Being open to the Spirit

Today is Pentecost. This is often referred to as the church’s birthday. Christians from different traditions wear red, sing, dance, clap, celebrate in different ways. At one level though this is puzzling because I suspect that most Christians, if asked, “What is the most important day world history?” would answer, “Easter Sunday”, the day Jesus rose and issued in a whole new beginning. Why don’t we see Easter as the birthday of the church?

When we people ask us for evidence of the resurrection we look first to the Bible. But if people are not Christians and don’t accept it as a standalone authority we often point to the amazing growth of the early church and say that in order for the disciples to behave like that, in order for the church to grow like that, in order for a group of poorly educated Galileans to start preaching a gospel of love to the world like that, something truly miraculous must have happened.

Except if we look at the Bible that isn’t what we read. The gospel stories of how the Disciples reacted to the resurrection give a very different picture. The thing that strikes me, given the enormity of what they had experienced, is how little they seem to have been affected. Their immediate response to the Resurrection wasn’t to burst out and tell people about it. According to Luke they stayed in Jerusalem, they continued to worship in the Temple but to meet behind locked doors, presumably for fear of what might happen if they ventured out in public. Their response was to shrink into themselves.

The author of John’s gospel also remembers those meetings behind locked doors. His memory is slightly different in that he remembers the Disciples returning to their homes in Galilee to resume their own jobs fishing. It is difficult to imagine a less enthusiastic response to such an overwhelming miracle. “Oh its all over, let’s go home, let’s return to doing what we used to do.” Although we now point to the resurrection as the most important and life-changing event in the whole of history, that is not how the disciples saw it immediately after it happened.

What happened? Pentecost happened. The Disciples were the first people on earth to experience the power of God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit is referred to in the Old Testament, in terms of that story about David that we celebrated earlier for examplem but the Spirit encountered at Pentecost seems qualitatively different. The Spirit, God’s power, is something that is impossible to pin down by its very nature. On this occasion the disciples remember it as a loud noise, a noise so loud that it attracted other people in the neighbourhood to come and see what was happening. They remember it as tongues of fire. They remember it as the gift of being able to communicate with people who spoke different languages. In different times and in different places the Spirit manifests itself in different ways, but always if manifests itself as God’s power inspiring us and empowering us.

After this service we are going to have a meeting to explore where and how God’s Spirit might be leading this congregation. You’ve each received a sheet that Philip and I have prepared suggesting a series of questions to lead us into this process. These focus on the Calling of the Methodist Church which is

to respond to the gospel of God’s love in Christ and to live out its discipleship in worship and mission.

If we assume that God’s love in Christ is revealed to us most clearly in the Resurrection, then these Bible stories teach us that there are two ways to respond to that love. The first is an essentially human reaction. It is to respond to that love personally and passively. We can appreciate that love but continue doing what we have always done. Like the disciples who stayed in Jerusalem worshipping in the Temple we can stay where we are worshipping as we have always done. Like the story in John’s gospel we can experience this amazing gift at Easter and then return home to the lives we have always lived, go back to fishing or whatever is normal to us. We can respond to God’s love introspectively, perhaps not actually behind locked doors but metaphorically so. We can share our faith with each other, people who share our traditions and experiences and think like us, people who share our language. There is nothing wrong in any of this, but if this is how we respond to God’s love then nothing will happen, things will stay the same. That love of God, revealed through the Resurrection will touch us but go no further.

The second way we can respond to God’s love as revealed in the resurrection is to be open God’s Spirit to inspire and empower us. If we do this then nothing will ever be the same again. The Disciples turned from worshipping in the Temple, assuming that God was remote and only accessible in a specific location at a particular time, to worshipping in their homes assuming God was accessible wherever they were. They moved from focusing inwardly on the needs of their own small community and assuming God’s love was there to console each other, to looking at the wider world and seeing God’s love for everyone. They stopped talking in a language that only they could understand and started communicating in a way that touched everyone, sometimes through preaching, sometimes through service.

As a result, the church grew. If we take the author of Acts at his word, 3,000 on the first day were baptised on the first day and growth continued afterwards. The way we distinguish between a human response to God’s love and a spirit-filled response is though how it grows. A human response will be introspective. It may change us, but it will change nothing else. A spirit-filled response will look out, it will be contagious, it will infect others. It will lead irresistibly to growth.

Philip has challenged us to grow and develop as a congregation in such a way that we baptize or confirm 12 new members by this time next year. The number has been chosen to reflect the number of Disciples but isn’t really important. It would be fine if we had ten it, would be absolutely wonderful if we ended up with twenty. The importance is not in the number but in the fact that we are growing, because that growth will be evidence of the Spirit at work amongst us. It will only be if we open ourselves to God’s Spirit to be inspired and empowered that such growth will be possible.

Opening ourselves to God’s spirit does not require change for the sake of change. We need to reflect on what we are already doing and celebrate and continue those activities in which we are already inspired and empowered by God’s spirit. But that reflection will almost certainly reveal areas where we have become closed off or introspective and need to re-invite God’s Spirit to dwell within us. The meeting after the service in the Fellowship room is an opportunity to set out on that reflective process.

One-way of looking at this process is in the light of our experience of Fresh Perspectives. We’ve had some really invigorating sessions with those who have come along which, I think has generated real excitement. But very few people have come. Those who have come are those who have responded to a personal invitation from an existing member, particularly where that member has come along with them. Growth is most likely to occur if we, as individuals, feel comfortable and excited about inviting others to share our worship and way of living.

My impression is that very few of us feel comfortable, let alone excited, with the idea of inviting a friend, a colleague, a neighbour or even a family member in this way. Certainly, there isn’t much evidence of this happening on a week by week basis.  I’ll be honest, it’s not how I feel at the moment myself. An interesting way of thinking about the way forwards is to think about what would need to change about the way we worship and live as a community in order that each of us would feel excited at the prospect of inviting a colleague to come along and join us.

After the wind and the tongues of flame at that first Pentecost, Peter was inspired and empowered by the presence of God’s Spirit to preach a sermon. That sermon was essentially an invitation to everyone that was listening to repent and be baptised – to share the disciples’ experience of their risen Lord. Peter preached that sermon in a language that could be understood by everyone in the crowd, wherever they had come from, whatever their faith. This Pentecost let us open ourselves to God’ spirit that we can be inspired and empowered to invite others to share our experience of the risen Lord in a language that is meaningful to them.


Maggoty world? A harvest sermon

This is sermon I preached at our harvest festival this year base on two readings: Exodus 16:1-8, 13-20, 31-32 and Luke: 12:22-34

I want to start my sermon this morning by asking why, in the modern, world we celebrate harvest in the way we do?

Modern food production doesn’t require a great deal of ploughing the fields. Most of it is now based on forcing hydroponic crops hidden within poly-tunnels. There’s little scattering of seed either, its all drilled in exactly the correct amounts to produce the yield that the farmer thinks the land can sustain. Food supply is now a multi-million pound industry. There are multi-million dollar investments and corresponding profits for the processors, distributors and retailers (but often very little for the original producers). There is little seasonal variation, just modest fluctuation in prices. The only changes we see are at the checkouts where we now know that toffee apples indicate the lead up to Halloween, mince pies the long lead up to Christmas and  chocolate eggs the even  longer lead in to Easter.

For most of us living in this town and worshipping in this church, food is constantly available and (despite having risen in price recently) reasonable affordable. At one level if we look back to the reading from Luke and Jesus’ teaching that we shouldn’t worry about where our food is going to come from then we are already there. In  a very real sense we don’t worry about where are food is going to come from (even if we sometimes grumble a bit about how much it costs.

Jesus was talking, however, to a very different audience when he told them not to worry about what they are going to eat. In New Testament time and for the poor rural community that  he was talking to things were very different. Most of the people in that audience would have had very real concerns about where food was going to come from. Many small-holders would have been reliant on storing the produce from one harvest well and hoping that it would last through to the next. For the poor there would have been little margin for error, little money to buy food if they got it wrong. Even immediately after the harvest there would have been a concern not too eat too much in order to make it last. There would have been a constant tension over food and its availability. Can you imagine living like that?

Of course there are a growing number of people in today’s society who can tell you exactly what that feels like. At a time when the rich are being given tax breaks to try and stimulate the economy many of the poorest people in our society are finding their benefits cut  and councils are having to reduce services. The Christian Fellowship up the road have felt a need to set up a food bank  and, rather depressingly, it is doing swift business. Even in a relative prosperous area like ours people need its services. All the food we’ve brought forward this morning is going to a similar food bank in Salford. I travel from here to Salford for work every day. I can see the very different economic environments. If we need a food bank here just imagine how much more this food is needed in Salford.

If you think about it Jesus’ contention that we should “not worry about the food we need to stay alive” has two sides to it for those of us who don’t worry about where our food is coming from. One is that we, who have food we need, should worry less about the food we want. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray only for bread, we don’t pray for caviare or champagne or even microwave tagliatelle. The other side is that we who have food, need to make certain that those who don’t, don’t have to worry either. In the good News Bible today’s reading is divided into two parts the first is headed “Trust in God” and is about Jesus telling us not too worry. The second is headed “Riches in heaven” where we are told to give our wealth to the poor. This is wrong, the passage as we heard it this morning is a coherent whole becasue the poor will never be free from their worries about food while the rich refuse to share.

I started off by asking why, in the modern world without seasons, a world with a constant food supply,we need to celebrate harvest.  May be the answer is that  there is a need once a year at least to remember the people who have a very difference experience – who are worrying from day to day about how they will feed themselves. This of course, is what we already do, all the gifts of food that people have brought this morning will be being shared with people who are considerably less well off than ourselves. In a small but prophetic way we are living out Jesus’ teaching.

Maybe harvest in the modern world is a time not just for giving thanks but for expressing anger. If the UK is the sixth largest economy in the world why is it that so many people struggle to put food on the table? If we can afford tax breaks for the rich why can we not afford food for the poor? What is wrong with the society in which we live? I think one of the problems lies in our democracy. For a long time through the late 19th and most of the 20th century the majority of people in the UK could be classed as poor. Democracy tends to favour the majority and over that period there was a general improvement in the condition of the poor and many families were able to work themselves out of poverty. I think we’ve reached a position now that the majority of people in the UK can be classed as well-off (maybe not rich, but well-off). There is a very real danger now that in pursuing the votes of the majority, our political parties will forget the needs of the poor. We as a church are one of the few organisations that still have a concern for the poor and, at the modern harvest, that is one of the messages we need to scream from our pulpits.

But there’s another reason why I think harvest is so important for the modern world. The story that I think best illustrates it is that story of the Jews wandering in the wilderness for forty  years. Early on in their journey they were starting to feel what it is to live without food, they thought they were going to die. Moses took their plight to God and God provided for them. Each morning he sent a substance like bread to coat the ground and instructed the Israelites to pick up just as much as they needed for that day. But who was listening closely? What happened if people gathered more than they needed for the day and tried to hoard it? Yes, it went maggoty and started to smell. I want you to hold that image in your head. Maggoty bread that has started to smell. We don’t need to believe in the literal truth of the story to be captured by the power of this image. Maggoty bread that has started to smell.

Is this not what always happens when we try to take too much? Look at the environment within which we live. Look how we have taken more than we need from it over the last two hundred years and see how it has responded. Think of it as a world that has gone maggoty and has started to smell. Remember the earlier part of my sermon. Think of how within Britain the well off have taken more than we need. Think of this as a world that has gone maggoty and started to smell. Think further afield, perhaps to the people of Burund that the Methodist Relief and Development fund would like us to remember this Harvest. Remember how the people of Africa have been exploited by the developed worlds desire to take more than it needs. Think of this as a world that has gone maggoty and started to smell.

The Biblical message is clear – if we only take what we need then we will live. If we take more  then we will die. It’s interesting to contrast this with the message of all the political parties at the moment (indeed that of mainstream economics throughout the developed world). They say that we need our economy to grow in order for us to move out or recession. But think about that. What is “growth”? Growth is wanting more. Growth is not being happy with what we have. Growth is the very antithesis of what God asked of the Jews in the wilderness or of what Jesus asked of his followers in Galilee. Where God and Jesus asked us to be content with what we have, western governments and asking us to be greedy for more. This cannot work. Continued growth on a finite planet is just not possible. The faster we grow the sooner we use up the resources. Growth of the rich in a divided world will only lead to a more divided world. The last thing the developed world’s economy needs is growth. Very few people in positions of power recognise this, very few people voting for them in western democracies understand this.

Solutions aren’t easy. Working out how the World’s economy might work if not driven by growth means challenging the whole basis of consumer capitalism. But solution’s don’t come unless someone, somewhere, first recognises the problem. Maybe this is a role for the modern harvest festival. To give thanks for what we have first but then to go further and to proclaim that it is sufficient. We do not need any more. Heaven will be made real on earth when we acknowledge the sufficiency of what we have. It will certainly never arrive if we continually strive for the things we haven’t got and don’t need. It’s a message not just for the Church but for the whole world everywhere and, along with our concern for the poor, it is a message that we should be preaching from every pulpit this harvest.