No new sermon this week: I led a communion service this morning, but we had a guest preacher, Patrick Coad from SCAT.
However, let me highlight something else: one of my former members at Knaphill, Ruth Pugh, recently left these shores for some missions work in India with a difference. She is working under the auspices of a bishop in the Church of North India to give music lessons to deprived children. It may not seem the most obvious of missionary causes, but this project will give increased dignity and self-esteem to these children. In the last few days, Ruth wrote to say that she needed three more small violins for younger children, who cannot cope with the full-size instruments. We held a retiring offering after this morning’s service and raised the money for more than two of them. The congregation didn’t know about this before arriving today, so I’m all the more delighted.
You can follow Ruth’s adventures here and sign up for email updates.
Remembering the old quote attributed to Emil Brunner that ‘the church exists by mission as fire exists by burning’, it is sobering to read ‘10 Warning Signs Of An Inwardly Obsessed Church‘ by Thom Rainer. Some of Dr Rainer’s ten signs sound not only familiar but widespread to me.
What do you think of his list? Would you add any? Would you challenge any?
Whatever you think, the tenor of the article underlines even more for me the importance of churches being mission-focussed. (By which, I don’t simply mean, ‘raising funds for others to do mission’.) Stuff about the priority of worship often deteriorates into narcissistic arguments about personal taste and aesthetics. I agree that ‘mission exists because worship doesn’t', but that is all the more reason to have mission-minded churches.
I’m reminded of the words of Ian Brown, former lead vocalist of the Stone Roses, who talked about his own spiritual quest in an interview in Q Magazine in November 2007:
My spiritual quest is for me to understand God. I’ve gotta educate myself, cos the church isn’t going to show me God. They put themselves next to God so that you’ve got to go through them to get to God. I don’t believe that.
It’s time we stopped getting in the way and being part of the solution for people like Brown.
I only preached on this passage back in October when I visited a church in another circuit and this was the Lectionary Gospel passage. Tomorrow I preach on it in a sermon series for Lent based on selected incidents from Holy Week.
One of my cousins married the daughter of a captain in the Army Catering Corps. The father of the bride said he would therefore organise the food at the reception. And so, on a cold February day, we trekked after the wedding ceremony to the barracks in Aldershot. As we arrived, the usual champagne flute glasses were offered, along with plates of vol au vents. As we ate these appetisers, we waited for the call to the main course.
It never came. The vol au vents were the meal.
Some of us later decamped to my aunt and uncle’s house, and to compensate for our hunger we ordered in fish and chips. Just as we were tucking in, there was a ring at the doorbell. In came the bride and groom. “Fish and chips?” they said, “Great! Can we have some?”
It wasn’t exactly the image of the wedding banquet that we expected. The nearest I have experienced to that was at another friend’s wedding where there was at least a full roast meal. However, as I went along with my plate taking my food, I was told by a member of the catering company, “Only two potatoes, sir.”
I can’t quite imagine God (or the king in the parable) throwing a banquet for his son where there was a strict rationing of the food. Although I have to say I harbour strange thoughts at communion services where we thank God at the end that we have had ‘a foretaste of the heavenly banquet prepared for all people’ when that ‘foretaste’ consists of no more than a miniscule square of white bread and a tiny sip of sweet wine. It is the merest of mere foretastes!
In the parable, I am sure the king is sending out invitations to a lavish banquet, just as I am sure that the wedding reception at Buckingham Palace last year for ‘Wills and Kate’ was rather more than a selection of ready meals from Asda. The invitation is to something generous, swish, and – in the best sense of the word – tempting. It is to come to the table of the abundant God. Oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered – the best of the herd have been prepared (verse 4). Nothing less will do.
The question arises, then, what will people do with an invitation to such a feast?
But in normal circumstances that seems such an easy question to answer. The shock in this parable – and I never tire of saying that we need to look for the shocks in the parables of Jesus – is what happens in response to the invitation.
In the first instance, the king sends his servants ‘to those who had been invited to tell them to come’ (verse 3). It sounds like this is a group of people who have already received an invitation. But the nature of the invitation is different from our culture. In our society, when we receive an invitation to a wedding, we are told the date and time as well as the location. But these people have not yet been told the date and the time. They have been invited more generally. Now the servants go with the word that the date and time have been set, and they are to attend.
I therefore take these people to be the ones who expect an invitation. Given that this parable occurs in the midst of the tension being racked up between Jesus and the religious establishment, I take it that these are the people in the firing line here. They are the people who would expect an invitation to the great messianic banquet of God’s kingdom. They are the people who would expect not only to be invited, but to be sitting in the places of the greatest honour. They are the people who consider themselves uniquely favoured by God. And yet they are the ones whom Jesus says have effectively trashed the invitation.
What had they done wrong? If we are talking about the Pharisees, we are considering a group who honoured the Scriptures and cared passionately about the holiness of God’s people. Yet this had distorted into the erection of barriers to decide who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. Conveniently, they themselves were ‘in’.
If we are talking about the chief priests and the teachers of the law, we are considering a social class who had ingratiated themselves with the ruling Romans in order to protect their own status. To do that, they had made their religion in their own image, to justify their actions. It’s not dissimilar from what many Christians do today. It’s remarkable how many Christians of a certain political persuasion think that Jesus would vote in a rather similar way to them. The Guardian carried an article about this very phenomenon at the beginning of this week, which even showed a photo of Argentinean football supporters holding a large photo of Jesus, who by sheer coincidence was wearing an Argentinean football shirt. Not that we would ever claim that God was a perfect English gentlemen. Oh, no. Not us.
These, then, are people who use God and religion to their own ends. If we use faith as a way of justifying ourselves and fortifying our own positions, rather than seeing it as bowing the knee to Jesus Christ as Lord, then we can be sure that Jesus sees us as one of those who have scorned the invitation to the great banquet. Because the way to accept is to confess Jesus Christ as Lord, in both word and deed. People who seem the most ‘religious’ may in fact be those least likely to follow Jesus. For ourselves, we need to ensure that we don’t substitute religion for discipleship, and that in sharing the Gospel we don’t just assume that the ‘nicest’ people will be more disposed than others to the Good News.
The second wave of invitations goes out. Rather than send his servants to the usual suspects, now the king commands them to ‘go to the street corners’ (verse 9) and invite anyone, whether ‘good or bad’ (verse 10). The implication of this for Jesus’ critics is scandalous. He wants to invite into the kingdom the very people who had been kept out by their rules. Those with a blemish. Those who didn’t fit. Those whose reputations brought shame rather than honour.
Applying this to us, no longer are we necessarily talking about taking the Gospel to the obvious candidates, to the people we think would have the most chance of fitting in with the church culture. One church I served appointed a married couple from another church as the cleaners. When this was done, somebody remarked that these people didn’t look like conventional churchgoers. The husband had long hair – even though he was in his fifties. They weren’t the most cultural of people. They were deeply working class. But the depth of faith this couple and their teenage daughter had shamed many established Christians. They had, as it were, come to the banquet from the street corners.
I have seen other people ostracised in churches who have had deeper faith than the clean, eloquent types who typically fill our pews. Not that there is anything wrong with being clean or eloquent, but too often we miss the fact that Jesus by his Spirit is going ahead of us to the street corners and wooing people we wouldn’t even think of with his grace and love. It’s our calling to join in with what the Holy Spirit is doing. As we do, we become the servants of the king, carrying the invitations to the great banquet.
Around the 1970s, when the so-called Church Growth Movement was at the height of its popularity, one of its most controversial beliefs was the idea that the best way to make churches grow numerically was to attract more people of similar social background. The idea was that people like to mix socially with others who are similar to them. Apply that to the church, and you have more chance of seeing growth. Many people criticised it, because the Gospel is not only about personal reconciliation with God in Christ, it is then also about reconciliation between human individuals and groups who would previously have shown animosity to each other. Not only that, it contradicted the teaching of this parable that involved taking the Gospel to people beyond the usual boundaries of those who normally embrace it.
Yet despite this, many churches persist who are monochrome. Same culture, same race, same economic background, similar interests, and so on. Yet the Gospel says that the banquet is not just for people like us. It is for all.
We’ve had two shocks so far. The expected guests at the wedding say ‘no’, and come under judgment, rather than blessing. Then, the invitation is extended to people you wouldn’t expect to be in attendance at the wedding banquet of the king’s son. It would be like the Queen throwing open the grounds of Buckingham Palace to the Occupy Movement.
But there is a third and final shock. A man turns up who is not wearing wedding clothes. Just as we dress up for weddings, so did people in the ancient Middle Eastern cultures. Furthermore, kings would provide wedding attire for their guests. This man has no excuse. In the words of a hymn we shall sing tonight at the ecumenical Lent service, ‘All are welcome in this place’. However, with the Gospel offer of grace comes in response the Gospel demand of discipleship. Does the man turn up for a free lunch? If so, he’s in for a shock. The Gospel is a free lunch – we are freely forgiven in Christ and have just to accept the gift by faith. But that free lunch is given us not only in love but also to build us up for the calling of discipleship.
The other day, somebody told me a story about not being allowed to go to Sunday School one week as a child because she was in her ‘play clothes’, not her ‘Sunday best’. This isn’t about the physical clothes we wear, it’s about being ‘clothed with Christ’. We are clothed in his righteousness that is our forgiveness and declares us to be in the right with God through his death in our place on the Cross. But we are also clothed in Christ in that we begin to take on his righteousness by the Holy Spirit. Our worship and gratitude in response to God’s free grace is shown as we actively co-operate with Christ’s work by his Spirit in our lives to make us new people, to make us more truly into the character that is fit to be at the king’s banquet. Of ourselves we are not fit to be there at all, and we only enter by grace. But we stay as we allow the Holy Spirit to transform us more into the image of the King’s Son.
You may be the sort of person who doesn’t notice that the clothes you have been wearing have become dirty, and it takes someone – perhaps a loved one – to point this out. Similarly, it is possible not to notice the bad habits or compromises that sneak into our lives. Someone may need to point them out lovingly to us. It may be our reading of the Scriptures or our participation in worship of fellowship groups that reveals the truth to us. However it happens, our calling is to be present at the wedding feast of the King’s Son when God’s kingdom comes in all its fullness. And for that reason, it’s time to dry clean our clothes, so to speak, to accept the invitation on Christ’s terms and to be part of taking his invitation to all who will receive it, whether they fit the commonly accepted stereotypes or not.
Friends, the wedding feast awaits. It’s time to get dressed.
“We talk in our day about ‘mission-shaped Church’. But mission has to be shaped by what in the trade we call eschatology. In other words, what you believe about what God has promised to do eventually, must shape the way you do mission.”
Similar thoughts to follow in this weekend’s sermon.
My dear young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.
To which Mozart replies,
Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?
A sermon topic like today’s runs that risk – too many notes. When we think about the Holy Spirit and mission, there is so much to say. Hence if I don’t cover your favourite theme within this strand today, I’m sorry. But don’t worry, I’m sure it will pop up elsewhere, either in this sermon series or at other times.
So if you wanted to hear about the way the Holy Spirit goes ahead of us and prepares the way in mission – fear not, you’ll hear me talk about that on various occasions. If you wanted me to cover the use of spiritual gifts – well, they get their own billing later in the series.
Excuse me, then, if I limit myself to the big themes here in Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. They will give us an outline, and on other occasions we can fill in some detail. After all, you wouldn’t want a preacher with ‘too many notes’, would you?
Here’s the first strand. At college, one of my friends had a well-worn T-shirt which reflected another 1980s film with a musical theme: The Blues Brothers. Ian’s T-shirt had the slogan from the film: ‘We’re on a mission from God.’ These days, Ian is respectable in the church, with a PhD and a job as a theological college principal!
But the story of the film is of a man being released from prison, only to find that the Catholic home where he and his brother were raised by nuns is under threat of closure if it cannot pay a tax bill. They reform their old band and seek to raise the funds. Hence, ‘We’re on a mission from God.’
And the first part of Peter’s sermon shows that we all are on a mission from God when the Spirit comes. This is about the universal nature of the Spirit’s work in mission. The Spirit makes mission from all to all – from all in the church, to all in the world.
All that talk about blood and fire, billows of smoke, the sun going dark and the moon like blood (verses 19-20)? It’s not a weather forecast! It’s dramatic language, underpinning the basic point that this work of the Spirit to use all God’s people to reach all people with God’s love in Christ is an earth-shattering, game-changing moment. This is a great ‘day of the Lord’ (verse 20) when ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (verse 21), because God has poured out his Spirit on all people (verse 17), to the extent male and female, young and old, slaves as well as free will dream, have visions and prophesy (verses 17-18).
Yes, all of God’s people are equipped to prophesy, to speak God’s message boldly. Well did one preacher say that the Bible doesn’t just teach the famous Reformation slogan of the priesthood of all believers, it teaches the prophethood of al believers. When you say that only certain ranks of people in the church are ‘good enough’ for certain tasks, you forget that God has poured out the Spirit on all his people for his mission. Granted, we each have distinct gifts, but the Spirit comes on all who profess faith in Christ, and one reason for that is we are all ordained. God ordains all of us into the work of his mission.
Or, put it this way: we are not all evangelists, but we are all witnesses. We may not be able to explain and answer everything, but like a witness in a court case, we can all say what we have seen and what has happened to us. We can all talk about what Jesus has done for us. The Holy Spirit has come into our lives, and equipped us to do that.
This is not a threat or a demand, it is a promise. It fulfils the promise Jesus made about the coming of the Spirit before his Ascension: ‘You will be my witnesses.’ That isn’t an order, it’s a promise. When the Spirit comes, we are all ordained into the universal mission of God’s saving love: from all, to all.
The second strand in the Holy Spirit’s mission work here is this: it’s all about Jesus. For the rest of Peter’s sermon, he goes on and on about Jesus (verses 22-36). This is who he is. This is what he has done. This is how you have reacted to him so far. This is what you need to do about him. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
This amplifies what I’ve just said about us all being witnesses. Some of you may be familiar with a Christian website called Ship of Fools, a site which includes humorous sections such as Gadgets for God, featuring the latest in tacky Christian memorabilia, a Caption Competition, Signs and Blunders, through Mystery Worshipper reports on church service around the world, to serious discussion of pressing issues.
Ship of Fools started life as a print magazine in the early 1980s. I know, because I was one of the subscribers. In one of those issues, they carried a cartoon strip article called ‘Born Again Testimonies’. ‘You may be – but has your testimony been born again?’ the article asked. It depicted Christians who were discouraged that the story of their spiritual experience was not as dramatic and exciting as that commonly portrayed in Christian testimony books. It offered a rewriting of your story by Hollywood scriptwriters, plastic surgery, dental and gymnastic care, all to make you ready for the platform of an evangelist at a crusade.
I suspect it touched a raw nerve, because it hit on a feeling I’ve noticed among regular churchgoers. “I don’t have a Damascus Road experience to talk about, so my testimony will count for nothing.” If you haven’t been a drug dealer, a bank robber or a celebrity, no-one will be interested in your story.
However, as the great John Stott once put it, ‘Testimony is not autobiography.’ In other words, testimony is not my story, it’s not ‘me, me, me’, it’s the story of what Jesus has done in my life. Now again, you may think that unless what Jesus has done in your life is the religious equivalent of a fireworks spectacular, it may not be worth talking about.
But we would be wrong. All that Peter describes about Jesus in this sermon – his ministry, his death, his resurrection, his Ascension and his sending of the Holy Spirit – all these things impact us. So what if in our lives it doesn’t come all-singing and all-dancing, complete with a laser light show? What matters is that we know Jesus has changed us – and is changing us. The majority of people live ordinary, unflashy lives, and so an ordinary, unflashy story of what Jesus means to us is every bit as likely, if not more so, to have an effect upon them.
So – why not give it some thought? What has Jesus done for you? Reflect on it. There will be material from your life that you can share about the work of Jesus. that’s where the Holy Spirit wants to focus: on Jesus. We can co-operate with the Spirit by being willing to talk about Jesus and his work in our lives.
The third and final strand of the Spirit’s work in mission that I want to draw out here has to do with the effect upon the listeners.
What happens at the end of the sermon?
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Verse 37)
What has the Holy Spirit done here? It’s what Jesus (as recorded in John’s Gospel) called ‘conviction of sin’. Conviction of sin is the third element in this passage of the Holy Spirit’s work in mission.
Conviction of sin is when the Holy Spirit shows people how they are in the wrong before God – either generally or specifically – and calls them to change. In that respect, it’s different from that work of the enemy we call ‘condemnation’, which just says, “You’re a terrible person, you’re useless.” Condemnation leaves someone without hope. Conviction of sin is different, because it is specific, and there is a remedy that draws us to God, namely repentance.
So we see in the story today that when the crowd asks Peter and the apostles what they should do, he gives a specific reply:
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Verse 38)
We know that coming to faith involves repentance in some form. Faith in Jesus Christ and following him entails changing our way of life. In all sorts of areas, we shall need to perform the spiritual version of a U-turn, to go Christ’s way. The Holy Spirit shows us what we need to change and renounce.
By way of an aside, of course this is not something that happens just once at the beginning of the Christian life: it happens throughout, as the Holy Spirit patiently works to make us more Christlike.
But let us note that it truly is the Holy Spirit who does the convicting. Peter has described the situation, and yes he has told the people that they and others were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus (verses 23, 36), but it’s still the Spirit who cuts them to the heart. We have to be careful not to do the Holy Spirit’s work ourselves, but faithfully to share God’s love and truth and leave the Spirit to do the convicting.
I once had the privilege of registering a wedding for someone who had begun worshipping at another church in the area, but one which did
not own its own building. She had come to faith through an Alpha Course that church had run, and wanted to be baptised. However, she was living with her partner without being married to him. The church had not harangued her for this, even though they believed (and I do, too) that living together falls short of God’s vision for relationships. However, she felt it was not right for her to be baptised until her relationship was regularised. So I registered the wedding, and her pastor conducted the service. I believe it was the Holy Spirit who convicted her, and who led her to marriage before baptism. In fact, the wedding was at 11 o’clock, and she then went to another church building to be baptised at 12 o’clock!
And we also might remember that the Spirit’s timetable and agenda for sorting out people’s lives might not be quite the same as ours. I once heard the preacher Clive Calver tell a story at Spring Harvest about how he kept praying, “Lord, please take away my pride.”
When it didn’t happen, he continued to pray, asking, “Lord, why aren’t you taking away my pride?”
“Because then there would be nothing left,” was what he believed God replied.
We don’t always know why the Spirit highlights certain issues in a person’s life but delays attending to others. What we do know is that coming to Christ involves the Spirit showing us where we need to change our ways in repentance, and that that begins a process that lasts the whole of our lives.
In conclusion, then, the Holy Spirit enlists us for God’s mission in Jesus. The mission is for all people, and needs all God’s people, empowered by the Spirit, for it to flourish. That mission will focus not on us, but on Jesus. Our rôle is to tell the story of Jesus’ activity in our lives. And the Spirit draws people to follow Jesus through conviction of sin.
All in all, then, the mission of God will not function without the primary work of the Holy Spirit. Never mind our plans, our campaigns, our techniques or what the latest book or conference speaker says. No Holy Spirit, no mission worthy of the name.
Come, Holy Spirit.
One of the joys I have in my new appointment is the presence of an Iranian congregation. They meet on Sunday afternoons on the premises of one of my churches. I have been asked to develop closer links with them. This was already beginning under my predecessor, who worshipped with them nearly every week. The Iranian congregation’s lay pastor is in the early stages of Methodist Local Preacher training.
I go as often as I can, and it’s a fascinating experience. There are only a dozen or so who attend each week, and they are warm and friendly. Not only do I experience their warmth, I notice how they treat one other visitor. There are a number of people in our area with serious mental health issues, and some of them regularly visit our services. One chap in particular often comes to the Iranian service. They sit him down with a coffee and do their best to chat with him. Frequently, Michael will leave early during the worship, and they are not offended. They understand, and give him a quiet, but cheerful farewell.
Worshipping at their service is difficult for someone like me who cannot speak or read Farsi. (Although one or our two musicians who attend to help with the worship is learning!) The young woman who leads worship has a beautiful singing voice, and I can appreciate that. However, I haven’t the foggiest what they are singing, except on the rare occasions when they seem to be singing a translation of a worship song originally written in English. The other week, the tune was unmistakably ‘You Are Beautiful Beyond Description’.
When the pastor preaches (or when he talks in other parts of the service), his wife provides a basic translation into English for the musicians and me. The very first week I went, she was unable to come, so that was fun! However, the pastor indicated which Bible passages they were reading, and gave a one or two-sentence summary of his sermon.
My early reaction to this experience was to think, “Whom will they reach? Their likely clientele will be very small, and some of the existing congregation travels several miles to be at this service every week. So how will they grow?”
However, I then realised they were not so different from many established English-speaking congregations. Effectively, we already have thousands of ‘niche churches’ in this country. Our language, practice and culture are so beyond the understanding of many unchurched people that they would struggle to integrate into them. And some of our folk travel several miles to attend worship at the church they love.
More positively, there is a certain case for niche churches in a diverse and fragmented culture. (Thinkers like Michael Moynagh have advocated them.) They will inevitably be small, and they must still express Christian unity with disciples from other backgrounds, otherwise the human reconciliation aspect of the Gospel will not be expressed.
Moving back to the negative, one danger of a niche church is that it becomes a private chaplaincy. I have seen churches for expatriate English speakers abroad function like this. They become like little embassies – where the territory is that of home, not the disturbing country, and the congenial company is a shelter against reality. Come to think of that, plenty of regular churches are like that. It needs regular and persistent challenging.
My Iranian friends have a special opportunity to reach out into their community. We have our unique opportunities, too. Within our diversity, we need to celebrate our unity in Christ as a sign of hope to the world that reconciliation is possible.
And that last point isn’t meant to be an idle theological platitude. Our six-year-old son Mark is aware that Iran as a nation doesn’t like the UK. He was worried at first that I was going to share fellowship with Iranians, because he thought I was going to share with some enemies. I had to explain to him that these Iranians were different from the government in their native land, and that Jesus made us one. Given the levels of racial prejudice I have sometimes found in churches as well as in our society generally, this call to express Christian unity across racial and cultural boundaries – and especially across such a boundary as this one – is vital for Gospel witness.
Recently, for her bedtime stories, Rebekah has asked me to read some episodes from a children’s Bible that was written by the well-known Christian author Jennifer Rees Larcombe. We have been going through some Old Testament stories, and in particular she couldn’t wait to hear how Queen Jezebel came to a grisly end. For Rebekah, there was a real sense of justice in seeing a wicked person get her comeuppance.
However, when we got to Jonah and the part of the story where the Ninevites repented and God withdrew his threat of judgment, my beloved daughter was outraged. It just wasn’t right that God loved wicked people, in her estimation.
Just like Jonah himself in chapter 4.
So we come to this chapter today at the end of this short series, and we do so on Harvest Festival weekend. That is quite deliberate, because the Book of Jonah is about God’s desire for a spiritual harvest – for many more people to know his love and follow Jesus. That is, of course, often the theme of the Gospels where Jesus uses a harvest story in his parables.
This chapter could be conceived as being about the barriers to the spiritual harvest, and our first barrier is at hand here, in the way Rebekah echoed Jonah’s self-righteous anger.
I ended last Sunday morning’s sermon on Jonah 3 with these words:
I mean, you wouldn’t resent other people coming to share in the same privileges of the Gospel as you know, would you? It would be absurd.
I could tell from many people’s body language that they agreed. It would be absurd to resent other people finding the love of God. But I ended that sermon that way deliberately, so that we could build up to the shock of finding that Jonah actually is a resentful, angry, self-righteous man. (Apart from that, he’s quite nice!) In the first three verses of chapter 4, he complains to God about his mercy towards the heathen sinners of Nineveh.
But self-righteousness is dangerously common among religious people, and Jonah is a warning to us. It’s amazing and heartbreaking to see the way the concern for a righteous life loses its bearings and becomes judgmental. Jonah forgot that he was a sinner who had been rescued by the grace of God through the merciful sending of the big fish who saved him from drowning. He forgets he is a rescued sinner. He reverts to type. He says to himself, “I am one of the chosen ones. I am righteous. These Ninevites are wicked sinners. I enjoy the love of God. They should not.”
I’ve seen it time and again in Christian circles. You will know if you read my life story in the church magazine that when my life went awry due to a neck problem at 18, I took a job in the Civil Service. I worked in Social Security. (No, please come back! Please talk to me!) I recall being on holiday one year where a Christian woman asked me what my work was. On replying that I worked in Social Security, she said: “At least you’re the right side of the counter.” Clearly to her, every benefit claimant in the country was a despicable scrounger. Hardly the attitude of heart needed for reaching out with the Gospel of God’s love in Christ.
Or I think of a church coffee morning Debbie and I attended once. The doors were open in the hope that passers-by would drop in and meet the church members, in the hope that eventually they would come to church. But as we listened to the ordinary conversation, with its routine criticism of anything young people liked, or – and this was the deal-breaker for me – their disdain for gadgets (!), we knew that church would need a lot of prayer for it to connect meaningfully with the world.
Contrast that with the man I met once when he and I were both in-patients on a hospital ward together for several days. Before we were discharged, he gave me his business card so that we could stay in touch. After his name were the initials ‘SSBG’. I couldn’t fathom what academic or professional qualification that might be, so I asked him. SSBG, he told me, stood for ‘Sinner Saved By Grace’.
That is where we all have to begin if we desire a spiritual harvest. Unlike Jonah, we need to remember that we have been rescued by God. That needs to engender humility in our lives. The great Sri Lankan Christian D T Niles once said that evangelism was ‘one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread’. In the economy of God, it is the spiritual beggars who see the harvest. He calls us to humility.
We can notice the second barrier to a spiritual harvest in Jonah when we come to verse 5. After God asks him in verse 4, “Is it right for you to be angry?” we read,
Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.
In other words, Jonah left the city. The harvest had come when he had been in the city. Now he was outside, whingeing. Often the religious believer stays outside the places that need the Gospel and fires darts of criticism from a safe distance. Isn’t it better to be cocooned warmly with other Christians, enjoying fellowship?
Well, OK, there’s not much fellowship in Jonah chapter 4, but I hope you take my point. We do all our relating to people who do not share our faith, whether positive or negative in tone, from the outside. We even see that in the typical language we use about wanting more people in our congregations. We say things like, ‘How can we attract more people to come to us?’ Yet note those words ‘attract’ and ‘come’: our assumption is that we are here, and people need to move in order to be part of us.
In one previous circuit, I knew a group of Christians who left the United Reformed Church in the town, because they said they believed God was calling them to reach out with the Gospel to a needy housing estate in what was otherwise a generally prosperous town. They hired the St John Ambulance hall, and began weekly Sunday afternoon meetings. They also ran the Alpha Course. There was only one problem. None of them ever moved onto the estate.
We cannot expect a spiritual harvest if we ‘leave the city’, if we don’t get involved in the middle of people’s lives rather than staying at arm’s length and expecting them to come running gratefully to us. Those of you who were at the welcome service three weeks ago may recall I made reference in my short speech to John’s Gospel. In John 20, the risen Jesus says to the disciples, ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you.’ Therefore, I said, to know how Jesus sends us, we have to know how the Father sent him. And for that we go back to John 1, where we read, ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’ Jesus’ approach to mission was very largely ‘go’. It was to live among the people he wanted to reach.
So if we desire to see a spiritual harvest of people finding faith in Christ and following him, we need to abandon the ideas that a church needs to put together an attractive programme so that we can invite people to enticing events. It is less important to build programmes than to build people.
You will hear more from me on this particular theme as we get to know each other. Do not ‘leave the city’. Be part of the city. Bless the people who do not yet know the love of Christ. Make your lives the kind that provoke questions. And then be ready to answer them.
The third barrier to a spiritual harvest that Jonah demonstrates comes in his attitude to the mysterious Jack and the Beanstalk-type plant (maybe a gourd, maybe a castor-oil plant) that God causes to grow and then wither (verses 6-8). Jonah enjoys the shade it provides, but starts moaning again when it has gone. God brings him up short in the final three verses of the story:
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the gourd?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this gourd, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
In other words, the barrier here is that Jonah has a consumer’s attitude to God. Jonah is happy when God does something for him. But when God doesn’t, or when he requires him to do something unappealing, he wants out.
It’s the same attitude we see in Christians who frequently move church, because no church ever satisfies them. Their assumption is that they are consumers, and they should be satisfied by what is provided. So you hear Christians saying, “We left that church because we weren’t being fed.” Well, what happened to feeding yourselves? Mature Christians should have cultivated ways in which they take on board spiritual nurture for themselves! Any idea that it should all be spoon-fed to them is quite outrageous! The job of the pastor – the shepherd – is not to feed the sheep, but to show them where they can feed themselves.
Faith is not simply about what we can get out of God. If you remember the famous words of John F Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” could be translated into spiritual terms. “Ask not what your God can do for you – ask what you can do for your God.”
Now don’t misunderstand me. Of course we should rejoice and seek the many things God does for us and wants to do for us. But when we simply turn the spiritual life into ‘what I can get out of it’, we have missed the demands of discipleship, and especially the call for discipleship to be practised in a missional way in the world. Those who think that Jesus and the church are here simply to provide for their spiritual preferences are the very people who are usually a barrier to church growth. They so absorb the time of others and distract good Christians from better purposes that they wring the life out of Christ’s church.
All of which rolls us round quite neatly to the theme of harvest. Today, we celebrate what – by the grace of God – we can give, so that others may flourish. Commonly, we think of that in physical and material terms. We give food, money or other items so that the needy may receive what they need.
But there is a spiritual parallel. As we seek not be spiritual consumers but spiritual givers, people who are keen to see what we can do in the service of God’s mission, then other people will receive their spiritual needs. They will find the love of God in Christ for the first time and commit their lives to being disciples of Jesus. They will ‘grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of God’. They too will become missional disciples.
And if too we have been people who have chosen the path of humility, not self-righteous anger; and if we have been people who have not ‘left the city’ for the Christian ghetto but dwelt in the midst of humankind in all its needs; then might we not indeed begin to see a spiritual harvest, and – unlike Jonah – rejoice in it?
This is the first of three farewell sermons (one at each of my churches) to come over the four Sundays of July. First off, a farewell to Broomfield Methodist Church:
Many are the suggestions of themes for a minister’s farewell sermon. You may have heard the story about the disgruntled Anglican curate who had never got on with his vicar. At his final service, he preached on the text, ‘Stay here with the ass while I go yonder’.
You will have nothing like that from me today. Nevertheless, I found it difficult to choose a passage. In the end, the Lectionary came to my rescue. Today’s Gospel reading brings us back to the core theme of my preaching and ministry here, that of mission in the community. So for one last time, you are going to hear me preach on this vital subject.
This is a reading that has been much beloved of mission organisations and evangelists, particularly in recent years. Yet if evangelists and missionaries find this relevant, you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s a story for the specialists, not for the ‘ordinary’ church member (as if there is such a thing as an ‘ordinary’ church member).
But I don’t believe Jesus is only addressing the specialists here. His ‘specialists’ would be the Twelve. But he sent the twelve apostles out on a similar mission in Luke 9. Here he sends out seventy others (verse 1). This passage is mission for ‘ordinary Christians’. This is an indication of how Jesus views mission for all his followers.
We se this not only in the reference to the seventy rather than the twelve, but in the way Jesus launches them with a call to prayer:
The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. (Verse 2)
Why seek more labourers? Mission can’t be limited to specialists. It needs all of us, in some capacity or another. What can we all do? We can all pray. One failing I have in public worship is all too slavishly following standard categories of prayer in the intercessions. Like too many preachers, I have not sufficiently modelled for you the need to put prayer for mission high on our agenda. Yet this is something we all need to do, in public and private prayer. I should have set you a better example.
John Wesley said that God does nothing except in response to prayer, and while I’m not convinced Wesley was completely accurate in that statement, it does bring home to us the prime importance of prayer. We sit around wondering whether this initiative or that project will work, when God is calling us not to be dazzled by the latest hyped-up claims but to commit ourselves to prayer for mission. Prayer, that is, for people to engage in mission. Prayer for God to be at work in people’s hearts preparing them. Prayer first, prayer second and prayer last in mission.
With that foundation, Jesus then says, ‘Go on your way’ (verse 3a). In 1989, Kevin Costner starred in a film called ‘Field of Dreams’. He plays a farmer who is searching for his dreams. One day he hears a voice saying, ‘If you build it, they will come’. ‘They’ turn out to be the famed baseball team the Chicago Black Sox.
‘If you build it, they will come’ is the fallacy under which many churches operate. I even heard those aspirations in some quarters here when I arrived and inherited the refurbishment project. I warned people then that it would not work in those terms, and sadly five years down the line I think we can see that is correct. Renewed buildings brought no newcomers to the congregation.
You know what I’m going to say. Jesus said, ‘Go’. Mission takes place in the world, as we share the love of God in word and deed there. Every one of us has people we know outside our church circles. God sends us to these people and others with his love.
And note there is no distinction between those who pray and those who go. Jesus commands the pray-ers to go and the goers to pray. The idea that some Christians pray for mission (and maybe raise funds, too) while others go is a false distinction to Jesus.
“But I’m nervous,” we say to Jesus, and perhaps the seventy did too, because Jesus seems to acknowledge that sense of vulnerability when he goes on to say, ‘See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves’ (verse 3b). We may not always be as sophisticated in our approach as we might like to be, we know that some people will mock us for our faith. But Jesus still sends us like lambs among wolves. Why? Because vulnerability and powerlessness are two of the upside-down values on which his kingdom thrives. Jesus does things differently from the rest of the world. His mission is cross-shaped. We are not exempt.
Yet the overall lifestyle of mission to which Jesus calls his followers is open to all of us. Not only cross-shaped, but full of simplicity:
Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. (Verse 4)
Some mission organisations take this very literally. A friend of mine works for one organisation that makes it a policy when people serve on their week-long missions that they leave behind their cars and mobile phones, and only bring £2 per day spending money. For the rest of what they need, they depend on local Christian hospitality. And most go back having put on weight!
Most of us, though, do not spend the average week on a dedicated evangelistic mission. For us, this text might be about a general simplicity. Many of us could de-clutter our lives and live more simply as a sign of the kingdom. Many of us could also take heart that Jesus only expects a simple approach to witness. We don’t all have to be cluttered with gizmos and techniques and academic knowledge. What shines through best is a simple devotion to Jesus. Do you have that? If so, you have qualified as one of Jesus’ missionaries.
And as we go simply, walking the way of the Cross, we do so knowing that God has gone ahead of us. We don’t have to engineer situations and we don’t have to force or manipulate people – all of which would be contrary to the spirit of Jesus. Jesus commands the seventy:
Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. (Verses 5-6)
God will have prepared the way for his word. We don’t pray, “God, will you wake up from your slumber and do something in people’s lives?” Rather, we pray, “God, will you show us where you are already at work so that we can join in?” Look for the signs of interest. If there is none, move on, and pray that if you missed the signs, God will show you or someone else. This is what John Wesley called ‘prevenient grace’ – that God’s grace is at work before there is human involvement and response.
If there is manifest resistance or opposition, though, we most definitely walk away. We wipe the dust of the place off our feet (verse 11) – in other words, we reject the contamination of evil. We do not judge but we warn, and we leave the actual sober business of judgement to God (verses 12-16).
But what if we do get a hearing? What kind of things are we to do and say? What will be an advertisement for the kingdom of God? We are to proclaim and share signs that God is remaking his world in accordance with his loving purposes. Jesus gives his disciples a balance of word and deed:
Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (Verses 8-9)
In fact, the deed comes before the word: ‘cure the sick’ precedes telling people about the kingdom of God. How we act in the name of Jesus will be the sign of the kingdom to people. It has been well said that the only Bible some people will read is the lifestyles of Christians. If we are the kind of people whose presence is healing to others and to communities (and yes, why not risk praying for sick people to be healed?), then that is a witness to the kingdom of God. People will be curious. We then need to explain ourselves.
So the old adage that allegedly (but probably wrongly) comes from Francis of Assisi - ‘Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary’ – is slightly wrong. We preach in all sorts of ways as we seek to bless all and sundry – and yes, including those we don’t like. But a lifestyle of blessing provokes questions, and we need to be ready with our answers and our explanations. They don’t need to be academic in the way that someone like me would enjoy. We simply need to explain our hope in Jesus and his coming kingdom.
All Christian mission will have its joys and sorrows. At times, we shall be elated when we see signs that the kingdom of God is advancing, just as the disciples did here, when they returned to Jesus and exclaimed, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” (Verse 17) On other occasions, we shall be frustrated and disappointed. Much of the time, we shall just be plugging away without anything extraordinary or dreadful happening.
In all this, we must not allow the mood of the season to dictate our spiritual well-being. We need to keep anchored in Christ and in the security of God’s love for us. That is why Jesus responds to the delight of the seventy by saying,
“I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Verses 18-20)
We can’t base our security on our achievements, because then we shall rate ourselves less valuable in the day of small things, or we shall describe ourselves as not being useful to God when our physical strength begins to fail. I knew a Local Preacher who became frail and confused, and we had to stop her preaching. She still had enough touch with reality to be angry about it. Her whole sense of self-esteem was based on her preaching.
But we believe in a faith that responds to grace. By the grace of God, our ‘names are written in heaven’. By the grace of God, we are loved with an everlasting love. God’s grace and love are for us, whether we are able or not, and whether we achieve great things or not. We are loved because … we are loved.
Nothing else will give us a firm foundation in life.
And nothing else is worth sharing as Gospel.
And because we believe in a God who loves like that – even to the Cross – we have something to take to the world. We are all his missionaries.
 See, for example, Mike Breen on the ‘man of peace’; Through Faith Missions on simplicity during their ‘Walk Missions’, and Ed Silvoso in That None Should Perish for a strange take on ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’.
 Or seventy-two, depending on your translation; manuscripts vary.
We had all returned to college after the summer vacation, and were comparing experiences from our summer placements.
“I had a strange experience,” said Tom. “Someone in the parish died, but some members of the church were convinced God wanted to raise this man from the dead. They persuaded the staff in the hospital mortuary to let them pray over the dead body.”
Secretly glad that none of us had had to offer advice in that circumstance, we asked Tom what happened.
“Well, don’t you think you would have heard in the national media if he’d been raised from the dead?”
How we wish we might witness in our day the kind of miracles Jesus did, such as the one here. Like this story, perhaps we especially long for such supernatural turn of events when a young person dies. When an elderly person passes away, we often say it was their time and they ‘had a good innings’. But no parent wants to bury their own child, like the widow at Nain did. You will all know of people who died ‘before their time’, and sense something of the pain and injustice that surrounds such deaths.
Some Christians would say that we can receive more of the astounding power that Jesus exhibited in his ministry, and if we would only be more open to the Holy Spirit, we might see more miracles. Others (perhaps infected the disappointments of the years) would rather explain these things away.
I have no doubt we should be more open to the Holy Spirit’s power, and if we do, then we shall certainly see more amazing things than we presently do. Yet even then, we shall still have our disappointments and our questions. So I want to reflect on this story to ask some basic questions along these lines: how does the mission of Jesus in the world as seen here shape the mission he calls us to in the world?
Firstly, I want to draw attention to Jesus’ feelings. Luke tells us ‘he had compassion for her’ (verse 13). The miracle will be for her, not her son, because he gives the young man back to her afterwards (verse 15).
How critical it is that in mission our actions are driven by compassion for others. How easy it is to reach out to others for different reasons. When outreach becomes based on the thought that ‘We need to bring in more people if our church is to continue’, then we are no longer acting with compassion. In those cases, we are simply trying to preserve ourselves. Our feelings are far from those of Jesus.
He knew that the widow was in desperate need. Not only was she mourning the loss of her son – and we know instinctively it is not right for parents to have to bury their own children – he knows she will be in desperate economic straits. Her husband, who would have provided for her material needs, is dead. Now her son, who would have taken over his father’s rôle as the breadwinner, is also dead. There is no pension or other social security provision to act as a safety net for her. She is now potentially destitute.
So this isn’t an indiscriminate miracle. This is Jesus identifying a clear social and economic need, and then responding with the love of God and the power of the Spirit. He calls us to do the same. Who are the people we know in the community who have great needs or who are in pain? He sends us to those people, not to save the skin of our church, but because he has compassion for them. They are people who need the love of God.
Very well, then: how can I share Jesus’ compassion for lost and broken people? There is a simple prayer that any one of us can pray. ‘Lord, give me your heart for those who need your compassion.’
It’s a simple prayer, but it’s a dangerous one. For if we truly want God to share his compassion for people with us, then we may find he breaks our hearts. He will break our hearts with the things that break his heart. Yet if we are to be bearers of his love in the world, we shall need to embrace this simple but dangerous prayer.
An illustration from some of my novel-writing friends might help here. They tell me that when they want to put a point across in a story, the classic motto of the novelist is ‘Show, don’t tell.’ That is, they get the character to show their beliefs by their actions, rather than putting a long speech into their mouths. Clearly for the Christian it can’t be as simple as ‘Show, don’t tell’, because at some point we have to proclaim or explain the love of God in Christ to people. But if we have the compassion of Jesus, it may be something like this: ‘Show before you tell.’ As General Booth once said, “If you want to give a tract to a hungry man, make sure it’s the wrapping around a sandwich.”
Secondly, I’d like us to observe Jesus’ actions. His compassion leads to action. What is that action? ‘[H]e … touched the bier’ (verse 14). In those four words are some enormous implications.
This action ‘is a silent appeal for the funeral procession to be stopped’. Now who is ever popular for interrupting or delaying a funeral? You may remember the kerfuffle here two years ago at Effie Downs’ funeral when an irate playgroup mother castigated me for allowing Pennack’s undertakers in the church car park when she wanted to pick up her little girl, and who then protested by gunning her engine as the funeral procession approached the church doors. If you recall that incident, you will have some idea of the disruption Jesus threatens to cause here at such a delicate time. I’m not suggesting for one moment that Jesus was aggressive and hostile as that woman was, but the mourners must have feared for what was coming next.
Not only that, you will probably have heard preachers tell you before that for the pious Jew, touching a dead body (even if all Jesus effectively did here amounted to touching the wooden plank on which the wrapped body was laid) made you ceremonially unclean. Jesus goes outside the boundaries of the Jewish Law in order to make his point.
Put these two insights together and you see that by touching the bier, Jesus risked offending social and religious customs in order to get on with what he needed to do. Jesus will take risks in order to act on the compassion he feels for the widow. He is not deterred by the thought that some people might not like him or approve of him. Staying within the boundaries of social niceties is no priority for him.
This is something that goes deep in the Methodist tradition. In remembering John Wesley, we rightly dwell much on his ‘conversion’ of 24th May 1738, when his ‘heart was strangely warmed’ and he was assured that he trusted in Christ alone for salvation. However, we ought also to dwell on 1st April 1739, when he gave into George Whitefield’s badgering to preach in the open air to the colliers at Kingswood, near Bristol. Wesley said that he ‘submitted to be more vile’, because he had previously considered it a sin to preach anywhere other than inside a church building. That was when the revival began.
For Jesus, the love of God meant disregarding the rules of respectable society. For Wesley, it was the same. What about the Church today? Take the way some churches talk about young people. They agree they want to reach them, but are not willing to take social risks. So they will not let them use parts of their premises for fear of vandalism. Or they refuse to give food and drink to some who do not know proper etiquette.
Jesus would ask us how many social boundaries we are willing to cross in order to bring his compassion to people. The American church planter Neil Cole has a provocative – to me, at least – way of putting it. He says we must be willing to ‘sit in the smoking section’. As someone who detests tobacco smoke in all its forms, those are challenging words to me. Jesus would tell us that if you want to share divine compassion in a hurting world, you’ve got to touch the bier.
Thirdly and finally, let us reflect on Jesus’ words. Yes, the words come last. He shows before he tells. “Young man, I say to you, rise!” (Verse 14) Rise up. A literal rising up may not happen as routinely as the people my friend Tom encountered hoped for, but the Gospel leads us into other situations where the message is ‘Rise up.’
One of my very first baptismal services involved the baptism of twin girls born to a church couple. When I visited them to plan the service, the husband told me that his brother and family would be present. He wanted me to know, because – to his bafflement – his brother was part of a strict church where the entire message was about doom, gloom and sin.
“I just don’t get that,” said Steve. “To me, God is about the word ‘welcome’.”
I believe the one Gospel needs couching in many forms, according to different people’s circumstances and needs. For the proud, a message of sin and repentance may need to take the headlines. They need bringing low before they can be raised up. (Although of course, we all must heed the call to repentance.)
For others, though, the message may well be what Steve called ‘welcome’. It will be a message that says “Young man, I say to you, rise!” For the poor and downtrodden, for those damaged by the demeaning or violent actions of others, for those whose self-esteem is lower than ground level, Jesus may well want to say, “Rise up!” The love of God brings new dignity to people, the dignity of being made and being remade in the image of God, the dignity of knowing you are loved by the God of the universe. As the Psalmist puts it:
But you, LORD, are a shield around me,
my glory, the one who lifts my head high. (Psalm 3:3)
God ‘lifts my head high’ – he is ‘the lifter of my head’, as the Authorised Version puts it. Being loved by a God who gave up his only begotten Son to the Cross lifts our heads high. And because God does that for us, a key way in which we share his message is by raising people’s dignity. Why? Because they are ‘loved with an everlasting love’, just as we are.
Where to begin? Here’s a thought. When the New Testament talks about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we read that they are for ‘edification’. That’s an interesting word, edification. It has to do with an edifice, a building. Spiritual gifts are therefore to ‘build people up’. It’s time to start practising building people up, because that is key to the work of the Holy Spirit. We may find it easiest to begin with our church family and then look for opportunities in the community.
We can be sure of one thing: we live in a culture that enjoys raising people up, only to tear them down. Which footballers will be subjected to that in the next few weeks during the World Cup? The Christian Church is called to be different. Our call to mission involves building up the lowly and downcast, saying to them, “Rise up! You are loved by God.” That becomes part of our witness as we seek to introduce people to personal faith in Jesus Christ.
Each week, the Essex Chronicle carries a ‘Remember When’ section. It looks back at news it covered in previous decades. Thursday’s edition contained a small piece from 1980 about a Catholic nun from Danbury called Mother Teresa (‘not the famous one’, as they said) who had put a shade at the top of her car’s windscreen with the words, ‘Smile, Jesus loves you.’ She commented how people would come up to her and tell her that it had made their day.
Of course, it will take more than a car sticker to do Christian mission. It will take godly compassion, a willingness to cross social barriers and a thorough commitment to build people up rather than run them down. That is what the example of Jesus shows us. May we have the heart to follow the example he sets, and may we seek the Holy Spirit’s power in order to do so.
 John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20, p323.
Perhaps you know the old story of the vicar who visited a primary school where they were learning the Creed. The children lined up for the vicar and one by one recited a section. However, an embarrassing silence enveloped proceedings part-way through.
Eventually, one child blurted out an explanation. “I’m sorry, the boy who believes in the Holy Spirit isn’t here today.”
Is there sometimes an embarrassing silence about the Holy Spirit in our churches? That can be true in some traditional churches. Well has it been said that Catholics believe in Father, Son and Holy Mother, whereas Protestants believe in Father, Son and Holy Bible.
The reasons for embarrassed silence aren’t hard to find. Often, they can be put down to one word. Fear. The Holy Spirit? Or worse, the old name ‘the Holy Ghost’. It sounds spooky, if not frightening. On top of that, you get stories like this one in Acts 2 with the account of people speaking in tongues. In some circles, I have only to mention that and people get upset with me!
As a result, we either ignore or domesticate the Holy Spirit. When we domesticate the Spirit, we reduce his work to a bland coating of the mundane. It’s like cooking without spices or herbs.
What a tragedy. For Pentecost is one of the key events in God’s story of salvation, along with creation, the Incarnation and Easter. And while today I don’t have time to explore the particular anxieties many have around the specific issue of speaking in tongues, what I want to do in this sermon is explore the purposes of Pentecost.
Here’s the first purpose: Pentecost makes us more like Jesus. Let me give you some background in order to explain that. If you know your Bibles, you will know that Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles are both written by the same author (whom I take to be Luke himself) to the same recipient (a character otherwise unknown to us called Theophilus). Luke’s Gospel describes what Jesus began to do and teach; by implication, Acts is then Part Two of his story. In Acts, Jesus is still at work, but by the Holy Spirit through the Church.
In particular, there are parallels between some of the early episodes in Luke’s Gospel and those near the beginning of Acts. Both contain a promise that disciples will be ‘baptised with the Holy Spirit’. Then the Spirit comes down – upon Jesus at his baptism and upon the disciples at Pentecost. After that, there is a key sermon that explains what God is fulfilling – Jesus preaches at Nazareth, Peter preaches in Jerusalem after the Pentecostal outpouring. Then there is witness to people nearby.
Put that together, and what is Luke telling us? He’s showing the early disciples going through the same process as Jesus. Pentecost begins their empowered public ministry just as the baptism did for Jesus. By drawing these parallels, Luke is telling Theophilus – and us – that the Holy Spirit has come in order to make us ‘little Jesuses’. The Spirit has come to make our lives and ministries much more like that of Jesus.
How often is it we lament that our lives are nothing like Jesus at all? Quite frequently, I’d guess. As Christians, we want to be more like him, but much of the time we know how vast the distance is between the way we live and how he did on earth.
What failing or weakness do we lament in our Christian lives? Is it that, unlike Jesus, we struggle to display selfless, sacrificial love? The Holy Spirit is here to move us closer to the example of our Saviour. Is it that we have no assurance that our prayers are heard and answered? The Holy Spirit comes to move us in the right direction. Do we lack courage to share the love of God with others through our words and deeds? Again, the Holy Spirit comes upon us to remake us more in the image of Christ.
Let me put it another way, in order to underline this point. Many Jewish people celebrated Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks, as a commemoration of when God gave his people the Law at Mount Sinai. God gave the Law after he had delivered his people from Egypt. It set out the ways they were to please him in gratitude for that deliverance. We too seek to please God out of gratitude for our deliverance (not from Egypt but from our sins). The Pentecostal gift of the Spirit is what enables us to please God. God has shown us the ways we might please him, but he has also given us his Spirit so we may have the power to do what delights him.
The second purpose is this: Pentecost is a taste of God’s kingdom. Let me introduce this thought with an illustration. Every now and again, we go into Chelmsford town centre on a Saturday as a family for various reasons. There is one stall among all the market stalls where we are almost guaranteed to stop every time. That is the fruit and vegetable stall. Apart from the fact that we enjoy buying some of their delicious fruit, they have samples available on a table by the stall. Usually they have cut up oranges and pineapples in the hope that passers-by will try some and then say, “Wow! I must buy some!” Regardless of whether we are going to buy any, our seven-year-old daughter Rebekah stops off for a little feast. In her eyes, the fruit samples are there purely as a public service.
Pentecost is like the opportunity to sample a taste of some fruit, too. The Jewish Feast of Weeks was a harvest festival. Not a full harvest festival like that celebrated at the end of the summer when all the crops have been brought in, but a festival of first fruits. When the first crops came in during late Spring, the people got a taste of what was to come three months or so later.
Pentecost, then, becomes the taste of what the fullness of God’s kingdom will be like, when God sends his angels to bring in the great harvest of the ages. Just as the Resurrection of Jesus is also described as the first fruits (of the great resurrection of all) and anticipates the day when God will make all things new, so too the gift of the Holy Spirit brings a foretaste of the new creation, when God will renew the heavens and the earth. Every sign of the Spirit’s work now, whether large or small, quiet or loud, private or public, is a taste of God’s fruit stall.
So when the Holy Spirit inspires us to care for the stranger, we taste God’s future. When the Spirit calls someone from the darkness of sin to the light of Jesus Christ, our taste buds anticipate the flavours of the kingdom. When the same Spirit does a work of healing in a life (be that physical, emotional, social or any other kind of healing), we glimpse the glorious future where there will be no more pain. When the Spirit leads God’s people to confront evil powers with a prophetic word of truth and justice, we taste the new society to come. When the Holy Spirit does his supreme work of revealing Jesus to people, we get a flavour of that time when we shall no longer know in part, but see him face to face.
Yes, it is frustrating and painful that not everyone is healed, not everyone responds to the call to follow Christ, and that powerful forces dish out injustice. We long for the great harvest of love, healing, righteousness and justice. But right now we are in the era of the first fruits. God calls us to welcome his Holy Spirit and co-operate with him, so that there may in the meantime be many more foretastes of his kingdom when he will rule unchallenged.
The third purpose I want to highlight is that Pentecost is about mission. Even though I take it not that the disciples spoke to the crowd in ‘other tongues’ but rather that the crowd overheard, what is clear is that the Holy Spirit crosses national and cultural boundaries so that people hear the praises of God in their own languages.
Now on one level, there is something almost unnecessary about this miracle. Although the Jews who heard were from different lands, these are almost certainly
‘not in the main … pilgrims [who had] come to Jerusalem from the Diaspora for the feast, but rather Diaspora Jews who had come to live or retire in Jerusalem, and no doubt would have attended some of the synagogues founded in Jerusalem by Diaspora Jews’
In other words, this is a group of people who could speak a common language together anyway, despite their different nationalities. They could understand Hebrew, the language of their faith. Why not just address them in Hebrew?
But the Holy Spirit takes the Gospel to them in the language of each of their cultures. They do not have to work within the language and culture of the established religion in order to hear the Good News.
For me, this is a vital approach in mission. One of the problems we have in church life is that we want to draw people into the community of faith, but we expect them to adapt to our ways of doing things and learn our jargon. We add unnecessary barriers to the acceptance of the Gospel.
This is not what the Holy Spirit does. Think about the ministry of Jesus himself in the Incarnation. He did not stand at a distance and expect people to come to him. Rather , he took on human flesh and dwelt in the midst of the people to whom he was sent. The Holy Spirit mirrors Jesus. He desires to take the Gospel to people where they are in a form they can understand.
That becomes the challenge for us. When we are filled with the Spirit, we shall not simply want to make more people who are Methodist or United Reformed like us. We shall want to establish new communities within the many cultures of our world, our nation, and even of our locality. That’s why ‘Fresh Expressions’ and all sorts of experiments in sharing the Gospel in culturally appropriate ways are at heart Spirit-led approaches to mission.
We should expect this. When Jesus told his followers they would be baptised with the Holy Spirit, he said the consequence would be that they would be his witnesses. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of mission. The disciples were to be witnesses ‘in Jerusalem, in Judea and all Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’. Again, the work of the Spirit is not in creating a church that waits for people to come to her on her terms. The Spirit makes us missional people who move out of our comfort zones into the places where those who need the love of God are comfortable. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we share the love of God in Christ in other people’s comfort zones, not our own. This is what Spirit-led people do.
In conclusion, then, we have every reason to welcome the Holy Spirit rather than fear him. Who wants to be more like Jesus? Let us welcome the Holy Spirit. Who is hungry for a taste of God’s coming kingdom? Let us invite the Holy Spirit to come. And who wants to share the love of Christ in word and deed in a needy world? The Holy Spirit is already at work, within us and going ahead of us. Let us seek more of his power.
Yes, come Holy Spirit.
 See Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, p128f.
 Although we’re not absolutely certain this was the case at this time – see Witherington, p131.
 Witherington, p135.