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.’





Peace, terrorism and the Spirit

The minister was standing by the door, and as the congregation went by, they shook his hand, as they always did. ‘Lovely service vicar’, ‘thank you’, ‘enjoy the sunshine’ and so on. And then one man stopped, looked him straight in the eye and said: ‘Vicar, your sermon reminded me of the love and peace of God’. ‘How wonderful’, he said, ‘how’s that?’ ‘Well, like the peace of God, it passed understanding, and like the love of God, it went on for ever.’

What does peace mean to you? It works at so many different levels. Is it a glass of wine on a sunny evening in the garden? The stillness and prayerful presence of an ancient church? Relaxing with the children on holiday – not exactly peace and quiet but a deep peace that all is well? That’s one level. We often take that kind of peace for granted. The recent terrorist atrocities bring peace into sharper focus – how blessed we usually are to be free from fear and violence, and how awful it is when that peace is shattered. Absence of peace leads to anxiety and fear.

In our reading, the disciples are not at all at peace. ‘That day, the first day of the week’ referred to in v 19 is the very first Easter Sunday. In John’s account, the disciples have been to the tomb and found it empty save for the graveclothes. They are still pondering this mystery. Mary Magdalene claims to have seen the Lord – she even says he spoke to her, but did they believe her? With her history, quite possibly not.

Certainly, v 19 goes on to say that ‘the doors of the house where the disciples met were locked for fear of the Jews.’ Peace is far from them. They have seen their Teacher executed in the most barbaric way. The one they had hoped was the glorious Messiah has died a shameful death. They’re worried, not understanding why his tomb was empty. Fearful that the same Jewish leaders might come and do the same to them too.

So they barricade the doors. isn’t it true that often the desire for peace becomes a wish for freedom from harm, which then turns into defensiveness, anger and even violence. There’s the old Latin adage: if you want peace prepare for war! We can see that in North Korea – they produce nuclear weapons thinking that ensures they are left alone, but it only draws attention and increases the risk of war

In the next few weeks our society will face that issue again. We can choose between two paths. Communities could withdraw into themselves, wedges be driven between different religions, fear of the unknown and the outside could grow. of course that is exactly what the terrorists want. Yet you cannot defeat darkness with darkness. Instead you must shine a light. It is only hope and reaching out to others which gives the chance of overcoming terrorism.

That is what the disciples found. In the reading the disciples are defeated, defensive and downcast. And then suddenly, they hear a familiar voice speaking: ‘Peace. Peace be with you.’ Jesus breathes peace into them, the peace of God which passes all understanding; tranquillity; restfulness. Their worries evaporate, their concerns which seemed so large fade away in the presence of Christ.

Jesus would have been speaking Aramaic, and the word he spoke would have been Shlama, the equivalent of Shalom in Biblical Hebrew. Our Bibles translate Shalom as peace, but it actually encompasses much more. Shalom is more than feeling peaceful, it’s wider than the absence of war. Shalom is more like everything being as it ought to be. Life as God intended it, in all its fullness. The poor having enough, justice for the oppressed, a society of care and compassion.

Shalom is a vision for the whole of life, and it’s interesting to think about that this coming week. As various political parties put in a pitch for our votes, they sell us a vision of what life could be like. As you read a manifesto or compare promises, ask yourself, what picture of society is being painted here? What are the politicians hoping our world will be like? What vision underpins the policy? And of course, we must also ask what chance do they have of achieving it? Do they have a plan to achieve those aims?

Now the Kingdom of God cannot come through political means. The Kingdom of God includes people making a personal response to God’s love through Christ. Politics does not do that. What politics can do is align our society with the values of the Kingdom of God. Try and make our world more how God wants it to be. But to bring in the Kingdom of God, we need to make our own response.

When Jesus says ‘Shalom’, he’s speaking about the Kingdom of God. Then, in verse 20, he shows them his hands and his side. Have you ever wondered why he did this? I’ve always imagined that it was a proof of identity ‘look it’s definitely me. Proof that this really is Jesus who was crucified and is now risen. After all, when Thomas wants proof, Jesus shows him his hands and his side.

But it occurred to me that there’s something else going on here. The wounds in Jesus’ hands and his side are the reason for peace. The proof of peace, if you will. Because it’s when Jesus passes through death that death is defeated for us. It’s when Jesus’ blood is shed on the cross that our sins our washed away. It’s as Jesus rises again that we share in the hope of resurrection.

Jesus shows the disciples that he brings them peace. They can have peace because of what he has done. No longer need they fear death as the ultimate enemy – and if you’ve ever met someone who has no fear of death it’s amazing what they can achieve because they’ve got nothing to lose. No longer should the disciples be anxious and fearful about sin – because Jesus has reconciled us with God we can be confident in God’s presence.

So what Jesus brings is a deeper peace. It’s a bigger peace than we often imagine. In v.21 he says: ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ I don’t know about you, but when I think about peace, I often think about relaxing. ‘This is such a peaceful spot’ means I can sit here and think and enjoy the view. ‘That service was very peaceful’ tends to mean that it has left me in a contemplative frame of mind. Perhaps because we live in such a busy noisy world, peace tends to mean slowing down, taking a longer look, doing less and being more. Our world desperately needs that sort of peace.

It’s a bit of a surprise then that Jesus words ‘Peace be with you’ are followed by ‘as the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ The deep peace Jesus brings is not a cop-out, nor a hideaway from society. Jesus gives us a deep and lasting peace so that we can make a difference in the world. The great gift of peace is given so that it can be shared.

The kind of peace of which Shalom speaks, the Kingdom of God, involves whole communities. It transforms society. Peace is not for the individual, it’s for all creation.

A retreat for instance, fills us up so we can minister. The Holy Spirit brings us peace within, joins Christians together into the church, and gives us power to do God’s will. We need to keep asking God to fill us with his Holy Spirit so that we can be the community he wants us to be.

It has been wonderful during the last week when we’ve met together for prayer. The 24 hours of prayer at Norton were a hugely blessed time and I know that many people have been praying since. I’d love to know how we can continue developing that regular prayer – what can we do to keep up the momentum.

That’s why Jesus breathes on them and says ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’. Isn’t it inspiring to think that the Holy Spirit in us is the breath of Jesus? That the Christ who was once dead, is now alive, and breathes eternal life into us! That that Breath of Life continues today.

So is this a kind of Pentecost? We are reading it on Whitsunday! Yes, I believe it is. I don’t think it’s a kind of alternative Pentecost, as if John the Gospel writer hadn’t heard Luke’s account. I’m not convinced that John presents it with alternative emphases. I think it makes more sense to see this as a kind of sacramental act: Jesus breathing on the disciples is an outward sign of what will happen later when the Spirit comes. It’s to get them ready, and emphasise that the Spirit ultimately comes from him.

Finally, Jesus says in v. 23 If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them, if you retain the sins of any they are retained. This is a puzzling verse. History tells us that this saying has been very controversial. Mediaeval Catholicism interpreted it to mean that the church inherited from the apostles the power to forgive people’s sins and to refuse to forgive people too. This verse was used to argue that if you wanted to be forgiven you had to confess to a priest and you might well have to pay up for the privilege.

The Reformers insisted that indulgences and the like were an abuse of power. People like Luther emphasised the liberating truth that we are forgiven through trusting in Jesus. Some people find sacramental confession to a priest helpful, anyone may do it, but none must because we can all be forgiven through Christ. The role of the church is to proclaim that good news, so that everyone has the chance to be forgiven free of charge. What Jesus does here is emphasise the responsibility of the disciples: your actions, your communication of the message gives people the chance to be forgiven or otherwise. We must take seriously the power that he has entrusted to us -a power that must be given away.

Thankfully the churches today have moved beyond that controversy, because it obscures the real point: that we believe in forgiveness! Jesus has risen from the dead, he breathes new life into us, and we can have peace! The peace of God is bigger than a feeling, or a pious thought. It is grounded on the greatest truth, that Jesus has died and is risen, and that he has won the peace. Now let us put it into practice!