A sermon on Acts 2: 1-21; 1 Corinthians 12: 3b-13 & John 20: 19-23
by the Revd Gilbert Joyce
Thomas Long, who was an American minister, tells of a very small confirmation group that he had – just three girls. In one session they were talking about the festivals and seasons of the Christian year. He asked if any of them knew what Pentecost was, and none of them did. So, to quote, “I proceeded to tell them that Pentecost was when the church was sitting around in a group and the Holy Spirit landed on them like tongues of fire. They spoke the gospel in all the languages of the world. Two of the girls took this information in their stride, but the third look ed absolutely astonished, eyes wide open. ‘Gosh Mr Long! I must have been away that Sunday.’”
Now think about that for a moment, because the real significance is not in the girl’s misunderstanding. In fact the real significance is in the insight that the girl had in her understanding. For Pentecost is not just about what happened back there — ablaze with enthusiasm, responding to new initiatives for the gospel beyond the narrow confines of what they had understood — but Pentecost is something that must happen to the church now. It must happen in our generation and every generation.
Now we shouldn’t think of the Holy Spirit as just beginning in New Testament times. I would remind you of creation, the Spirit bringing order out of chaos. The breath of life giving life to human beings and to all creatures. The Spirit enabling Israel’s leaders. Even the skill of the Tabernacle craftsmen is ascribed to the Holy Spirit. And the prophets of course spoke as prompted by the Holy Spirit as the Spirit gave them utterance. In fact we understand the words of the whole Bible to be in some way inspired. People have different understandings of what that means, but the words are inspired and the Holy Spirit gives us understanding, so the inspiration goes on. And the Psalmist prays that the Holy Spirit might not be taken away from him.
The Holy Spirit, or God’s specific action, is active in the birth of Jesus, in the baptism of Jesus, and in empowering Jesus’ mission. Well, what is new in the New Testament? Well, as I see it, it is that our eyes are opened to the presence and the extent of the work of the Holy Spirit. The gift is to all Christians, and even beyond that, God’s Spirit is without bounds in all sorts of life and world situations, including in our own life. God is at work, through the Spirit, in our own life, long before we know it. Jesus promised that we would not be left desolate, but that the Holy Spirit would be beside us and dwelling within us — an advocate or paracletos, a friend, or even like a lawyer taking our position before others. The Holy Spirit would guide us in the way of Christ, we are told, and would empower us for sharing in Christ’s mission. We had that in today’s gospel: “As the Father sent me,” said Jesus the risen Lord, “now I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit.”
To be led by the Spirit is to be a son or daughter of God, a child of God, and therefore we are given gifts by the Spirit, not just for self satisfaction but to be part of a community of faith, working together in the service to which Christ calls us as a church in the world. The Spirit gives each Christian gifts, and we are a gift to the church or the people of God, and the people of God are a gift to the world. We are to here for one another too. When my faith is low, when my spirit is low, you are to raise my spirits. You are God’s gift. The Holy Spirit is working through you to lift me, and I am meant to be there for you. We are to be here for one another. Thus, not only is Christ’s life and salvation received as a gift, but each of us is given to Christ and the world as a gift.
Now, we had one reading tonight from Corinthians which talks about the spiritual gifts or the gifts of the Holy Spirit in each of us. In Romans, Paul speaks of God gifting the people of God. In Ephesians it is the risen Christ who gifts. In first Corinthians it is the Holy Spirit. I don’t think there s a point of real difference here — I certainly am not going to argue about which it is. And I do not take the lists of gifts as exhaustive, but rather as examples. That is, whatever gifts we are given, either endowed with naturally or given because God has called us to some specific service or ministry, whichever they are to be used in Christian service as part of the Christian community and to the world, whose presence will encourage, support and strengthen us.
In first Corinthians, the gifts are listed as wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, proclaimers of God’s message, discernment, ability to speak in strange tongues, and to interpret. Romans speaks of God’s message again, of service, teaching, encouragement, sharing with generosity, aid, kind acts. And Ephesians talks about the people: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Throughout the whole New Testament, the Holy Spirit is that which makes salvation real to us, which brings understanding to us, which brings Christ to our hearts — both the words of Christ and the salvation of Christ to our hearts. The Holy Spirit guides and empowers our life. The Holy Spirit gifts us for Christian service, and gradually makes us into what we are called to be. Gradually.
I love that old story about Samuel choosing David. He goes through all the sons who are strong blokes like footballers. God says to him, “No, not that one. Not that one. Not that one.”
“Got another one?”
“Out with the sheep. David.”
And we are told in that passage that humans look on the outward. God sees the human heart. God sees what we shall be. God sees what God is going to make of us, not what we are already. God sees us as we shall be. Thus the Holy Spirit brings to our lives faith, hope and love, and creates is us love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control — characteristics which none of us have in perfection, but which God is giving us along the way.
There are a traditional seven-fold gifts of the Spirit which come into some hymns and are sometimes used in some confirmation prayers — we use it in a membership prayer here too. They translate in different ways, but they come mainly from Isaiah 11 which speaks of the Spirit resting upon God’s chosen one. The seventh is added from elsewhere, because seven is a better number than six! Wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, wonder in God’s presence, and delight in God’s service.
Pentecost is the fulfilment of Joel’s vision of the Spirit poured out on all people, of Jeremiah’s vision vision that God’s will will be written on the human heart and not on blocks of stone, that our actions will reflect what God has put in our heart so that what we are naturally comes out. Pentecost is the key to the story of the Church, for in receiving the Holy Spirit, they and we are enabled to be witnesses of Christ in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth. If you read Acts carefully you will see that they were in their nice little safe place, but the Holy Spirit is always giving them a little push into something different, something new, something frightening. There were hesitations about it. Peter has to be given that vision of unclean foods on the rooftop before he would go to the gentiles. And he still doesn’t get it, does he? They still have regulations and Paul seems to understand better that all are accepted by God. Even Paul has to have a shipwreck to be taken off into Europe.
This is still the Church, We have to face new situations, situations we don’t like to face but which we have to face with courage and with God’s inspired innovation. But we see in the Church people in all sorts of Christian service, people equipping themselves and going where God has gently prodded or challenged them, people there for Christ in their daily tasks. This is being open to the Holy Spirit’s prompting.
Now people ask can we feel God’s presence? Can we feel the Holy Spirit’s work? Well, I believe we can certainly be aware of it. We are inspired and encouraged by examples of lives obviously lived by faith. I doubt whether there is a person in the room who has not been inspired by somebody in Christian life, in their Christian journey; somebody who has encouraged them along the way. And I believe that this is a work of God, this is a work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the wider Church. And we can see changes in the lives of people who have come to faith. We can even be aware of changes in our own life. But a word of caution here: we must always remember that salvation is a gift, it is grace. And when I say that we can be aware of changes in our own life, it must be understood in relation to the basic thing – salvation – being God’s gift. Our life and action and service are to freely flow from what God is making us into – that is a heart right with God. And I think we must learn to simply trust and forget ourselves and to just accept that we are accepted by God, because of Christ’s action, because of what God is making us into. We are saved. It is not our work. We can never earn it. And that freedom enables us to be there for others.
I believe that there are confirmatory seals, but they are different for different people. For some people it is the penny-drop experience, the piece of the jigsaw that finally fits – Ah! Yes! It works! I was reading some of the earlier stuff from C.S.Lewis, and he had a penny-drop experience; it fitted into place. That surely is the work of the Holy Spirit in one’s life.
Or it could be that overwhelming experience within, what I might call a Wesleyan heart-warming experience. When Wesley was going across to America, all the English people got all worked up and panicky about the ship which they thought was going to be wrecked, and the German Moravians were just quietly singing psalms and he couldn’t believe it. And later on he was taken to one of their meetings in London rather reluctantly, and he said he had this heart-warming experience. He realised that he did believe it and that was a life changing experience for him, and many believe it was a life changing experience for England. But some historians don’t accept that now. Or we can come through situations and afterwards realise that there was the guiding hand of God. The Spirit of God has brought us through that difficult or marvellous situation.
And, yes, many have rediscovered such spectacular gifts as speaking in tongues. I don’t know what each of you feel about that, but in my last parish before I retired in 2002 I was in fellowship with a number of Pentecostal ministers and mainstream ministers in the Charismatic movement, and I really desired this gift that others seemed to have. And one day it popped into my head that if I said certain things it would flow, and it did, so it is an experience that I have had. But it is also an experience that I learned that I didn’t need and perhaps that is what God was trying to show me, that I had in the normal experiences of church life and faith all that I needed. But God works with different people in different ways to bring them to faith, and the wind of the Spirit blows where it will. Yet we must not forget, in looking for something special, forget the normal things which are God’s gifts through which God is present and active, nurturing and healing: the Christian community; the worship and the Lord’s Table; the reading, pondering and hearing God’s Word through the Bible; and the challenge and support of other Christians. The Spirit of God works through these things. Not only did I have a wonderful experience in my youth which brought me to an understanding of faith, but in our early married life in the bush, we were in a church which was like a family and we were able to grow in our Christian life.
Do we feel it? Sir Samuel Wodderman(?), years ago was the professor of agriculture at Melbourne University, and he had an American guest to look after. It was on Grand Final day and his team was in the Grand Final. He took him to the Melbourne Botanic Gardens in the morning, and he could hear the crowd getting excited over at the MCG. Botanically, the Botanic Gardens a re a world class collection and this American botanical professor was really wrapped with the place. Anyway, he got him over to the football and he thought he’d be interested. And it was one of those games where the crowd was really on a knife edge and there was a really sense of one-spirit excitement around the ground because it was a very close game. And this American guest, who didn’t have a clue what was going on, at half time when the scores were locked together, said, “Let’s go back to the Botanic Gardens.” My point being that it is possible to be where any spirit is, including the Spirit of God, and be untouched and unaware of it, completely removed, it passes you by. On our part, we need to be open to God and open to the possibilities of God.
In my theology school days almost forty years ago, lots was said about koinonia, which is the Greek word which is translated as communion, or fellowship, or community, or even unity. For the essence of the church is not structure, office, authority, nor the reverse — a loose club of like-minded people like the model railway club. The Church is a fellowship in the Holy Spirit, a bond, a drawing together by God of those who have heard “Come, follow me, be my disciples. Love one another as I have loved you. Support one another in faith and love and service”, those who are nurtured by the same Spirit who has called us together, and we hear the word again, “As the Father sent me, so now I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit, and you shall be my witnesses here and to the very ends of the earth.” When Lindsay flicks that water around tonight, he is reminding you that you are baptised, and by your baptism you are sent out into the world as ministers of the gospel. Each and every one of us are ordained to the ministry of Christ. And this strange and joyous story is telling us that when the Spirit was poured out at Pentecost, it was not just given to a few who spoke Hebrew and happened to live in Jerusalem in the first century. We are being told the Spirit is there for us where ever we gather in the one place for that one purpose. For here is the fellowship of believers, the Church that was born at Pentecost, but week after week and day after day it is nurtured and sent forth by that same Holy Spirit, still moving like the wind, still poured into our hearts and lives. “As the Father sent me, so I send you,” says the risen Lord. “Receive the Holy Spirit.” You’re all ordained for the work of Christ. Amen.