Setting God’s People Free

June 10, 2019

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Preached by The Venerable Dr Paul Moore using Acts 2:1 – 21 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 9 June 2019, Pentecost Sunday. 

Jerusalem was full of Jewish visitors from far flung places, the names of which often strike terror into the lesson reader who finds they’re on the rota for Whit Sunday.

These visitors were there for the Feast of Weeks, one of the harvest festivals required by God’s Law, 7 weeks and a day after the cutting of the first wheat crop.

For the 120 followers of a man from Nazareth called Jesus, it was 50 days since this man, crucified, dead and buried was raised to life, the first fruits of resurrection life. They were waiting prayerfully, as Jesus had told them, waiting to be clothed with God’s power: ‘You’ll receive power and be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.’

How daunting, if not impossible, this huge task must have seemed in prospect to this motley crew.

The day of Pentecost came. The waiting was over. With a sound like a rushing wind and what look like tongues of fire, all 120 are filled with the Holy Spirit. They find themselves out in the streets speaking about the great things God has been doing, and being heard by the visitors in their different native languages. Baptised, immersed in God’s Spirit, their impossible mission has become possible. The harvest this day is about 3000 people baptised, and they also receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to become Christ’s witnesses wherever their home town or village happens to be.

Pentecost is often celebrated as the Birthday of the Church, an opportunity to eat cake after the service. I’m all for cake, but I’m convinced that Pentecost should be an annual celebration of our common calling as Christians to live our daily lives for God, to be Christ’s witnesses, every one of us empowered by the Spirit to share in God’s work in the world.

Over the last 18 months I’ve been one of a small team from this diocese, two clergy and two lay, invited to work with teams from 8 other dioceses as part of a Church of England programme called ‘Setting God’s People Free’. The aim is to ‘enable one another to live out the good news of Jesus in all our life, Monday to Saturday as well as Sunday.’

Research shows that church members lack vision and confidence to do this. 58% felt the church does not equip people well for life in today’s world. 62% in full-time employment said they received little or no help from their church to deal with issues at work.

Church culture needs to change. Over many years we’ve tended to focus more on what we do when we gather together for worship than how we live out our faith when dispersed during the rest of the week. Sermons and prayers often don’t connect with everyday issues. Apart from missionaries, doctors, nurses and a few other professions, people’s roles in the weekday world are not seen as contributing as much to God’s kingdom as ministries in the church. One frustrated church member commented, ‘I teach Sunday school 45 minutes a week, and they haul me up to the front of the church to pray for me. I teach in a school 45 hours a week, and the church has never prayed for me.’ Sadly we lack a clear, compelling, liberating vision of our common calling to share in God’s mission in the world.

But Pentecost is the day when the whole people of God was set free, when all followers of Christ without exception were empowered and mobilised for this calling. At this festival we should be celebrating that the gift of the Spirit is still given to every Christian so we can make a difference, bear fruit that lasts. Pentecost should be the Sunday when we pray for one another in our daily witness, asking God to fill us afresh with his Spirit, recommissioning and sending out every Christian to live the mission of Jesus.

Three illustrations may be helpful in communicating this vision for everyday faith.

St Paul speaks about carrying the aroma of Christ wherever we go. (2 Cor 2:15). What kind of Christ-like fragrance, what grace-filled savour are we bringing into the various communities and groups where we spend our time?

The second picture is of our baptism into the body of Christ. A quotation from Michael Jinkins: ‘We are soaked to the skin in the death of Christ. Our union with Christ drips from us …. We trail wet footprints of the drenching wherever we go; we never dry off.’ It’s perhaps harder for those of us who were baptised as babies to relate to this, but it challenges us, wherever we are, to remember who we are in Christ.

The third image comes from one of our team members whose wife keeps bees. Bees are always making a positive difference wherever they buzz to, pollinating plants as they collect pollen and nectar – an image that encourages us to be followers of Jesus who, empowered by the Spirit, make a difference wherever we may be as we live out our faith in everyday life.

We, God’s people, have been set free to worship him without fear all the days of our life, as the Benedictus from Morning Prayer reminds us.

A couple of weeks ago Archbishop Justin Welby met with Pope Francis in Rome. He says he rather cheekily asked the Pope to record a short video message for ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, the nine days of prayer leading up to Pentecost. It was captured on the Archbishop’s phone. This is what Pope Francis said:

Come Holy Spirit. This is the cry of all Christians, the promise of the Father, the promise of Jesus that the Holy Spirit might enlarge and widen our hearts.

We all have a problem, that our “hearts tend to shrink become smaller and close”. We cannot solve that problem by ourselves. Only the Holy Spirit that can solve it. Come Holy Spirit.