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Are you breathing?

Date: 31/05/2015/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

John 15:1-8, Colossians 3:12-17

“You can be surrounded by oxygen but if you don’t breathe, it won’t do you any good.” That’s how Brian McLaren starts his chapter on “Moving In The Spirit”. “You can be surrounded by oxygen but if you don’t breathe, it won’t do you any good.” He was actually saying this as an example that relates to the Holy Spirit. Just like we are surrounded by oxygen, we are surrounded by the aliveness of the Spirit. Just like we aren’t always conscious of the oxygen that surrounds us and gives us life, we aren’t always conscious of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit that gives us life. God has promised us the constant presence and power of the Spirit. But if we don’t breathe, it won’t do us any good. So my question to you this morning is, “Are you breathing?”

Some of you are probably wondering, “What do you mean, Pauline? What has breathing got to do with the Holy Spirit? And even if it did, how do we breathe in the Holy Spirit? ” If you’re thinking that, let me first say it’s an excellent question and I promise that we’ll get to it soon, ok? J But before we start with the issue of breathing, let me ask you: how do we let the Holy Spirit fill us? How do we let the Holy Spirit flow within us?

It starts from our hearts — the wellspring of our desires. That’s where our problems begin, and that’s where our healing begins too. When God sparks the desire in us to to be filled with the Spirit…when we start wanting to be filled with the Spirit, the Spirit begins to transform our desires so that God’s desires become our own. Instead of doing the right thing because we have to, we do the right thing because we want to – because we are learning to truly desire goodness. Once our desires are being changed, a revolution is set in motion.

Is God setting a revolution in motion within you? Is God sparking a desire within you to be filled with the Spirit…to abide with Christ? To remain vitally connected to Christ so the Spirit will flow with God’s aliveness in and through us, making us both beautiful and fruitful? Jesus used the image of a branch abiding in a vine to help us understand this better. Let us read the passage from the Bible together.

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John 15:1-8 (NIV)

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes[a ]so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

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People in the bible often used examples that had to do with agriculture. It’s something we’re not very used to because most of us grew up in the city. How many of you grew up or got a chance to live in the countryside for a time? I had the opportunity to live for a couple of years in the more rural parts of Japan. When I was living in Nagano, my house was next to a paddy field and I got to see for myself how rice was grown and harvested. That was an amazing experience because it really helped me appreciate and understand Jesus’ parables in a new light. I remember once I visited an apple orchard in Aomori. You know those giant Fuji apples from Japan? I asked the owner why these apples were so big. He said these apples were so big, juicy and expensive because a lot of hard work and sacrifice went into them. Compared to the normal-sized apples, these apples could grow so big only because the farmer would prune the surrounding branches so that all the life-giving nutrients would go into this one apple. So, for example, a normal apple tree may grow 4 or 5 apples in one cluster but a Fuji apple tree would grow only 1 apple in the same space. So the farmer very carefully picks that branch which has the most potential to produce the best fruit and prunes it skillfully so that it can grow well. He also prunes the branches around it so that the maximum amount of nutrients can go into the branch with the most potential to bear the best fruit.

In this passage, Jesus refers to himself as the vine and to God as the gardener. As the vine, Jesus is the source that continually gives life and nutrients to the branches. As the gardener, God carefully chooses the branches that have potential to bear fruit. So how can we as branches be beautiful and fruitful? Jesus says in v.5, “I am the vine, you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” If you remain in me…some versions say, “If you abide in me…” I’m sure all of you are familiar with these verses but what does remaining in Jesus or abiding in Jesus really mean? The original Greek word has a few definitions. It means “to cling to something”, “to be intensely loyal even unto death”, “to remain in a place even when the rest of the world leaves us behind”. “To cling to something”…does this definition sound familiar? Does it remind you of something we just talked about two weeks ago? Remember “those who qavar the Lord” or “those who wait on the Lord”? The meaning of qavar is to entwine ourselves to God so it’s not a coincidence that the Greek word for abide or remain means “to cling to something”. So when Jesus says, “Remain in me…” he is actually saying “cling to me and don’t leave”. He is basically saying, “Do not depart and continue to be present with me”.

So let me ask you: how present are you with regards to God? We talk about the importance of being present when we are with the people we love or care about. That means we put aside all distracting thoughts, we try to focus 100% on listening to what the other person has to say and we don’t just jump in with our own story or opinion the moment they stop talking. We ask them questions to find out more about what they were sharing. We make sure they finish what they wanted to say. We let them know we are paying them our full attention. Do we do the same with God? Do we pay God our full attention? Or do we give God the remnants of our day? Do we just mumble a cursory prayer of thanks at the end of our day or at the start of a meal? Or maybe we only remember God when something bad happens and we are in a crisis? How connected are we to our vine? If we know how important it is to be entwined with the Lord, to abide with Jesus, to walk in the Spirit, why are we not trying harder to stay connected?

When Jesus asked his disciples to remain in him, he didn’t mean for it to be yet another obligation for them to fulfill. He was saying those things to them in love. Jesus says in John 15:9, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.” When Jesus asks us to remain in him, he is asking us to remain in his love. To cling to him in love…to be present with him in love. That’s what we do with people we love. We are present with them in love. It’s not a duty we perform, it’s a natural expression of our love. That’s why Jesus says, “Remain in me. Stay closely connected to me. Don’t let your connection with me just be touch and go. Just like how you need to continually breathe, eat and drink to stay alive, let your connection with me be close and consistent. I am your vine, you are my branches. You are an extension of me. I sent you the Holy Spirit so you know you are never alone. You have the power and the presence of the Spirit to aid and guide you in every aspect of your life. The Holy Spirit is like oxygen. Don’t forget to breathe.”

Ah, that question about breathing again. What has breathing got to do with being filled with the Holy Spirit? Well, I think breathing is the best metaphor to help us understand what it means to be filled continually by the Holy Spirit. Just like we have to take in air into our lungs in order to survive, we need to ask the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts so that we can truly live. Just like breathing is effortless (most of the time)…so effortless we don’t have to think about it….The Holy Spirit is right here around us and within us. We don’t have to expend effort to pursue the Spirit. All we have to do is to firstly, desire to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Then we ask. It’s that simple. But before we ask, notice we talk about being filled with the Spirit. In order to be filled, we need to make room in our hearts. In Colossians 3:16, Paul talks about making room in our hearts so that the Spirit of Christ can dwell in us richly.

Making room in our hearts. Let us read Colossians 3:12-17.

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Colossians 3:12-17 (NET)

12 Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if someone happens to have a complaint against anyone else. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also forgive others. 14 And to all these virtues add love, which is the perfect bond. 15 Let the peace of Christ be in control in your heart (for you were in fact called as one body to this peace), and be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and exhorting one another with all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, all with grace in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

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How do we make space in our hearts for the Spirit of God to teach us, lead us, inspire us, empower us moment by moment in our lives? And not just when we need help or when we are in crisis? Making room in our hearts means we create space in our hearts and minds so that we have the ability to listen and observe. We all need to learn to take a step back so we can sense and observe how the Spirit is moving within and around us. Not just in our lives but in the lives of others. And how the Spirit is moving in our community and in our world. The Spirit of God is always on the move but we often don’t sense or realize it because our lives are so cluttered by our concerns, our duties, our responsibilities, our pursuits.

We can free up space in our hearts and minds if we truly desire to be filled with the Spirit. We can gain practise walking in the Spirit or abiding with Christ. McLaren makes some really good suggestions and I’m going to quote from him:

“Start by waking up tomorrow morning and before your feet hit the floor, open your heart to the Spirit. Ask God to help you walk in the Spirit, step by step through the day. Ask God to help you abide in the Vine so good fruit will naturally develop in your life. Ask God to keep the fire burning within you. Just starting the day this way will make a difference.

As you build the habit of yielding yourself to the Spirit morning by morning, you can build the habit of checking in with the Spirit hour by hour throughout the day. As you travel from place to place, as you wait for someone, whenever you have a free moment, you can offer yourself to God: “Here I am, Lord. Please move in and through me to bless others.” Whenever an emergency or challenge arises, you can lean on the Spirit: Give me wisdom, Spirit of God. Give me strength. Give me patience.” When you sense that you’ve let something other than God’s Spirit fill you and direct you – anger, fear, prejudice, lust, greed, anxiety, pride, inferiority, or rivaly, for example – you can stop, acknowledge your misstep, and resurrender to the Spirit. It’s like breathing — exhaling an acknowledgement of your misstep and inhaling forgiveness and strength to start walking in the Spirit again.”

Breathe in….breathe out….exhale an acknowledgement of our misstep and inhale forgiveness and strength to start walking in the Spirit again. I want to expand on that idea a bit. We exhale not only our missteps. We can also exhale our struggles, our fears, our uncertainties, our weaknesses. And we inhale God’s power and strength for us through the Spirit of God. Perhaps we can just pause here and try breathing for a moment. Breathe in…breathe out. Exhale your struggles, your fears, your missteps…inhale God’s strength and wisdom for you through the Holy Spirit. We pause to breathe throughout the day, reminding ourselves to be present with God. We pause to breathe, reminding ourselves to check in with God, to rely on the Spirit of God for wisdom to navigate our day. We pause to breathe and just be grateful for the breath of life – the breath of our physical life and the breath of our spiritual life.

As we walk in the Spirit, we pass through all kinds of terrain. Sometimes it gets difficult and we forget to breathe. We can’t sustain this desire alone. We need community. It helps when we are with people who share the same desire. And we can be intentional in encouraging one another and keeping one another accountable. We can check in with each other and practice certain spiritual disciplines together. I think that’s really important because the fire burns out easily when we are striving on our own.

“Along the way, each of us will have some stories to tell…stories of how the Spirit guided, empowered, inspired, restrained, sustained, and trained us in the fine art of aliveness. And that’s another great blessing of being part of a community of faith. Along the way, we gather around a table or campfire and share our stories about the journey so far. We share our joys and sorrows. We share mistakes we’ve made and falls we’ve taken and lessons we’ve learnt. We share ways in which we’ve experienced the Spirit moving in us, among us, and through us. Through this sharing, we encourage each other. And then we get back on the road.” (McLaren)

I have a story to share with you about my own experience with the Spirit just two weeks ago when I was preparing my previous sermon. You know how God always gets us to personally experience the lesson in our sermons before we can preach it over the puplit? That was exactly what happened with me two weeks ago. I had done a lot of reading and research for that sermon during the week because I had some time off from work and I was stoked. I had planned to write out the full sermon on Saturday but when Saturday came, a lot of things happened unexpectedly and one thing layered on top of the other. By the time I had an opportunity to sit down and write out the sermon on Saturday evening, my head was in a mess. There was no way I could write anything in that state. I was emotionally drained and distressed. So I paused…breathed…prayed and asked the Holy Spirit to come and help me please. As I was praying, the song ‘Come Holy Spirit’ wafted into my mind and I went to listen to it. As I stayed still and present with God, the Holy Spirit ministered to me through that song. My tears started flowing but a feeling of peace and calm settled in. After that, I managed to start writing the sermon and wrote continuously for a few hours until it was complete. I knew without a doubt that God was teaching me at that moment what it means to breathe in the Spirit. What it means to exhale my own struggles and inhale the strength to start walking in the Spirit. That night, I was reminded what it means that God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. And I was reminded if I learnt to qavar the Lord, if I learnt to abide with Christ, I will rise up on wings like an eagle.

Over the past few days, I asked a number of people what their experiences of the Holy Spirit has been. And it was amazing and encouraging to hear their stories. I asked one of them if I could share how she has experienced the Spirit moving in and through her and she said yes. She prefers to remain unnamed because she’s kind of shy but she wrote this for me to share with you:

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The Holy Spirit In My Life

The Holy Spirit illuminates the living word and speaks certain verses or passages deeply and personally into my heart.

The Holy Spirit moves me to share verses, passages, songs, devotionals with specific individuals.

The Holy Spirit gives me boldness and courage in times of apprehension.

The Holy Spirit strengthens and sustains my weary soul.

The Holy Spirit calms my flustered heart and gives me peace in the midst of trials.

The Holy Spirit heals me in times of hurt and pain. The Holy Spirit comforts and encourages me.

When I wait on God, the Holy Spirit moves, ministers and heals in a very personal and intimate way.

The Holy Spirit stirs my heart to action. The Holy Spirit empowers me and amplifies my natural abilities.

But most significantly, the Holy Spirit speaks in between moments, in between sentences. There are subconscious moments where I find myself having a conversation with the Holy Spirit, nodding in agreement to what’s been said.

That’s when I can truly feel the Holy Spirit in me.

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Isn’t that beautiful? I told her what she wrote is poetic and it is touching to hear how the Holy Spirit moves in her life.

I wonder what stories we will hear if we ask one another about our experiences with the Holy Spirit? Would it perhaps encourage and educate us as we learn to breathe and walk in the Spirit together? Perhaps that should be our homework this week. J Oh, that and don’t forget to breathe. Breathe in….breathe out… Are you breathing?