When I was a lad I was a Cub Scout (for a short while … more about that later). We met every Wednesday evening in the big hall (which was actually quite little) in Betham Infants School just along the road from the British Legion in Greenford where we lived at the time (that’s another story in itself). My father (being an ex-military man) was keen for me to join a uniformed organisation, hence why I was forced to join the scouts. I hated it! Too much discipline, and (in my eyes) suspect male leadership … although Akela was OK (perhaps because she was a nice lady like my mum).
On my first Church Parade Sunday (we had them once every month) we all had to march past the British Legion on the way to Holy Cross Church. There was quite a crowd of adoring parents en route to watch us march by and (so the story goes) my mother turned to my father, as I marched by, and said, ‘Why is everybody out of step except our Jimmy?’
Today we are thinking about that post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his disciples in the Upper Room, recorded by the Apostle John in the Fourth Gospel (John 20:19-23), where Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into his disciples (v.22). Some commentators see this action as pre-figuring the events of the first Day of Pentecost (the Johannine version of Pentecost, if you like) but the Greek text suggests that a tangible impartation of the Holy Spirit actually took place in that moment. Whichever way we look at it, what is clear is that what makes someone a Christian involves a moment (known or unknown) when God the Holy Spirit enters into our hearts and lives, and imparts new spiritual or divine life to us. This, of course, is what Jesus was getting at when he bluntly told Nicodemus (the top Jewish theologian of the day) that he needed to be ‘born of water and the Spirit’ (John 3:5). Just as he had needed to be born physically in order to receive the gift of life, so he needed to be born spiritually in order to receive the gift of divine life! Nicodemus may have known a lot of theology but he didn’t know God in a real, intimate, personal way until that moment. The fact that Nicodemus appears again in the Gospel story – playing a significant part with Joseph of Arimathea in Jesus’ burial (John 19:38-42) – suggests that this initial meeting with Jesus proved to be a significant turning point in Nicodemus’ life.
The Apostle Paul takes this a step further, however, when he tells the Galatian Church (and us today) that it is not enough simply to be ‘made alive by the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:25a) we also need to ‘keep in step with the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:25b NIV). We are back to the analogy of the cub scout (or the soldier) marching in step, not just with his or her fellows, but with God. Learning to keep in time with ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ as Jesus put it in Matthew 11:28-30 (The Message). This, of course, requires a sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Some of us are instinctively uninhibited by nature. We get an idea, see an opportunity, which we believe God is in … and we want to ‘go for it’ immediately. Sometimes this is right, but sometimes we get ahead of the game, and instead of ‘keeping in step with the Spirit’ we go rushing in ‘where angels fear to tread’ (Alexander Pope). Others of us are reticent by nature. As soon as anyone suggests a new idea, a different way forward, our natural inclination is to resist. We immediately look for the problems rather than the possibilities. We advocate ‘taking more time’ in order to be sure, and although we do need to be wise, we must be careful not to lag behind where God is going, and end up ‘resisting the Spirit’ (Acts 7:51) or even ‘quenching the Spirit’ (1 Thessalonians 5:19). If we are to ‘keep in step with the Spirit’ however, we need to be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. We need to be prayerful. We need to listen to God. Above all we need to be obedient, and willing to walk by faith and not by sight – whether that means taking more time or getting on with the task God is putting before us. As a general principle I would suggest that we always try and do the positive thing even if it means making the harder choice. In Greek when faced (as we are sometimes) by two alternative translations – for example should Mark 9:29 simply be limited to ‘prayer’ or should it include ‘prayer and fasting’ – the ‘rule of thumb’ is always opt for the harder reading (in this case include ‘fasting’). So, when faced with a choice as to how God wants us to respond to whatever it is that he is putting before us … probably the harder choice is the right one! It was Robert Kennedy who suggested that when faced with a challenging choice ‘Many people ask “Why?” I ask, “Why not?”’
In writing this, I am mindful of the story of the twelve ‘spies’ Moses (on God’s initiative) sent into Canaan to ‘suss out’ the Promised Land (Numbers 13). Two of them (Joshua and Caleb) came back thrilled and excited about this land God had promised them – a land ‘flowing with milk and honey’ (v.27) – and encouraged the people to ‘go up at once and occupy it’ (v.30). But the other 10 ‘brought an unfavourable report’ (v.32a) seeing only problems ahead – ‘a land full of giants’ (v.32b) that were impossible to overcome. Cutting a long story short we see in the next chapter that the people held a ‘church meeting’ and rejected Joshua and Caleb’s call … and as a result they spent the next 40 years wandering in the wilderness before they finally came back to the same place and finally crossed over into the Promised Land (Joshua 3,4). What can we learn from this? If you are not certain about a path being advocated, but don’t strongly feel one way or another, then I recommend you follow the direction being suggested by those who clearly have a God-given ‘gift of leadership’ (Romans 12:8 NIV). This is why, of course, we call certain people to primary leadership (Ephesians 4:11,12) in the local church. Every Minister is, to some degree an ‘apostle’ (with a small ‘a’) – a ‘sent one’, sent (alongside the other aspects of ministry indicated in Ephesians 4:11), to ‘lead’ the church, to give a renewed sense of direction, a way forward.
So why did I eventually leave the Cubs? I know you are longing to find out. Well … I didn’t actually leave, I got thrown out for fighting! I had to hand back my itchy green jumper, my cap, my scarf, and my woggle (I loved that woggle). As church we too are called to ‘fight the good fight’ (Ephesians 6:10-20) but that fight needs to be ‘out there’ on the battlefield, not ‘in here’ in the barracks! As Jesus repeatedly says to his Church: ‘Let anyone who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches’ (Revelation 3:6 et al).
He came to you, for in His gentle voice,
He’d much that He would say …
You ears were turned to earth’s discordant note,
And so … He went away.
He came, and in His hand He had a task,
That He would have you do.
But you were occupied with other things,
And so you missed that too.
He would have touched you, and His touch could thrill,
And give you quickening power,
But earthly things enveloped, and you could
Not feel Him in that hour.