It’s come!

I wonder how the day began that first Pentecost? Had the apostles been gathered in that Upper Room for long – after all it was only nine in the morning so had they been all night or just gathering? Were they praying together? Eating? Or beginning a service for the Jewish Feast of Pentecost, which celebrates the Giving of the Law?

 

And how did they become aware that the Spirit was coming? Did the sound of the wind rush upon them out of nowhere, or was it a breeze increasing in intensity? Did the divided flames look like fire, spread like fire, feel like fire?  Was there a kind of religious ecstasy that bubbled up from inside, spilling over into the gift of tongues?

 

The disciples tumbled out into the streets, laughing, praising, proclaiming the works of God. At Pentecost Jerusalem was full of many pilgrims from all over the known world. Drawn by the commotion a crowd soon gathered – puzzled, intrigued but some also laughed. What on earth is going on?

 

I wonder how you would have answered? How would you explain the coming of the Holy Spirit?

 

I find St Peter’s talk fascinating in what he doesn’t say! I find it intriguing what he doesn’t mention. He does not emphasise the gifts of the spirit – the miraculous tongues, healings, miracles, prophecy and so on – even though they’re being displayed there and then and might call for explanation, as gifts from God for the benefit of all.

 

Peter doesn’t talk about the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, self-control and all those wonderful virtues about which St Paul would write so eloquently. The fruit the Spirit grows in us as we become like Christ.

 

Nor does Peter speak about the role of the Holy Spirit. Jesus had told his disciples in John’s gospel what the Spirit would do: he will be the Comforter, the Teacher, the Advocate. But Peter doesn’t refer to that.

In fact, St Peter says very little here about the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the individual Christian. He could have spoken at great length about all the amazing things the Spirit does, the wonderful relationship Christians can have with God through the Spirit. All of that would have been perfectly true and it tends to be the way that we think of the Spirit today. We might think of the Spirit being God living within us – and that’s absolutely right.

 

None of these beliefs about the Spirit is unimportant. They can be immensely powerful in helping people to come to faith. When we run Alpha courses we often find it’s the Holy Spirit day that makes the biggest difference. Up till that point the participants have listened to talks about the Christian faith, shared some interesting discussions and enjoyed good meals. On the Holy Spirit day we pray that the Spirit will touch each person – and he does. That’s what makes the difference –  people see the Holy Spirit at work and suddenly they think: ‘There’s something to this.’ We need to remember that  – when we share our faith – not just talk but pray too and ask for opportunities to witness to the Spirit’s power. The personal nature of the Holy Spirit, the wonderful things he does are hugely important. But on the Day of Pentecost Peter emphasises a completely different line.

 

What he does say is ‘This proves that God has kept his promise. This shows that God’s Kingdom is coming.’ Peter doesn’t see the Holy Spirit as something to give individual Christians a boost. He doesn’t just see the Holy Spirit as the fuel in the spiritual tank. He sees the coming of the Holy Spirit as an epoch-changing event. A key stage in God’s plan for the world. A crucial moment in the story of salvation.

 

Look at the quotation from the book of Joel, where he makes this point. A strange choice perhaps. It comes from a time in the Old Testament when Israel was suffering a plague of locusts. Joel the prophet called people to repentance, promising that when they do the locusts will fly away and times of blessing will return.

And then suddenly Joel looks far into the future – the day will come when these blessings look small by comparison. One day God will pour out his Spirit on everyone. The Lord’s Day will come – a day of judgement and power – and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

 

It’s on the way, says Peter. Look at what you see: the Spirit has been poured out. Listen to what you hear: God’s word is spoken in every language under the sun. You hear the works of God in your own language. This shows God has poured out his Spirit on all flesh. He has kept his promise – this is a sign that his Kingdom is coming. Judgement is near, you need to know this and prepare for it. But this is the good news: everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. This is what Joel promised – the Holy Spirit before the great day of the Lord.

In other words, this event is important because of what it shows. The Holy Spirit is an inner witness to an outward reality.

 

As an analogy: an engagement ring shows that a marriage is promised. A deposit on a house is a downpayment prior to the sale – a token of good faith showing that the decision has been made and that the rest of the money will follow. St Paul describes the Holy Spirit as being like firstfruits – the early produce from the garden which shows that the full harvest is on its way.

 

All of these have a sense that a key event has happened which unlocks something in the future, and acts as a sign that the future event is on its way. So it is with the Holy Spirit – his presence with us is a sign that God is keeping his promises.

 

This means that if we ever wonder if the Kingdom of God will ever come; if we ever look around us and think ‘The World is going to pot, will God ever put it right?’, then we can look inside, at the Holy Spirit within us, working in his church, growing the Kingdom, and say ‘Yes, God has promised.’

If we ever doubt whether God will judge the world, if we wonder why evil seems to go unpunished, then the answer is look to the Holy Spirit. Judgement will come, God has shown us by giving the Spirit who convicts the world of sin. And if anyone worries whether God can really save, the answer is the Holy Spirit, who brings each person into a relationship with God.

 

That may not be the way we naturally think – to see the Holy Spirit as evidence, but Peter says it is so. The fact the Holy Spirit has been given shows that God is faithful and keeps his promises.

 

The Holy Spirit is a sign that everyone is invited into God’s Kingdom. The Holy Spirit is a sign that today is the day of salvation, and an encouragement not to delay. The Holy Spirit is a sign that the Kingdom of God is drawing near. We must remember this: not just look at the Holy Spirit as a helper sent to support us, but as a promise of what God is going to do. That will encourage us and give us confidence to persevere.

 

On that Pentecost, three thousand understood what Peter said and were baptised. They saw the amazing things going on – and grasped the significance of them. May the Holy Spirit open our hearts to understand God’s plan for the world. Amen.

 

 

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Ascension Day

I used to feel a little ambivalent about what we’ve just done – the ritual after the Ascension Day Gospel. You know what I mean? Where the priest snuffs out the flame on the Paschal Candle. The light of Christ, kindled on Easter Day, the flame of Resurrection, is extinguished because Jesus has returned to heaven.

I suppose the inevitable sadness might reflect the disciples feelings as Jesus leaves them. We get the impression from the Acts reading that they are standing staring wistfully at the sky until the angels reassure them. But Luke tells us in v.52 that the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy. Why? 

Because when you snuff out the candle, the wisps of smoke rise up and spread throughout the room. It mingles with the air we breathe. Yes, Jesus is no longer physically present on earth – so that he can be spiritually present with us always and everywhere. Ascension Day is not about the absence of Jesus – it’s about his presence. That’s why the disciples rejoice, that’s why Ascension Day sends out in mission.

The church takes the message of a God who has made himself known. A God who has revealed himself in Christ. A God who is intelligible – not that we can totally understand him, not to say that there is not mystery. But it is to say that God chooses to communicate, that when he reveals himself he does so in a way we can understand.

In verses 44-48 of the Gospel Jesus explains how the law, the prophets and the psalms are fulfilled in him. Even in the actual act of the Ascension we get a sense of how God communicates with us. He comes down to our level, he accommodates himself to what we can understand.

For when Jesus ascends, it doesn’t mean that he keeps going on up and up until he reaches something higher than the sky. We know that beyond the sky is space, and that goes on and on. Heaven is not a place in our Universe, up there just at another higher level. Heaven, God’s reality, exists beyond this creation. And yet we still use ‘going up’ to heaven as a kind of shorthand – it’s a useful way of thinking about it. Everyone can grasp it.

In the way that he takes Jesus up, God accommodates himself to our level. He allows the Ascension to happen in a way that can be understood very simply and also very profoundly. This shows us that God wants us to understand what he is doing, he sends out his church in mission.

The Ascension also motivates us for mission with the promise that God will send his Holy Spirit. Jesus alludes to the Spirit in the Gospel, but makes his words plain in Acts chapter 1 verse 8: ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.’

I know that I cannot fulfil my part in God’s mission in my own strength. I know that if I try and do the things God calls me to by relying on my own abilities, I don’t get very far. I know that I need the Holy Spirit. I try to remember at the beginning of every day to pause and ask God to fill me with his Holy Spirit – to get that orientation right at the start of each day. I know too that prayer is absolutely essential – we cannot achieve much for God if we are not praying – and certainly for me, in the final analysis, that’s question of priorities – what really matters to me? Is there a limit to how far I am prepared to go to make time for prayer?

The book of Acts tells us that the disciples devoted themselves to prayer between the Ascension and Pentecost. They needed patience, and so will we, to persevere in prayer and service while the Kingdom of God grows. If you read stories about great revivals or missionary movements, you almost always find that for a long time before a few people were praying steadfastly. Often they are patient through considerable difficulties, they persevere despite little apparent result. Then suddenly something happens, and the Kingdom of God grows.

That is the final motivation to mission and prayer in this Acts reading. The disciples ask when Jesus will restore the Kingdom to Israel. He tells them, in v. 7 ‘It is not for you to know the times of periods that the Father has set by his own authority’ – but the implication is it will come. And then the angels say, in v. 11: ‘This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way’.

In other words, the Kingdom of God will come. It is a promise that one day the world will be conformed to God’s will, that one day the petition in the Lord’s Prayer will be answered – thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. There’s no sense of if or but about this. Instead there’s the assurance that when we pray and work for God’s Kingdom, we are joining in with a project whose outcome is certain. There is no risk God’s Kingdom will not come to pass – we can be confident in God’s plan. So let us live serving God, prayerfully listening for his call to further his mission in the world. Amen.

Freedom

The Fourth of July was coming up and the American nursery school teacher was taking the opportunity to tell her class about patriotism. ‘We live in a great nation’, she said ‘One of the wonderful things is that in this country we are all free.’

One little boy stood up, with his hands firmly on his hips. ‘I’m not free’, he said, ‘I’m four!’

The little boy said more than he knew. Can you be free if you are four? When you are four you spend a lot of your time doing what you are told. But if my four year old was free to do what she wanted, she’d quickly get addicted to crisps and bad habits and wouldn’t be free at all.

So is freedom all about being able to do what you want? And does the idea of freedom as liberty end up making freedom the opposite of responsibility? What about all those people who have found freedom of the soul despite living in oppressive societies?

Today’s reading from the book of Acts Chapter 16 verses 16-34 tells us a lot about freedom. How freedom can take many forms, how someone can be free even in prison, how Christ sets us free. If you want to follow it you can find it on the inside cover of our Gazettes.

This passage follows on immediately after the reading we had last week, in which we heard how a merchant called Lydia was converted in a Roman colony called Philippi. St Paul and his companions had met Lydia at a place of prayer on the riverbank. What I find interesting in verse 16 is that they’re still going there.

Lydia was a wealthy woman, so now she’d become a Christian, why didn’t they meet in her house? It would have been nice and comfy, they could have enjoyed food and drink, they could have adapted the room for their own needs, they could have worshipped God in their own way without worrying about what others might think. But they didn’t.

Paul and his companions deliberately go to the public place of prayer because they want to be seen and heard. They want everyone to hear the good news about Jesus. Christ gives us the freedom to speak about him so that others may have the freedom to respond. Christians shouldn’t spend all their time shut away in churches. It’s good to get out into the community, to be visibly present and to worship outdoors.

Palm Sunday processions, Good Friday walks, Pentecost and Boules services, that kind of thing give a positive message. Of course, it’s got to be high quality and well supported – I’ve been to too many cringeworthy outdoor events attended by one man and his dog. Let’s go outdoors, and if we do let’s make it a priority, doing justice to our faith.

There’s a saying that ‘any publicity is good publicity’. Paul doesn’t think so. Being followed by a slave girl shouting out ‘These men are servants of the Most High God who are telling you a way to be saved’ annoys him. He turns, and says to the fortune telling spirit ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out’. And it does.

As a vicar I occasionally get phone calls from people who feel that something spiritual and unpleasant is troubling them or present in their home. It doesn’t happen often but perhaps more often than you might think. Sometimes a tragic event has happened in that place, or a previous occupant was involved in the occult. I go round the house with a colleague, praying in each room, splashing holy water, listening and blessing in the name of Christ. It’s amazing the peace that Christ can bring. It’s only not worked once: and that was when the person was leading séances and wouldn’t give them up. Christ allows us freedom. If we want to be free from darkness he has great power.

It’s remarkable how many people, even Christians have tried out Ouija or tarot, consulted a medium or similar. People offering this may be charlatans who cold read customers to give false comfort. But that may be less dangerous than those who open people up to unwelcome forces.

While they may seem to give insight into the future, I’ve known people say that such foretelling does not bless – it can cause great anxiety.

The Bible is clear that fortune telling, mediumship and all other forms of spiritism are forbidden to God’s people. It is not our place to know the future. God can prepare us, even tell us what is going to happen if we need to know. But usually God’s emphasis is on giving us the strength to get through whatever the future might hold. Trying to see the future through tarot or palmistry or even horoscopes won’t give you the ability to avoid it or the strength to endure it. If we want to be held through the unknown, we must step out in faith with God’s Holy Spirit.

I much prefer the approach taken by Her Majesty the Queen as she speaks about her own faith on her 90th birthday. In a foreword to a book about her faith, she quotes this poem: ‘I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

If anyone here had been involved in Spiritism or the occult, Christ can set you free. Renounce it, ask for his forgiveness and his peace. It may be surprisingly difficult to do so – that emphasises how necessary it is.

When someone turns away from evil and the Kingdom of God grows, often there is a backlash. In v.19 the slave girl’s owners see that their hope of making money is gone, but rather than complain about this, they use the well-tried tactic of stirring up racial hatred. ‘These people are different, they’re introducing new customs.’

Christians in many places are susceptible to this kind of kangaroo court and summary punishment. Like Paul and Silas though, many of them have discovered that Jesus gives us freedom despite our circumstances.

The apostles could have felt very sorry for themselves, it would have been entirely understandable after a severe beating. Instead, locked up in the stocks they sing hymns and pray. They have realised that they are free: free in how they react, free to praise God. No one can crush them.

Perhaps we too can learn this – in small way. It was the morning before going on holiday. I was in a rush. Lots to do, emails to send, a sermon to write for when I got back, people to phone. Then when the work was done, packing to start. I was in a bad mood, snappy at the children.

As I was struggling with Jemima’s coat buttons, she began to sing: ‘Sing Hosanna, sing hosanna, sing hosanna to the King of Kings’. It suddenly struck me: I have a choice. I can choose to remain in a grump and stressed by everything there is to do. Or I can accept that it’s all there and make the most of whatever comes my way. To a large degree my mood is my choice. Despite circumstances, Christ gives us freedom.

It’s not recorded what the other prisoners made of the midnight praise party. But the situation was transformed when an earthquake burst the prison door. Yes, earthquakes are frequent in that part of the Mediterranean but Luke is sure this was no coincidence, rather the power of God.

God can give us freedom from circumstances. He can change what is going on around us. This does raise a few questions though: why did God not intervene earlier to save Paul and Silas from a beating? Why did God intervene at all – they didn’t make a run for it when their bonds where broken, and we learn in the next passage that they were going to be set free anyway. Perhaps God’s priorities are different to ours.

God intervenes so that he can give freedom to the gaoler. Convinced by God’s power and amazed that the prisoners have not escaped, the gaoler abandons his plan to kill himself and instead is baptised. God brings him freedom from despair. He has the gift of hope and salvation.

This is the ultimate freedom that puts everything else in context. When we are set free by God’s forgiveness a huge burden is released. When we know God loves us we are free from all sorts of expectations society lays on us, free from all manner of striving. When we accept eternal life in Christ, we are free to spend our lives in a completely different way. Coming to Christ is the best freedom of all.

There’s a model of becoming a Christian here: the gaoler’s family hear the word, they believe and are baptised and then he begins Christian service by tending the wounds of the apostles.

Finally, there is one other form of freedom in this story. Freedom from society’s boundaries, the divisions of class and wealth. Paul, a Jewish zealot; Lydia, a wealthy business woman; a slave girl and a tough Roman gaoler are now members of the Church. In Christ we have freedom, whoever we are in the eyes of the world.

Jesus gives us freedom. Freedom from the power of darkness, freedom despite our circumstances. Freedom to change and freedom to live for him. I wonder, where do you need freedom today? Is Christ calling you to a deeper freedom in him? Let us be silent for a moment and listen to his call. Be free to respond.

 

When God closes a door he opens a window

‘What can we do with a problem like Maria’, sang the nuns. Some time after, in the Sound of Music, it becomes clear that the novice Maria is a square peg in a round hole. Mother Superior has a pastoral chat, and her message is: ‘When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window’. In other words, it may not be right for Maria to stay in the convent, but God will have a bigger and better plan for her.

I have a hunch about folk wisdom quotes like that. I have a feeling that they’re mostly true 80, perhaps 90% of the time. True enough to be a good generalisation. But that remaining 10% – the times they don’t work – that’s big enough to be a problem. Those times when, even with the benefit with hindsight, we can’t see what God’s plan was. There needs to be an additional understanding.

For instance, one lovely service the Methodists have which Anglicans don’t really do is the covenant service. This happens once a year, where people dedicate themselves to follow Jesus whatever happens in their lives. It includes this moving and profound prayer:

‘I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will…
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.’

Sometimes we are laid aside. We recognise that there are times when the door closes, and a window opens. Maybe you’ve put all you had into a job application which seemed so right, and yet it came to nothing. And then a new opportunity came up where you were and the reason became clear. But sometimes also there never seems to have been a window and it remains a mystery to us. Sometimes a venture may seem so right, it doesn’t work out, and this side of eternity we never know why. I must say that, because tonight’s passage talks about the times when it does work out, but we need to keep the balance.

In Acts chapter 16, Paul has begun his second missionary journey, encouraging the churches he started earlier on. As he ventures towards uncharted territory, in v. 6-7 he has a strange experience. ‘They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the Word in Asia.’ Why on earth would the Spirit of Jesus stop them going somewhere new and telling people about Christ? Surely that’s a good thing?

Why not go into Asia? It’s a completely new mission field. What could be more strategic than opening up a new province, a new continent for Christ! One day it would happen, but not now. Again in v.7 – When they had come opposite Mysia they attempted to go into Bithynia but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. What could be wrong with that? At one level, nothing. It’s not a bad thing to do, far from it! Yet it’s not God’s will. Somehow the Holy Spirit stops them – perhaps by events one might call coincidences but they spiritually discern them as coming from God? Perhaps by convicting them it’s not right? Even physically holding them up? Whatever the means, they knew it was from God.

Maybe some of us have had times when a proposed course of action, say buying a particular house, has seemed right. Rationally speaking, it all fits. There’s no reason not to, perhaps every reason to do so. And yet it doesn’t feel right. When you pray about it, you don’t get a sense of peace. Far from it: you feel uncertain or bothered. That can be from God. Both the peace and the lack of it. He knows more than we do, and he can guide us like that. Ignatian spirituality makes a great deal of this sense of inner peace or discomfort. If we are genuinely trying to seek God and obey him, if we are praying, he may confirm his will by this sense of peace.

I keep on learning to trust God’s guidance. Not just rationally, but also intuitively. Sometimes there are things which to all intents and purposes look sensible, but God says no. Maybe that house you looked at had unseen subsidence. Or maybe by moving somewhere else God knew you would meet lifelong friends. At the time we just don’t know.

We have to trust, which is hard if you’re turning down an opportunity. Paul trusted God, and the reason became clearer: In v.9 ‘Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia pleading with him and saying ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’. There was another field of opportunity. At this point, St Luke joined the band – v.11 begins ‘We’ whereas v. 6 started with ‘they’, and Luke describes their itinerary into Greece.

But when they got there it must have seemed unpromising. Whenever he entered a new place, Paul went first of all to the synagogue, because there he could speak with people who were already familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. That gave him an obvious opening, a point of contact and some faith background. Just as when we have Back to Church Sunday or Alpha we often start by inviting people we know who have some Christian background. It gives something to build on. It may be easier for people on the fringe to make steps into faith – although of course we should try and offer the message to all.

But in the Roman colonial town of Philippi there’s no synagogue. That means there were hardly any Jews. You had to have a minimum of ten men to employ a rabbi – on the basis that each man would be giving 10% of his income. Here there’s less than 10. So there’s only a place by the river where a few women gather and pray. Interesting how Paul and his colleagues supposed there would be a place of prayer by the river, and were proved correct. Is there something about water which helps us be still, reflect and pray?

These women find it helpful although some of them, like Lydia, aren’t even Jewish – v.14 makes it clear she was an interested Gentile. However, God opens her heart. That’s an important point. From the way some Christians speak you might imagine that it was our job to convert people. It isn’t. It’s the Holy Spirit’s role.

In v14 c it says ‘The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul’. In other words, God did it. Christians are called to be faithful witnesses, but it’s the Holy Spirit who drives the point home. It is God who convicts people, both of sin and the truth of the good news.

That is liberating for us. We aren’t responsible for God’s call, for how people react to Christ, we can only witness and speak, we can’t make them respond. We must show the gospel by the way we live. And explain it by what we say – for if we don’t say anything, how will people know that it’s Christ who empowers us? If we just do good deeds but don’t say anything, all the attention and credit might go to us! Word and deed should work together, and the Lord confirms them both.

So in v.15 Lydia responds to the message and is baptised – along with all her household. That’s how it worked in those days. The head of the house made a decision and the rest of the family, the servants and slaves followed along. The ‘whole household’ may also imply infant baptism – that the little ones were baptised as members of God’s family

The apostles stay at Lydia’s house, events unfold and several people are converted.  From these tiny beginnings grew a significant church whose descendants are in the modern town nearby to this day. By all measures, this journey had been a success. Several hundred miles, undertaken because Paul felt God said ‘No’. And what faith to turn your back on the obvious and trust in God’s leading.

If Paul hadn’t been listening to God this might not have happened. He might have been very frustrated in Asia or Bithynia. But because he listened, God could do great things.

I wonder what opportunities we are faced with? May we too seek God’s will for all of life’s decisions. May we be open to his leading, both when he tells us to do something, and when he says no. May we listen for that presence or absence of a feeling of peace, which so often confirms important decisions. May we stay with God when his guidance is puzzling or the reasons unclear. And may we also be able to look back and see with hindsight that maybe there have been times when God has closed a door but opened a window.