As you will have already gathered from our worship, today is Pentecost Sunday, the day when we celebrate the coming of God's Spirit to live in and with the followers of Jesus, empowering us to form bold communities of faith and care and to proclaim the message of Christ crucified and risen.
One of my favourite passages from the Bible speaks of the work of the Spirit in our lives. It comes from 2 Corinthians. In chapter 3, Paul writes: 'Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.'
Eugene Petersen in the Message writes it like this:
'And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old constricting legislation is recognised as obsolete. We're free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.'
I understand from these verses that we are all a work in progress, we are all in the process of being transformed by the Spirit of God, as we become more like the Christ we follow. We have freedom to know God, and to become like God, and the Christian life is a journey of living lives that are increasingly full of God. The human destiny in God is to become like God...fully bearing God's image.
Some parts of today's church have picked up on this ancient idea of the fulfilment of our human potential and purpose, and turned it into a motivational outlook that stresses the 'pursuit of excellence'. They encourage their people to 'be all that they can be'.
It can start to sound like this:
- excerpt from Little Miss Sunshine -
I am not anti-excellence, nor am I anti-winning or anti-success. In my own life I have had plenty of instances of winning, of success, and of excellence. I have pursued those things, and in some ways, I still do, though probably not with the same approach as at earlier points in my life. I want to applaud and encourage those who succeed in this world, especially if they use their gifts and their status to achieve good for others, and to contribute to the beauty and creativity of our lives.
What I want to stress this morning, though, is that excellence, winning and success are not to be confused with the kind of potential that God's Spirit develops in us, and the church should not equate them. Sermons, I suggest, should not be motivational talks along the lines of what we've just seen. Nor should the Holy Spirit's work in our lives be described in terms that emphasise our achievement in gaining personal wealth, power and prestige. If we want these things, there are a great array of resources like 'The Secret' to help us on our way.
However, our model is Christ, whose life was full of God, who bore the image of God so profoundly he drew crowds of disciples to himself, but whose path led to suffering and crucifixion, humiliation and abandonment.
So in what ways does 'reaching our potential' in Christ, being transformed into God's glory, differ from 'reaching our potential' in the human, motivational speaker kind of way? I'd suggest two things. One, that God is more interested in the transformation of our hearts and our inner lives, than in causing us to look good in any category that the world might use. Two, that the path to godliness may, in fact, probably will, take us through dark places as well as light ones.
To return to 2 Corinthians. After those verses that I read out before, Paul goes on to talk about not losing heart, having treasure in jars of clay, and being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down, and carrying in his body the death of Jesus. He gets through these things, he says, by looking 'not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.'
I don't think this is just a Greek thought, differentiating soul and body and looking down on the material, while elevating the spiritual. I think Paul's argument is that, in the eyes of the world, he and his co-workers are not much to brag about. They're suffering, and they're persecuted. They're not successful or privileged or invited to the best parties. But they're actually giants, in God's scheme of things. By focusing on what cannot be seen, Paul and his friends are becoming something in Christ, even as they become less and less important or interesting to those who rank highly in this visible life.
Last week Kimberley shared with us about 'somebodies' and 'nobodies', affirming that dignity is a non-negotiable right for all people, no matter how lowly or despised their social ranking might be. Reaching our fullness as God's people may not make us into nobodies, but it might not make us into somebodies either. In fact, becoming who were are meant to be in God steps outside that dichotomy, by allowing us to shift our focus from the norms and standards of our culture, to a whole different measure.
I would claim that what God is interested in, is our character, and our depth of connection with God and others. It's our openness - our capacity to be able to fully give and fully receive, generously, without fear or defensiveness.
In the verses I read out before, Paul writes of us being transformed into God's likeness by looking into God's face as though in a mirror. We have so many mirrors that we look into to find ourselves, and to find out who we are. There's the mirror of our family and upbringing, expectations deeply embedded by years of family culture. There's the mirror of our friends and our colleagues, the views and perspectives we absorb from them. There's the mirror of our media - TV, movies, magazines, newspapers, internet pages. Some of these mirrors make us look good, and feel confident; others distort our image. What happens when we choose God as our mirror? When we choose to look deeply into God, and open our lives up to the gaze of God, through prayer? It is only then that we are given a glimpse of the truth about ourselves, and only then that we begin to fulfil our human purpose on this earth, which is to grow into God's likeness within the truth of our unique identities.
If character, and depth of connection with God and others is formed in prayer, it can also be formed in suffering. I'm not someone who says that God causes us to suffer, or chooses for us to suffer, or that all suffering is noble, or that we should seek suffering for ourselves. What I am saying, is that those who have walked the road of darkness often bear the hallmarks of Christ's presence. They have learned empathy, compassion, patience, and trust. They carry in themselves the death of Jesus, and so are able to testify to the radiance of his new life as well.
So any teaching that dares to suggest that the presence of God's Spirit in a human life leads only to endless victory, to being conquerors, to permanent happiness, wellbeing and success, is badly astray. As I've said, we need only look to Jesus as a model of a life lived in perfect union with God, to see that misunderstanding, betrayal, abandonment and physical suffering can be part of what it means to love God and all that God loves.
So let us not lose heart. Whether we are somebodies or nobodies, whether we suffer or succeed, these things are not ultimately the point. Ultimately, the point is that there is no veil between us and God. There is no law that tells us to keep our distance. We have the freedom to look directly at God, and to be transfigured into people whose character, whose love, whose sheer being, carries the presence of God into the world around us.
The Spirit of Christ is the spirit of transformation. This transformation may not bring us great wealth, or a new car, or romance, or freedom from suffering. But it ushers us into the realm of the eternal, where we have a share in the glory of God, not just in the next life, but in the here and now.