[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]
Today’s text is Acts 2:1-21. You can read it here.
I have the honour of preaching on the Day of Pentecost. It’s a particular honour because today is also a significant day in the life of St Giles’ Church, Exhall. Why? Because it’s the final Sunday before our new vicar formally takes up her role. Almost a year of self-examination, anticipation and preparation is drawing to a close, and hopefully we’re all looking forward to moving into a new season filled with hope and possibility.
So as we stand on the threshold between these two seasons in the life of our church, reflecting on the journey that’s brought us to this point and wondering what lies ahead, I’d like us to take a few moments to see what we can learn from what happened to Jesus’ followers as they gathered in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost.
The first thing I notice in our reading from Acts is that, as Luke, the writer, tells us, “they were all together in one place”. This might seem an insignificant detail, easy to skip over without giving it a second thought. They were all in a room together – so what?
Just think for a moment about the journey this ragtag group of men had been on over the previous two or three years. This journey had taken them away from home and family, away from the safety of long-held beliefs and traditions, into new and unexplored territory. They’d sacrificed their former lives to follow Jesus, whom they’d come to believe was God’s chosen messiah, sent to deliver His people from bondage. And then, in a turn of events no one had seen coming, one of their own number had betrayed their messiah, leading to his trial and execution as a criminal; their de facto leader, Peter, had publicly denied even knowing Jesus, and most of the rest of them had run for the hills.
Then, while they were still reeling from the shock of Jesus’ unexpected death, and with it the death of all the hopes and dreams they’d invested in him, Jesus’ tomb had been found empty and he’d appeared to them, raised to new life and proclaiming a new age of peace and reconciliation.
Suffice to say, they’d been through rather a lot. But here they all were, together in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost.
On this Day of Pentecost, 2019, can we say we’re all together here at St Giles? No doubt each of us looks back on the past twelve months and beyond with different feelings and perspectives. Just like Jesus’ first followers, we each have our own baggage, our own personal collection of memories happy and sad, our own regrets, our own “if onlys”. But, also like the first disciples, we’ve met the risen Jesus, and we’ve found that there’s something so compelling about him and his message of peace and reconciliation that it brings us together in spite of our different perspectives and the baggage we carry.
So, as we get ready to walk forward into a new and unknown season, can we hold onto the unity we have in Christ and the shared life he offers us?
An uncertain future
The second thing that strikes me as I think about Jesus’ followers gathered in Jerusalem is that they really had no idea what to expect. Luke tells us at the end of his Gospel that Jesus had told them, somewhat cryptically, to wait in Jerusalem “for the promise of the Father” and that they would be “baptised with the Holy Spirit”. That might sound wonderful and exciting to us, but I think it’s safe to assume they had little to no idea what it might mean in practice.
Some of them perhaps had particular hopes for what the future might hold, and I’m sure some of them might have been more than a bit apprehensive, too. But, whatever their hopes and fears, they’d gathered in obedience to Jesus, expecting that something was coming, and that whatever it was, it was from God and would therefore be good.
Again, the parallels for us here today are obvious enough. I’m sure we each have our own hopes and fears for what the coming weeks and months might bring here at St Giles. But are we prepared to set those hopes and fears aside and trust that, as long as we keep listening to the Spirit and seeking to faithfully follow Jesus, whatever it is that God has in store for us will be just what we need?
You will receive power
The third and final aspect of the text I’d like us to think about for a moment is what did the disciples receive, and what was it for?
In the first chapter of Acts, Jesus had told them they would receive power, and that they would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. But what was this power they received, and what was it for?
Well, Luke tells us that what they received was the infilling of the Holy Spirit, and its immediate effect was to enable them to communicate with many Jews from other countries who’d come to Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost, and who didn’t speak their language. In other words, the gift of the Spirit they received that day immediately resulted in geographical, ethnic and social barriers being broken down. People who’d previously been shut off from the good news of God’s kingdom of peace and reconciliation were suddenly invited in and welcomed to the table.
As a slight aside, if we’d had today’s Old Testament reading from the eleventh chapter of Genesis, we’d have heard the story of the Tower of Babel, where humans were scattered all over the earth and their languages mixed up to stop them becoming too powerful and defying God. There’s a wonderful symmetry with our reading from Acts, where this apparent “curse” is reversed, and those who’d previously been scattered abroad are now gathered into a common family, with a common language – the language of God’s all-inclusive love.
Anyway, as regards the power that was given to the disciples that day, my point is that it wasn’t power of the usual earthly kind, which typically ends up being directed towards the pursuit of wealth, status or celebrity. No, it was a very different kind of power: the power to transcend barriers and divisions, to build bridges and to welcome everyone into the kingdom, whatever their race, background or social status.
And so, once again, on this Day of Pentecost, I wonder what God might be wanting to empower us to do. As part of our liturgy, we often pray, “Come, Holy Spirit, come”; when we pray that prayer, do we know what we’re inviting the Spirit to come and do among us and through us?
If we don’t listen to the Spirit, it would be so easy for us to become an exclusive community – a community that welcomes with open arms people who are what we consider the right age, colour, background, social status, or even sexual orientation – in short, people just like us – but that implicitly rejects anyone who doesn’t fit those criteria.
But if we are prepared to listen to the voice of the Spirit and allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit, I wonder what barriers the Father might be inviting us to help tear down. I’m sure you’d agree we live in an increasingly divided society. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, in this age of social, political, racial and sexual turmoil and division, God could use a small local community like St Giles to build bridges instead of burning them, to welcome those who’ve previously felt unwelcome and excluded; in short, to not only tell but demonstrate that God’s love is a love that breaks down every conceivable barrier and extends the same kind of welcome and hospitality to the excluded and the marginalised as Jesus did during his ministry?
Invited into Jesus’ ministry
In the fourth chapter of his Gospel, Luke tells us that Jesus began his public ministry by standing up in the synagogue in Nazareth and reading these well-known words from the book of Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
This is how Jesus’ ministry began: with the gift of the Spirit, not for the sake of the chosen few, but for the sake of the world, with a special emphasis on those who were poor, captive, blind and oppressed.
Now, from our reading in the book of Acts, we might say that, just like Jesus, the church’s ministry also began with the gift of the Spirit, not for the sake of the church itself, but for the sake of the world – and once again with a special emphasis on those who are so often excluded and marginalised.
Will we, here at St Giles, hear that call to ministry and be willing to follow the Spirit’s lead and continue Jesus’ radically inclusive ministry here in the twenty-first century United Kingdom? My prayer is that we will.
In conclusion, it’s been said that Pentecost marked the birth of the church. As we stand here two thousand years later, on the cusp of a new season in the life of this particular local expression of the worldwide body of Christ, I wonder if God isn’t offering us an opportunity to be reborn. I don’t mean reborn in a way that erases all that’s gone before; but, like a chrysalis emerging into a butterfly, reborn in a way that incorporates and integrates the best of everything that’s gone before while flying higher and displaying more beauty.
So may we be – and remain – together in purpose; may we be expectant for all that this next season holds, however uncertain it might feel; and may we be attentive to the voice of the Spirit and serve as willing channels for his bridge-building, barrier-breaking power, both within our church and in the wider community around us. Amen.
[ Image: Holger Schué on Pixabay ]