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Happy Birthday Church!
As Jesus' death and resurrection happened at Passover, the birth of the church happened at Pentecost, another important Jewish feast, this time celebrating the first harvests and the presentation of the first-fruits in the Temple.
The story of Pentecost is exciting to say the least, and the first 14 chapters of Acts describe the formation and incredible growth of the early church, and the role of the promised Holy Spirit in that growth.
Without the Holy Spirit, Christian discipleship would be inconceivable, even impossible. There can be no life without the life-giver, no understanding without the Spirit of truth, no fellowship without the unity of the Spirit, no Christ-likeness of character apart from his fruit, and no effective witness without his power.
As a body without breath is a corpse, so the church without the Spirit is dead. Luke is well aware of this. Of the four evangelists it is Luke who places the heaviest emphasis on the Spirit. Near the beginning of each part of his two-volume work, his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, he demonstrates the indispensability of the Holy Spirit’s enabling. Just as the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus when John baptised him in the Jordan, so that he entered his public ministry full of the Holy Spirit, led by the Spirit, in the power of the Spirit and anointed by the Spirit, so now that same Spirit came upon the followers of Jesus to equip them for their mission in the world. In the early chapters of Acts, Luke refers to the promise, the gift, the baptism, the power and the fullness of the Spirit in the experience of God’s people. The terms are many and interchangeable; the reality is one, and there is no substitute for it.
There are actually four ways in which we can think of the day of Pentecost.
1. First, it was the final act of the saving ministry of Jesus before he comes again in glory. He was born into our humanity, lived our life, died for our sins, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Now he sent his spirit on his people to draw them into his body and to work out in them what he had won for them. In that sense the day of Pentecost is unrepeatable. Christmas Day, Good Friday, Easter day, Ascension Day and Whitsun are annual celebrations, but the birth, death, resurrection, ascension and the gift of the Spirit that they commemorate were one-off events and unrepeatable.
2. Pentecost brought to the apostles the 'tools' they needed for their special role. Christ had appointed them to be his primary and authoritative witnesses, and had promised them the reminding and teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost was the fulfilment of that
3. Pentecost was the inauguration of the new era of the Spirit. Although his coming was a unique and unrepeatable historical event, all the people of God can now always and everywhere benefit from his ministry. Although he equipped the apostles to be the primary
witnesses, he also equips us to be witnesses today. Although the inspiration of the Spirit was given to the apostles alone, the fullness of the Spirit is for us all.
4. Pentecost has been called, rightly, the first 'revival', using this word to denote one of those rather unusual visitations of God, in which a whole community becomes very aware of his immediate, overpowering presence. We can be sure that not only the physical
phenomenon of fire and wind, but the deep conviction of sin, the 3000 conversions and the widespread sense of awe were signs of revival. It must have been wonderful! And we must not think of this amazing event as an excuse to lower our own expectations; to think of Pentecost as so exceptional we think that what God actually intends to be the church's normal experience is impossible. It’s true that we don't often experience wind and fire, nor perhaps the many languages spoken, but the new life and joy, fellowship and worship, freedom, boldness and power are, or should be, our common experience.
You'll hear a lot about the gifts of the Spirit, but above all else, the Spirit is relational. Two important points to think about are first, Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 12:3 that, ‘No one can say that 'Jesus is ‘Kurios’, Lord” except by the Holy Spirit’ and second, in Galatians 4: 6, ‘Because you are sons and daughters, God sent the Holy Spirit into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out 'Abba, Father'’. It is the Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, who ‘strangely warms our hearts’, as Augustine put it. His work is to bring us into relationship with the Father and the Son, and such relationships and their confession would be impossible for us without the activity of the Holy Spirit. That’s when you know you are a Christian – and a Spirit–filled charismatic Christian at that – not necessarily when you prophesy or speak in tongues - but when you confess Kurios and Abba. That is the greatest charisma, or gift, of the Spirit and is the gift given to those 3000 people who joined their number at that first Pentecost.
Many of you will be going to the Cathedral this year for a Pentecost service with John Sentamu. Others will be on holiday, as indeed Margaret and I have been the last few years. I must confess to a strange sense of sadness in my heart when we have not been able to
celebrate this particular birthday together with our own local church congregations – who knows what the Holy Spirit will do among us!
Wherever you are, praise God for this very special day, and do please pray for those who will celebrate this birthday in St Helen’s and St Paul’s, as we will pray for you.
Shalom, John09 May 2013.