THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 32
The older I get the more experienced I become. That applies to you too – we all understand the correctness of that remark. We have all found out for ourselves that it is experience that counts in many situations. If you have travelled the route before you know some of the potholes and you can discern where the path leads. If you are in a new situation, you have to feel your way carefully to make sure you don’t put a foot wrong.
This is one of the most remarkable things about human beings – this ability to learn from the past. It was what stood our ancient ancestors in such good stead – they learnt, for example, the ways of certain animals they wished to catch, and were then able to track them and trap them. It played a big part in our survival kit as a species.
If you look at the list of jobs on offer in any newspaper you will see that experience is usually quoted: sometimes, someone with a certain degree of experience is required, in which case it is not much use applying if one does not have that experience. At other times the advertisement specifically states that no experience is necessary – that is, they are prepared to train you to fill in the need for the experience that you lack.
Of course sometimes we don’t always follow our experience. How often have you felt within yourself that you were entering dangerous ground, and proceeded slowly – but kept going? You took your courage in both hands as it were, and explored fresh ground – ground on which all your instincts warned you of danger. But you did it. And you pulled it off – you got through. You succeeded in spite of the warnings your experience gave you. That is another aspect of the nature of human beings – and here again we are following our ancient ancestors in their courage and sense of adventure.
So we can say that remembering and learning from what one has done and gone through in the past, is an essential part of being human. We all depend on this ability.
It happens in human relationships too. We meet someone and we sense that somehow they see right through us. We sense that their experience of life is much further on than ours, and that they can even gauge what we are thinking, how we are motivated, what we will probably do next. We are all able to sense, to some degree or other, the extent of experience in another person. Indeed, how often do you hear the expression ‘he is a safe pair of hands’ – meaning that people feel that that person has experience and can be trusted to carry things forward and keep things on an even keel. What we are really saying is that here is someone who has learned from experience.
They said that about Jesus. The guys who were nearest to him commented later that he knew what was in the heart of man. What they were saying is that this man was someone whom you recognized straightaway as a man who was wise. He had learnt from experience. He ‘had his head screwed on’ as we say. He knew just how men thought and reacted to things.
But is that really correct? Had Christ learned from experience? His life, by our standards, was very circumscribed. He never went more than a hundred miles away from Jerusalem. He never travelled abroad as we do today. We say that travel broadens the mind – well, as far as we know he didn’t travel except in the confines of Israel and Samaria. Never went on a package holiday with an airline! Never saw other countries or encountered how people lived in other civilisations. He didn’t even have television to learn from. One of the most potent – often unrecognised – influences on young minds is the constant stream of films of human beings coping with difficult situations. The films were all cops and robbers or sci-fi films in the early days, and then later the endless stream of sit-coms, which seem to consist totally of the problems of people working and living together all the time. None of that for Christ. He just never had the advantage of learning from a make-believe situation such as television or film which is so prevalent today.
So how was it that Christ was such a guru to his disciples and others? Was he just a very wise person? Or was it a kind of miracle gift – perhaps due to him being the Christ? – given him to impress people?
No – none of these. It was something that happened to him way back, when he set out to wander around the countryside preaching and teaching and healing. It was an encounter that happened at the time he was baptized by his cousin.
As Jesus entered the water to be baptized he received the Holy Spirit.
Let me digress here for a moment. The incident of Jesus being baptized will fox some thinkers among us. They will say – God is God, I can see that. Christ is also supposed to be God – that confuses my mind – as, for example, where was God when Jesus was on earth? But now you say that Jesus received the Holy Spirit – who is also God – how can that be? God inside God? And in a world overruled by God? It doesn’t make any sort of sense!
This is a very understandable position to take. Not one of us ‘understands’ the doctrine of the Trinity. Even those people who have been thinking about these things for a long time. The best way I can come to terms with it all is to think of God, the creator of all things, being able to manifest himself in various ways at various times. So if you think of God the Father – Creator of the rolling spheres, manifesting himself on earth in a human being, and as a real human being, then that is not so difficult. His non-human Godlike faculties became limited – Jesus was as much God as could be human without changing or destroying the humanity. If you can go along with that then all you need say about the Holy Spirit is that he is the other manifestation of God. Three different people, yet so much the same that they act as if they were one person. At the baptism of Jesus we see God’s Spirit flowing between people.
If that last paragraph does not help, just ditch it! It is not mandatory! It is just a way that helps me when I think of it.
So, at the baptism of Jesus, he received God’s Spirit within himself. We know that this seemed important to him – for he referred to it in various terms at various times.
But it was also important for the disciples, who came to believe that it explained a lot about what happened later in the life of Jesus. For when Jesus healed he said that he healed by the finger of God (Luke 11.20). He talked of being guided by the Spirit (10:21). He told men to obey the Spirit (12:10). He promised them the Spirit (Luke 11:13). In fact it becomes obvious that the Spirit played a dominating role in the life and thought of Jesus.
One can say, after a careful reading of the gospels, that Jesus depended on the Holy Spirit to guide him all the way. He did not depend on any prior experience of the Father. What he knew of the father was from the Holy Spirit. He depended for guidance and he depended for power on the Holy Spirit. His experience grew out of his experience of the Holy Spirit.
What significance does this have for us – if any? We are not like Jesus! We are not divine in the way he was. Although he was utterly like us – his divinity in no way impinged on his humanity – yet naturally we think of him as being different from us. If only in his total obedience and commitment. So let us ask the question: does the way he knew God and the way he lived out his life have significance for us? Yes, of course, it is crucial.
Why is it crucial? Because it is the way we too must tread. Our methodology must be the same. We too must lead our lives under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit. We too must learn day by day to listen to and obey the Holy Spirit. We too must draw comfort and strength from the Holy Spirit. That is one of the key results of the life and teaching of Christ.
And the disciples learned this from Jesus, as he taught – but it went in one ear and out the other. It was not until the Day of Pentecost, several weeks after Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, that they realized that the same power who had guided and empowered Jesus was their inheritance from him. His gift to them. That now a basic change was possible in the way people lived, because this guidance and power had come and was available to everyone. Not only the orthodox Jews, nor even just the Jews who were anything but orthodox – but to everyone, even the despised gentiles. This was shocking – and wonderful. It was revolutionary. It was unbelievable – yet it was totally credible to them, for it carried just exactly the same message that Jesus taught.
So today, may I suggest that you continue to rely on your past experience – as you must – but that you also open your inner ear to see what, if anything, God the Holy Spirit is saying to your heart about things. If you don’t hear anything then it is pretty certain the fault lies in your listening rather than in God not talking! But if you will follow the whispers of inspiration that come – usually calling only for very mundane acts or conversations – you will find that your feet are being directed onto a path – and that the path becomes a road and on that road you will have true fellowship with other pilgrims. They too are listening moment by moment, day by day, and they too are finding, incredibly, that there is an even better daily guide than experience.
That is the way to the celestial city.