enabled her to scamper into each day in total trust and contentment.

And according to Jesus we have such a “Grampy” too. He said as much in John 14:16-18, that the Holy Spirit would be our everyday guide and companion. Where the Spirit takes us we do not know, but he knows – and for my granddaughter with me as her guide and companion that was all that mattered. Every day coming up, therefore, would be a good day. And it created in her an inexpressible and glorious joy. 

It dawned on me after that week with her that God has put us in that same spot too, that every day coming up is going to be a good day in some form or other because of the Holy Spirit. We have no idea how, or in what way, but as Romans 8:28 promises, “God works for the good of those who love him.” 

So, “Come on, Grampy, let’s party,” was my granddaughter’s attitude to each new day with me. Not a bad idea for my new days with the Holy Spirit too, I thought. 

What a different Dad I became

For years I wondered what Jesus meant when he prayed in John 17:11, “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name – the name you gave me – so that they may be one as we are one.”

But how, I wondered, could the Father give Jesus his name? Only the Father could be called “Father,” surely. Should we now call Jesus “Father” too, then, if the Father gave Jesus his name? 

But then it dawned on me that the name the Father gave Jesus reflected who and what God is, because the name the Father gave Jesus was “Son.” In other words, God is not a single entity, he’s both Father and Son. When we say the name “God,” then, it means a relationship of Father and Son. And that’s backed up in the last part of the verse that says, “so that may be one as we are one,” or that we may be in relationship just like God as Father and Son are in relationship.  

And it’s in our relationship of oneness that we come to know the Father and Son relationship that God is. Which all sounded very nice and theological, but what did it actually mean in my everyday life? What difference did it make knowing this is what it meant?    

Well, if we could be “one as Father and Son are one,” what difference could that make in me as a Dad to my son? At the time I still had a ten year old son at home too. So I looked into the relationship the Father had with his Son, which fortunately, was summarized by Jesus right here in John 17.

And it began with Jesus’ statement in verse 2, For you (Father) granted him (me, Jesus) authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him.”  

The Father trusted his Son so much he “put him in charge of everything human so he might give real and eternal life to all in his charge” (verse 3, The Message). 

What a wonderful way for a Dad to treat his son, I thought. So why not try that with my own son, that I trust him too, regardless of how well or poorly he was doing. It was risky, yes, because for years his school report card wasn’t anything to write home about, but trust is what the Father did with his Son, so on that I’d base my relationship with my son too. I simply trusted him to take charge of his life, and to my deep delight it caused all sorts of wires to hook up in my son’s brain that turned him into a scholar student by graduation. It was my first real insight into the difference the relationship of God as Father and Son made in this life of ours, and I liked it very much, because look what happened when played out in the every day relationship between me and my son. 

So what else, I wondered, was tucked away in John 17 that described the relationship between the Father and Son? Well, the Father gave Jesus a massive challenge (verse 6), which he knew would stretch Jesus way beyond his human ability to fulfill, so he provided Jesus with the equipment (“the words,” verse 8) to fulfill it. Well, that’s a great way to go too, I thought, because it applies brilliantly to the tough years of my son’s teenage when he’d face challenges way beyond his abilities to cope with as well. 

So, what my son needed was my “words” too, then, which I interpreted as giving him endless encouragement. So I drove him to school every morning during his teenage, a six minute trip in which I would try to make him laugh and start his day off on a positive, happy note. And it was brilliant, because it created a relationship we have both treasured ever since. 

And it was on just those two things, trust and encouragement – that Jesus clearly treasured in his life too – that changed me as a Dad. What a different Dad I became. 

And the result of that relationship I now had with my son was the same as the relationship between the Father and his Son too, because in verse 11 Jesus says, “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name – the name you gave me – so that they may be one as we are one.” Their Father/Son relationship would “protect” the disciples through whatever the world would throw at them. And how true that proved to be, because as Jesus said in verse 12, “While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me.” 

And my son too was kept “safe” through High School, because of our relationship as father and son. He was able to rise above, and not be drawn in or perturbed by, the attitudes of “the evil one” (verse 15). 

It was all so real, a taste of “eternal life” in the here and now, from simply “knowing God and Jesus,” verse 3, as Father and Son.    

How do I explain what I believe in to somebody totally new?

As an immigrant to Canada in 1972 I had no idea what it meant “to be Canadian,” or how to become one. So I asked, and I was told, “Learn how to ice skate.” 

Well, that made things nice and simple, so I threw on a pair of ice skates and flung myself onto the ice at a local skating rink to make myself Canadian. Two steps out, however, I instantly went horizontal and crashed to the ice with a body jarring thump.

I clearly needed somebody to explain to me in terms I could understand as a total novice how this skating thing worked, starting with something as simple as how you stay vertical for more than two steps. And frustrating though it was that I couldn’t become a Canadian right away, it gave me a vital clue when introducing someone to Christianity. 

Becoming a Christian is just like being an immigrant, because in Christianity a person is entering a totally new world as well. Start them off simply too, then, which is exactly what Paul did in Acts 17 when introducing total novices to Christianity in Athens.  

Weird though the Athenians were with their 30,000 statues to empty gods, they did at least believe in supernatural beings. On that point, then, Paul could connect with them, which he did by complimenting them on being “very religious,” verse 22. People today might not like to hear that, of course, because of the jaundiced view of religious people on TV and movies, but like  those Athenians, people today are seeking something, anything, that lifts them above the drudgery of everyday life.

For some, just like the Epicureans in Athens, it means partying and trying to get as much personal enjoyment out of life as possible. For others, like the Stoics in Athens, it means enduring life, stoically trying to “grin and bear” whatever life hits them with. 

Either way, God is a total stranger, just like the “Unknown God” of verse 23. So we’re in much the same situation today as Paul was in Athens, trying to explain the Christian message to people who were seeking, but had no idea about, or even interest in, the real God.  

So when my non-religious 19 year old granddaughter asked me what I believed in, completely out of the blue one day while eating a hamburger in a restaurant, I immediately thought of Paul’s approach here in Acts 17.

He started off, even with those highly sophisticated philosophers in Athens, with something so simple. He talked about God as the Creator, verse 24. So I did that too, by asking my granddaughter where the hamburger she was munching on came from. Did it float down from out of space and land on her plate, or what? No, it was made for her by a chef in the kitchen.

It was “check mate,” first move, because all I had to do next was ask her how this world came into being too. Somebody had to make it, because anything made, hamburgers or universes, needs a maker, right? 

And what if her hamburger was really tasty too, and it had been beautifully presented on the plate, with obvious pride and love by the chef, wouldn’t she want to know more about the chef and what else he could do? The same with this world, in how beautifully it has been presented by its “chef” and maker too. 

“So,” I said with a flourish, “that’s what I believe in, a God like that, who’s jolly well worth knowing, and especially when he looks upon us as his kids whom he deeply loves as well.” It was a page right out of Paul’s book in verses 27 and 28. 

In asking the question, then, “How do I explain what I believe in to somebody totally new?” I admit to blatantly plagiarizing Paul in his opening gambit with those seeking but totally ignorant people in Athens. He kept it so simple. 

And fortunately there were Canadians willing to start me off so simply too, in having me learn how to ice skate. “You’ll love it when you get it too,” I was told, and the same can be said of Christianity. There is a sting to it too, which Paul added in Acts 17:30-31, but that was like telling me as an immigrant I couldn’t be a Canadian without wanting and attempting to be one. 

But what made that “wanting and attempting” so much more appealing was being given something like learning to ice skate that made me feel like I was a Canadian. And that was a leaf right out of Paul’s book too, because he told those Athenians they too could feel like they were the Creator’s much loved children by simply reaching out to him and discovering he wasn’t far away at all, verses 27-28. 

And that’s the same for anyone entering the brand new world of God and Christianity. “Just seek him and you’ll find him, and you’ll love it when you do.” It’s so simple.