Sermon preached on Pentecost Sunday (27th May 2012) by Rev Steve Smith
I’m not going to talk about fire and wind and tongues because it seems to me that those things are more to do with presentation than content. What interests me is the result, what the early Christians were actually like and what effect this had on what they did. Being and doing – two sides of the same coin.
This week I’ve been on retreat with the clergy of the deanery and one of the things we’ve been looking at is how we are going to ‘be and do’ church in twenty years’ time. And when it comes to thinking about Pentecost, it strikes me that being and doing are key issues for us to look at.
Being: What is a community like when it is filled with the Holy Spirit of God? What are its motivations and passions, its values?
Doing: What difference does such a community make in the world?
Aristides of Athens, writing to the Emperor Hadrian in the early 130s AD:
Oh Emperor, it is the Christians that have sought and found the truth, for they acknowledge God. They do not keep for themselves the goods entrusted to them. They do not covet what belongs to others, but they show love to their neighbours. They do not do to another what they would not like done to themselves. They speak gently to those who oppress them, and in this way, they make their enemies their friends. It has become their passion to do good to their enemies. They live in the awareness of their own smallness. Everyone of them who has anything gives ungrudgingly to the one who has nothing. And if any of them sees a homeless stranger, they bring them into their own home, under their roof. If any one of them becomes poor while the Christians have nothing to spare, then they fast two or three days until everyone can eat. In this way, they supply for the poor exactly what they need. This, oh emperor, is the rule of life for the Christians. This is how they live.
I’M GOING TO MAKE SURE THAT THIS FORMS PART OF OUR MISSION STATEMENT AT ALL HALLOWS! Because this says it all. It speaks of a church that is alive, outward-looking, always seeking out occasions to be of help, of service; always being sensitive to the needs of others and seeking the good of those especially who are worse off than themselves.
In the church of the 130s there’s certainly lots of doing, but also a sense of what underlies the doing – the letter speaks of their passion to do good to their enemies; awareness of their own smallness – in other word their humility; ungrudging generosity in giving – and an acceptance that this is the right way of life – and it speaks of their eagerness to live that way – this the way of life for the Christians, this is how they live – it’s just how they are!
Looking at the context of our reading today, Acts Chapter 1 verse 14, says the eleven (Judas Iscariot is now dead, of course) – the eleven “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
This is so important because prayer is importantly not just a doing thing- it’s about an attitude, about our state of being; it’s about our desire, our intention, our yearning to be being and doing what is God’s purpose for us. It seems to me that this was one of the main reasons, the foundation, of the coming of the Spirit – the people were people of prayer. And not just the eleven – they were not just praying themselves, but with women – a dangerously subversive thing to be doing in those times of course. Their praying, even in those vulnerable times had an edge to it that was pushing the boundaries.
In the reading from Acts today the really powerful thing that captivated people’s hearts and imaginations might have been a crowd of foreign visitors to Jerusalem being really impressed at a few Galileans suddenly, magically becoming able to speak foreign languages. But I just wonder if it wasn’t so much the style as the content that got people excited. The fact, perhaps, that for those foreigners the important thing was that “In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” -a reference to the extraordinary life and love and death and resurrection of Jesus, showing that love is stronger than death and that this life and love are gifts to us from God. But that quote ‘in our own languages’ is the key phrase to me. It tells of people empowered by a Spirit who is interested in reaching out to people in need of God’s love; to people who have not had the benefit of experiencing the teaching of Jesus, his story, his self-giving death and his life-giving resurrection.
Of course the really powerful stuff is what comes next, with Peter’s speech and the fact that about three thousand people hear the message of God’s love and become followers of the way of Jesus.
The point here is that all this exciting ‘doing’ stuff had its origins in the being stuff of Peter and rest of the eleven and the women’s devotion to prayer – a state of being with God – the state of being that needs to come first before any doing because it’s our state of being that determines and forms everything we do.
Doing is vital of course. A church must be a doing church –
Today when it comes to the doing side of how the church says it should be operating, we have the five marks of mission – the things that mark out a church community where the Spirit of God is alive and active are that that church is keen to, and seen to:
1. TELL – proclaiming the good news as we know it… life can be different!!!
2. TEACH – baptizing, nurture new believers
3. TEND – responding to need by loving, self-giving service
4. TRANSFORM – transforming unjust structures of society as well being open to transformation themselves
5. TREASURE – safeguarding the integrity of Creation and sustaining and renewing the earth
… these things are to do with DOING
And doing these things is of course the point of the church’s existence in the first place – to be outward-looking, living out the message of God’s love and generosity – Doing the gospel.
But whatever we do, we need God’s spirit to empower, enable, enthuse us… and we need to start from a state of being that is open to receive the Spirit. That might involve doing or not doing, but it’s that BEING that is essential in the first place.
So the modern church also has some things to say about that, too.
Some ‘Values for a mission – shaped church’ are to do with being:
a mission – shaped church is:
o God-centred – prayer and worship are at its heart
o Relational – it has a heart of welcome, generosity and hospitality
o Incarnational – shaping itself to the local (and other) cultures
o Outward facing – attracting and encouraging new believers
o Transformational – eager to change its world – but also ready to be changed
The coming of the Spirit happened, the bible says, (Acts Chapter 2 verse 1) when the disciples were ‘all together in one place’ and there is something very significant about that phrase for us today.
For the Spirit to come in such power as they witnessed at the first Pentecost, it was necessary for them to be together, not just bodily, but also in the sense of being together in heart and mind. –
Here at All Hallows we are facing some big decisions:
What is it that we sense God has for us to do? What is it that we are tasked with?
How are we to use the resources we have, like the building, our money, our time and energies, in carrying out the tasks God has for us?
BEFORE WE DO ANYTHING we need to be constantly devoting ourselves to prayer – making sure that we are as far as possible one in heart and mind, dedicated to God and to one another and to all who stand in need.
I’ll finish by letting Aristides of Athens remind us what we’re about:
Oh Emperor, it is the Christians that have sought and found the truth, for they acknowledge God. They do not keep for themselves the goods entrusted to them. They do not covet what belongs to others, but they show love to their neighbours. They do not do to another what they would not like done to themselves. They speak gently to those who oppress them, and in this way, they make their enemies their friends. It has become their passion to do good to their enemies. They live in the awareness of their own smallness. Every one of them who has anything gives ungrudgingly to the one who has nothing. And if any of them sees a homeless stranger, they bring them into their own home, under their roof. If any one of them becomes poor while the Christians have nothing to spare, then they fast two or three days until everyone can eat. In this way, they supply for the poor exactly what they need. This, oh emperor, is the rule of life for the Christians. This is how they live.