Doves are sensitive creatures.
When we bought our house in Kilmeston 16 years ago, it came with a dovecote. Fairly soon after we arrived we decided that it would be good to get some doves to stock it. They came in a cardboard box collected from the overflowing hutches of some friends in Sussex.
I knew that we had to wire the doves in for some time so that they would get used to their new home and so I had built a strong wire mesh frame with wooden supporting struts to make sure they would be protected and caged in for the six weeks we thought it necessary to confine them.
We fed them every day and we were all looking forward to the day when they were released. The great moment arrived. Our whole family was assembled on the lawn. But opening up my wire and wood entanglement, which had so effectively kept them safe in the dovecote for six weeks, was more difficult than I had imagined. I had to use a hammer. There was a lot of banging. The dovecote swayed with each blow of the hammer. The male dove looked out of the hutch at me with a beady eye.
Eventually the doves were released. They looked beautiful as the swooped over the tile roof of the house and circled the garden. They did another circuit. And then they disappeared. Never to be seen again. I guess they found their way back to Sussex.
Doves are sensitive creatures. They get spooked easily. And it is for good reason that in the synoptic gospels the Holy Spirit is said to have descended upon Jesus at his baptism ‘like a dove’. In John’s gospel 1:32 John the Baptist says about this event “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.”
The Holy Spirit, like a dove, is also easily spooked. And the sense of his presence is easily lost. But at Jesus’ baptism, the spirit came down on Him and remained. Like a dove resting on Jesus’ shoulder and remaining perched there.
There was no chance of my doves coming to rest on me. They did not even want to stay in the same county!
In the passage that we have read today we can learn how easily the Holy Spirit is spooked. How easily our sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit is lost. Paul says in Chapter 4:30 “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”
In my thoughts today I am relying on a book by a celebrated Christian writer (formerly the Minister of Westminster Chapel in London) called R T Kendall and in particular his book The Sensitivity of the Spirit http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sensitivity-Spirit-Learning-Stay-Direction-ebook/dp/B0027IS76C/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1439136574&sr=8-1&keywords=The+Sensitivity+of+the+Spirit. RT illustrates in his book how many Biblical figures lost the anointing that they originally had of the Holy Spirit – he gives Samson and Saul as particular examples. RT refers to this passage in Ephesians we have just heard read to show how this can happen to us also. Even though we have received the Holy Spirit when we became Christians.
So today I want to talk about why it matters whether we grieve the Spirit; how we can grieve the Spirit and how we can recover the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
Firstly, why does it matter if we grieve the Spirit?
There is a very common misconception that Christianity is about trying to be a better person, through our own efforts. As the Archbishop of Canterbury puts it, it is thought by many in society that Christianity is about ‘nice people talking to nice people about being nice’. But what Christianity is really about is nothing less than the transformation of hearts and minds into the likeness of Christ. And we really cannot do this by ourselves. We cannot do this, by our own efforts alone.
I hope that we all know that we cannot earn our salvation; we cannot earn our entry into the new heaven and the new earth when we die – by the good things we do. When people discover that I am a vicar one of the first things they tend to tell me is the good things that they are doing for their community. Often accompanied by the expression ‘of course I am not actually a believer’.
But our salvation does not come from the good things we are doing for the community. No our salvation comes by faith in Jesus Christ. This is the gospel – this is actually the good news – that our salvation does not depend upon our own efforts. Otherwise, we would all be lost. Because the standard is just too high.
No, we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ. Theologians call this ‘justification’.
But, equally, we cannot become the people God wants us to be – to take on the character that God wants us to adopt, as people saved by Him – as his disciples – what theologians call ‘sanctification’ or ‘holiness’; we cannot take on his character, simply by self discipline – although some self discipline does of course have its role.
God, in the person of the Holy Spirit, can help us to become the people that He wants us to be. We can receive what the Bible calls the ‘fruits’ of the Holy Spirit. We can receive from the Holy Spirit all the character traits listed in Galatians 5:22: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. These are the character traits that the Holy Spirit brings us – however much we may not have reflected these characteristics before He has alighted on us!
It occurred to me this week that these are the hallmarks of happiness aren’t they? Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. Have these and you are happy and so are your family and neighbours.
The reason it matters if the Holy Spirit is spooked or is grieved and leaves us, like a dove being frightened off – is because these fruits, these hallmarks of happiness, may be suspended also – and we are left relying solely to our own self discipline and character to get through life, without losing all our relationships. And our own efforts alone don’t get us very far.
Or at least they don’t get me very far.
And perhaps it is the same for others.
So how do we grieve the Holy Spirit? Well the first thing that Paul says, after instructing his readers not to grieve the Spirit, is ‘get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander along with every form of malice’.
Bitterness towards others spooks the Holy Spirit. We may, like Samson, be unaware that the anointing has gone – until we need it. But he has gone. Quietly. Gone. And suddenly we find that things which we don’t want to dominate, start to get control of us. What Paul calls in Galatians 5:19-21 acts of the flesh: particularly hatred, discord, jealousy, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy. These are emotions and behaviour which grow out of the actions which grieve the Holy Spirit.
When we are demonstrating such emotions and behaviour, towards anyone, however much we may feel we are justified in doing so, it means that we have lost the anointing of the Spirit.
So what can we do about this? How do we keep the presence of the Holy Spirit? How do we keep the fruits of the Spirit?
If bitterness, rage, anger, brawling and slander are the root of the problem, then, as Paul says in verse 30 – forgiveness is the answer. We need to forgive the people that we are bitter about, those with whom we are angry, those with whom we wish to fight or about whom we speak badly.
Now you may be thinking – I’m not bitter about about anyone. I don’t speak badly about anyone.
I don’t believe you.
Or we may say – I have heard this all before. I know that! Yawn! Forgiveness. I will say the Lord’s Prayer, say the confession in Parish Communion and all will be well.
But remember that we are praying that God only forgives us ‘as’ we forgive others – after all that is what we all pray in the Lord’s Prayer isn’t it? Have we really thought that through? That we have spent our entire lives praying that prayer – if we expect God to answer any prayer at all, why is it not unreasonable for God to take us literally when we pray this? When we get to the judgment seat – when we meet him face to face, we simply cannot have any outstanding unforgiveness of others. It would be a disaster for us to do so. Why should God forgive us if we have not forgiven another?
Now you may say: well Alex you don’t know what they did – I cannot forgive.
You can and you must.
But please may I make it absolutely clear at this point that nothing I am saying means that you should fail to report a crime. If a crime has been committed against you then you owe it to everyone, to society, to your neighbours, to report it to the appropriate authorities.
But most of the people we find difficult to forgive have not committed crimes. They might even be totally unaware of what we feel they have done to us. We must not carry this bitterness with us. But how do we forgive?
Well I would like you to write down on the card that I have given to you the first initials of all the people that you are finding it difficult to forgive, only the first initial not the full name – of those about whom you feel bitter or angry, those about whom you tend to speak badly. A list of your enemies.
Put all the first initials of all the people to whom this applies. Don’t worry I am not going to collect these later and you won’t have to let them out of your hands. No one else need know what you have written. Please don’t look on anyone else’s card. Anyone else’s enemies are nothing to do with you. I am writing a list down too. I am not sure if I have enough room on this card.
So have you done this?
Well now I would like you to pray for them. Silently. Pray that each one of them will prosper and flourish. Pray that God blesses them in every single way possible.
We should assume that God will answer this prayer. We must give that over to him. However outrageous it may be to your way of thinking that he should do so.
Then I would like you to take this card home and use it to remind yourself to pray for these people every morning or evening whenever it is that you have your daily prayer time. Think of it as an aide-memoire. A list of your enemies whom you wish God to bless.
If we can manage to do this regularly; if we can learn to pray for our enemies regularly, I believe that we will experience and retain an anointing of the Holy Spirit unlike anything that we have experienced before. We will find it easier to receive the fruits of the Spirit, the hallmarks of happiness: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. We will not have grieved the Spirit. He will remain with us. We will be able to show supernatural grace. And the world, in some small way or large, will be transformed.
After the Enniskillen bombing in Northern Ireland in 1987 Gordon Wilson, whose daughter Marie was killed in the blast said:”I have lost my daughter, and we shall miss her. But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge,” He said he forgave her killers and added: “I shall pray for those people tonight and every night.”
It seems to me to be obvious that Wilson’s ability to forgive the IRA, his ability to say what he said, arose from a life time of praying for his enemies.
Wilson’s statement had a profound effect. As historian Jonathan Bardon recounts, “No words in more than twenty-five years of violence in Northern Ireland had such a powerful, emotional impact.” East Coast American support for the IRA collapsed. The peace process followed.
Who knows how God might use us, who knows how God might transform the world through us, if we don’t grieve the Spirit?
Further reading on other ways in which we can learn to forgive: Total Forgiveness by RT Kendall http://www.amazon.co.uk/Total-Forgiveness-Achieving-Greatest-Challenge-ebook/dp/B004JHY9ES/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1439118811&sr=1-1&keywords=total+forgiveness