Readings: Acts 2: 1-21; Romans 8: 22-27; John 15: 26-27 & 16: 4b-15
Preacher: Revd David Gardiner
May the words of my lips, and the meditations of all our hearts, be forever pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Pentecost is a time of change and a time of growth. It’s a time of change and growth in the story of the Church as it was coming into existence, and it’s a time of change for the whole of God’s creation. It’s therefore appropriate that today I am here with you, preaching my last Pentecost sermon as your vicar.
It’s very tempting, when we look at the vast history of the Church, to think that the Church has been a very solid and set institution, one that is set upon a particular pathway, resistant to the changes and vagaries the rest of the world has experienced over the last two thousand years.
When we compare the Church to any other organised body of people, it does indeed look very long-lived and relatively free from change. I tried and failed to name with any particular associations or institutions that have lasted so long, at least without getting into the realms of conspiracy theories.
There are of course other religions, though most have less of a centralised cooperative structure to them than we do, even with all our denominations and splits. Certainly I don’t think there is any one nation that calls itself the same thing or governs itself in quite the same way as two thousand years ago.
No doubt some clever historian will correct me now, but my point is that, compared to other institutions over the last two-thousand years, the Church looks very solid and dependable and unchanging.
It is difficult, therefore, for us to see the Church in quite the light that its earliest members saw it when they experienced the first Pentecost. For them, the future of the Church was by no means a guaranteed certainty. Our scene is set in Acts by the writer telling us that most of the believers, almost all the members of the Church, were gathered together in just one house in Jerusalem. According to the previous chapter, these numbered about a hundred and twenty persons. Just a hundred and twenty.
These hundred and twenty people were gathered in a house in Jerusalem to pray. Some had witnessed their Lord and master executed and then resurrected very recently. Then, after a short time, he had been taken away from them again, permanently. He said he would send an “Advocate” and “Guide” to them, but it was all a bit mysterious, and they must have felt very unsure of themselves and of what was to come.
Well, that’s a feeling I know I can relate to. I’m sure we’ve all felt that way at times, about our lives and about what God is doing in our lives. I certainly have felt that over the course of my life, and especially over the last few years. Just a month ago I was licensed to my ‘post of first responsibility.’ I can tell you with no exaggeration that this has been weighing on my mind somewhat at the moment! What is this going to mean for my future? What does it mean for your future? What is God going to do with me? What’s he going to do with us? How could I possibly square up to the challenge that God is setting me?
This was certainly what I was thinking when I looked at these passages this last week, and I’m sure it’s what the believers were saying as they sat down in the house to pray. What does God have planned for us? How can we manage what he wants? How can we bring in the kingdom of God? How could it possibly be, as Jesus promised, that it will be better for us if he leaves so that the Spirit can come to us? Surely it would be better for us all if Jesus just stayed with us in human form forever?
But Jesus did promise it would be better, and he is of course right. The thing is, we are not very good at seeing things that aren’t plain under our noses. When Christ was with us incarnate, it was a wonderful, life-changing experience for everyone who met him. And his incarnate presence enabled us to be redeemed by his passion, his death and resurrection. Yet that experience of Jesus as one man in the world would not be enough to bring that salvation to the whole world.
When Christ was with his followers, he was able to stimulate them and show them God, through talking to them and showing them how creation worked. But this would not be enough for the world.
To reach the world, another method of communication was needed. With the sending of the Holy Spirit, God speaks to his servants in their very souls. Instead of relying on external communication and stimulation, God sends his Holy Spirit to burn within us, to communicate directly with us. The incarnation of Jesus ended the time when God spoke to the world through a very few special prophets. With the sending of the Holy Spirit, God speaks to his servants directly and inspires and energizes us from within.
You see, Pentecost is a time of change for the Church. God changes the way he communicates with his Church. Instead of speaking through prophets, or through his Word, the Son, he now speaks through us all by means of his Holy Spirit.
This also is a change for the whole of creation. Instead of speaking to limited parts of creation through a few prophets in a very small country, he speaks to the world through us all. The sending of the Holy Spirit on the Church enables the message of God to be spread across the whole of creation.
It’s a daunting task, one that we could not perform without the Holy Spirit. This is why, at my licensing service, I was praying and the Bishop was praying and I hope all of you were praying that I will be gifted with the Holy Spirit for the task of priesthood that lies before me. Without it, without God’s Spirit, I would be unable to function as a priest.
Pentecost is a time of change and growth. The early Church at the first Pentecost experiences change and growth. I am undergoing change and growth, at the licensing and over the last month, and over the coming weeks and years of my ministry among you. The world is certainly undergoing change, and we hope growth.
But that is not the end of it. For when the Church first experienced the sending of the Holy Spirit, Peter told the crowds that this was fulfilment of prophecy. In that prophecy, God said that the Spirit would be sent, not upon our priests and elders, but upon men and women. Upon our old men and our daughters. Upon children and young people and our elderly.
We are used to saying that everyone has a share in the Church, that everyone has a place in the Kingdom of God, but according to Peter and this prophecy of Joel, there is more to it than belonging. Everyone also has a share in the work of the Church, and everyone has a share in the gift of the Holy Spirit.
You see, the licensing service is not the only occasion in the Church where we pray for the Holy Spirit to come down on an individual to inspire them and give them strength to follow God and do God’s work in the world. We also do this at baptism and at confirmation. Priests are not the only ones tasked with telling the world about God. In fact, priests do not even get a mention in the prophecy of Joel!
So what exactly does Joel have to say? Let’s take a look.
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.”
Upon all flesh; sons; daughters; young men; old men; slave men; slave women. All shall have the Holy Spirit poured out on them. Prophesy, visions and important dreams are to be part of the experience of the whole of the Church of God.
It seems to me, in a way, that my ordained ministry is actually very unimportant to us in this time of Pentecost. It is right and good that we pray for a sending of the Holy Spirit so that I can carry out what is after all a sacred ministry in God’s Church. But more important by far, especially at this time of Pentecost, is that we pray for a sending of the Holy Spirit upon the whole of the Church. That we pray for a sending of the Holy Spirit upon this Church. That we pray for a fresh pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon every member of this church: man, woman, young people and children.
And then, when we’ve prayed for the Holy Spirit to be sent to us, we have to be like the believers of the early Church, gathered together in that house to receive the Holy Spirit, but ready to listen to the Spirit. Ready to be inspired by the Spirit and open to what we are called by the Spirit and empowered by the Spirit to do. Like the members of the early Church, we must be ready to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit to leave our house of worship here and go out into the world to speak of God’s deeds of power.
We do not know how to do it. We do not even know very often how to pray to God, but that is the gift of the Spirit. We do not need to know how to pray, because the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. We do not need to know how we are going to bring about God’s kingdom on earth, as long as we are willing to listen to the Spirit and to act on his promptings. So that in the end, “before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day… everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”