Sermon by Rev Allister Lane on 20 May 2018
Readings were John 15: 26 – 27, 16: 4b – 15 and Acts 2: 1 – 21
Our two readings are about Pentecost – that moment when the Holy Spirit comes upon the Church. We hear Jesus describing this in anticipation. Then we hear (at the start of the book of Acts) of the actual day the Holy Spirit came in dramatic fashion.
Pentecost is the ‘Big Bang’ event of the Church.
What are we doing celebrating Pentecost today? Do our ‘Pentecostal’ celebrations feel a bit inadequate? Does our experience as the church today pale in comparison to the day of Pentecost? Does this colourful fabric seems a bit naff compared to what we hear in Acts? (I can say this because I put it up!)
Thankfully such comparisons between Pentecost and our own experiences are unnecessary. Celebrating Pentecost today isn’t trying to ‘rekindle the old magic’, nor is it trying to set a standard of what church is meant to look like. Tthe story of Pentecost reminds us of how important the church is to God, and how inseparable the church is from Christ.
In one sense I think of that first Pentecost Day a bit like my Wedding Day. It was an amazing and wonderfully exciting day, marking the start of a commitment…and the relationship continues to develop from there.
So with the experience of the Church, the relationship with God in the power of the Holy Spirit starts on that day, and the journey goes on. And, in a way, it gets better and better – we share more experiences, learn more about each other and deepen in commitment as we share life together. Each year we celebrate the anniversary of that first day. But in a healthy relationship we don’t live with mere nostalgia for that first day – we recognise its significance for where we are pleased to be now.
As we celebrate Pentecost today, I see it as a teaching moment for us; to help us know who we are and what we are here for.
Pentecost is the clear marker for how God is present with us, and that the message of salvation has been given to us to proclaim.
Pentecost is a message from the church to the church, passed down from each generation to the next.
Sometimes Pentecost is understood as the event that empowers the Church to continue on the work the Christ left for it to do after his ascension back to heaven. What is often not recognised is that the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Church introduces something new that is more than just continuing on Christ’s mission.
At Pentecost the Holy Spirit makes the Church into the Body of Christ on earth. Jesus’ followers could not be His Body while he was earth. This is (in part) why Jesus tells his followers he must go away, back to God the Father.
So, don’t be fooled by appearances: the Church is not simply a sociological reality as a gathering of people. The Church exists because of God’s divine power infusing a genuine communion with God and with one another.
So the Church doesn’t simply continue Christ’ mission – although there is consistency with it – the Spirit does not come to enable simple repetition of Christ’s ministry, but to grow, to spread, to develop the truth of Christ in a dynamic expansion to all people, and all places.
The Church is literally a movement. The Church is moving toward the end of time – when God’s reign/Kingdom will come to fulfilment.
So, let me repeat: the Church is not merely sociological (it is divinely-gathered) and is not static (it is moving outward and toward the future – God’s future).
The Church as the Body of Christ has
- an unique identity,
- an urgent purpose
- and defining characteristics
The unique identity is in harmony with the mission and ministry of Christ, but is something new begun in the power of the Holy Spirit – the Church is The Body of Christ.
So what is the Church’s purpose and character? We are given urgent purpose (by the Spirit in power at Pentecost) to proclaim the Gospel of salvation. We hear this in Peter’s declaration (quoting the prophet):
everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
We are witnesses to what God has done in Jesus Christ to rescue people. We are living in the story, part of the developing plot that is the Church alive with the Spirit’s power, and how wonderful it is that we get to enjoy a foretaste/sample of what God is bringing to ultimate fulfilment.
We know the presence of God with us right now. The person of the Holy Spirit can be described as God in the present tense.
So we (the Church) have a unique identity, and an urgent purpose. We also have defining characteristics in who were are called to be and what we are given to do.
The Spirit is here with us in our world, with God’s divine energy, to make eternal life in God a reality – for all people. This is why there is this ‘roll call of nations’ and multiple languages in this reading from Acts, pointing to the universality of the Spirit’s presence for the whole world.
everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved
People are united in diversity of age, gender, ethnicity and social status. We yearn, in our divided and conflicted world, to experience greater unity between people – the Spirit offers humanity authentic communion with one another.
So the Spirit is present for all people. Another characteristic of the Spirit’s presence with us is that we are drawn forward toward God’s future – the fulfilment of God’s purposes and our experience as the Church. There is an anticipation of the fullness of God’s activity in the world:
In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh… (v17)
Any time we see love, peace and justice flourishing, we can confidently say that we see the Holy Spirit at work – moving us forward toward God’s future.
What can we say about life as a Church led by the Holy Spirit (here and now – you and me)? As mentioned, the Spirit incorporates people together into the Body of Christ. This happens locally, but more significantly it happens universally. So we say in the Apostles Creed:
I believe in the holy catholic Church (the church everywhere)
Pentecost is a reminder of what the Spirit is doing all over the world, in every moment of history. Pentecost reminds us that even though our faith is experienced in our local context and practices, the Church’s identity is the Body of Christ that extends beyond every congregation, denomination, and cultural tradition. Pentecost reminds us that the Body of Christ is alive in all the diversity of theology, ethnicity, culture and liturgy in every part of the world.
It matters what we do as a church here, that we are faithful to Christ and as witnesses to the Gospel of salvation. AND it matters that we remain connected to other Christians in other places.
Our links to Indonesia:
- Cross Cultural Encounter visit to Indonesia last year
- tragedy for churches last week (solidarity: when one part of the body hurts , we all hurt)
- This year: two things –
- visit to St John’s from a trainee minister, in July/August
- another Cross Cultural Encounter trip to Indonesia, December
…food fundraising next week.
Just as we participate in the local congregation as disciples of Christ, so we need to participate in the wider Body of Christ recognising all that God is doing by His Spirit. Pentecost reminds us that our faith is personal, local, and global.
Final story: Yesterday at my son’s soccer game, in the opposition team was my son’s friend from St J’s Kids. When I said ‘Hi’ to him, one of the opposition team members asked “Is that man your uncle?” The funny thing about this is that my son’s friend is Indonesian, and so there is an obvious lack of family likeness between us!
…But, you know, in a sense, maybe we are family… I explained that we are friends through Church. And we are surely reminded at Pentecost, that when you’re friends through Church, you ARE family!
 At Pentecost the description of coming of the Holy Spirit has similarities to how the Holy Spirit is described moving at the beginning of creation. This obvious link to creation expresses the understanding that the Holy Spirit comes for the sake of the whole world. But rather than the Holy Spirit moving in creation or history, we now see that the Spirit is in direct contact with people – in and among the followers of Christ. The Spirit is known by people in this new, direct, way.