Friends, here’s another golden oldie as I take off a few days for recharging and digging in the dirt. Blessings!
Read 1 John 5:9-13
I want to look at one sentence in our second lesson. I invite you to focus your thoughts on the first half of verse ten: “Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts.”
The Holy Spirit changes us from the inside out. This is how the Resurrection works here and now. And that is the main thought today. The Holy Spirit changes us from the inside out.
“The real issue,” writes Richard Foster, “is not so much getting us into heaven as it is heaven getting into us.”[i] Easter is not only about some future existence after death. It is also about living that eternal life in the here and now. Easter directs us toward this world, not away from it. And Jesus wants to give you new life today, not just in the sweet by and by. “God does not wait until death to initiate this process of complete transformation,” Richard Foster continues. “It begins now, and God can and will do far more than we can possibly imagine.”[ii]
The Holy Spirit changes us from the inside out. This means that people really can be changed. If we don’t believe that, then we should all go home. Because we do believe that the Holy Spirit changes people, we do things based on that belief.
That’s why we are getting involved in the Reentry/Reintegration ministry of the Church of the Damascus Road. The statistics are nothing short of miraculous. Think about Inmate A, who serves his time in Fort Dodge or Rockwell City. On the inside he had no spiritual support system. He just focused on surviving and leaving. On the outside he has no one waiting for him. He leaves the prison with his clothes and a hundred dollars. Six times out of ten, Inmate A will re-offend and be returned to the prison system.
Now think about Inmate B. He has been involved in the Church of the Damascus Road while in prison. He has received support and guidance, prayer and accountability while inside. Perhaps he has been baptized. He receives communion weekly and attends Bible study. When he gets out, he has a community of people waiting to support him. They help him get settled into a new life. They help him to find a job, get a place to live, get a driver’s license and set up a household. Most important, they surround him with a church community of prayer and hope. Ninety-eight times out of a hundred, Inmate B will not re-offend.
What has happened? The Holy Spirit has changed Inmate B. That has happened, first of all, because Inmate B is willing to be changed. It has happened, second of all, because people of faith have been willing to be channels for the Holy Spirit’s work. And in the process, the Holy Spirit is changing those people from the inside out as well.
The Holy Spirit changes us from the inside out. If Inmate B can be changed so deeply and fully, then what about me? The Holy Spirit changes me from the inside out as well. Of course, I can be unwilling. I can say no to change. Or perhaps I will ask to be changed and then do nothing about it.
We Lutherans are often “halfway” Christians. We are so happy about this forgiveness business. We are glad that God forgives us our faults. But that’s as far as we are willing to go. Making us better seems to be unnecessary meddling on God’s part. When the Holy Spirit works to change us, we often reply with a polite “No, thank you.”
In spiritual terms, however, halfway is not enough. We are like a house. An empty house suffers. Dirt accumulates. Windows are broken. Critters move in. Pipes burst. Paint peels. Fires start. It’s no wonder an empty house feels like a corpse. A house flourishes when someone lives in it. The house needs maintenance and improving in order to live.
The same is true for our hearts. Our main spiritual task is “heart improvement.” That begins by allowing the Holy Spirit to whisper Good News into our hearts every day. Heart improvement continues when we accept that Good News and live like it’s true. How many people long for happiness, for example, and then focus on everything wrong in their lives? It is any wonder that happiness eludes them?
For me, the simple things matter. Do I enter fully into worship, or do I fold my arms and say, “OK, God, impress me”? Do I take time to be quiet daily with the Holy Spirit? Do I pray for those who don’t like me, those who make me uncomfortable? Do I give enough money and time to others to make a dent in my self-absorption? Is my life so cluttered with me that the Holy Spirit can’t find an empty space to work? Then my heart will not be changed. But if I can make room for the Spirit, my life will be different.
The Holy Spirit changes us from the inside out. There is no church growth without spiritual growth. If we Christians are not growing spiritually, then everything we do to expand the church is just marketing. You can’t dip water from an empty well. And this is especially true of church leaders. If I as your pastor am not growing spiritually every day, then the congregation will suffer. If your church council, committee chairs and members, teachers and mentors, worship leaders and volunteers are not growing spiritually, then our church is just an empty shell.
I want to encourage each of us and all of us to pursue what I see as the “Seven Marks of Discipleship.” Those marks are:
- Growing spiritually
- Praying and Reading the Bible daily
- Worshiping weekly
- Being involved in at least one ministry to serve Emanuel Lutheran Church
- Being involved in at least one ministry that serves beyond Emanuel Lutheran Church
- Tithing on your income for God’s work in the world
- And encouraging spiritual growth in others, especially through small group study and prayer.
The Holy Spirit changes us from the inside out. No one can say it better than Martin Luther. “This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”[iii]
The Holy Spirit changes us from the inside out. Is that something you want?
[i] Richard Foster, “Salvation is for Life,” Theology Today 61 (2004), page 299.
[ii] Richard Foster, “Salvation is for Life,” Theology Today 61 (2004), page 300.