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.
Wandering around St Augustine’s last Sunday morning before the service, I noticed the place where the Catholic community leave their votive candles burning after their 9 am Mass. I’m sure there is a special Catholic word for it, but I’m afraid I’m ignorant of these technicalities.
In front of the candles is a kneeler and small rail. On the rail are some cards containing the texts of prayers. Prominent among them was a prayer to Mary written by the current Pope. Of course as I read it I realised it was not addressing Mary in prayer in the way you would God. It was asking Mary’s help in approaching God, and in the ways of discipleship.
Nevertheless, my Protestant bones got nervous! And maybe a number of us still do at the mention of Mary, despite warmer relations with Christians of other traditions.
Yet whatever reservations I want to enter about traditional Catholic attitudes to Mary, it’s entirely wrong just to be negative about her, which is the Protestant error regarding her. Mary is a great example of Christian discipleship herself. Remember she was at the Cross and among the disciples praying in the lead-up to Pentecost.
And she is an example of Christian discipleship here, too, in the famous story of the Annunciation. How so? In ways that are fundamental to all followers of Jesus. Her life – even here, at the tender age of about thirteen – is a testimony to Christian basics.
‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessèd art thou among women,’ say our Catholic friends. They are quoting this very passage. To quote it from the reading, Gabriel says:
‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ (‘Blessèd are you among women’ is not in the best manuscripts.) (Verse 28)
The difference I have with Catholics is that Mary is not the giver of grace but the recipient of grace. ‘Full of grace’ means she is the ‘favoured one’. God has favoured her. There is no indication of any reason why she has deserved this. Rather, this is the sovereign choice of God in deciding to favour one of his children. There is no requirement that Mary is sinless, it is about the sovereign grace of God.
But what kind of favour is it? God has chosen her to bring his Son into the world. In one respect, that is the most enormous honour. It is an incredible decision of favour towards Mary. What could be more wonderful than to carry the presence of God in her womb for nine months? What could be more incredible than to be the one who brings God in the flesh into the midst of humanity?
So you could say that we have a similar privilege. God’s favour towards us is that – while we do not carry Jesus physically as Mary did – we carry his presence with us by the Holy Spirit, and we have the missionary privilege of bearing his love into a broken world. God honours us, too, then: he makes us what Paul calls ‘ambassadors’, but not only in representing Christ to the world. We take Christ to the world. God chooses every follower of his Son do this. It shows his favour towards us.
But it is a favour in the form of a double-edged sword. For Mary to accept the call was to risk scandal or even worse. In a society that held strongly to its morals, pregnancy outside marriage would bring shame. Adultery, of course, was punishable by stoning. It was potentially costly in the extreme for Mary to embrace the favour of God. She did so, taking a huge risk. Certainly there is ancient evidence of stories being put around that Jesus was the bastard son of Mary and a Roman soldier. Receiving and accepting the favour of God meant she could be reviled and despised.
And the favour of God is a challenge for us, too. Yes, it is a privilege to bear witness to Christ in the world, but we know that sometimes comes at a price. Snide comments, ridicule and on other occasions worse things than that. Yet the early church considered such opposition their badge of honour. Mary’s willingness to take on all that the favour of God would mean for her is an Advent reminder to us that the favour of God in Christ carries a price that is worth paying.
One of the things I most like about Mary is that she asks questions. ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ she asks (verse 34). I’ll say something more about her questions in the final point, but for now let’s notice the angel’s reply:
‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ (Verses 35-37)
Mary, you don’t have to abandon your morals to accomplish this. You don’t have to worry about doing the impossible. The impossible is God’s department, says Gabriel. Mary, you cannot fulfil your calling under God except by the power of the Holy Spirit.
And this too becomes an important reminder for us about the nature of Christian discipleship. There is so much we do and maintain in the church and in the world purely on the basis of our own strength. Our criteria are whether we think we can do something, rather than asking what God has called us to do, and then depending on the Holy Spirit.
It’s the latter which is true discipleship, not the former. We are the agents of God’s impossible ministry, and it is accomplished not on the basis of our abilities (however important it is to dedicate them to God). Nor is it achieved by force of strong personalities. God’s work is achieved by our co-operation with the Holy Spirit.
So when Gabriel tells Mary, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you’, he doesn’t just tell her the mechanics of what is to happen in the near future: he foreshadows the way in which God will send the Holy Spirit on all the followers of Christ.
A wag once said that if the Holy Spirit were withdrawn from the church, then ninety five per cent of all church activity would continue just the same. That may be a trifle unfair, but the point is probably a sound one. We have got so used to running the institution of the church that somewhere along the line many of us have just assumed the presence of the Holy Spirit, rather than lived in active dependence upon him [her?].
So let’s not confine the Holy Spirit to an annual remembrance on the Day of Pentecost. Advent is a time for remembering that the work of the Holy Spirit is three hundred and sixty five days a year, twenty four hours a day. As we celebrate the Annunciation to Mary today, will we recommit ourselves to seeking the power of the Holy Spirit to do the will of God, rather than confining God to the limits of our abilities?
Yes, today is a day to say, ‘God, we give you permission to stretch us. Challenge us to something beyond our capabilities, and we shall rely on your Spirit to accomplish your work.’
Now here’s the point where I want to bring back the fact that Mary asks questions. That might not be what you expected me to highlight when talking about her faith. You might have thought I would have gravitated to those wonderful words of hers, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’ (verse 38). Certainly those are words of faith. Taken on their own, they might depict a serenity of faith to which many of us aspire.
And in contrast to that, some might think that when she questions the angel, saying, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ (verse 34), that those words reflect doubt, lack of faith, or even unbelief.
But I submit to you that Mary’s question is not an act of doubt or unbelief. If you had read Luke’s Gospel from the beginning, you would have come across an example of that, where Zechariah hears the angelic announcement that his wife Elizabeth is to bear a son, John the Baptist. Zechariah’s unbelief leads to his being struck dumb until the child is born.
Gabriel doesn’t react that way here. He gives an explanation in response to Mary’s question. I suggest the difference is because Mary feels secure enough to ask questions from within the framework of faith. Having faith need not mean we don’t have questions. The Old Testament is full of such faith. Read the Psalms, where so many of the Psalmists complain to God from a standpoint of faith. Mary isn’t even complaining, she’s just asking ‘how?’.
What’s the difference between faith with questions and unbelief? That’s in Mary’s willingness to obey. You can question but still obey, and that’s what Mary does.
One hymn I hate and will not choose (not that it’s in any Methodist books any more) is ‘I vow to thee my country‘. I take particular exception to the line, ‘The love that asks no question.’ Not only does the hymn require a devotion to country that outstrips our loyalty to God (whatever the final verse says), I’m not sure I even offer God a ‘love that asks no question’. Certainly Mary didn’t. And there’s no reason why we should, either, just so long as we are willing to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
When I began my career in the Civil Service, I had to spend four weeks away on a training course. I shared accommodation with someone who had a Philosophy degree, and whose dissertation had been written on the subject, ‘Logical disproofs of the existence of God’. Knowing I was a Christian, he asked why I believed in God. But at the end, he made it clear he had no intention of taking it seriously and only did it for a joke. His questions were those of unbelief, not of faith.
Similarly, there are some within the church whose questions can be little more than scorn, rather than honest exploration in the service of Christ. That is hardly a questioning faith.
The key point is that faith has legs. Questions and concerns are fine, just so long as we retain a basic commitment to say ‘yes’ to Christ. Because that’s what a disciple is. Someone who imitates him. That’s going to require a faith that isn’t merely theoretical, but shows itself to be real in obedience. Provided that is at the heart of our faith, we can ask all the questions we need. God is not threatened by them.
Mary, then, is not some unattainable, semi-divine figure. She is a human, vulnerable follower of her Lord. As such, she can be an inspiration to us as we seek to walk in the way of faith.
Like her, let us accept the gracious favour of God to share Christ with the world, and accept the cost we may have to pay.
Like her, let us depend on the Holy Spirit for the accomplishment of all that God wants to do in and through us, rather than continuing to go through the motions.
And like her, let us bring our questions to God and yet press on in the obedience of faith.
‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Verse 38)