This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 9:30am Eucharist on 24th May 2015 – Pentecost Sunday. The readings were Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:22-27 & John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15.
Tomorrow is a big day in our house. No, I’m not just talking about the events that will unfold at Wembley Stadium as my beloved Canaries seek to re-join the great escape artists of Sunderland in the Premier League – it’s also my middle daughter’s 7th birthday! Where does the time go?!
Birthdays are a funny thing really, aren’t they? We long for them as a child, maybe squashing down a bit of jealousy when a friend or sibling has theirs but anticipating the gifts and celebrations to come on our special day. Then as we get older, we maybe don’t relish them as much as we used to – possibly they’re just a reminder of another mile on the clock, another year older and hopefully, but not necessarily wiser. But if we allow ourselves, birthdays can afford us a good opportunity to look back over the life of ourselves or a loved one and see how far we’ve come, how we’ve grown, what made us who we are today.
I guess this fits in nicely with our Pentecost celebration today, as we read once again Luke’s account of the birth of the Church as recorded in Acts.
But his account also serves to help us look back at the real birth of Christianity – the birth of Jesus Himself. Luke spends more time describing the beginning of the Incarnation, the word becoming flesh, than any of the other Gospel writers – he wants us to see that in the origins of a person there is an indication of the direction that person’s life will take. With this in mind, there are parallels between the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel and the opening of Acts. Both stories begin with the arrival of the Holy Spirit, though in both the Spirit seems to be at work in the period before. In both the promise given is contrasted with John the Baptist. Knowing Theophilus and any other readers will have seen his original Gospel, Luke is indicating to us we can expect to learn much from this second infancy narrative – that of the first community of believers, our Christian ancestors.
It’s important to hold this in our minds as we explore Pentecost – Acts is very much rooted in what is written in Luke, and the dramatic events of Pentecost are bound up with the events recorded in Luke 24. Pentecost follows hot on the heels of our Ascension celebrations, and inside the Easter season, because all three are inextricably linked to one another. At the Emmaus road encounter, Cleopas and his colleague reported Jesus was “made known to them in the breaking of the bread,” and that he “opened their eyes to understand the scriptures.” Afterwards he told his disciples to “stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high.” At Pentecost we remember that same power of God, made known at the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, is given to the people of God – his closest disciples, the Jews from every nation who hear them preach the Good News and listen to the message, even to the Gentiles. Yes, even to the gentiles, us, allowing us to also have an encounter, to be strengthened, healed and empowered by the Holy Spirit of the living God.
Because a good birthday celebration is not just about looking back, living in the past. We need to also look forward, to our future, to what is to come, what we feel God is calling us to do next, how we can develop to be the person or people God has created us to be – how we can be the Church, the Body of Christ, that God has called us to be. And this part of Acts shows us that anything is possible in the power of the Holy Spirit. Luke highlights this in a very subtle way, a way that even those of us who are long in the faith can miss. The story of Peter in this chapter shows that wherever we feel we are with God, however powerful or insubstantial we feel our faith to be, a relationship with Jesus and the awesome power of the Holy Spirit can truly transform us into the person the Father sees as He looks at us. This same Peter, who could only follow at a distance as His great friend was taken away, who denied even knowing him to the maid who insisted he must, and who left the courtyard weeping, broken and in the full knowledge of his betrayal – this same Peter is the first to raise his voice, to confront those who wish to pour scorn and derision on the amazing display of God’s grace and love occurring in front of them, and to boldly proclaim those word which only weeks before he could not bring himself to quietly say to a lowly serving woman in the dark of night.
In the beginning, Genesis 2:7 tells us the Spirit of God breathed life into dust and made a human being. In Acts 2:1-4 this same Spirit breathes life into a broken and cowardly disciple and creates a new, emboldened and empowered man, who cannot restrain himself from sharing the Good News that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus is the promised Messiah, that Jesus is the Christ who takes away the sins of the world and has set us, each one of us here free – free to live, free to know God, free to be loved.
Anything is possible in the power of the Spirit – and we have access to that same Spirit right here, right now. And that can seem a bit, I don’t know, a bit scary. Because in Acts we see the Spirit move by wind and fire, making the church visible and public, reaching out, changing lives, provoking wrath and confusion in some and bringing hope and empowerment to others. The crowd respond to Peter’s words, crying out “what must we do to be saved?” And everything changes. Their little group suddenly expanded massively. But, if we look further into this chapter of Acts, people set aside their differences and unite for the common good, living as those who love Jesus above all else. As I’ve said before, John reminds us perfect love casts out all fear. If we faithfully call on the Spirit He will move afresh in us, in our church and our parish, and He will help us once again to bring people to that knowledge of the love of Jesus Christ that will make their lives complete.
So let’s make this birthday our best birthday ever – our re-birthday. Let’s unite in calling on the Holy Spirit to once again fill our hearts, fill our lives, fill our brothers and sisters who we are with here today – and ultimately fill our Church with our brothers and sisters who do not yet know the risen Lord. We, like Peter, can be changed, strengthened and empowered to carry that amazing Good News out with us and proclaim it to all – today, tomorrow and forevermore.