Reading: Acts 2:1-21
What a privilege it is to come and speak at this new service tonight in this beautiful church. My name is Graham and it is my great joy to be the Vicar of St Andrews Cleveleys and also the coordinator of On Fire Mission North. But what I am first is a 40 year old Dad – I know you all thought I was 25, but in reality I am 40. And it is a law of the universe that Dads of my age and beyond must tell at least 5 Dad jokes every day, the kind that would make the writers of Christmas cracker jokes cringe. Some of my favourite include immortal ones like ‘what do you call a well spoken dinosaur?’ that’s right, a thesaurus. What about ‘I used to hate facial hair, but then it grew on me.’ Or the wonderful, ‘why is Peter Pan always flying? Because he neverlands’. I know they are just awful, pray for my poor children and wife! One last one that I heard once, how many church members does it take to change a lightbulb? Change? We don’t do change in church! That is the common perception isn’t it? That the church doesn’t change. Us Christians are all stuck in the past, think many around us, nothing ever changes and all we are is a group of luddites unable to deal with the brave new Godless world we find ourselves in and progress will do us in eventually just as it did in the dodo. You can see this writ large if you read an article about church, you ask someone’s opinion about the churches future or look at the anxiety and desperate strategies bought in by some of the leadership in the church (thankfully not in Lancashire) and that is the message we often hear, that church is one generation from complete failure, unable to change to meet the needs of the next generation.
Well, on top of being dreadful at jokes I can be really boring about church history, a passion of mine and I can tell you, despite this common belief, that nothing could be further from the truth. The Church has always changed to serve the needs of their communities and cultures. There has never been a time in church history where the customs and practices have been static for very long. Back in the early church for example, we know that to be baptised you went to your church service, got naked, got dunked and then got robed in white. Aren’t we glad that custom has changed? The church has always grown and shrunk. I remember reading while studying for ordination, as this country saw a revival of faith and the Methodist church was born in the 18th century, on one occasion at St Pauls Cathedral, only 4 people turned up for the Easter service. Well, some 250 years later that same Cathedral is still worshipping. I wonder if the despondent clergy worried then about the future of their congregation. But let’s look at the birth of the church which we heard in our reading to see what it can tell us about change and growth.
The Whole of the book of Acts is of course a wonderful account written by Luke as a sequel to his gospel all about the birth of the church and the first few decades of its existence. Right at the beginning, after the Ascension, the disciples are waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit which Jesus promised them just before He ascended into heaven.
The disciples, I am sure, had no idea what was about to happen. They had no idea what was about to occur. They had seen Jesus killed, then risen and now they waited. Up to that time, they had been used to being led by Jesus, eating with Him, learning from Him. What now? So hidden together they waited.
Suddenly the house they were waiting in was filled with noise and fire rested on each of them and each of them was filled with the Holy Spirit. And they began to speak in different languages as the spirit enabled them to speak.
I am willing to bet that when they got up that morning and ate their coco puffs or whatever people had for breakfast in the first century, that none of them could have predicted what would happen later that day. The Spirit of God was doing something completely new and was leading them into something amazing. They are filled with the Holy Spirit and they go out and begin preaching the Good News – not a new gospel mind you but preaching the gospel in a new way in all different languages. Why? Because right at that time, right then, people from all over the Empire were in Jerusalem, who all spoke different languages. The Holy Spirit had given them the ability to speak in new languages, not as a supernatural welcome gift, like you might get for joining a life insurance company, but the ability to share the Gospel in a new way in their context. The Holy Spirit also gave this bunch of cowards the bravery to go out and proclaim the gospel, so much so that it would lead to their eventual deaths for the vast majority of them. Who here identifies more with the cowardly disciples than the brave disciples? I know I do! But the Holy Spirit is able to provide exactly what you need to share the gospel in this place or wherever your home parish is.
Some people were opposed to what the disciples were doing and thought them drunk. But again the Holy Spirit gave Peter the words to speak, sharing the prophesy from Joel and preaching more besides that led that day to 3000 people coming to faith, we hear later in the passage. Amazing. Just amazing.
What can we take away from the birth of the church for the church today? First is, if you are a Christian, you have the Holy Spirit living in your heart. Today, pray to be filled afresh with that Spirit. Part of what On Fire Mission is all about is acknowledging that the Spirit is able to fill us with as much power as it did on the first Pentecost to new things while celebrating and enjoying the depth of worship the Church has enjoyed over centuries. Its about revival that is Spirit led. Are you open to the Holy Spirit filling you afresh tonight?
Second are you open to the Spirit of God doing a new thing not just in this parish but in this parish through you? Giving you whatever gift that you need to share the Good News? I can testify from my own experience. I am dyslexic. I am often a coward. I can lack confidence. But the Holy Spirit I believe has given me the great privilege of preaching and presiding and encouraging as a priest. Nothing out of my own skill set, but rather through gracious gift. Imagine what the Spirit can do with you and your weaknesses.
Lastly, are you open to new ways, led by the Spirit of serving and loving the people around you? Are you open to receiving gifts? Are you open to hearing words of prophesy? Or speaking perhaps in a new tongue? For tonight and every time you gather there is an opportunity. You don’t even have to be brave I don’t think, but just willing to pray that dangerous prayer ‘Lord not my will, but yours be done’.
People are anxious about change and about whether or not the church is dying. I’m not. Because the God whom we worship has at every time and place in history without exception, outlasted those who would write His obituary, and His church will too. Think of the lack of faith in the time of Elijah. Think of the destruction of His peoples promised land by the Babylonians, Persians and Romans. Think of the persecution of the early church in Roman times or the persecution of the church today in parts of the world. Think of the Son of Man crucified to stop His preaching of the Good News. None of it stopped the mission of God. Not down to anything about us, but simply as it has always been down to God working even in the darkest or most despondent times often despite us. So be encouraged. The Holy Spirit who fills your heart is the same today, yesterday and in the future. Allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to ask for gifts of the Holy Spirit to share the Good News for our context today. Be open to change in our practice led by the Spirit to help people encounter the One who died for them. Because when we do, we see miracles of God that go beyond our wildest expectation and the renewal of the church in word and sacrament. Amen