When The Spirit Shakes Things Up
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, June 21, 2020
Reading: Romans 8:1-17
It is, without doubt, one of the most difficult things that I think any minister can do, and one that you're never prepared for, and actually ill-equipped to address. I received a phone call from parents of a newborn baby, still in an incubator at the Izaak Walton Killam Hospital in Halifax. Word had come from the doctor that this child would probably not survive the night. The call came in, “Reverend Stirling, would you come over to the hospital and baptise our child?”
I went over to the hospital – I’ve never forgotten this moment – and up to the incredible neonatal care unit. I was masked and gloved and went to the child. They provided me with a small antiseptic-like cup of water. I read Scripture, and looked at this child, still in this incubator, and the parents, and I baptised the child in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Then we all prayed.
I got into my car and drove back to the church, feeling shaken, but at the same time I had this incredible sense of privilege to be there at probably the moment of the child’s last breaths. I got back to the office, the phone rang, and I receive word that the child had died. I opened my Bible to the passage that I had read when I was with the parents, and it was exactly the passage that Lori read for us this morning. It is our passage today from the Book of Romans.
In some ways, to quote that famous story from Sherlock Holmes, it was like the blue carbuncle of all the wonderful passages that could be there, the most magnificent of all possible texts. This is what was read: “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through His Spirit that dwells in you.”
Through the power of the Spirit comes the very power of life itself, and life that is eternal. When I prayed for that child, that was my prayer; that the Holy Spirit who would dwell in that child, and in the presence of his heavenly Parent.
In this incredible passage from the Book of Romans, which some have said is the height of the New Testament, as good as it gets, Paul makes a very clear argument about the Spirit. He makes a distinction. He says that we live with this tension between what he calls life in the flesh that is characterised by sin and death, and life in the Spirit, that is characterised by grace and obedience.
He said that those who follow the life in the flesh, will experience unrighteousness, that they will be at enmity with God, that they will not have a sense of the eternal in their lives, and will live according to their own precepts. But those who live by the Spirit will have freedom. They will have life. They will honour and glorify God.
So, we have this incredible tension between life lived in the flesh and life lived in the Spirit. Paul, in this incredible passage, suggests that for those who believe the life in the Spirit is the very life-giving, the life-affirming, the life-supporting ministry and presence of none other than Christ. But the language that he uses concretely about how we live in that, is also telling because he uses the language of adoption, that suggests when we open ourselves to the power of the Spirit, when we live in the Spirit, we live as if we are now children of God. He puts it very clearly, this is the case that he makes, we are adopted and we have a heavenly Parent, and we cry out, “Abba”, we cry out, “Father” and we know to whom we belong.
It is the Spirit that confirms in our life that we belong to God.
Now, as human beings, all of us are the creation of God – every one of us is. There is not one of us who has not been born with the hand of the Creator. But we are also fallen creatures, we are imperfect. Our fleshliness causes us to sin. We are not perfect, none of us. We all, as Paul says, “fall short of the glory of God.” Therefore, to live as God established us to live, we need that Spirit in our lives. We need that creative power to know that we are children of God. Our baptism is a symbol of belonging to God. It is the baptism that is a sign of the presence of the Spirit in our lives.
When I reached into that incubator and rested my hand on that child, and placed water on it, I was praying that the Spirit would fill that child, fill it with the eternal power and grace of Almighty God. That is the power of baptism. It doesn’t matter whether you're a child who is being baptised, who confirms that baptism, which you need to do later on in life, or whether you are baptised as a believer when you commit your life to Christ. Baptism is a first thing. Baptism is a sign that you belong.
Years before I received another telephone call, this while I was an elder in a church – a deacon, studying for the ministry – to visit a man called Kondwani., who was in Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, because I was in a church that was very close to the hospital, because he wanted prayer. I agreed and went over. My father suggested I be the one to see Kondwani. I went into the infectious disease part of Groote Schuur Hospital, a famous part of that hospital, and saw this man. A man of a certain age, older than I thought. He and I talked – his English was very rough – but I discovered that he was a Chewa from Malawi, an ancient tribe dating back to the fifteenth century, he was proud to tell me. He was in that hospital because he was very ill. He had been what they call, a migrant worker. He had come from Malawi to South Africa to work. He had no rights, owned nothing, and was not a citizen. He lived in squalor in a camp outside the city. He didn’t belong anywhere really, because he wasn’t back in his own country, he was in a foreign land, working almost as a slave. Certainly, forced to work in terrible conditions. It was a sad situation, but the hospital took him in and cared for him and wanted someone to be with him. He was a Christian, a Methodist, and wanted me to pray with him. So, I prayed with him, and he died right there. I have never forgotten Kondwani.
We had to look through his personal effects at the end to see if there was a loved one or a connection. He had a wallet tied up with string, and we undid the string. In the wallet there was a sort of a pass card to say that he could be in the country legally. There was an identification that came from Malawi, but not South Africa, and no real address. The only thing, rumpled, dirty, and covered in mud was his baptismal certificate. This is how we knew his full name and where he was from. He carried his baptismal certificate around with him in his wallet, as one of the very few things that he had in his life. Why? Because he knew deep down that the most important affection in his life, and the reason that he wanted prayer from a stranger, was that he knew, through the power of the Spirit, that he was a child of God.
“This Spirit that infuses us with power and strength” says Paul, “is not a Spirit that has been given in fear, but for our courage, for our freedom, for our liberation.” We are set free from the law of sin and death. We are set free eternally by the power and the grace of the Holy Spirit. We belong, and we belong to something and someone greater than ourselves.
This passage of Romans, it is powerful.
There are many in this world who still suffer from earthly slavery. I listened to an interview with an academic from the United States who talked about living in an era where slavery is over. Talking, of course, about American slavery and the blight that was. He misspoke, he didn’t mean to, but this is not an era when there is no slavery. There are still some fourteen million people who are defined as slaves and chattel in the world right now, from North Korea, Pakistan, Burundi, Eritrea, and the list of countries goes on. There are those who live in physical – physical – constraint as slaves in the world, even as we speak. This is a blight upon our humanity and a sign of living in the flesh, that we do this to other human beings. There is also spiritual bondage, we can be spiritually enslaved as well. So enslaved by the spirit of the flesh that we do not open our hearts and lives to the freeing power of God.
Paul also has something tough to say: “If you do not have the Spirit of Christ, then you do not belong to Christ.” The Spirit of Christ is essential for our walk with God, it’s not like the Spirit is just an experience, or something that we tack onto our lives. Being intentionally open to the power of the Spirit is something is something that we invite, that we ask for, that we seek. It’s not just a natural thing. Sometimes, I fear, we think that the only thing that really matters is that we have our own kind of cultural Christianity, that we're Christian by default, and don’t actually need the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
I love a humourous story that I read of a child who was at the baptism of his sister. Afterwards, he started to cry in the car and wouldn’t stop. His father and mother said, “Why are you crying so much?”
He wouldn’t answer, until finally, he said, “because the preacher says that I need to be brought up in a Christian home, but Mummy and Daddy, I want to stay with you.” We make this assumption, don’t we, that just because we’re cultural Christians, or because we espouse a certain degree of goodness, that we’re really being faithful.
Karl Barth says, “When you live according to the Spirit, you also ask yourself questions.” You seek in your own heart whether you're really following the will of Christ. That is a daily thing, not an automatic thing. It’s something that happens through the power of the Spirit working in our lives. Is that the case with us? I think we need to ask ourselves that. It’s also the Spirit of life itself. What is so remarkable about this passage is that he says that we share in Christ’s story, we share in the power of the resurrection of Christ, and this is the fulfilment of all the work of the Spirit.
Over the last few weeks, we looked at the Spirit coming to the disciples, we looked at Peter’s great speech, and we looked at the Spirit and how it changed and formed the earliest Christian community. But ultimately, it is the Spirit who brings us into the presence of the risen Christ, that brings the power of the resurrection into our lives and causes us to live in such a way that we have the freedom of knowing that ultimately, beyond all other things, we are children of God.
I rode the subway last week, and it was a surreal experience. Anyone here in Toronto knows what it’s like right now. Because it was eight o'clock in the morning there were only three other people in the car with me, we all had masks on and were sitting at a distance. It was like that famous phrase, The Ghost Train. There was almost nobody in it. There was a young man who had a T-shirt on that said, “No Fear” and then there was another line, but I want to save that for now.
Those were popular some years ago, weren't they? I think it stood for Notification for Federal Employees, Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act – something like that, I was told that’s what the “No Fear” stands for. But his T-shirt said, “No Fear, Papa is Near.” I thought, that’s exactly what Paul was getting at in the Book of Romans: we have no fear, for our heavenly Parent, our Abba, our Father is here. “It is through the presence and the power of the Risen Christ that we live and rest and have our being,” says Paul, “in that very God.”
This Father’s Day, there is no higher calling for a father, no higher calling for an earthly parent, than to inculcate within a child that sense of the Spirit’s presence in their lives. To encourage them to seek to be faithful.
I thought of that father at the Izaak Walton Killam Hospital. There, more than anything else, wanting me to baptise his child at the very beginning and the very end of its life. I thought, that’s a father, that’s an earthly father who understands the power of the Heavenly Father, and the Heavenly Father comes to us and we come to the Father through the power of His Holy Spirit.
May the Holy Spirit be with our fathers this day. Amen.