All Saints Wimbledon
8th June 2003 Pentecost
Growing in the Spirit
A newspaper headline recently caught my eye. It read:
"Growing old is inevitable; growing up is optional"
Today is Pentecost, the Festival of the Holy Spirit. That headline suggests to me a way of looking at the work of the Holy Spirit. So let me offer it to you for consideration.
The words in the Creed which refer to God the Father and God the Son, are ones which are quite familiar. Though we know that "Father" and "Son" are only approximations to the reality they describe, at least they’re talking about something we already know.
But "Spirit" – the Third Person of the Trinity, is a different matter. It doesn’t resonate for us in the way that Father and Son do. So this morning we shall think of the Holy Spirit in terms of growth, and in particular of growing-up.
"Growing old is inevitable; growing up is optional"
When a baby is born into the world it’s easy to understand that something unique has happened. Someone who wasn’t with us yesterday, is now "one of us". The difficulty is understanding what happens next.
For we find ourselves presented with someone who is wholly dependent upon us; but from that moment onwards we must be working towards making him or her independent of us. That is what growing up consists of. We all know what it is but what does it really mean in practice?.
We can say, for instance, that young Samuel or Sally weighed eight pounds at birth but now they are sixteen they weigh more than ten times that amount. That’s certainly a type of growth but it doesn’t fully describe what we mean by "becoming grown up". Or we can say that they measured so many inches at birth but now stand six-foot tall. Yes, that is a sign that they have grown – and in a sense have "grown-up". But those are the sort of growing up that happen to everyone as part of a natural process.
But that’s not what we mean by becoming "grown-up", is it?
Everyone grows heavier or taller like we "grow old". Like Topsy, "we just growed". But everyone doesn’t "grow-up" in the other sense, either to the same extent or at the same rate. How far and how fast we grow up depends on our willingness to co-operate with our parents and teachers in learning the growing-up process.
In other words, as that headline says "Growing old is inevitable; growing up is optional". Whilst we can’t stop growing older (however much we’d like to), we can refuse to become wiser, more intelligent or more virtuous.
The process of enabling us to grow-up into Christ is the particular work of God the Holy Spirit. It closely resembles the process of "growing-up" into adulthood. Being baptised is like being born. In one way, it’s the easy part of the process. However painful or difficult, birth and rebirth simply happen to us. The difficult part is what happens after we have been born, or re-born in the case of baptism – because that doesn’t just happen to us, but depends on our willingness to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit from then onwards.
As Christians, in common with toddlers and adolescents, we have a built-in resistance to growing-up. We prefer to remain at the infantile or adolescent stage of faith, and then we wonder why the faith that once suited us so well no longer seems to fit.
Well, of course, it’s bound not to fit, any more than the clothes that we wore at fourteen weeks fitted us at fourteen years, still less fit us now because we’ve grown out of them.
From the moment we become Christians the Holy Spirit starts the work of enabling us to "grow into Christ". Whenever someone says they’ve "lost their faith", the chances are that "their faith" was something which they’d grown out of years before they actually lost it. They’ve failed to understand that the faith that once fitted them so well when a child, is now as ill-fitting as that school uniform or romper-suit would be today if they tried to wear it. The trousers are too short; the belt won’t go round their waist, and every button is being strained to the limit. No wonder such a faith feels so uncomfortable, and something they’re glad to get rid of!
That’s how absurd an ill-fitting faith looks – to other people. We don’t always recognise it ourselves because we’ve grown used to it, and other people are too polite to point it out to us for fear of hurting our feelings; but a little less politeness and a little more plain-speaking wouldn’t come amiss.
Our growth in the faith is a very accurate gauge of how far we’ve allowed the Holy Spirit to work in us. We can’t feel Him working any more than we can see a baby actually growing at any particular instant. It’s only by comparing Sam or Sally’s height or weight with what it was a month or a year ago that we can assess their growth. The Holy Spirit works within us, enabling us to grow-up spiritually. We become aware of His activity within us by the same sort of objective comparisons we made with Sam or Sally. "I always used to be late for work, but with God’s help I realised that being on time was part of my Christian witness". "I used to sulk when people criticised me, but now I understand it’s God’s way of showing me the truth about myself."
Nobody pretends that growing-up is easy; and growing up spiritually is no exception. So here’s another saying to lay alongside the first one:
God is easy to please but hard to satisfy
It’s a great moment of triumph for everyone when a child grows into taking their first faltering steps. Parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, neighbours are all delighted with this sign of growth.
But if it never went further than that – if that same child never learnt to walk properly, unsupported and steadily, then nobody would be satisfied, least of all the child.
The Holy Spirit grows and operates in us precisely to the extent that we are prepared to allow Him to do so. That is why growth in the Spirit can never be taken for granted. It requires our constant co-operation to get anywhere.
So Growing old is inevitable; growing up is optional
But: God is easy to please but hard to satisfy
We must allow ourselves in the power of the Holy Spirit to grow up just as fast as we are growing old. Death will then seem like promotion to a higher class in God’s High School or a higher rank in his army. More demanding, perhaps, but infinitely more satisfying than just staying in the Kindergarten.
But if we should refuse to grow up, eternal life will seem to us like school feels to those who have never taken the trouble to learn anything – it will feel like a sentence of excruciating and everlasting boredom!
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