‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’. Those words beautifully sum up much of the message of Pentecost. The Father sent Jesus to be our Saviour, and now Jesus sends his followers throughout the world. As Jesus has been sent, so they will go and share his good news.
The Acts reading shows this wonderfully. The Holy Spirit comes, giving the apostles the ability to speak in all sorts of different languages. The noise and excitement draws a crowd, who are intrigued to hear these multilingual Galilean peasants. Peter explains what is going on, how it is a sign that Jesus has been vindicated by God, and on that day over 3000 people are baptised. The church is born.
Today we celebrate being part of that story. The people who heard the gospel almost 2000 years ago told others, who told others and so on all the way down to us. We are only here today because someone shared the good news with us. This lovely church stands because someone plucked up the courage to go to a tribe of pagan Anglo-Saxons, despite the danger, and tell them about Jesus. If the church is to continue, then we too must play our part in telling others.
When God sends, he also equips. He never asks us to do anything without also giving us the ability to do it. So the Holy Spirit falls on the apostles on the day of Pentecost, enabling them to bear witness to Christ. He gives us strength when we step out in faith today – I find it’s not a case of waiting until I feel ready to do something for God. Instead I have to step out into the unknown, even if I’m nervous and God gives the strength and ability that’s needed.
The Holy Spirit drew a crowd at Pentecost, and today he draws people through our words and actions. Sometimes people come to faith through the miraculous: dramatic healings for instance. Often though they are drawn by the example of a Christian life well lived, by the loving service of Christians, by belief in action. A true faith is faith that makes a practical difference.
St Francis once said: ‘Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary use words’. There’s a lot of truth in that. A church which is active in the community and looks beyond itself can be a wonderful example and speak volumes of the love of God. But it can work the other way too: My Grandmother was often invited to church by a neighbour – unfortunately the neighbour was also quarrelsome and gossipy and her actions spoke louder than her words. Supposedly St Francis tells us that we need to live the Christian lifestyle with integrity ‘Preach the gospel at all times’
‘If necessary use words.’ If necessary? Sometimes that’s been misunderstood, as if speaking about the faith is an optional extra. Given that St Francis founded an order of wandering preachers, I don’t think he can have meant that, if indeed he said those words, about which there seems to be some doubt! It is necessary to use words, otherwise how will people understand what motivates us? Loving service and practical action is great, words interpret and explain it. We see this in the reading, as Peter tells the crowd what is going on. In a similar way, at times we may have to stand up for what is right, or explain what we believe. And a little bit of thought beforehand can help a lot…
So our actions and our words can be a witness to Christ. The reading from Corinthians says that we all have a part to play. Just as the different parts of the human body have different functions, but combine to make the whole, so we individually have our gifts, which we contribute to the greater good. Those gifts may be gifts of evangelism, or teaching, or administration, or being a churchwarden. Each brings something to the table, each instrument has a part in the symphony.
There is a caricature of Pentecost which goes a bit like this: the Early Church started with explosive, dynamic growth. It was a wonderful time, fill of freedom and energy. In the beginning great things happened. But in time the church evolved a structure, and as it did so it began to stiffen up and lose momentum. The exciting start slowed down and everything became a bit institutional.
Max Weber called it the routinisation of the charisma – the idea that a movement based around a strong leader has to make a transition to something more stable – but without losing its dynamism. That caricature has been very influential but it is inaccurate and misleading. Worse than that, it can lead us to undervalue organisation; to be dismissive of the jobs which keep the show on the road. We tend to see them as a burden, not a privilege.
Just a few chapters on in the book of Acts we see an example which dismisses the caricature. In Acts Chapter 6, the early church is running a kind of food bank. Greek widows complain that they are not receiving as much food as the Jewish widows. Conflict has arisen.
Churches do not have a great record on conflict. It can be painful, we don’t like it. So sometimes we brush it under the carpet and pretend it doesn’t exist. Other times people take on entrenched positions. Neither of those works and just makes the situation worse. The early church was a great example. They brought the issue out into the open, they talked about respectfully and come up with a creative solution.
They appointed seven deacons, whose names suggest they are Greek, to administer the food distribution. These men get on with the job, and the final verse of that passage tells us that the ‘Word of God continued to spread, their numbers increased greatly and many priests (who had a charitable role in Judaism) became obedient to the faith (presumably when they saw the effectiveness of the church)
So a conflict situation which could have crippled the church instead led to growth. The administrative role of the deacons enabled the whole community to increase. Organisation is not contrary to the Spirit. The evangelistic impulse is not the opposite of structure, but there is a creative flow. One without the other is incomplete. The day to day faithful care given by a servant of the church can bring people to faith.
Just take our visitors book as an example – quotes from it…
This building has an immense ministry and prayerful presence. People encounter God here. And that has happened, to a large degree, thanks to Don. He has made a wonderful contribution over the years and we are immensely grateful to him. In his service, the spiritual gifts of stewardship, faithfulness and diligence have borne fruit.
As Don steps down, sadly no-one else has yet been found to step up and serve alongside Sue. It’s as if Don has been running a relay race, it’s time for him to pass on the baton, but there’s no-one there. (I can’t imagine what that feels like –to give so much, to reach the point where you cannot carry on, but there be no-one there). Don has done so much over the decades – more like a marathon than a relay race! It’s right that he lays the role down now and it presents the rest of us with a challenge – how will we step up into responsibility?
We’re here to pay tribute to Don and his work. There will be lunch, gifts and speeches. But perhaps the greatest tribute to Don would be to carry on his work. To have another churchwarden serve alongside Sue.
Now it doesn’t have to be done the same way or style – there’s only one Don after all! And the warden’s role takes on different forms in different churches. It doesn’t have to be done alone – Sue is experienced, the ministry team is supportive and the PCC are learning how to take it in turns setting up for services. And it certainly doesn’t have to be for 55 years! There’s much to be said for 3 year terms in which everyone takes a turn.
We’re not looking for the next Don – we know he’s irreplaceable. But together surely we can share the responsibility to pick up where he has left off and to honour him by continuing his legacy. On the day of Pentecost a tongue of flame rested on each of the apostles; St Paul wrote of the body being made up of many members. We here today are a great diversity, we all have much to give, so may many gifts grow in the service of Christ and this community. Amen.