Pentecost 2018

I have a new definition of middle age. I think middle age begins when the experiences of your childhood are totally incomprehensible to children of that age today. So for instance I was trying to explain to my daughters that we didn’t have mobile phones and the internet in the 1980s, or for much of the 90s for that matter. If I wanted to look something up I had to walk to the library

So how did you make phone calls Daddy? Well we had a big handset with a hole near your mouth and another one near your ear. It had curly wire coming out of it, which went into what we called the telephone. There weren’t buttons on the phone but a kind of circular thing.

 

So did you have to put all that in your pocket to make a phone call Daddy? No – you couldn’t carry it. It was wired into the wall. You couldn’t sort the washing out or lay the table or watch telly while you made a phone call – you stood in the hallway. And the kids give me this look…and I start telling them how good dinosaur burgers tasted.

 

We get so used to the status quo that we forget what life was like beforehand. We take for granted the good things, the situation that we enjoy, and struggle to imagine how life might be different.

 

That can be an issue when we approach the New Testament. With the benefit of hindsight we are not like the early apostles – we know that Judas will betray Jesus. The story is familiar: Jesus dies, but it’s ok because we know he will rise again. We live in a culture which is formed by Christianity – yes culture may not acknowledge those Christian roots but they are there nonetheless. It’s hard for us to grasp just how radical it was to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ which means that Caesar is not. Or to believe in one God rather than many.

 

Perhaps it is also hard to imagine life before the coming of the Holy Spirit. Today is Pentecost when we remember the day when the Holy Spirit was poured out on all the disciples.

This event doesn’t just come out of nowhere. Later in Peter’s speech he explains the background. Jesus had risen from the dead on that first Easter. Then he appeared to his disciples. The Thursday before last we remembered Ascension Day when he returned to be with God – but he told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the gift he had promised.

 

So the disciples waited. And while they waited they prayed. In fact, verse 14 of Chapter 1 of the book of Acts tells us that they were ‘constantly devoted to prayer’. They spent the 9 days from Ascension to Pentecost in prayer. That’s why when the Archbishops wanted to call the church to a special season of prayer, they chose the past 9 days. That’s why on the 11th and 12th May we organised 24 hours of prayer in our churches. That’s why we had a day of prayer for children’s ministry on Tuesday last week. And it’s why we’re giving out these booklets to anyone who wants them as aids to prayer.

 

It’s not too late to begin. Having a focussed time of prayer together is great, and we draw encouragement and strength from one another. But we can pray anytime, anywhere. Prayer is so important that next week I’ll be starting a sermon series on that subject. From now until the school holidays we’ll be just scratching the surface of the huge riches of Biblical material on prayer. There is so much to learn about prayer, and I’m really looking forward to exploring it. Please do come.

 

When we pray, we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. We become aware of what God is doing around us and within us. For the Holy Spirit dwells in every Christian. But it seems it wasn’t always like that. The picture we get in the Old Testament is that particular people received the Holy Spirit for particular tasks. So Saul and Samson were filled with the Spirit’s strength. The prophets spoke with words inspired by the Spirit. In the book of Numbers, when Moses was struggling to cope with work, God gave the Spirit to 70 helpers to share the load.

 

In other words, the Holy Spirit was given at particular times and particular places. Bit like the old days of dial-up internet! When you used to have to log on to the computer every day and spend an hour catching up on emails because you couldn’t get them anywhere else.

 

But now, when Peter speaks, it’s like the Holy Spirit is on broadband wifi! Everywhere, at all times, for everyone. Look at v.17 – he quotes from the prophet Joel: ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, young men see visions and old men dream dreams.’ Young and old, male and female, even the slaves from the lowest parts of society will be filled with the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not for a selected few, but for everyone.

 

Therefore do not think the children aren’t proper Christians until they’re confirmed – they have the Spirit. Don’t let anyone think they’re past it, that experiences of God are for the young – we can all have the Spirit. Just the other day someone was somewhat taken aback when God gave her two very clear messages. The gifts of the Spirit, like prophesy, are not just for professional Christians, but for everyone. So let’s expect God to meet us, let’s expect him to speak and guide.

 

For it is when we are open and listening, expecting God that we can be sensitive to the breath of the Spirit. Going back to the wifi analogy, you do have to be logged on! That’s where Peter’s speech is going. What we had today is just the introduction. He finishes by explaining that everyone can receive the Spirit. In v.38: ‘Repent and be baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ If you haven’t done that, think about it now. And perhaps now is the time to ask: Spirit, come into my life.

 

This is not to say that the Holy Spirit can’t be found anywhere else. The book of Genesis describes the Spirit hovering over the waters of creation – God’s spirit is active in the world. The Spirit can draw those who don’t know Christ closer to him.

Many people today describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. There is a huge interest in spiritual matters – people use mindfulness and meditation to be aware of what’s going on around them and become aware of their own spirit within. We have our spiritual self – we are body, mind and spirit – and some people are more aware of the spiritual side of life than others. Giving time to developing your own spirituality is quite popular – and depending on what the object of that spirituality is and how it is developed it can be healthy or rather less so.

 

It’s important that Christians are able to engage with this interest positively and listen to what people are searching for. Don’t dismiss it out of hand. For in looking within and finding their own spirit people can also discover an openness to the Holy Spirit, who comes as a gift from God. The Holy Spirit is of course not the same as our own spirit. Our spirit, like every aspect of humanity, is both beautiful, made in the image of God, and flawed, fallen, in need of healing. So spirituality which is not grounded in God will only get us so far. To reach our destiny, our union with God, we need the Holy Spirit.

 

St Peter says: Turn to Christ, ask for forgiveness, be baptised – and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. After that, we must keep on living in the Holy Spirit. For the struggles and challenges of life can wear us down – from time to time we need to reboot. Do you ever get that with a mobile phone? Sometimes it stops working and you just need to restart it.

 

Someone once asked John Stott how he managed to follow Christ so faithfully. He replied ‘I make sure I get 8 hours sleep’. If we’re struggling spiritually, if we’re too tired to pray, sometimes the answer is quite prosaic! I also think it’s good to start each day with a prayer that I will be filled with the Holy Spirit – that’s a kind of recharge. And you have to make sure the signal stays strong – give that time to being close to Jesus through worship, prayer and encouraging one another.

 

For the spiritual life is not about self-fulfilment. (And this is perhaps where Christian spirituality differs from much contemporary spiritual writing. In Christianity we are fulfilled, we find life in all its fullness, by following Jesus’ way: the sacrificial, self-giving way of the cross)

 

It’s very clear that the Holy Spirit directs us outwards. Think about when the Spirit was given – there was a sound from heaven – which tells us the Spirit is other, comes as a gift. The divided tongues of one flame tell us that there is one Spirit, bringing all people together, yet individually relating to each person. St Paul describes how the Spirit gives each one particular gifts for the common good. The fire speaks of the warmth and comfort and power of the Spirit, which sends us out to love, serve and speak in God’s world.

 

In this sermon I’ve been returning to an analogy with wifi and the internet. While there are similarities with the Spirit’s work, there are also significant contrasts. Wifi is a thing – but the Holy Spirit is a person. God reaching out to us. The internet is a tool – what you do with it can be good or bad – but the Holy Spirit leads, guides and transforms us to be more like Christ. In other words, the Holy Spirit gives us a personal experience of God – he is God within us. Isn’t that just an amazing thing? So easy to say, so profound. God within us.

 

When we do not know the way the Holy Spirit guides us. The Holy Spirit gives us joy in the most unexpected times. The Holy Spirit sustains us in weakness, gives hope in challenge. He fills his church with power and conviction. He transforms the world around and reconfigures society. Let us pray that we, and God’s church, may be filled with the Holy Spirit:

 

‘Lord we thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit. We pray that he may fill us today.’

 

 

 

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Acts 15 to 27

How could you do that? You’ve betrayed me – you Judas! There can’t be many people that are so well known that their name has become a byword. The story of Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss has become the classic example of treachery. This means Judas is also one of the best known of all the apostles – his Wikipedia entry is four times the length of St Matthias who we also heard about in our Acts reading.

 

There are so many questions about Judas. Why did he do it? Was it really just for 30 pieces of silver? What made this man, who had been trusted enough to become an apostle, turn against his master? Did he have some issue with Jesus? Had he hoped for an all-conquering Messiah and become disillusioned? Or did Judas hope to force Jesus’ hand – that when the arrest came Jesus would have to reveal his glory? Does that explain why he was filled with remorse? But why did that remorse not turn to repentance which gives life? And if, as Peter says in v. 16, the Scripture had to be fulfilled so that we could be saved, how do we hold that together with Judas’ free will and responsibility?

 

There are many questions, with legend and speculation filling the gaps. Our reading from Acts chapter 1 verses 15-17 and 21 to the end, deals with Judas but then quickly moves on. He has gone, he has met his end, his place is vacant and needs to be filled. With the benefit of hindsight the gospel writers know that Judas will be the betrayer – but it wouldn’t have felt like that at the time. Judas was not an outsider, he was one of Jesus’ closest friends. He had an important job. What then will the apostles do about the gap which is left?

 

Perhaps you have been part of an organisation when a key person leaves. It might be the boss – but in my experience the central person in an organisation is often sat at a desk near the entrance. You know that administrator who’s been there for ever and knows everything? Particularly if that departure is unexpected there can be a real sense of anxiety and loss. Who is going to do their work? How much corporate memory have we lost? Will the company feel the same again?

But if the organisation has a strong identity, if there are others waiting in the wings to step up, then you can weather the storm. In the first chapter of Acts it’s clear that Jesus has thought about this, and prepared for this day. He has taken the trouble to identify and train other people.

 

I wonder how you imagine Jesus and his disciples travelling around? My children have a particular picture book which tries to show all twelve disciples. It’s really hard fitting them all on one page! I think about Jesus turning up, with twelve big hungry fishermen in tow – inviting Jesus and his friends to supper was a big deal!

 

Yet that’s not the sum of it – in verse 15 we find out that there are 120 disciples in this core group. The verse before tells us that Mary, various other women and Jesus’ brothers were all involved. It seems that Jesus organised the group in concentric circles: Peter James and John were an inner three, then the twelve and women like Mary Magdalene, then the 72 who got trained up on preaching missions, and then some more. As Peter says in v.21, many of them had been with Jesus from the beginning. There were people ready to step up.

 

Which poses a thought-provoking question. What would happen if you were no longer around? If, say, you got taken ill or had to care for a relative, what things do you do that someone else would have to take over? Who might that be? Are there people learning the skills who could step up? And if someone did take on that task, would they have the contacts and the instructions that they need? Would they find it written down, would they be able to ask someone else in the know, or would they have to start from scratch?

 

That can be quite an uncomfortable question. Particularly if what you do is quite skilled or technical, and there’s no one obviously keen. If so, it’s all the more important to try and share the load –  are there parts you can hive off? Ideally everybody should have someone they’re training up. Working together is good for us!

For that to work it also needs people who are willing to step up. So perhaps there is another question to ask everyone: is there a contribution you could make? Is there an area of service where you could make a difference? Is there something that interests you, a skill you’d like to learn, an ability that you already have that you could get more involved in and help an experienced person out? Doing so is incredibly rewarding – research has shown that helping other people is one of the key things in making ourselves happy!

 

The Early Church certainly gives the impression of being an organisation where everyone pulls their weight. We might imagine that they chose Matthias to replace Judas because they needed someone else to preach the gospel. But they didn’t. Everyone was doing it! If you read the Book of Acts, you find loads of people sharing the good news who aren’t among the apostles: Paul, Barnabas, Philip, Stephen, Aquila – the list goes on. Ordinary Christians prayed, lived out the gospel, spoke about their faith and the church grew. It should be a shared task.

 

Part of the reason why they needed Matthias is in verses 21 and 22: ‘One of the men who accompanied us from the beginning must become a witness with us of Jesus resurrection.’ While many Christians have encountered the risen Christ, while we all have his Spirit, the apostles were in the unique position of being witnesses of Jesus’ ministry. They saw it, they were there, and we can trust what they wrote.

 

Charles Colson was described as Richard Nixon’s hatchet man. He was sent to prison for his part in the Watergate scandal. He became a Christian and once said: I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.”

So the apostles were chosen as witnesses. Yet from Peter’s words it’s clear there were many such people. Why pick only one as an apostle?

 

Whenever the Early Church does something new, the apostles give their permission. When they decide to call some people deacons and give them a new role, it’s the apostles who initiate it. When Philip shares the good news in Samaria and people are converted, it’s the apostles Peter and John who go there to accept the new Christians and ensure they receive the Holy Spirit. When the Gentiles join the community, it’s by the actions of St Peter.

 

The apostles represent continuity with Jesus. They have the authority to interpret Jesus’ teaching for new circumstances. They are rooted in tradition but open to the future.

 

That is how the church must be. God’s community is not a chaotic free for all where anyone can do their own thing – no, it is grounded on the foundation of Jesus’ teaching, decisions are made together. Nor should the church be static, preserved in aspic, unable to change. The Holy Spirit leads us to respond to changed circumstances, new understanding.

 

That can be a difficult path to tread. Some of us would like to be more comfortable, prefer the familiar and well-loved. Others get frustrated with processes, forms, and the slow pace of change. We need to be like the Early Church: rooted in the teaching of Jesus, clearly continuous with what’s come before, yet also flexible, creative, permission giving. So we can interpret afresh the unchanging gospel for each generation.

 

(Perhaps one example of this is the way the new apostle is chosen. There are not many job interviews that involve drawing lots! Here there are two equal candidates, both qualified. They pray about it, then following an Old Testament practice trust that God’s will be made known through random lots.

I’m not sure that’s a recommended practice now. Later on in Acts, when similar decisions are made, people pray about it and God speaks to them. The difference here is that Pentecost has not happened, the Holy Spirit has not yet come. Maybe the apostles don’t yet have that immediate, personal guidance that the Holy Spirit brings? Surely when we have decisions to make we pray and listen to what God says?)

 

What about Matthias then? What great deeds did he end up doing? Actually, we don’t know. The Greek Orthodox church says he planted the faith in Cappadocia. The traditions give conflicting accounts about him – some say he lived to a ripe old age, or that he was stoned to death, or even eaten by cannibals. His feast day is tomorrow. Really there’s little we know for sure. This is the only time the Bible mentions Matthias – after this he disappears from the record. His is a cameo role, a walk on part.

 

Much like most of us I suspect. Few of us have more than a brief appearance on a public stage, yet each of us can create a significant impact. Matthias represents all those people who did faithful things, who did not become famous but did their bit and made a difference.

 

It is those people, their combined efforts, that changed the world. Sure, the apostles went places and planted churches. Yet in many places where the famous apostles went, they found new Christians were already there. Ordinary followers of Jesus had got there first and made converts. Merchants, travellers, people returning to their families, evangelists – unrecorded and unheralded had done their bit.

 

And when the apostles moved on, it was the folks on the ground who prayed, shared, loved and spoke. The apostolic churches in the cities planted in the towns, and thence to the villages. Whole countries knew Jesus through the faithful actions of people like you and me. Living out their calling, doing the things any of us can do, they changed the world. We can do likewise.

John 15:9-17

One of my family’s favourite days out is Avebury. It’s got everything: a short walk round the stones, hide and seek in the garden and then when you’ve worked up an appetite there’s a restaurant and pub. There’s an old church, and a museum with buttons to press.

 

The manor house is different from most National Trust properties in that you can get in the beds. None of those thistles to keep you off the chairs, quite the opposite. You are positively encouraged to live the life of a Victorian gentleman playing snooker or pretend to drink cocktails while listening to the wireless in the 1920s sitting room.

 

Interestingly, the children seem most engaged with the life of the servants. They can climb into the big Tudor 4 poster – and also slide out the little tray bed underneath for the manservant. And the biggest highlight is trying to cook with Victorian implements.

 

Increasingly historic houses are trying to show us what life was like for everyone – not just the gentry but the chambermaid and gardener’s boy too. We discover the servants lived a strange life – a precarious existence where they were easily dismissed for getting something wrong. They were absolutely vital, yet kept out of the way downstairs and in hidden passages. Fellow human beings, who if they met the master on the stairs, had to turn away and face the wall.

 

Some people imagine that God is like that. They think of God as the master and us a bit like servants. Mind your own business, be good, keep out of the way and you’ll be ok. Put a foot wrong though and you’ll be in trouble. And he definitely doesn’t want you to bother him.

 

Yet Jesus says in v14 that we are his friends. Jesus spoke this to the disciples in the upper room – but it applies to all of us. (We heard in the Acts reading how the Holy Spirit came on the Gentiles – and the Holy Spirit unites us with God today)

 

 

Can I ask you to think of a friend you have. What do you and your friend do together? How do you keep in touch – over the garden wall, with a cup of coffee or by Whatsapp? Do you share activities or just hang out? If that friend was in trouble, what would you do for them?

 

A friend is an amazing image. As a friend Jesus loves us. He likes us. He appreciates conversation with us in prayer. We can share our activities with him. He is the unseen guest at every meal.

 

Just the other day I was talking with a lady who’d been bereaved and she was telling me that whenever the grief was strong she brought it to Jesus. And she knew that he understood. Because he is a human being, because he has lived on this earth, because he lost loved ones and wept at the grave of Lazarus, Jesus understands. He is really with us, truly present in spirit, a friend for us.

 

Perhaps like me you find it easier to think of Jesus as the Lord we worship, the Risen Christ, our Saviour, the Heavenly King who will return. Let us also remember that he describes himself as our friend. He is glorious, yes, but that’s not a reason to keep him at arm’s length.

 

In verse 9 Jesus talks about the basis for our relationship with him. ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love.’ So the love of Jesus for us came first. He loved us freely, right from the moment you were born. We do not have to win his love or earn the right to a relationship with him – it is a gift. And when we receive that gift, we abide, or rest, in his love by keeping his commands.

 

Many people imagine it the other way round. Even some Christians act and think as if they have to win their way into God’s affections, as if eternal life is a reward to be earned by good behaviour. To think like that is to condemn yourself to a treadmill of effort, a deadening, unfulfilling shadow of spirituality, in which the best is never enough.

 

It can’t be like that. in v.16 Jesus makes it quite clear that we did not choose him, but he chose us. He calls us and we respond. When we do so, we find, in v.11, that Christ’s joy is in us, and our joy is complete.

 

My Facebook feed has decided that I need cheering up. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for online, or whether Facebook has been listening in to my conversations but it’s clearly decided that I need a dose of joy in my life. So my feed is full of amusing videos, jokes, and articles describing the ‘7 Habits of Happy people’. A lot of that advice seems to be about choosing your mental attitude – deciding how you will react to life’s events – and what you give energy to thinking about.

 

There’s something in that which chimes with Christian spirituality. When you are faced with disappointment, will you dwell morbidly on it or bring it to God? Will you listen to the nagging voices that say ‘it simply can’t be done’ or will you step forward obediently in hope? Will your mind revisit resentments and criticise people, or will you choose to forgive, to give thanks? …What do you think about?

 

Can I suggest you observe yourself during the day – from time to time just stop and ask yourself– what am I thinking about it here? Are my thoughts bringing me life and joy? And if it’s not – don’t feed the gremlin, stop that train of thought – think of something good instead. Pray. Give thanks. Listen for God’s presence. And you’ll find his joy.

 

When we listen to God, as verse 14 says, we also know what he is doing. The Holy Spirit helps us understand God’s will as revealed to us in the Bible. As we get better at listening we also hear God’s specific guidance to each one of us for our own lives.

 

We learn to ask confidently too. In v.16 Jesus says ‘the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name’. Of course this isn’t a magic formula: Dear God, please give me an Aston Martin DB11’ and as long as I put ‘in Jesus name’ at the end the magic words give me what I want

 

‘In my name’ means in accordance with Christ’s will, seeking his glory, asking because it’s the kind of thing he would ask. But because we are his friends, we can ask confidently. A couple we know once put an email out ‘We’ve got all the money we need for our new house – but the cashflow has gone wrong. Can anyone out there give us a bridging loan for twenty thousand?’ And someone did. That’s friendship. You can ask God with confidence because you are friends with his son.

 

And because we are friends of his son, we are friends with one another. In v.12 Jesus says ‘This is my commandment that you love one another.’ He showed the greatest love possible for us when he laid down his life for us on the cross. He saved us from the penalties of sin by dying for us – it was the greatest thing he could give.

 

Now he calls us to love one another. To make sacrifices, to give up our time, to help those in need. As I travel around I constantly hear amazing heart-warming stories about practical love. The people who give lifts into hospital and cook meals. The friends who babysit so a busy couple can get to Housegroup. The neighbour who picks up someone else’s shopping at the same time. The legal advocate who gets on the phone on behalf of a vulnerable person. The praying person who wrestles on behalf of others. All this practical love goes on and it is wonderful.

 

Yet to do so, we need to know one another. We need to be open about our own needs, be genuine. We need courage to offer help and not be offended if it’s politely refused. Maybe first of all we need to know one another better. So speak to your neighbour when you see them. Stay for conversation after the service. Horror of horrors – when you come to church don’t always sit in the same place.

 

For when we abide in Jesus and love one another, we bear much fruit. I am so looking forward to the strawberry season! I have put so much work into that bed. The white flowers are just beginning, in a few weeks’ time the fruit will come. And joy will be mine! May we grow in Jesus, love one another, bear much fruit and know his joy. Amen.