Sunday, 23 May 2010


Acts 2:1-21;
John 14:8-17, 25-27
Pentecost is one of the three greatest feasts of the Church. And as with Christmas and Easter, at Pentecost we don’t just look back. Yes, we commemorate the wonderful things that God did in the past, but we also look forward, incorporating God’s story with our story. The incarnation we celebrate at Christmas continues when we participate in the body of Christ, as the Church. The Easter resurrection of Christ continues when we live the resurrection life, signified through our baptism and a transformed way of living. The only way that we are able to participate in the ongoing stories of Christmas and of Easter is by the arrival of the Pentecostal gift of God’s Spirit, through which God’s people are empowered.

The first Pentecost was like this. There were 120 believers gathered together in the large upper room where they were staying in Jerusalem. These first Christians were waiting - waiting for something very special to happen to them; they weren’t quite sure what they were waiting for. They knew they were waiting for the Holy Spirit to come, because Jesus had told them ahead of time, but they didn’t know what that would mean. Then it was like a rush of wind into the room - the Holy Spirit coming into their lives – it was like tongues of fire. They felt the power of God inside them, and eventually they left that building and went out into the streets.

They went from street to street and home to home and neighbour to neighbour and nation to nation. It was like a grass fire, flaming across the land on dry fields of grass. It was like a forest fire driven by the wind, in a very dry forest. It was like a fire on an oil slick on the sea, with flames leaping across the water. That’s the way it was in the first century of Christian expansion. The flame of Jesus Christ was spreading across the world.

Pentecost is often called ‘the birthday of the church’, and we’ve brought a cake that we can all share after the service to celebrate. You couldn’t even fit enough candles on this cake to signify the number of years the church has been living, but imagine the light and heat from nearly 2000 candles! Fire is symbolic: Fire is energy; fire is power. Fire is passion for Jesus Christ, and on Pentecost, there was a new quality of fired up energy for Jesus Christ.

On the first day of Pentecost just under 2000 years ago, suddenly there were many different languages spoken by the Galilean disciples. It was clear: the message of Jesus Christ was to go into the entire world, into all the languages of the world, into all the nationalities in the world. Christians were not to remain in Jerusalem but go out into the entire world, proclaiming the good news about Jesus Christ in the many different languages of the nations.

In Acts 1:8, Luke writes that Jesus had said to the disciples, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” On that first Pentecost morning, there was a new sense of mission. These men and women sensed a new purpose and a new goal. Their destiny was to announce to the entire world the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Their purpose was absolutely clear to them, and they were united in its urgency.

With the Spirit, there was also a new sense of community. The first Christians shared their possessions. They sold their material goods to help those in need. There was a new sense of inclusive life within this community: sharing problems, sharing each other’s tragedies, sharing resources. They experienced a community of love like they had never experienced before.

There was also a new power within: a new energy to carry out their mission – an energy within them to accomplish their goals. These people had new courage to face the persecutions of a sometimes hostile context. They had a new boldness to speak out about their faith. They had a new passion to stand before family, friends, neighbours, and co-workers and tell the good news of Jesus Christ and his impact on their daily lives.

The apostles would go to a village or town. They would plant a church, and then they would go to a second village or town, and plant a church. They went to a third village or town and planted another church. Before the apostles went onto the next village, they would leave a group of people in that village who were committed to Jesus Christ. The Greek word is ‘laos.’ They were the ‘the laity,’ which means ‘the people.’

The apostles wouldn’t leave the towns or villages until they left people whose hearts and tongues were on fire - these people hadn’t gone to seminary, they hadn’t seen Jesus face to face, they hadn’t talked with him in the flesh. These people were not the Apostles. These were the people of God in each village who then went on to spread the Gospel from house to house, from neighbour to neighbour and friend to friend and family to family.

The whole of the laity, the whole people of God, become inspired and equipped by the Holy Spirit for mission. Not just the twelve, not just the Apostles, and today, not just the ordained! It is the laity, the people of God, who with the power of the Holy Spirit, witness and win souls to Jesus Christ and nurture those souls into maturity. This doesn’t shirk off the responsibilities of the clergy, because clergy are actually laity as well. But this is a reminder of the responsibilities of the non-ordained laity in mission and ministry.

So that’s what happened in that first century. It was a great century of Christian expansion. The Church went to Ephesus, to Rome, and onto Spain within thirty years. From farm to farm, from village to village, town to town. It was spread across the whole known world. It was like a spreading flame.

The year is now 2010, and what has happened to the flame of Jesus Christ? The flame of Jesus Christ is still spreading all over the Earth like wildfire. 33% of the nearly 7 billion people on earth today identify themselves as Christian. That’s one in every three people! The flame of Christianity is spreading across Africa, across Latin America, and across Asia. It has to do with ordinary people, touched by God's Spirit, who understand that ‘nothing kindles fire like fire.’ It has to do with people who understand this not only in their heads but also burn in their hearts with the power of Pentecost. It’s always the laity empowered by the Holy Spirit that makes the difference.

Let’s think about Christianity in England for a moment. Apparently 60% of people in England consider themselves Christian, but only about 2% of those attend church regularly, at least once a month. A Gallup poll asked people around the globe: “Is your religion very important to you?” In this poll, England came out amongst the ranks of the least religious countries alongside many other prosperous developed countries. It is possible for faith to grow cold to the Spirit of Pentecost.

In the book of Revelation, the Church in Ephesus had grown cold and indifferent to God’s purpose in the world. Is it possible for the laity to no longer be on fire by the power of Jesus Christ? Is it possible for a church to gradually become a self-contained unit that has lost all sense of evangelism and mission? The answer to that question is a tragic “yes.”

The primary mission for the first Christians was to go out into the world, teaching, baptizing and making disciples. Christians today must still speak openly and boldly about Jesus Christ. The purpose of the Holy Spirit’s power is the same today as it was 2000 years ago: to give Christians courage, stamina, and boldness, to give us the wisdom to handle the tensions, frustrations and rejection. Because it takes courage to speak to our neighbours and friends and family about Jesus and his impact on our lives.

In relation to the Ascension, Frank has been asking in recent sermons, ‘do we really believe that Jesus is Lord’? St. Paul said in 1 Cor 12:3, that ‘no-one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit’. In terms of Pentecost, then, we are challenged to ask ourselves, do we really believe that the Holy Spirit lives in us and will empower us with the strength and courage we need to be his witnesses here in our community, and beyond?

For many of us, one of the most difficult things to do is to talk to somebody about Jesus Christ. We can easily talk with our neighbour about many topics: the weather, gardens, slugs, landscaping, family, pets, politics, or sports. We can talk so easily about so many things, but it’s much more difficult to talk ‘one to one’ about Jesus Christ.

We’re afraid for all kinds of reasons. We don’t want to be pushy about Jesus or about church. As the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” People know where the house of Jesus Christ is; they can find it; they can drink if they want to. We also don’t want to be identified with the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons dressed in dark suits and ringing the doorbell. We don’t want to be thought of as ‘weird’. We just find it uncomfortable to talk naturally about our faith to another person.

Many of us never learned to talk about Christ because we didn’t really need to. Not so long ago, nearly everyone in the UK went to church. But today, we’re living in a different context; it’s a different culture. Today is a new ball game, and there are huge numbers of people around us that don’t know the truth about Christ and have never been part of the church.

I remember a time before I was ordained, when I was at a barbeque at my neighbour’s house. We were enjoying the warm summer’s evening, when the conversation turned to the field of science. Both my neighbour and I have science backgrounds. Suddenly my neighbour said to me, ‘I don’t know how you can believe in God, since you work in science’. When she said that, all the other guests (none of whom were church-goers) went quiet and turned to listen to my response.

I remember sending up a quick silent prayer for the Spirit to be with me, and then I gave an answer from the heart that somehow held together my belief in God and my appreciation and wonder of scientific discoveries. I said something about how amazing the universe is, and how amazing life on Earth is, and how to me, that points to a creative God. I know that I couldn’t have said what I said, in the way that I said it, without the help of the Spirit. The people listening were thoughtful for a moment, and then the conversation gently and naturally moved on. I knew that God had given me the courage, the inner strength and the right words to speak. And God’s Spirit was planting small seeds in those people.

Many people want to talk about faith and God; they just don’t usually get the opportunity. Reminding ourselves of the power of the Spirit to equip us, we need to start up conversations with people about Jesus. We need to make it known that we are believers. The past religious silence is no longer adequate for this new day. The old wineskins won’t do for the new wine of the Kingdom!

The purpose of Pentecost is to create Pentecostal Christians out of ordinary people like you and me. Before the Spirit came, the believers had been huddling in safety and collected holiness. After the Spirit, the believers were compelled out into the streets. They began to live the life hinted at by Christ. Pentecost is their story and it’s our story, too. The Spirit is a life-changer. I remember telling a friend where I used to work at the university that I was a Christian – she said, ‘well, that’s ok, so long as it doesn’t take over your whole life’!

Well, it SHOULD take over our whole life. With the Holy Spirit, we simply cannot remain bystanders observing the world from a safe distance; with the Holy Spirit, we allow ourselves to be caught up in the very real and risky drama of God in the world.

Lord, may our eyes be opened and our hearts filled as we celebrate your ever-present Spirit and the birth of the Church, and may we welcome the Spirit’s empowerment for the journey ahead as you lead your Church in mission and in ministry. Amen.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Ascension Day: Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53

We’re living in interesting times. Here in Britain, we have a new government – a coalition government, in fact. It’s a warm, cosy ‘love-in’, according to the media. (Just so long as the new Prime Minister continues to wear his blue tie, and the Deputy to wear his orange tie, then I’ll be able to tell Cameron and Clegg apart!). The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are to govern by cooperation - and I’m sure we all wish them ‘good luck’ with that!

You might be asking yourself, ‘what does any of this have to do with Ascension Day?!’ Well, we could say that from Ascension Day, there was a ‘coalition’ set in motion between God and the Church. Jesus having been appointed as King, invited the elected disciples to form the Church, and then they are clothed with power from on high. But for that to happen, Jesus first had to ‘ascend into heaven’. I’d like to focus on two little words with regards to the Ascension: ‘how’ and ‘why’. They are little words, with very big implications which are important for us to understand as witnesses for Jesus in the world today.

Thinking about how the ascension happened takes us back to the resurrection, and what sort of body Jesus had after the resurrection. We know that his resurrected body was a visible body, of course, because the bible says that he was seen by many people. Jesus demonstrated that his resurrected body was flesh and blood by eating with his disciples and allowing Thomas to touch his wounds.

But we also know that his resurrected body was a transformed body. The bible reports that the resurrected Jesus was able to walk through doors, and to appear and disappear at will. And with this transformed body, Jesus ascended into heaven. But the main theme I want to cover now is the ‘why’ of the ascension.

Several places in the Bible give us insight into why the ascension happened, and Jesus himself provides at least four answers to this question. All of these reasons for the Ascension are important, but a key purpose is that Jesus must sit ‘at the right hand of God the Father’; in Matthew 26 at his so-called ‘trial’, Jesus said to the chief priests and the Sanhedrin, ‘In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One..."

In Acts chap. 2, the apostle Peter states: ‘God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.’ Peter quotes from Psalm 110: ‘The Lord said to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet."’ ‘Therefore’, Peter continues, ‘let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.’

The theologian Karl Barth said that Christ being ‘seated at the right hand of the Father’ is "the first and the last thing that matters for our existence in time," and “Whatever prosperity or defeat may occur in our space, whatever may become and pass away, there is one constant, one thing that remains and continues, this sitting of His at the right hand of God the Father.” And this we can understand as truth, because of the belief which is central to our Christian faith that Jesus is Lord. In the Creed, we say that we believe Jesus ‘ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.’ But I also wonder whether this language and this imagery could be a barrier for some people.

I read a report recently on the spirituality of people who don’t go to Church. It was based on ‘research conversations’ with people who expressed a spiritual awareness, but for one reason or another they weren’t able to relate their spirituality to traditional Church worship. One interesting point brought up by one of the research subjects concerned that imagery of Jesus ‘sitting at the right hand of God the Father’. Jesus seemed too distant. This man’s experience of God was more personal than that – his experience of God’s presence was closer than that. But we know from the bible and from some of our own personal experiences, that even though Jesus is now in the currently separate realm we call heaven, he is personally present with people by his Spirit, which is at work in all of creation. Because of the Spirit, Jesus could assure us as we read in Matthew 28, ‘I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’

And as we find in John’s gospel chapter 16, the Ascension was necessary to enable the Spirit to come with special power on the newly formed Church: Jesus says, ‘I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counsellor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.’ And from the heavenly realm Jesus continues to send his Spirit to empower the Church. We’ll look deeper into this particular outcome of the Ascension in 10 days time when we celebrate Pentecost.

Another reason why Jesus ascended to heaven, which we read in John 14, was to ‘prepare a place’ for us, in one of the ‘many rooms’ in his Father’s house. Jesus said: "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.’ From this wonderful passage, which is often read and preached on at funerals, we sense the depth of God’s love for us, and the desire of Jesus to be close to us. And until he comes again, he is with us by his Spirit.

Some doctrines stress the transcendence of God: that God is above us, different from us, free from us, and rules over us. Others stress the immanence of God: that God is with us, like us, available to us, and in us.

And so we try to strike a balance: God is both far and near, over and in, different and alike. Until the new creation comes in all its fullness, there will always be a tension between the transcendence of God and the immanence of God. But God’s transcendence and immanence come together distinctively at the point of creation, at the incarnation, and most definitively when Jesus comes again.

Which leads to my final point: the future return of Jesus – revealed through the words of Jesus in the gospels, and also in the first reading we had this morning from the 1st chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, where Luke reports that ‘[the apostles] were looking intently up into the sky as [Jesus] was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. "Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven."

Another passage of scripture often read at funerals is Revelation chap. 21, which describes again with comforting imagery what it will be like after Jesus comes back and the new heaven and new earth are in place: a voice from the throne says, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" So the ascension was a necessary part of preparation for the new creation to come, which is already in its infancy, with a new covenant and a new government in place, and with Jesus Christ as Lord.

I have to say, as is the case with British politics, it takes a fair amount of effort to understand all the ramifications of the Ascension. Let me summarise, then, the four reasons or effects of the Ascension: first, it enabled Jesus to take his place of glory and power. Second, it enabled the Spirit to empower the Church. Third, it enabled Jesus to prepare a place for us with him. And fourth, it enabled the whole of the Trinity to move forward with the New Creation. I’m sure you’ll now all be able to explain the significance of the ascension to anyone on the street... (perhaps our new Liberal/Conservative government relatively easier to understand by comparison). Although our new government coalition says their mission is ‘to work together for the good of the country’, it’s probably safe to say that each party will want to pursue their own self-interests. Who knows how it will all work out?

But that’s when the difference between a politician-led coalition and a Christ-led coalition is plain - the Holy Trinity have now got just one mission agenda: to renew the whole of creation. Jesus is Lord, and in the end, every knee will bow to him. We are not invited to change God’s agenda, but we are invited to participate in building God’s kingdom.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done - on earth as it is in heaven - Amen.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

A double baptism

What a wonderful morning! The joy was palpable in church as two adorable baby boys were baptised. Here's the reading and sermon:

John 13:31-35
When Judas had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

This is a joyful day! The angels and all of heaven are smiling down on us, because of the love that has brought these two beautiful children to this point, and the willingness of these parents to accept the offering of life in Jesus Christ for their families.

Some may wonder about baptising babies, when those babies aren’t able to consciously affirm their baptismal vows for themselves. But since the earliest days of the Church it has been the case that families and communities, including babies and children, were often baptised together; and so the Church is inclusive in this way.

These days when our society emphasises individualism, it can seem very counter-cultural to encourage a community-centred approach to life. But in reality, this is what Christianity is supposed to be – a community of people who encourage each other to be faithful to God, and who support each other for their mutual flourishing. And that’s part of the role of parents, grandparents and Godparents and the church community as a whole. It’s the ethos that ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child’. We all need the support of others on this journey of life and especially the journey of faith. Because in essence, that is what Jesus wants for us and he promises also to be there for us, when we trust him and seek the guidance of his Spirit.

In our bible reading, Jesus gives a new commandment to ‘love one another’. Not with the limited kind of ‘love’ we usually offer to others, but with unlimited and unconditional ‘love’, as Jesus loved. When Jesus walked the earth, he demonstrated how we should ‘love one another’ to the point where it becomes costly – to the point where it is sacrificial.

And perhaps the hardest part is that loving one another doesn’t just mean loving those who are easy to love. Being part of a church community means that we’re brought together with some people who we find easy to be around and to love, and others that can be quite challenging (for all kinds of reasons!). And again, it is counter-cultural to choose to be part of such a community.

In the early Church, when it was dangerous to be a Christian, baptism was the ritual through which you entered the world of excitement and risk that was the Christian church. Where is that excitement and risk in the Church today? Well, following Christ and participating in God’s mission in the world is as exciting and as risky as we’re willing to make it.

But Church certainly isn’t meant to be an exclusive ‘club’...Increasingly we are realising that the most healthy, vibrant and growing communities are those that include – that bring diverse people together – to worship, to learn from each other and to learn to love one another. This isn’t easy; because in varying degrees we all have the human traits of selfishness and possessiveness.

But God’s kingdom is about the reconciliation and renewal of the whole of creation. That’s what God is up to, and that’s what God wants us to help him with! And the way that comes about has everything to do with today – with baptismal vows taken seriously. ‘To follow Christ means dying to sin and rising to new life with him’! And to do that we need God’s Spirit.

The Spirit is already at work in the world and in each one of us, whether we’ve accepted him into our heart or not – but to consciously invite God’s Spirit into our life means we can cooperate with God’s Spirit.

And those of us who have been following Christ for a long time find that this needs to be a conscious choice each and every day, to invite the Spirit’s presence, to listen for the Spirit’s guidance, and to receive the Spirit’s comfort. Many here today will confirm the times when God’s Spirit has helped us through the pain and the suffering that is still a part of living in this world. We can cry out to Jesus, who is the spring of living water that enables us to carry on in times of struggle; who refreshes us so that we can find the way to love others – as he has loved us.

Through their baptism, [these children] are part of the body of Christ, which is the Church. A Church with vision, a Church of the resurrection, of love, of the God who lives among us, must be a Church that blurs every line, and invites everyone into the grace and love of God – and a Church that challenges the lines that exclude and oppress.

Here today, we pray that as [these children] grow, they will grasp with both hands the promise given by Jesus, who came so that we might have life in all its fullness. We pray that they will want to participate in the reconciling mission of God in the world, something to which he is calling each one of us. And for all of us, we pray for the living water of Jesus Christ to flood us and to make us new. Amen.