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.


Christian Aid Week and Pentecost

I’m sure it is no coincidence that Christian Aid week quite often coincides with Pentecost and this sermon considers the link between them. It follows a reading of John 14:8-17 and 25-27 in which Jesus promises his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Today is Christian Aid Sunday which is something I am passionate about. Every year, hundreds of thousands of volunteers, almost all of them Christian church-goers, flood out onto the streets during Christian Aid week and raise over £6 million. The annual collection is the largest single act of Christian witness we have in this country.

Its history is particularly relevant to us in Europe at the moment. It started in the aftermath of the Second World War, as Christian Reconstruction in Europe.  When British and Irish Church ministers met determined to do everything they could to help European refugees who had last everything. We tend to think as refugees as a modern challenge but Christian Aid has been addressing their needs for nearly 70 years.

Today is also Pentecost. The Christian celebration of God’s Spirit coming among us to inspire, motivate and empower us to go into the world and work for the coming of God’s Kingdom. What better symbol could we have of this than Christian Aid week? Even the colours match. The liturgical colour for Pentecost is red. In the church I went to when we lived in Australia we were all encouraged to wear red at Pentecost. On many years I went along in the shirt I am wearing today. The colour of Christian Aid week is also red. Every collector who goes onto the streets this week will be carrying a bright red bag like this one. Look out for them, recognise God’s Spirit at work on our streets.

One aspect of Christian Aid week that I want to focus on this morning is how it is so obviously a good thing. We just look at it, all those people giving up their time, to collect significant sums of money for people throughout the world who have nothing. We have heard this morning the Word’s that the author of John’s gospel attributes to Jesus:

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.

John 14:16-17

God is going to give us the Spirit of Truth. We shall recognise this because it will be written in our hearts. The idea that an ability to recognise God and Truth, through what is written in our hearts is a strong and recurrent theme in the Bible. It’s true isn’t it? When we see God acting most powerfully in our lives we can recognise it instantly. There is something deep within us that responds to God and recognises him. Christian Aid week is a good example of this. We can see what is going on and something deep within us responds and recognises God working through it. All those Christians across Britain and Ireland setting out to ask for money, the money itself (£6.5 million pounds), the network of international partners to whom that money is spent. Most importantly we recognise God in the way that the lives of some of the poorest people in the world are transformed. All over the world people like Morsheda are being transformed into people like Feroza.

This ability to recognise God’s will through an effect deep within us and the willingness to be led by that experience is fundamental to Christianity. It contrasts strongly, however, with the way the rest of the world is moving at the moment. There seems to me to be a rapidly growing conviction that all we need to do to be responsible members of society is to keep within the law. The emphasis seems to be shifting from a desire to do what is good to a lesser goal of merely avoiding what is illegal. Within this there is a further trend to push the boundaries of the law so that many individuals and institutions will try and bend the law as much as possible to their advantage. Perhaps the clearest example at the moment is international tax law. The positions of the establishment at the moment appears to be that as long as companies are managing their businesses within the law then they are behaving appropriately. This leads to the situation in which the largest companies spend extremely large amounts of money employing clever people to work out ways of avoiding paying tax. This may be through multi-national companies transferring funds between different countries or by setting up labyrinthine and secretive financial arrangements based around foreign tax havens. Whenever these arrangements are questioned the establishment response is generally that the companies and individuals have done nothing illegal. We need to understand that there is a difference between doing what is legal and doing what is right. Doing what is legal results in trillions of dollars being sucked out of the world economy, particularly in the developing world, and deposited in secretive bank accounts. That money dwarfs the total global development budget, let alone what Christian Aid collects each year. If the world could focus on what is good rather than what is legal there would be absolutely no need for Christian Aid. God is not satisfied with us doing what is legal, he wants us to do what is right and to help us distinguish between the two he has sent his Spirit to live within us.

Most of us understand what Pentecost represents as a Christian Festival but to understand its significance we also need to understand what it represented as a Jewish festival. To the Jews, Pentecost was, and still is, a festival to mark God giving the Ten Commandments. It occurs 49 days after Passover to reflect the Jewish understanding, from biblical texts, that God gave the Jews the Ten Commandments 49 days after they had been liberated from Egypt on the first Passover. The Ten Commandments were a great move forwards in the history of religion. It is one of the very first ethical codes adopted by any religion anywhere. The commandments marked a transition from assuming that religion was primarily about appeasing God, or the gods, by religious ritual, particularly those involving animal sacrifice, to a view that religion should guide how we live our everyday lives.

The commandments were still, however, essentially a list of laws. It wasn’t long before those ten laws multiplied within Jewish culture. The books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus are almost entirely composed of laws. Laws about what you should eat, how you should worship, how you should dress. As a church we visited the Manchester Jewish Museum within the old Synagogue on Cheetham Hill Road just north of the city centre. It was fascinating visit but left me quite depressed at the emphasis there seemed to be observing what seemed to be as rather petty rules.

The early Christian movement presented something quite different – a new relationship with God not through observance of laws but through a personal relationship with the Spirit written in our hearts. It is now coincidence that that movement remembers that gift as being given on the Jewish festival of Pentecost. The symbolism is that the emphasis on observation of the Law has been replaced by that on a personal relationship with God. We have replaced a Jewish festival which celebrates one with a Christian festival which celebrates the other.

So let us join in that celebration. Let us all recognise the Spirit of God written within our hearts. Let us be inspired by the disciples who first experienced God in their hearts and went out to do what is right. Let us be inspired by all those Christian Aid collectors who have experienced God in their hearts and are stepping out of the comfort of their homes to do what they believe is right.  Let us not be satisfied, either as individuals or as a society, with doing what is legal. Let us work for what is right. It is only through doing this that we will work together with each other and our God to build his Kingdom.