SERMON ON THE 110TH ANNIVERSARY OF HOLY TRINITY, VANCOUVER,
OCTOBER 11, 2009, THANKSGIVING SUNDAY
(Text: Galatians 5:16-26)
In 1899, our first Rector, Rev. John Antle and a group of residents of the growing Vancouver suburb of Fairview planted a new church. Holy Trinity was initially a mission of St. Paul’s in the West End and met in a couple of local schools before constructing its own church on Pine Street between 7″ and 8″ Avenues. That first building held about 150 people besides the choir. But such was the parish’s early growth that within 12 years, it was necessary to move into new premises at the corner of 10th and Pine.
Holy Trinity began its 81-year tenure in that location in 1912, just a year after another group of Fairview residents laid the cornerstone of a much grander building here on the corner of 12th and Hemlock. Few would then have guessed that Holy Trinity would one day take over the spacious premises of Chalmers Presbyterian Church. But God moves in mysterious ways and that is precisely what happened in 1994.
So this is a big year in the history of our parish. Not only are we celebrating the 110th anniversary of Holy Trinity’s founding, but the 15th of our occupation of this building. And what better time to do all this than at Thanksgiving when we take time to give thanks for all God’s blessings to us!
But what I also want to suggest to you this morning is that the most fruitful and biblical way that we can give thanks is to live the kind of life that God expects and which the apostle Paul lays out for us in this week’s reading from the second half of Galatians 5. It is to live, in fact, the true and Spirit-filled life of the gospel.
As we have consistently seen throughout this sermon series, Paul spends a long time in Galatians arguing for the basic truth of the gospel that we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ, not by any other means. So Christ sets us free. And this freedom involves being free not only from trying to earn our salvation by doing good works, but from the root problem in everyone’s life, which is sin and all its consequences.
This also means being free to love God and serve others in a totally new way. It is almost as if we are released from gaol and can take our lives in our hands for the very first time. Charles Wesley captured this idea very powerfully in his marvellous hymn, “And Can It Be?” “Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast bound in sin and nature’s night; Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light. My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”
So we need no longer be slaves to all the negative patterns of behaviour that rule our lives without Christ. We can be free, because Christ sets us free, although we still face a choice. As Joshua said to the Israelites just before his death, day by day, we must choose whom to serve (Josh. 24:15). And Paul paints the consequences of the lifestyles that result from our decisions in very vivid terms.
In verses 19-25, the apostle gives the Galatians two lists of different kinds of behaviour and character traits which reflect a life devoted to our own selfish desires and ambitions or one led by God in the fruit of the Spirit. The contrast could not be more dramatic.
“The acts of the sinful nature are obvious,” Paul writes in verse 19 following, “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” That is quite a list, if you think about it, and it is a challenging one. For it clearly shows that the kind of freedom that Paul is talking about does not entitle us to do whatever we want.
No, Christian freedom requires a much more demanding lifestyle. It is defined by what the apostle describes as the “fruit of the Spirit” in verse 22 following: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” These are the qualities that will be reflected in our lives if we choose to serve God, and “against such things,” Paul says, “there is no law.”
So there we have them, two lifestyles, and only one is committed to serving God and being led by the Holy Spirit. True freedom lies, Paul says, in going God’s way. But the choice is up to us and taking God’s lead is not always easy, especially when so much within and around us encourages us to do otherwise.
I was personally brought up in a fairly traditional home, where I was taught quite strong moral values from a relatively young age. But as a child of the 60s and 70s, I also learned other, less wholesome lessons. In my youth and young adulthood, I spent a lot of time in places where I was encouraged to see freedom as the license to do pretty much what I wanted. So when I came to faith in my late 20s, I faced some major challenges. I had to rethink a number of significant issues as I tried to re-direct my lifestyle in accordance with biblical standards. Many of us do.
And the media do not always help. As Tony Campolo suggests in an article for Christianity Today magazine, commercialism can be a powerful force. “In our TV ads,” he writes, “it is as though the ecstasy of the spirit…can be reduced to the gratification coming from a particular car, and the kind of love that Christ compared to his love for his church can be expressed by buying the right kind of wristwatch ‘for that special person in your life.’”
“Hitherto,” Campolo continues, “spiritual gratification could come only via spiritual means” and “people were urged to choose between the things of this world and the blessings of God. Now, that duality has been overcome. Ours is an age,” he concludes, “in which spiritual blessings are being promised to those who buy material things. The spiritual is being absorbed by the physical. The fruit of the spirit, suggests the media, can be had without God…”
“The fruit of the spirit…can be had without God.” But if so, that makes a nonsense of Paul’s teaching in Galatians 5. It is not as if God releases Christians from all temptations or transforms us into perfect people overnight, of course. The Bible is very clear that while we may have been saved from sin and blessed beyond measure, our lives will still be a struggle.
No, we are called to take up our cross and serve Jesus daily, despite all the pressures that we face. And we struggle internally, as the apostle makes clear in verse 17, because “the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that [we] do not do what [we] want.”
So what we choose is very important. As Terry Fullam has observed, “the fruit of the Spirit grows only in the garden of obedience,” and obedience involves making right choices and following God’s lead whenever possible.
The Power of the Holy Spirit
But there is another point that I want to stress this morning, which is that we do not have to do all this on our own. We can obviously find great support within the Christian community. But above and beyond all that, God helps us to choose the good by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We all struggle with internal battles between good and evil and the only way to victory is found in verse 25: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” And what does that mean? It involves trusting in Christ, listening to God’s Word, and drawing on the strength and power of the Spirit to help us.
I am reminded of the story of Apollo 13, the American spacecraft that so narrowly avoided total disaster in the early 1970s. On Day 6 of their mission, the astronauts needed to make a critical course correction, and if they failed, they might never return to earth. To conserve power, the onboard computer that steered the craft had been shut down. Yet the astronauts had to conduct a 39-second burn of the main engines. The question was how to steer?
Then Jim Lovell determined that if they could keep a fixed point in view through their tiny window, they could steer the craft manually. That focal point turned out to be their destination – earth. As shown in the hit movie, “Apollo 13,” for 39 agonizing seconds, Lovell focused on keeping the earth in view. And by not losing sight of that reference point, the three astronauts avoided disaster.
When we face challenges in our mission as Christians, our most reliable reference point, of course, is Jesus. And we can find strength to follow him from our divine helper, the Holy Spirit. The Christian life can be a right, royal battle. We are challenged to meet standards of behaviour that others happily reject. We are called to make difficult choices week in, week out. We must struggle with our natural inclinations. But God the Holy Spirit is there to help us and lead the way.
So our best move, whatever our situation, is to turn to God. Whatever the challenge, if we will be filled by the Spirit and if we will keep in step with the Spirit, God has promised to keep us on the right track.
In Step with the Spirit
As we look back on our parish history, that is also one of our most important reasons to give thanks. When John Antle began meeting with his first congregation exactly 110 years ago this month and when they built their first building and grew to an Easter Sunday attendance of 385 within six short years, they did so by the grace of God, as they kept in step with the Holy Spirit.
When our second Rector Havelock Beacham and his congregation had faith to commit to moving to new and improved facilities on CPR land on 10th and Pine, they did so by the grace of God as they kept in step with the Holy Spirit. When Holy Trinity members helped the poor and reached out with the good news of the gospel to their local community and beyond, when they gave their lives and offered their service in two world wars, they did so by the grace of God as they kept in step with the Holy Spirit.
When our fifth Rector, Frederick Clark, reported in his final sermon in October 1945 that “the number of communicants on Easter Day 1945 was the largest in the history of the parish” and “we are one of two churches in the whole of the Diocese where the Holy Communion is celebrated every Sunday,” he was able to do so by the grace of God as they kept in step with the Holy Spirit. When Holy Trinity selected its first woman Rector, Elspeth Alley, in 1979 and a year later elected the late Yvonne Williams to be its first female People’s Warden, they did so by the grace of God as they kept in step with the Holy Spirit.
When the congregation opened its doors and then membership to the Dayspring Brethren fellowship in the late 1980s and when Michael Green and our 11th Rector, John Martin, launched a new contemporary service in 1987, they did so by the grace of God as they kept in step with the Holy Spirit. When the parish grew out of its old building on 10th and Pine and when Holy Trinity made possible the redevelopment of and relocation to this spacious sanctuary in 1994, they did so by the grace of God as they kept in step with the Holy Spirit.
When our 13th Rector, Roger Simpson and his family moved here from Edinburgh in 1995 and when they and the whole congregation saw such significant growth over the next four years, they did so by the grace of God as they kept in step with the Holy Spirit. When the people of Holy Trinity held fast to their convictions and weathered the sad losses following the decisions of our 2002 Diocesan Synod, we did so by the grace of God as we kept in step with the Holy Spirit.
When we worked through our differences and agreed a common way forward, when we decided to maintain our orthodox witness within our diocese and to continue the much bigger, more important task of maintaining our parish’s 110-year tradition of Christian service and outreach, we did so by the grace of God as we kept in step with the Holy Spirit. And now as we celebrate all these blessings and look forward with hope and expectancy to a bright and positive future, we do so by the grace of God as we strive to keep in step with the Holy Spirit.
If the past has taught us anything, it is surely that there is no other way. And what a wonderful way, what an exciting journey, what a marvellous pilgrimage it is, this Spirit-filled, Spirit-fuelled life of the gospel which the apostle Paul describes in our reading! This is the life which marks every page of our parish history. This is the life for which we give special thanks on this special Thanksgiving Sunday. And this is the life, as we exercise the gifts and bring forth the fruit of the Spirit in our everyday vocations and ministries, that is the best possible way of showing our gratitude to the One who has made everything possible.
 Tony Campolo in “Wake Up America,” Christianity Today, 39:9.
 Stephen Nordbye, “Finding a Fixed Point,” in Fresh Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching (Baker), from the editors of Leadership.
The above sermon on Galatians 5:16-26 was delivered on October 11, Thanksgiving Sunday, 2009, when Holy Trinity, Vancouver, celebrated its 110th anniversary as a parish. ©John Oakes, 2009. All rights reserved.