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Sermon for 4 June 2017


Acts 2:1-21, John 20:19-23

4 June - Pentecost

Ask people what they think of Christianity, or church, and you’ll hear things like -  ‘it’s boring’ or ‘it’s totally irrelevant to modern life’.

And I can cope with that. I can understand that some of the stuff we do isn’t thrilling, and that in an age that wants immediate results the steady discipline of prayer and worship don’t give an instant buzz. I hope we’re not boring, but I can cope with people saying that.

And I can sort of cope with people thinking we’re irrelevant - I get that it’s hard from the outside to see what reading a book whose most recent sections are 2000 years old has to do with the world of snapchat and twitter.

Boring and irrelevant - it’s not what I want people to think the church is like, but I can sort of understand it.

But there’s one thing that really gets me - it’s when people say things like ‘They think they’re holy, but actually they’re just the same as us’ - that I find hard. When people say that we’re just the same as everyone else, I think something has gone horribly wrong.

After all, on the day that the church was born - the very first Pentecost - something so incredible and extraordinary happened that the people who witnessed it were either amazed, or said those involved were drunk. Something took place that those watching simply couldn’t explain. 

How did we go from Pentecost amazement to being just the same as everyone else?

Because the last thing the church should be is the same as everyone else. Different, radical, exciting, out of step with the modern world, challenging, risk-taking, dangerous….yes. The same as everyone else….never.

So today I want to reclaim that Pentecost vision, a vision of something exciting and radical. I want us to reclaim what it is to be a community of the Holy Spirit. 

I want to make sure that, whatever our failings, individually and as a community - and they will be many - we are never just the same as everyone else.

So to the reading we heard from Acts.

The book of Acts, is the story of what happens when a group of pretty ordinary people are filled with the Holy Spirit. And we do need to remember that they were ordinary people. We know those first disciples as great heroes of the faith, but that’s not how they began; they were fishermen and farmers mainly. They weren’t anything special, and even after 3 years with Jesus, you still wouldn’t have put money on them changing much. You might have thought they’d come a long way from their nets and hoes, and you might have thought them capable of setting up a new kind of prayer group in Jerusalem, maybe some good work in the local community, that kind of thing. Nobody would have considered the possibility that between them, they would change the world.

But that’s what happened. As a result of the events of Pentecost, those ordinary people changed the world. Without them the 2 billion Christians around the world wouldn’t exist. We wouldn’t be here. No Christian values, no Christian art or music, no churches, nothing. None of it. 

The same as the world around them? Hardly.

On the day of Pentecost a new era began. The age of the Holy Spirit. The age of the church. The community of ordinary people who are gathered together around Jesus, and are given the power and the courage and the gifts to change the world. We’re not given the power to get together on a Sunday to sing a bit and hear a sermon. We’re not given the power to be an organisation with a bit of God bolted on. We’re empowered by the Holy Spirit to love God and neighbour, and in doing so to change the world.

Just the same as everyone else? Please, please not that.

Instead, we’re to be a community that people look at and say - what on earth is going on there? And they might say - that’s amazing, we want some of that. Or they might say ‘they’re nuts, or drunk, or weird’. But the same as the world around us? That should never be anyone’s response to the church. That should never be anyone’s response to us.

We’re called to dance to a different tune.

I don’t mean we need to be crazy Christians, that people laugh at or point at in the street because they know we’re nuts - and I certainly don’t mean that we’re meant to get all heavy with people and freak them out as ‘God-botherers’. And I absolutely don’t mean that we are superior to anyone else - quite the opposite, we should be the most humble, the most aware of our failings, the first to apologise. But we are meant to see things differently and to let God be the one who shapes our way of living in the world. 

There are, of course, loads of ways in which we’re meant to be different, but here are two.

The Holy Spirit calls us to love the world in a different way.  To see the needs of those around us as an opportunity to serve To stand against the culture which says that value comes from busy-ness and work and outcomes. To stand up for those who find life difficult, even though they are often difficult to stand up for.

We’re to see the person we don’t like as a brother or sister, not a threat. To see money as an opportunity for God’s kingdom to grow, not a possession to be owned. To see the world as full of grace and not full of anxiety.

One of the key moments in the early church came when, in the third century, a plague hit the great city of Caesarea. Those that could get away did so, and those that couldn’t, died. But the Christians stayed. They stayed to care for the sick and the dying, to bury bodies and to tend their graves. A few decades later, the Roman Emperor Julian - who was a died in the wool pagan - wrote this 

"When it came about that the poor were neglected and overlooked by the priests, then I think the impious Galilaeans [i.e., Christians] observed this fact and devoted themselves to philanthropy. and later he wrote "They support not only their poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”

And all the evidence is that this life-risking service was one of the main reasons why the church grew. Because people looked at the church and could see that they were different from the world around - so different that they would risk their lives for people they didn’t even know.

That’s the kind of church we’re to be. We don’t suffer from plagues in Goudhurst, thank God, so it won’t look the same here, but that’s the deep down intent that the Holy Spirit gives. To see the needs of the world as a call to serve.

We’re to be different because we love the world like God loves the world. 

And the Holy Spirit calls us to be together in a different way. The way we relate to each other in this community should be different. Learning to love one another isn’t just an aspiration, or a slogan, it’s real and it’s serious. 

One of the really striking things about the story of Pentecost is the way that everyone could suddenly understand and be understood. All those languages, all those words, - and yet everyone could make sense of what was being said.We all long to be understood don’t we - to be properly listened to and heard. It’s one of the great gifts we can give to one another - to really listen.

And we should be marked out in that way - as a community that works really hard at understanding each other. And that means listening and listening. It means trying to see things from each others perspective. It means listening beyond words, and trying to understand the deeper needs we each have.

As a Holy Spirit filled community, we’re to look for signs of God’s activity in one another, to listen for God’s guidance, to encourage and raise up, to speak honestly - including on painful subjects, but always with love. And because we’ll mess up again and again, we’re to be marked out by the way we stick with it, and stick with one another, even when things are hard. Especially when things are hard. We’re not just another organisation on the list of community groups. We’re the church. We’re empowered by the Holy Spirit to be God’s people in this place.

It’s a massive calling and an almighty honour. 

The Community of the Holy Spirit is to love the world differently and we’re to love one another differently. It’s completely impossible of course. Living like that goes against every ounce of common sense, because its much easier to look out for our own, to become a holy huddle, and it’s much easier just to hang out with the people we like, and to avoid all that difficult communication stuff.

But the good news is that we’re not alone. The Pentecost promise is that the Holy Spirit is with us, in us. That through the Spirit we are guided and gifted. And through the Holy Spirit we are forgiven and given another chance. And then another. Of course it’s impossible, and of course we’ll mess it up.

But let’s take the risk. Let’s be known for the way we love the world and the way we love each other, and never for being just the same as everyone else.


Posted: 05-06-2017 at 18:55
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