Monthly Letter – June 2017

Dear Friends

We forget too easily.

We forget all too often just what rags had been once our apparel: we forget what it was to be lost, when now we’ve been found; what it was to be blind, when we now see so well; what it was to be dead, when we’re now so alive.

We forget what we were. And that can make us presumptuous and proud.

But we also forget what we are.

We forget just what riches have been lavished upon us by God: we forget how abundant God’s mercy towards us has been, how complete is the grace of forgiveness we now have in Christ, how exalted the heights are to which we’ve been raised with our Lord. We forget how entirely extraordinary our experience has become and remains – and in that state of ill-conceived forgetfulness we thus resort to living out a life more ordinary by far than that we have been given by the Lord.

I recall a book from the mid-1970s, with the striking title of “Cinderella with Amnesia” (today it would probably be called “Elsa with Alzheimer’s”, or something like that – except that Cinderella is, of course, much more clearly a rags-to-riches girl than Elsa ever was).

It was a book about the church, the bride of Christ. And the book’s basic thesis was simple. The rags-to-riches girl has suffered from a memory loss: she’s forgotten the end of the story, she’s lost sight of the fact she’s the bride of the prince, she persists in the state she’d grown used to for who knows how long.

It’s not that the church has lost the plot: it’s rather that she hasn’t remembered which page of the book she’s now on. That’s a massive generalization, of course, because it’s far from being true about every local fellowship of those who are following Jesus. But across the board, in general terms, it’s often been the case that we’re unclear, unsure, and sometimes simply unaware regarding who the Holy Spirit really is, and where (if you’ll pardon me putting it bluntly like this) – and where He fits in. God the Father and God the Son – well, the terms are both familiar, referring to relationships we understand, which helps ensure we have at least some sense of who these Persons in the Godhead are and how each works together for our good. But God the Holy Spirit … well, we’re not even sure He’s a Person at all half the time (especially if we’ve watched too many Star Wars films and had our minds all marinated in a ‘May-the-force-be-with-you’ sort of outlook on the world).

The result, therefore, often has been that the Spirit of God has been squeezed to the margins of many folks’ minds: not quite a total embarrassment, true, but conveniently and quietly forgotten.

So Christmas we make a great fuss about year after year. God (the Father, we understand that well enough) – God so loved the world that He sent His own Son … Well, yes! Why wouldn’t we want a big fuss about that? Why wouldn’t we want to be marking such drama as God coming into our world with a stream of celebrations!

And Easter’s the same. A little more measured, I guess, in how we have tended to mark the event, since we want to show all due respect to the costliness, pain and great sacrifice right at its heart: we recognize the need for some solemnity, but we nonetheless give no small size of prominence to this great annual festival of faith. We understand – at least in part – we understand what’s going on: it’s a Father and Son thing again, isn’t it, and we’re glad to acknowledge the grace in the giving of both.

How deep the Father’s love for us,
how vast beyond all measure,
that he should give his only Son
to make a wretch his treasure.
How great the pain of searing loss:
the Father turns his face away,
as wounds which mar the chosen one
bring many sons to glory.

But shift the calendar seven weeks on, and Pentecost doesn’t really get comparable ‘air-time’, does it? It’s very much the obvious ‘poor relation’ of our major Christian festivals. No similar season of Advent or Lent, in the run up to this diary date. No carol-singing jamborees, no early morning climax to a holy week of prayer, profession, praise. No endless rounds of greeting one another with the ‘Happy Christmas’ chorus or the ‘Christ is risen, hallelujah!’ Easter morning chant.

Just a slightly nervous nod towards the Spirit of almighty God, an awkward and tentative “don’t-know-where-to-look-quite” brief acknowledgement that Pentecost took place. And the very fact that Pentecost is often just an ‘also-ran’ outsider in the trilogy of major Christian festivals reveals the real extent to which the Spirit is so often, too, the one ‘forgotten’ member of the Trinity.

Which is really the root of Cinderella’s chronic case of ‘who-am-I?’ amnesia. She’s forgotten indeed who she is: she’s forgotten the Prince is her Husband, and that He’s come now to live with His bride.

The church has forgotten, too often, the Person and work of the Holy Spirit of God: and we do so at our cost.

There is much which might be written to set out, in even summary form, the life-transforming ministry the Spirit comes to exercise: but here are some primary facets of His ministry, which we need to grasp and apply.

Power. Jesus said it. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you” (Acts 1.8). But it’s a sovereign bestowal of power from Him which has a singular end in mind. It’s power with a view to witness: the power to proclaim Jesus, to live Jesus, to share Jesus; the power to declare the good news of God’s grace, to demonstrate in word and deed that Jesus has been raised from the dead, is alive and at work, and is wonderfully able to save.

The Spirit of God empowers His people. He gives them the boldness to see and to seize the chances there’ll be to speak about Jesus and explain what the gospel’s about: He gives them the wisdom to know what to say: He gives them the vision to step out in faith and engage with the people around them: He gives them the passion to enter all the dark and dangerous alleyways of life, intent, with the heart of the Saviour, on seeking and saving the lost.

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you. That sort of power. We forget that at our peril. Amnesia here is nothing less than a blanket of asbestos, toxic in the unseen dust it spawns, and dousing the fire of the Spirit.

Pentecost always reminds us that if Jesus is indeed ‘the door’, then, be sure, that door is now a revolving one: the Jesus who welcomes us into the fold, is the Jesus who now sends us out – out with the power to preach and proclaim the good news and to share His pulsing resurrection life with a world so desperately dead.

Presence. “We will come to (that person),” Jesus said, “and make our home with him.” God has taken up His residence in the hearts and lives of His people. His love is made real, and infuses the whole of our being: we’re enveloped and bathed in great waves of God’s fatherly care.

The Spirit of God brings the presence of God right into the hearts of the people of God. He dwells in them, acts for them, and works through them. Jesus. Immanuel. God unmistakably with us.

To a world in rebellion against His rule, God is now a clear and present danger: alarmingly threatening, and uncomfortably close. He’s no longer some dim and distant Being whose existence is the sort of thing philosophers will debate. He’s now up close and personal, and wholly in your face. He dwells in His people: He encounters His world through their lives. There aren’t too many hiding places left, because His people are now all over the place: and God is present among them. God now physically present. On the high street, in the cafes, down the aisles of the shopping malls, out at the places of work and back at the ranch where they live.

God now patently present through His Spirit’s having come upon His people in this way. Perhaps we should all go around with a big, red warning triangle! Let the world be warned (and not just at our worship times) – ‘God is really among you!’ (1 Cor.14.25).

That’s the startling privilege God has given us: it’s in and through His people now that the Lord makes His presence known. God has left the building! His presence is now no longer confined to a temple out in Israel. He’s out and at large, on the loose in the world that He loves.

Cinderella’s memory loss means missing out on all that this new chapter in the story’s opened up. Pentecost turned that significant page: it’s a whole new part of the story in which we’re now caught up.

Purpose. The Spirit of God has come in person to orchestrate the work of God. He knows what He’s doing, and He knows where He means us to go.

He turfs His people out from all the cosy comfort of Jerusalem: there’s a world out there, He insists. He calls Philip away from a place full of action and excitement and directs him to an isolated parking bay on the main road south: Samaria may be bubbling with new gospel life, but there’s a whole, extensive continent which needs to hear the message just as much.

So Philip goes south, and Peter gets sent way out west, and Barnabas heads off up north, and Saul will be stopped in his tracks, turned completely around, and called to take the message to the massive Gentile world.

This band of believers is being sent off and out to every single compass point there is to play the music of the gospel of God’s grace. Not in any merely random sort of way. Not because they’ve figured out some empire-building strategy. But simply because the Spirit of God now orchestrates it all.

Purpose. The whole thing is marked by clear purpose, for the Spirit of God is directing the show – and He knows how to get the work done.

Pentecost means we don’t simply drift any more. We may have been given a building, but it’s not there for us to be sitting and twiddling our thumbs! There’s work to be done and the Spirit of God will be driving us out to the far-flung corners of the city and beyond, with one great purpose in mind: to get the message out!

Forget the amnesia: get your shoes back on, Cinderella – your Prince is off on tour!

Yours in the fellowship of the Spirit

Jeremy Middleton