Have you ever been to an event, perhaps a party or major celebration, where something totally unanticipated has taken place, or where a surprise guest has turned up seemingly out of the blue? Of course the so called unanticipated event, or the surprise guest, is mostly entirely planned; part of the grand design.
Pentecost is a bit like this in many ways. Those who were gathered for worship almost certainly thought that they knew how their worship was going to pan out and they knew that they were there to worship God. They also knew something of the Jesus story and had already come to a strong belief that Jesus was the Messiah. They also knew that worshipping Jesus was a huge risk. The early church was not a place for the fainthearted. But despite the risk they were prepared to carry on meeting, singing spiritual songs and praying. The early church was a deeply courageous church. It was also an obedient church, for if you remember, the believers had been told to gather together and wait.
But, what they hadn’t anticipated was that their host, God, had other plans. They hadn’t anticipated that God wanted to refashion this motley bunch of believers into something solid and concrete; the Church. Nor had they anticipated, as they gathered on the day of Pentecost, that God’s plan was that salvation’s song was to be proclaimed to all people, in all places, and for all time. It is probably fair to say that as yet they hadn’t come to a real and full appreciation of the universality of the gospel; God’s plan, that through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit all people should hear for themselves the good news of Jesus Christ.
What must it have been like for that first group of believers to find themselves bound together as the church, through the work of the Holy Spirit, and speaking spontaneously in foreign tongues? It must have been truly shocking and not a little bit frightening. It must have taken them way out of their comfort zones. It must also have utterly reinforced the notion that the Jesus story is and should be everyone’s story. One of the most important messages of Pentecost is that we should never seek to domesticate our faith, hoarding it and protecting it. We must never seek to put boundaries around God. As we listen afresh to the story of Pentecost we might like to also reflect on the familiar words of the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimitus, an anthem that appears right at the beginning of Luke’s gospel where Simeon proclaimed that his eyes had seen the ‘salvation’ which God had ‘prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.’ Pentecost is in some ways the fulfilment of Simeon’s vision.
We must seek always to remain open to God and to his ongoing gift of the Holy Spirit. The Pentecostal experience is open to us. We mustn’t leave Pentecost stuck in the pages of the bible. Remaining open to the Holy Spirit is, in fact, essential if we are serious about growing in both holiness and in number. In fact I would go further and say that, in the words of the gospel, devoid from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, all we can aspire to be is an ‘orphaned’ church; a church devoid of either inspiration or direction; a church which speaks only in local, domesticated and self-serving terms. On the day of Pentecost, God through the agency of the Holy Spirit, made it clear that He has a far grander, more expansive design, plan and ambition for the Church. The only real question, therefore, is do we?
If we truly desire to see the church growing in holiness and in number, reaching out to all people, in all places, we, like the early Church, will be blessed by the life-giving, life-changing, presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is still alive and active challenging, stretching, unsettling, affirming and glorifying the Church.
Come Holy Spirit, come, Amen.
Easter 7: Acts 16. 16-34 & John 17, 20 -end. Consequences of Prayer
Who likes playing board games? I am not particularly keen but some of my family members love playing board games; whenever I join in my role is to be habitually humiliated! There is a very popular game, I believe, called ‘Consequences.’ Have any of you ever played it? It’s based on the idea that all actions have consequences and, as we know, actions can very often lead to unintended consequences.
In today’s gospel reading we are privileged to witness something very special indeed: Jesus at prayer. Now several things strike me about the quality of Jesus prayer. The first, and perhaps most obvious is Jesus’ sense of intimacy and unity with the Father: ‘As you Father are in me and I am in you.’ We are of course invited into that self-same intimacy and unity. One of the things we might usefully reflect on this week is the quality of our own prayer life. Is it leading us progressively into a relationship characterised by intimacy? The second thing we might notice is that for Jesus prayer has consequences; intended consequences. Jesus’ own prayer is highly intentional, are our prayers intentional?
In the gospel reading the word ‘so’ is repeated four times. It’s almost as though the prayer is structured around a series of propositions, which are then followed by statements of consequence, for example:
‘As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe you have sent me,’ followed immediately by ‘the glory you have given me I have given them, so that they may, as one as we are one’ and later in the passage with ‘I made your name known to them, and I will make it known so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’
The prayer that we are privileged to witness was, of course, the prayer that Jesus made immediately prior to his betrayal and arrest, which makes it truly remarkable. In the hour of his deepest need Jesus' twofold instinct is to assert the quality of his relationship with the Father and, to pray for his apostles.
What we mustn’t to is the make the mistake of believing that this prayer was just for the apostles who had been with Jesus for the last few years, for the prayer begins with the words ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.’ This prayer is, in other words, for us too and all who are members of the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Jesus' final prayer is a universal prayer; one made for all people, in all places, for all time, and the intended consequences of his prayer are that we should know ourselves to be truly beloved by God and that we should have the confidence to step out in faith and keep on telling, or making ‘known’, the Jesus story.
Jesus' final prayer is deeply relational and inherently missional and evangelistic; it is a prayer made to the Father, which we are expected, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to make real in the here and now, just as Paul and Silas did in the account we have heard from the Acts of the Apostles and, like Paul and Silas, that might mean us having to accept a certain amount of ridicule and abuse for our faith. Jesus, you see, didn’t pray for our comfort, or that we might be universally accepted, acknowledged and affirmed by others.
He prayed instead that we might know and experience the love of God in our inner most being and that as a consequence, through our faith, others may know that Jesus is Lord. Jesus' deepest desire was that the consequence of his prayer should be that his name continues to be made ‘known’ by people like you and me. Jesus, you see, wasn’t interested in the privatisation of faith, but rather the sharing of faith.
At the beginning of this homily I suggested that we might like to reflect on the quality of our prayer life and our relationship with God, a relationship that is built primarily through prayer. This week can I also ask you to reflect on how you are helping to keep telling the Jesus story and making Jesus known to your friends and neighbours?
Let us pray: ‘Loving God draw us this day and every day into an ever deeper and more loving relationship with you. Through the work of your Holy Spirit inspire us to keep telling the Jesus story, so that others may know that you live, in Jesus Holy name we pray, Amen.’
Easter 6; Leaving a legacy: Revelation 21, 10 & 22-25 and John 14, 23-29
I don’t know about you but sometimes it seems to me that everyone is obsessed with vision and legacy. Everyone seems to want to leave a legacy of some form, sport-stars, business leaders, politicians all seem preoccupied with legacy. They all also state in categorical terms that it is vitally important to create, and then peddle, a compelling vision where the vision becomes the animator of everything else. You can’t, it seems, leave an enduring legacy without a compelling vision. But the reality surely is that very few people or organisations deliver on the vision? Didn’t someone quip that ‘all political careers end in failure?’(In fact it was Enoch Powell)
On the cross it seems for all the world as though Jesus’ vocation has ended in total and utter failure. Only a very few of his family and friends are there for him at the time of his greatest need and it looks as though the only legacy he is to leave is that of yet another false messiah; someone who seemed to offer a compelling vision, with the guarantee of an enduring legacy and yet who fell woefully short. And yet, we know that this is not how it turned out. Believer and unbeliever alike must surely accept that Jesus did leave a real and lasting legacy?
Today’s gospel reading and the reading from Revelation are about vision and legacy. Revelation, the Bible’s closing book, is a visionary book, and the reading we have heard is from the penultimate chapter of Revelation and in it we are given a picture, or a vision, of what things will be like at the end of time where the nations will walk by the ‘light’ and the ‘kings of the earth will bring their glory, into it….the temple of the Lord…...where the Lamb’ reigns supreme. What we are given is a picture of our final and ultimate destination: the New Jerusalem. It’s a glorious vision and one we do well to hold before us as we seek to live in the here and now.
But, what we mustn’t do is say to ourselves ‘oh well, it will all be alright in the end’ for this would be to render ourselves passive recipients of religion rather than as active members of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Saying to ourselves ‘oh well, it will all be alright in the end’ would be a rejection of the Lord’s prayer, where we ask that something of the beauty of the New Jerusalem becomes actualised in the here and now. The readings we have heard over the last few weeks from the Acts of the Apostles make it clear that the early church was far from passive, indeed it was hyperactive and to stand in the apostolic tradition means that we too must be an active, authentically evangelical and missional church. But, how on earth can we do this? How can the church, and all her members, witness with power and authority to the truth of Jesus Christ? What would it take?
The good news is that Jesus himself provides us with the answers: an openness to the work of the Holy Spirit amongst us, prompting us, guiding us, unsettling us, challenging us, and leading us combined with the gift of the Jesus legacy: ‘peace.’ Or, more precisely, the ‘peace’ which the world is incapable of giving.
Peace means lots of different things in the Christian tradition. It means good and Godly relationships within the household of faith, the sort of relationships that sustain us and keep us moving forward. But here, I think, we are talking about an absolute inner conviction that through the work of Jesus on the Cross, and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit amongst us, both corporately and individually, combined with the vision we have been given in the Revelation of John, we have all the certainty, or surety, we need. This inner certainty combined with an eternal perspective is what allows us as Christians to thrive in the here and now; to go from church to ‘in peace to love and serve the Lord.’
The church has been given the Jesus legacy and been graced with the compelling and eternal vision. Whether we are able to put them to good and virtuous effect is contingent on our willingness to be open to the work of the ‘Advocate, the Holy Spirit,’ the One who Jesus promises ‘will teach you everything.’
If we keep John’s vision before us and are truly open to the work of the Holy Spirit we too will leave a real and enduring apostolic legacy, and as Christians that’s our mandate; yours and mine,
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