Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sermon for May 23rd: Ephesians 5:18-21

Be Filled with the Holy Spirit

Today is the day of Pentecost, sometimes called the birthday of the Christian Church – the day we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first followers of Jesus in Jerusalem in fulfilment of Jesus’ promise that his disciples would be baptized in the Holy Spirit and would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. We’ve heard the story in our first reading for today: the believers were all together in one place when they heard the sound of a mighty wind that filled the room, and they saw little tongues of flame that rested on each one of them. Then they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them that ability. This was evidently a noisy event; a crowd began to gather, and some of the languages were recognised. People began to ask questions – some even asked if the disciples were drunk – not, I suspect, a question that’s asked very often about people coming out of church at St. Margaret’s on a Sunday morning!

But I’m not going to preach on this passage this morning. Instead, I want to follow up on a scripture verse that Lloyd mentioned in his sermon last week. Lloyd gave me a bit of a challenge last week; he sort of ignored the Ascension Day theme and gave a bit of a preview of the coming of the Holy Spirit instead, and then he said that he was sure I’d be able to come up with more to say about the Holy Spirit this week. Well, I never could resist a challenge like that, and as it happened, he mentioned in passing a scripture verse that is kind of connected to our Acts reading for today. Funnily enough, the connection is the theme of drunkenness! Listen to these words from the fifth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

‘Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ’ (Ephesians 5:18-21).

In the original language of the New Testament this whole paragraph is one long sentence; apparently Paul’s fourth-grade language arts teacher hadn’t told him that you shouldn’t do that! If you’ll forgive me for using grammatical speak for a minute, it’s a double imperative, followed by four participles! The double imperative is ‘Don’t get drunk, but be filled with the Holy Spirit’, and then the sentence proceeds without a break into the participles, which the NRSV translates as ‘singing, singing, thanking, submitting’.

What’s the relationship between the imperatives and the participles? Many commentators think it’s a cause and effect thing: if we’re filled with the Holy Spirit, the consequences are that we will worship God joyfully, live thankfully and submit to one another. But I think it’s more of a circular scenario: we are filled with the Holy Spirit, which leads us to worship joyfully, be thankful, and submit to one another, which helps us to continue walking in the Spirit, which helps us to continue to worship and thank and submit, and so on.

So let’s look a bit more closely at this; let’s think for a minute about this comparison between drunkenness and being filled with the Holy Spirit. There is of course a certain superficial similarity between the two conditions. We sometimes say that a person who is drunk is ‘under the influence of alcohol’, and the same is true when a person is filled with the Holy Spirit: they are definitely ‘under the influence’ of the Spirit. Furthermore, a person who is drunk often seems to be happy – at least until the hangover sets in – and the Holy Spirit also brings us joy, but without the hangover!

But of course there are also differences. We sometimes think about people being stimulated by alcohol, but any pharmacist can tell you that alcohol is not a stimulant – it is a depressant. It depresses first and foremost the control centres of the brain – everything that gives us self-control, wisdom, understanding, the ability to make the right choices and act appropriately in a given situation. This is why people are so often embarrassed on the morning after a binge, when they find out what they’ve done ‘under the influence’. And of course alcohol also depresses our reactions and responses, so that a person under the influence is a danger to other drivers on the road and a danger in social circles when they respond inappropriately to what others say and do.

Alcohol is a depressant, but the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is a true stimulant! A person who is filled with the Holy Spirit is truly stimulated in the best sense of the word! Every part of their personality is effected: their thinking is clearer, their imagination is broader, their joy is deeper, their self-control is stronger, their love is more far-reaching, and so on. Paul says that drunkenness leads to ‘debauchery’ – wild, dissolute, out-of-control behaviour – but the Holy Spirit makes us truly human, because he makes us like our Lord Jesus Christ.

So, Paul says, don’t get drunk with wine! I’ve got a better idea: be filled with the Holy Spirit! And the reality of being filled with the Holy Spirit is right at the centre of our practical Christian living. You can’t answer the question ‘What would Jesus do?’ and then put your answer into practice without being filled with the Holy Spirit, because it’s the Spirit who transforms us into the image of Christ, and it’s the Spirit who grows in us his fruit of love and joy and peace and patience and self control and so on.

Furthermore, this experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit isn’t just a one off thing. We all know we have to gas up our cars on a regular basis; none of us is foolish enough to think that when the dealer fills it up for you before you drive it off the lot, that’s the last fill up you’re ever going to need! And the grammatical tense that Paul uses in the original language here underlines for us the fact that we need a repeated filling with the Holy Spirit; it literally means ‘Go on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit’. The gift of the Spirit was given to every one of us when we put our faith in Jesus, but apparently there’s still a daily replenishment of his love and power that’s necessary for all of us if we’re to live as Jesus taught us.

So much for the imperatives; now let’s look at the participles, the things that go along with being filled with the Spirit. As we’ve said, there’s a circular relationship here; being filled with the Holy Spirit helps us worship and give thanks and submit to one another, and then worshipping and thanking and submitting to one another keep us in the place where the Holy Spirit can continue to fill us. I’ve said that there are four participles, but two of them are pretty much the same, so let’s call it three. The first is joyful worship. Verses 18-19 say:

‘Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Holy Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts…’

What Paul has in mind here may include the singing and worshipping that we do when we gather together on Sundays, but it certainly isn’t restricted to that. I’m reminded of the story Luke tells us in Acts of how Paul and Silas were arrested in the city of Philippi; they were whipped until their backs bled, and then taken to the town jail and fastened in the stocks. We can imagine how easy it would be in that situation to indulge yourself in a pity-party, but Paul and Silas would have none of it. Acts tells us that ‘About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them’ (Acts 16:25).

And this is not something that only happens in Bible times. Many of you know that I spent my sabbatical leave three years ago reading about the spirituality of the Anabaptist movement – the ancestors of the modern Mennonite and Hutterite traditions. Many of those people were viciously persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike in the sixteenth century; they were drowned in rivers and burned at the stake for their faith. But over and over again, in the stories of their martyrdoms, we notice the same detail: as the flames were licking up around them, they were singing to God and speaking to each other in the words of scripture to encourage each other to be faithful. This is not something that I can imagine myself being capable of doing. I know that this is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Note also how this is connected to singing: ‘as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts…’. Singing songs engages our hearts and our minds. The repetition and memorization of spiritual songs fixes the truth of God in our hearts, and so singing songs of worship is a wonderful way of centering ourselves day by day on God and paying attention to the Spirit’s presence in our lives.

And this is such an incredibly practical thing for us in our daily living. So many of us live in situations of tremendous stress, whether because of our work, or the demands of caring for small children or elderly parents, or the loss of a job or struggles with addictions and so on. It’s so easy for us to become the victims of our circumstances – to allow our mood to be dictated by the stress that we’re going through, rather than being able to rise above it. But here Paul is offering us a better way: pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and then sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts. And so in the midst of our struggles we can discover a fresh joy that comes from God’s Holy Spirit.

And of course this is directly connected to the second thing: gratitude. Listen to what Paul says in verse 20:

‘giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’.

This one is so important in our part of the world; I really think that we live in a culture obsessed with grumbling, complaining, criticizing and finding fault. I know this struggle myself: Marci says that when it comes to the Winnie the Pooh stories, I’m definitely Eeyore! It’s so easy for us to be ‘glass half empty’ rather than ‘glass half full’ people – but when we meet true ‘glass half full’ people, we know it’s the better way.

This spirit of gratitude really demonstrates the circular relationship between being filled with the Holy Spirit and the things that follow. Yes, the Holy Spirit makes us thankful – but thankfulness is also a decision that we make, opening us up to further fillings with the Holy Spirit. The old song tells us ‘Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done’. This gratitude is a discipline, too – a discipline of intentionally focussing on the gifts that God has given to us and thanking him for them every day.

So we’ve thought about joyful worship and a thankful heart. The third thing Paul mentions here is mutual submission; verse 21 says, ‘Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ’. This verse leads to one of the most controversial passages in all of Paul’s letters: his instructions to wives to submit to their husbands. Unfortunately, people often get so angry about this that they fail to notice that the passage begins with this command for all Christians - not just wives, but all Christians – to submit to one another.

Remember, as I’ve said before, the happy co-incidence that in the English language the word ‘sin’ has an ‘I’ in the middle of it – and when I am in the centre of my own life, wanting everything my own way, thinking that it’s all about me, then that is the very epitome of a state of sin. Submission is the discipline of letting go of the need to have everything the way I want it. We submit first of all to Christ, because he is our Lord, and then to his people, because they are our sisters and brothers in him, and we are called to love them as he does.

There’s a wonderful example of this in the Old Testament story of Abraham. God had promised Abraham that the whole land of Canaan would belong to his descendants, but Abraham and his nephew Lot had prospered so much, and their flocks and herds were so big, that the area where they were living could no longer support them both. So Abraham suggested to Lot that they part company, and he said to him, ‘You can have first choice of the land’. Lot of course chose the best land, near the city of Sodom, but in the end his choice led to grief for him: Genesis tells us that the people of Sodom were great sinners against the Lord, and when God judged them for their sin, Lot got caught up in it. Abraham on the other hand was blessed by the Lord, and God reassured him that the whole land - including the bit he’d just given to Lot – would belong to his descendants.

This matter of submitting to one another is so important; it’s impossible for us to continue to be filled with the Holy Spirit if we will insist on having things our own way all the time. The way forward is to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, and this will lead us to new growth in the Holy Spirit.

So we’re told to go on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit, singing and worshipping the Lord in our hearts, giving thanks to God continually, and submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Let me close by going back to the beginning and saying that this all depends on the Holy Spirit. And we can’t control the Holy Spirit: there’s no infallible formula, no magic prayer that we insert like a coin into a vending machine in order to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus told us that the Spirit is like the wind: he blows where he will, and no one can control him. All we can do is ask the Spirit to fill us, and then pay attention to his presence with us and keep in step with his leadings.

So on this Pentecost Sunday, let’s pray that the same Holy Spirit who filled the apostles will also fill us - not just once, but every day. Let’s start each day with the prayer that the Spirit would fill us, and then let’s let him lead us through the day in worship, singing to God in our hearts, living in gratitude and in humble submission to one another. In this way we can continue to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit and receive the strength we need to live as Jesus taught us.

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