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The Holy Spirit: Living in the Spirit

November 1, 2009

Sermon: The Holy Spirit: Living in the Spirit
Text: I Thessalonians 5:16-24

Yesterday when we were gathered for the funeral of Don Greene, I referred to a wonderful passage in Hebrews 12 that says, “we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses…and therefore let us we run with perseverance the race that is set before us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (12:1-2). That passage really calls to mind the image of an Olympic stadium and the conclusion of the race we know as the marathon. We imagine the stands filled with spectators cheering the runners as they enter the stadium, cheering them to the end as they finish the marathon. In many ways, the passage is a description about how the end of the Christian life unfolds, especially as we enter heaven.

When I was talking about that passage yesterday, I said that for Don, perhaps we ought to think about Wimbleton. Don was such a tennis fan. We could think of tennis players who are playing their best at center court in the British Open. The stands are filled with spectators, cheering the players on to the end of the match.

At other times, I have used this great passage, transferring it to the analogy of the leading golfer in the Master’s golf tournament. Imagine the lead golfer who would have no more exhilarating experience than walking among blooming azaleas and dogwoods toward the eighteenth green and hearing the gallery full of people cheering him on to the end.

These analogies must resemble our entering heaven. The Scripture says that those who have gone before us are that “great cloud of witnesses,” cheering us on. For that reason, we live – run a marathon, play tennis, or golf – with perseverance.

In a series of sermons on the Holy Spirit, it only stands to reason that near the end of that series we should deal with the issue of sanctification. On this All Saints’ Sunday, it is important for us to think again about this process of sanctification and talk about its meaning. I asked several people to tell me what the word “sanctification” means. To be very honest with you, I got some very blank looks. The word “sanctification” is a rarely used concept. Though it has fallen out of favor, it is one that certainly needs to be revived.

I would like us to consider two different views about sainthood. First, the Roman Catholic view involves a process of four steps. A person is considered for sainthood only if he or she is deemed a worthy model for other Christians. Soon after the death of that person and after an examination of the person’s source of motivation and practice of virtues, a bishop or some cleric in their area of influence nominates the person for veneration. They become known as “Venerable.”

The third step in the process, beatification, occurs up to five years after veneration. For Mother Theresa, the process has been accelerated. A person who has been beatified has been given credit for a miracle following death. You might ask, “How can that be? How can that be proved?” In the case of Mother Theresa, a woman who was in a terrible automobile accident remarkably recovered from her injuries. Mother Theresa was given credit for that healing because the woman was wearing a Mother Theresa medallion. Mother Theresa is now known as the Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta.

The final step in the process, canonization, usually requires proof of another miracle. At that point, the person named by the Vatican is recognized by the entire Roman Catholic Church as a saint.

The Roman Catholic canon has perhaps 3000 patron saints. The Pope is considering naming another patron saint, a man named Isidora of Seville as the Saint of the Internet. He is credited with writing Etymologiae (“Etymologies”), the first known encyclopedia in western history. I guess there is a connection between Wikipedia and the encyclopedia. Isidore is also the patron saint of schoolchildren, students, and computers.

I looked through the list of saints. I am glad to tell you there is a Saint Clare. I glad to tell you there is a Saint Michael and a Saint Nathan. I am sorry to say there is no Saint Kirk, Saint Jack, or Saint Holly.

The second view about sanctification, the one we hold as people in the free-church tradition, is based on Scripture. I would refer you to I Corinthians 1:2, a letter Paul writes: “To the church of God in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be saints (holy) together with all those every where who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – their Lord and ours…”

I want to make several points about sanctification. First, sanctification is for every Christian. It is for all of us. To think of sainthood as something for a select few is contrary to what I Corinthians 1:2 teaches. That view of sainthood includes everybody. It includes Kirk, Jack, and Holly. It includes many of you who would say, “Ah, shucks! It couldn’t be me!” The truth is that none of us deserves this gift of grace. The Scriptures, however, teach that all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord, all who acknowledge him as their Savior, all who have already received the gift of the Holy Spirit, are in the process of sanctification through the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

My brother-in-law Steve got one of those vanity license plates printed with the word Hagious for his Jeep Cherokee. Few people know that hagious is the Greek word meaning “saint” or “holy.” The word can have either definition. One day he was driving home from the hospital, making that merge from Wood Street onto Pine Street. A car moved over into the wrong lane and sideswiped him, knocking out the left rear taillight and the left rearview mirror, leaving an enormous scar down the side of the Jeep, denting both the front and back fenders, and twisting the back bumper.

Seeing that Jeep Cherokee after the accident, I thought, “Those are the saints I am familiar with, the kind that are beat up, the kind that are not perfect, the kind that have something wrong with them.” Those are the saints I know about because that is the kind of saint I think I am, not that I would not claim sainthood any more than any of you would. If every Christian is a saint, as Scripture says we are, it is true that we are all so imperfect. None of us has come even close to achieving what some might call sainthood.

The second point is that sanctification is related to eternal life, a concept we misunderstand.

My favorite illustration about eternal life involves two seminarians, going door-to-door selling Bibles during the summertime in Alabama. One hot, sweltering day, they came to a farmhouse surrounded by a yard of dirt filled with dogs and children. The two students walked up on the porch and over to the door, which was open. Through the screen door that had been patched with a piece of cotton, they saw a woman down on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor. When they knocked on the door, this woman lifted herself up off the floor, wiped the perspiration from her brow, and brushed her hair out of her eyes. One of these young men said to her, “We have come to tell you how you might obtain eternal life.” The woman answered, “No thanks. I don’t think I can stand any more of this life.”

If your concept of eternal life is just more and more life, then, of course, that is not good news. In fact, that is very bad news. Eternal life is not just the quantity of life; eternal life is the quality of life that begins the moment we accept Jesus. We begin to live our lives with an eternal quality. Paul says that we are being transformed from one kind of glory to another, which is simply a way of saying that eternal life now becomes a part of our experience. We are growing into this concept of eternal life.

Do not think of yourself as being in a holding pattern like an airplane lined up on the runway in Atlanta, waiting for the chance to take off and go to heaven. That is not the way life is to be lived. We are not to think about ourselves, acquiescing to self-pity and whining. We are to live actively, always doing for other people. We are to be people who are like Christ, always focusing on others because Christ was a man for others. The Lord who is the Spirit, transforms us from one degree of glory to another. Eternal life begins as soon as we become Christians; it continues until we leave this life and meet our Savior face-to-face.

Third, sanctification is a process, a concept we find especially in the book of Hebrews. Read the passages of Hebrews 2:11 and Hebrews 10:14. Some erroneous people believe that we are instantaneously sanctified when we become a Christian. Sanctification is a life-long process that never ends. None of us ever arrives. We are always works in progress. Hebrews expresses this idea by saying that we are being sanctified. We are being made holy. We have not arrived.

Fourth, we cannot accomplish sanctification on our own. You have known people who have tried to put on a pious front. It is nothing more than a phony façade. Sanctification is not something we can accomplish on our own. In fact, Paul writes to the Philippian church in Chapter 1, Verse 6, “I am convinced that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Sanctification is a process. We are not the drive behind this process. God is carrying this process to completion in us.

Every year for Halloween, my mother made candied apples. She made as many as 400 candied apples. Kids from all over Duncan Park would come to our house to get one. In fact, some came back more than once. They would get a candied apple, go home and change their outfit, and return to get another.

A member of this church told me, “I went to your house four times one Halloween.”

“Did my mother give you a candied apple every time?”

He answered, “Every time. The last time though, she said, ‘John, you have been here four times. That is enough for this year.’ She knew what I was doing.”

My sister Beth has decided to carry on this tradition of making candied apples and giving them out for Halloween. She came by our house last night and said, “Kirk, you cannot have one of Mama’s candied apples. They are just chocked full of sugar. I made you a sugar-free candied apple. It has absolutely no sugar.” She handed me a beautiful apple on a stick. I took the apple, and it was as light as a feather. She had given me a plastic piece of fruit. I guess I will have that apple forever now.

You know people who are fake. Their piety, their sense of holiness, is all a façade. It is does not ring true. The truth is that when you know people like that, you want to avoid them. They are nasty-nice, saccharin-sweet. You just do not want to be around them.

People who are sincerely genuine, people who are striving to be Christ-like, attract us. We see something special about them, and we want to be in their presence. One of their outstanding characteristics is their humility. They do not brag, and they have no pretense, no false piety. They usually have a wonderful sense of humor, too.

Some years ago, a ninety-three-year-old woman told me that she was ready to plan her funeral. I went to her house, and she had coffee and little crumpets for us to eat. This was before I had diabetes so bad. I ate some of them. One reason I have diabetes is because I ate the foods good Christian people gave me.

This woman and I had a wonderful conversation that included details about her funeral. She said, “When you do my funeral, you can say that when I get to heaven, a lot of people are going to be surprised.”

I asked, “Why will they be surprised?”

“I have taken so long in getting to heaven, and they have all been there for so long. They are all going to think I went to the other place.”

What a great sense of humor that woman had about her own death! When you meet a person like that, you want to talk to that person. You want to be around that person.

Fifth, sanctification is a long process into holiness. I quoted a Scripture at the beginning of this service from the Holiness Code: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Jesus, echoing this holiness code from the book of Leviticus, made a similar comment in the Sermon on the Mount: “You shall be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). He is teaching out of his Jewish background, saying, “We are to strive to be as much like God as we can be.” That comment will stop a lot of people dead in their tracks. That statement scares most of us.

Real holiness means that we are striving toward this goal of being holy as God is holy. Of course, all of us are unholy. That is why I must hasten to say that the process of sanctification is a gift of God’s grace. It is not something we can do, not something we can obtain in our own strength. It is something that we grow into by the grace of God.

Sixth, sanctification gives us a very different perspective on life and death. A wonderful verse in Psalm 116:15 simply says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” You might ask yourself, “How do we say that the death of people is precious?” For a Christian person, death is precious if life has been precious. Death is not the end. Death is a transition to a new and better life.

No one ever put that clearer for me than a man who was dying of cancer. He had been in a long battle with this disease. I went in to visit him one day and asked, “What are you thinking about?”

He answered, “I am thinking about dying.”

“Tell me your thoughts about death.”

He said, “Kirk, if somebody had given me the choice of whether or not I wanted to be born, I would have said, ‘No thanks. Why would I want to leave the comfort of my mother’s womb, a place from where I was warm and cared for, a place where I was well-fed? Why would I want to leave the comfort of my mother’s womb, to be pushed out into a bright, cold room and to be greeted with a slap on the bottom?’ Now that I have been born, I look back on life and think, I am glad I went through this. I am so glad I have known what life is like. If you ask me if I want to die, I will tell you, ‘No thanks. I do not want to die. I like it here.’ I have the feeling that when I get on the other side of this life, I am going to look back on it just like I look back on my birth. I am going to say, ‘I am so glad I went through that. What I know now is so much better than what I knew then.’”

Sanctification will change your point of view about life and death.

Paul says that God himself is at work in us, bringing about this sanctification. The book of Revelations tells us that for those who have gone to heaven, there is no more crying. God will wipe away all tears from their eyes. There will be no more death, no sorrow, no crying, no pain. “Former things have passed away and all things have become new” (Revelations 21:4-5).

The last point I would like to make about sanctification is that it is a complete makeover. Some of us have hoped for that. Some of us have needed a complete makeover. Listen to what Paul says in I Thessalonians 5:23: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you completely. May your whole spirit, soul and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We are sanctified in heart, soul, mind, and strength, all of the ways we are told to love God.

The prophet Ezekiel said that God was going to put into us a new heart. To be sanctified in heart means that we become compassionate, compassionate as Jesus was compassionate. To be sanctified in soul means that we give up a sin-sick soul. Our soul is restored as Psalm 23 says. It is restored and restored and restored. Sanctification in mind means that our mind is renewed as Paul writes in Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed any longer to the world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that you may prove what is the good, acceptable and perfect will of God.” We are sanctified in our bodies. Paul says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (I Corinthians 6:19-20).

I was thinking about how we could renew our commitment to be sanctified in this way. How can we simply commit to the process of being more like Christ, becoming more and more holy? The words of a song came to mind as I was thinking about this: “Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary, Pure and holy, tried and true. With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.”

So I ask you, have you made the commitment? Paul writes, “You are to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1). It is not unreasonable. That is exactly what we do when we acknowledge Christ as our Savior. Some of you have done that, but others have never made that decision. We invite you to begin this long journey of becoming more and more like our Savior, Jesus Christ. We invite your response.

Kirk H. Neely
© November 2009

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