In the previous chapter we worked with images of the wind, the sap in the vine, and the coach. We now use three more New Testament images of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church.
First we have Paul's image of a local congregation as an expression of the body of Christ. What keeps the body alive is its life force. And Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit is the life force of the continuing body of Christ in the world (1 Corinthians 12:4-27). Which means that a church without the Spirit is dead. Or in other words, every congregation needs to be continually revitalized.
When a person dies the life force ceases to animate, and the blood and organs and muscles, and eventually the bones, break down into dust. And of course in a live body every cell in the body needs contact with that life or else it will die and disintegrate. Paul sums this need of life very beautifully. "We are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love (Ephesians 4:3-16).
Many Christians are oppressed with guilt because they are not doing enough, or because they cannot do what others do so well. But no cell in our bodies spends its time feeling guilty. We are not responsible for the work that others are doing. As long as we are looking to the Spirit of life, we can trust that he will enable us to do our our own little job in the body.
At times we do need to help out other parts of the body, and there is a constant interdependence of all parts with each other. But there should be no feverish rushing around trying to solve this problem and that, and feeling guilty that we are not doing more. A well functioning machine or body does its work silently without fuss.
Nor should we be obsessed with our failures. The book of Acts defines Christians as learners by saying "It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians" (Acts 11:26). That suggests the image of the Church as a school, or perhaps a kindergarden, in which we are little children learning the love of God. Disciples are not those who have already learned and got their doctrine right. When they first begin they know next to nothing and inevitably make many mistakes. In the previous chapter we thought of windsurfers learning to move by the wind on the waves. They don't feel guilty about falling even when they have become world class competitors.
While He was on earth Jesus had a travelling school of disciples who were taught personally by Him. He apparently enrolled the first disciples by baptism before they knew anything much about loving, and then he patiently taught them by parables, prayers, signs and eating with ordinary people. John's Gospel admits that other disciples dropped out sooner or later (John 4:1,2, 6:60, 66). And Jesus had to explain how and why this happened in the parable of the Sower.
At the last supper he explained that in future the disciples would be taught by the Holy Spirit (John 14:25-15:26). Then after the resurrection Jesus gave the great commission to make disciples in all the world by baptizing them in the name of the three persons of the Trinity. These new disciples would in turn need to be taught by the Spirit all that Jesus had begun to teach about God as Father and loving parent, about the Son as friend and leader, and the Holy Spirit as teacher, coach, and encourager (Matthew 28:18-20).
On the the Day of Pentecost the new Church was inaugurated. And from that time it was recognized that no one could function as a Christian apart from the teaching and inspiration of the Spirit (Acts 2:38, 4:31, 8:15, 19:1-2, Romans 8:9-11, 1 Corinthians 2:11-13). And we know that any good teacher has a sequence of change in mind for his pupils. We should not feel guilty if we have not yet mastered some of the more advanced lessons which will be needed later in our pilgrimage.
A clear picture of the work of the Holy Spirit also frees us from unbearable guilt about the state of the world. Every day the media focus on this desperate need here, a disaster there, and gross injustice somehere else. Either we become callous and do nothing, or we send a donation solve the problem and feel guilty we are not doing enough. Whether we do nothing or try to do a bit of everything, we soon get overwhelmed with the feeling that the world's problems are insoluble, and we turn our eyes away or wring our hands in despair.
The cure for this pervasive guilt begins with remembering that God is God. God knows much better than we do how much pain and suffering there is in the world. And He has a plan which will bring as many into the perfect love of heaven as could possibly be there. Part of that plan is the world-wide Church.
In The Church: An Organic Picture of its Life and Mission (1968, 1996), I showed how Jesus the Lord of the Church is doing His work through His body. The world-wide Church is like a human body in two modes. The comparatively fixed parts in each place correspond to the bones, muscles, and various organs. There is also a moving bloodstream that brings new life and nourishment to the whole. And both local churches and the moving bloodstream of the Church are animated by the same Spirit.
So our task is simply to discover one or more gifts that we enjoy and can exercise in a local church and the community around it. We may later be called into the moving bloodstream of the Church. But whatever gift we exercise, great or small, and wherever we are located, we do our job and believe that Jesus is building His Church in His own way. Accepting guilt for the problems we cannot solve in the world is paralysing and totally counterproductive.
The strange mystery of the Kingdom is that all over the world the Holy Spirit is bringing into Jesus' Church people of all races, nations, and social classes, and from both sides of all conflicting social struggles. As we take communion together, and slowly learn to love one another, revolutionary change is taking place.
So the point of this chapter is to remind ourselves that working in our own wisdom and strength never helps. It is only what the Holy Spirit inspires in us and teaches us to do that will have eternal value. This is not to suggest that Christians should not be involved in helping to solve the problems of our world. We can all exert influence in our families, and communities, and places of work, and we may have opportunities to solve major problems. But without guilt about the many things we cannot solve, we do the small jobs that Jesus gives us to do in in the vineyard, and we trust Him to supervise the whole operation.
A third symbol of the work of the Spirit in the Chruch is fire. As John the Baptist said, "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire" (Matthew 3:11). Forest fires and houses on fire terrify us. So we know that uncontrolled fire can be dangerous, but in a home the family gathers around the fire for warmth, they cook their food, or just to sit and talk and look into the flames. So I like to picture a live congregation as a barbecue of coals. If you take a piece of dead black charcoal and put it in the fire, you can see it gradually catch, change its nature, and become red, alive and glowing. But no piece of coal should feel guilty that it is unable to burn and turn red.
The image also reminds us that one piece of coal or wood cannot burn alone. Two or three pieces are needed, and the fire moves from one to the other and then upwards. Fire is therefore a symbol of fellowship and prayer. Which warns us that a piece of coal that withdraws itself from the others will soon go out. "Let us consider how to stir one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another" (Hebrews 10:24-25). The fire of the Spirit burns best when we keep close to one another in a community of the Spirit.