My question today is: “What does Pentecost mean to you?”
When we read the Old Testament, we discover that Pentecost was one of the Jewish festival days.
The Jews called it the Feast of Harvest and it came on the 50th day (or 7 weeks) after the Feast of Firstfruits. The name “Pentecost” came later and is the Greek name, meaning 50th.
Today, we’ll look at the time just after the death and resurrection of Jesus, when the Apostles were in Jerusalem celebrating the Feast of the Harvest, and the Holy Spirit descended on them.
Please read the following: Acts 2:1-21 - The Coming of the Holy Spirit
Imagine how you’d feel if you were attending a modern-day, multi-cultural meeting, where a group of uneducated people, who weren’t from your city, started speaking knowledgably and logically about God – and in languages that all people who heard them, could understand in their native tongue? All this after hearing a mighty rushing wind and seeing tongues of fire descend and land on each of their heads. There would have been about 120 believers with them at that time, so it must have been quite a sight.
I don’t know about you, but I think it would have freaked me out if I was there.
The day of Pentecost is often seen as the “day the church began”. It’s the first occurrence of baptism by the Holy Spirit and, therefore, points us to the inauguration of the Christian church.
We join the story at a point where the disciples now seem to have re-found their courage and are speaking out boldly. Only 7 weeks earlier, at Easter, they’d scattered and hid for fear of their lives. Even after Jesus had re-appeared to them a number of times, after his resurrection, they were still reluctant to speak in public.
It must have been a very confusing time for them.
On the one hand, they were sad because their master and teacher had been killed and taken away from them, so that part of their life, which must have been a great experience and adventure for them, was now over.
On the other hand, they were about to embark on a thrilling new task for God - taking the gospel to the rest of the world.
I guess it could be likened to taking a child to school for the first time.
Excitement is tinged with sadness. One part of their life is over (i.e. growing up at home, with day to day bonding between parent & child), but a whole new world of education and new friendships, is opening up before them. They may not fully understand it, but they know that something good, new and exciting, is about to happen. Likewise, it can be a time of big change for the parent, a tinge of loneliness and having to “let go”, mixed with the excitement of knowing that they are preparing their child for the time when they will leave home and commence a new life – one where they have to look after themselves.
Compare that to the disciples being with Jesus for 3 years and then experiencing his death & resurrection and the 40 days of teaching and learning, before his ascension.
Now they seem to be on their own, but (as promised) Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to be with them forever.
It was only after baptism by the Holy Spirit, that they had the courage to speak out in front of their peers.
The report that “3,000 were added to their number” indicates that they must have been impressive when they spoke and obviously made sense to those who heard them (and it was even in their own languages).
Wow! That must have been a mighty sight to witness.
And then Peter addressed the crowd. For the first time, he preached publicly about Jesus, the Son of God.
This is the same Peter who was so scared that he had denied even knowing Jesus only 7 weeks earlier.
What was different?
It was obviously the Holy Spirit that gave him the ability to speak so eloquently and boldly.
He started off explaining to the crowd what had just happened, and he defended the other 11 disciples against accusations of drunkenness that were being made by the crowd. He pointed out that it was only 9am and they couldn’t possibly have had too much wine. On a festival day, such as this, they wouldn’t have broken their fast before 10am.
Instead, he postulated that what the people were witnessing was a fulfilling of the words of prophesy, spoken by the prophet Joel, when he said that, in the last days, God would pour out his spirit on all people and that miraculous things would happen.
The message of Joel can be summarized in three simple statements:
(1)Calamities are God’s warning of judgment to come
(2)Heed these warnings and return to God with all your heart
(3)When you return to God, God’s fullest blessings will be poured out on you and on all people.
Joel talked to the people of Judah, some 860 years before Peter quoted him.
Peter’s message was the same:
You may have done nasty things to God’s son, Jesus, but God is still willing to forgive you and bless you, if you accept his message and are baptised.
Peter told the crowd about how Jesus had brought the gift of the Holy Spirit to them and that they could receive it, too - if they repented of their sins.
Surely this should be the basis of every evangelist’s message today.
As long the early disciples sat and meditated and prayed behind locked doors, they remained defeated and downcast. When they ventured out to share the Gospel, the Good News, they found the gift of the Spirit of God in life-changing ways.
Is it an exciting thing we can participate in? Certainly.
Are we given a peace within? Absolutely - even if all around is turmoil.
Can every Christian receive the gift of the Holy Spirit? Definitely – if we follow Jesus in his mission.
Can we predict where the wind of the spirit will blow us? No way.
So, what CAN we do and how CAN we be as brave as the disciples, when we’re talking to friends and acquaintances in the coming weeks?
Well, I certainly don’t find that an easy thing to do and I guess most of you don’t either, but these words from Acts give us hope that God can use even people like us to do his work in the world today.
We can be reassured that the Holy Spirit will make our words understandable to those we talk with, just as he did those thousands of years ago.
If we plant the seed, God will ensure that it grows and bears much fruit.
Therefore, don’t be shy about talking to those who may not already have God in their heart, give it a go and the Kingdom will surely grow. We know that from a little mustard seed, a great tree will blossom.
So be out there and be brave, because the Spirit is with you.
We go into this week in the peace of Christ,
the love of God,
and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Please now read the other 3 Lectionary readings set down for this week.
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b - Praise the Lord, O my Soul
John 20:19-23 - Jesus Appears to His Disciples
1 Cor 12:3b-13 - Spiritual Gifts
Stay well………….Pastor Rick
Here in NSW, we have finally started coming out of the lockdown imposed by the Federal and State governments to keep us safe while the virus COVID-19 is still so virulent in our community.
While this is an inconvenience to most of us, it is also the best and safest way of containing the spread of the virus among our friends, family and acquaintances. Even though church gatherings of up to 10 are now allowed by the Federal government, our Synod, in conjunction with representatives from each Presbytery, have agreed that it is still best to not open our church buildings for gatherings at this time.
We’re all keen to get back to our regular way of worship, but not at the risk of even one of our congregation inadvertently catching the virus.
Sometimes it seems like this time of isolation will never end, but the words of Jesus, brought to us in this week’s bible reading from the Gospel of John, gives us another perspective.
“Our time here on earth is just a taste of what is to come.”
Please read the following:
John 17:1-11 - Jesus Prays for His Disciples
We know that Christians have often thought about eternal life.
What will it be like, they wonder?
When will it happen?
Is it only at the time of death, or at some other time?
The promise of eternal life has often been seen as a reward for our hard work, here in this life - a prize that must be earned, or perhaps even as a free gift - but even then, a kind of reward at the end of the race.
But in John’s Gospel, Jesus says that eternal life is actually knowing the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom God sent.
So, eternal life is not a reward at some future time, but rather the life we find, right here and now, when we encounter God through Jesus Christ.
The life that’s been shaped by the Gospel is an eternal life in the present times.
This changes everything, as we look for eternal qualities and values in “who we are” and “how we live”.
Those biblical scholars among you may be wondering why this reading from John comes after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (we are now some 50 days after Easter).
Did the people who made up the Revised Common Lectionary make a mistake?
The answer is “no, they didn’t.”
The beauty of this out-of-order reading, proclaiming the cross in the midst of our season of resurrection, brings us right back into God’s calls on our lives, when we hear Christ's words once again.
If we merely heard this prayer before Good Friday, we might mistakenly hear it for that day alone, for that appointed time.
But on this side of the crucifixion and resurrection, on this after-Easter day, when we go back and listen once again, we hear the whole prayer in a different way and realize that what starts as Christ's obedience to change, ushers in our own obedience to change.
The point of Jesus' plea today is not his obedience to the past; the point is his obedience for our future.
This is not merely a prayer that Jesus throws up into the heavens so that his work on the cross might be fulfilled.
No, this prayer, heard on this side of Easter, is a prayer for you and me, for the Church, that we might realize the faith Christ has in us, the faith Christ has in our call.
Unlike the early disciples, we now know the whole story, and we get to hear Christ's hope, Christ's call, Christ's obedience to us on this side of the cross and the empty tomb.
Thanks be to God for this out-of-order prayer.
Thanks be to God that Jesus is still praying for us.
And thanks be to God for those who hold us accountable.
May we hear all their voices, and once again, accept our call.
Please now read the other 3 Lectionary readings set down for this week.
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35 - Praise and Thanksgiving
Acts 1:6-14 - The Ascension of Jesus
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11 - Suffering as a Christian
Let us pray.
God of grace, we look to your love and light to shine in our lives and our world.
We cast all our anxiety upon you:
the state of world politics;
the division of peoples;
the effects of climate change;
the growing disparity between rich and poor;
the prevalence of violence in our homes;
the increase in mental illness;
the gap between First and Second Peoples;
the indifference and apathy in our world.
We cast these anxieties upon you knowing that you care for us all. Give us courage in the face of fear.
Help us to be agents of change and love that we might be steadfast in faith as you are steadfast in faithfulness. Gather up our hearts and prayers this day. Hold us in your light and heal our wounds.
In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
To know God is to know eternal life.
May God gather us up to be the people of love, who walk this life as a people who have already entered eternal life - for we surely already have.
Go into this week, safe in the knowledge and the peace of God’s love for us.
In the name of the three-in-one who is life itself.
As we travel along the windy road back towards where we roughly were before the words Coronavirus or COVID-19 became household names, we must pause to reflect on what we had then, and whether we wish to return to those times, or look to the lessons we’ve learned and for ways to improve upon both our own individual situations and the outlook for the world in general.
In NSW, we have started the relaxation of our lockdown protocols and we are heartened by the news that, for the first time since January 25, there has been at least one day with no new cases of the virus reported in our state. But, despite that, and the fact that religious gatherings of up to 10 people are now allowed, we will not be re-commencing our Sunday services for a while yet.
The Synod of NSW/ACT has determined that the risk of transmission still outweighs the benefits of meeting in person, so I’ll be continuing my weekly reflections for the foreseeable future, until we have approval to open our church building again.
Continuing on from our look at the resurrected Lord last week, Jesus is now saying farewell to his closest friends, his disciples. His instructions centre upon love, trust and the presence of God through the promised Holy Spirit, the Advocate (v16).
In this passage, Jesus introduces them (and us) to the concept of the Trinity (God being 3 in 1).
Because he recently walked the road to the cross, Jesus knows how hard our road out of lockdown is, yet he seeks to keep us true to his call. We may be unsure - afraid even - but we know that we’re not alone. We may be confused, but we’re guided by the Spirit.
The commandment to love as Jesus loves, is neither easy, nor impossible.
It is the way - the only way.
Even after the return of Jesus to the Father, the Spirit remains with the disciples; but this doesn’t mean the Spirit replaces Jesus.
Rather, the Spirit discloses the presence of the risen Jesus and his Father to the community of faith.
You might like to think of the Spirit as the one who strengthens us, comforts us, guides us, and inspires us. It’s the Spirit who enables us to interpret the signs of the times in ways very different from the ways of the world. It’s the Spirit who works through us for the transformation of the world. It’s because of the fact that the Spirit has already been given to us that, in the midst of our journey of life, we’re able to live those promises into fulfilment.
We may be considered foolish by others who live in the world without this hope, but it’s probably just that they don’t understand the Spirit of God.
The communities that John was writing to would have been embattled and uncertain little churches, also in need of reassurance and promises and yet, like those first disciples and us today, in need of a challenge.
Maybe, though, we all need to know exactly what the expectations are.
We want to measure up, fulfil our obligations, make the grade, do what's right, please God and maybe please others, too.
So, what does Jesus tell his disciples to do? He tells them to keep his commandments - and we all remember what those are, don’t we! But what mattered most to Jesus was love, and it's no surprise that "love" is in the very same sentence with "obey my commandments."
Many bible commentators, in attempting to discern wisdom from the scriptures, seem to wrestle with this command of Jesus (or is it actually his observation?), that "If you love me, you will keep my commandments."
It almost sounds as if all our talk of grace is meaningless in the face of a requirement like that. Does it really all come down to this - that we need to obey the rules (ie. to love) to earn our way to heaven?
First of all, we might respond that we believe that the commandments that mattered to Jesus were those two about loving God and loving our neighbour.
Secondly, we could suggest that Jesus isn't actually making a conditional statement but instead is putting forth an obvious fact: ie. that when you love someone, really, really love someone, doing what is good and right comes so much more naturally and easily. Perhaps parents are a good illustration of this: it may be a challenge at times to be a parent, but the love one feels for one's children makes it a "no-brainer" to do what's good for them; it's obvious that if you love your children, you're going to take good care of them.
Do you remember the story of Solomon and the two mothers in 1 Kings 3:16-28, where Solomon was asked to determine who was the real mother of a child?
He suggested the solution would be to cut the baby in half, giving half to each woman. But one of the women pleaded with him to not kill the child but, rather give the baby to the other woman. It was obvious to Solomon that she really loved that child and could not bear to see it killed.
Therefore, she was the real mother of the baby.
Perhaps Jesus' statement can be viewed with that same wisdom.
Rather than read it as “If you love me, you will keep my commandments",
should we perhaps interpret it as "Because you love me……"?
Love prompts us to pattern our lives after the model of Jesus, the one we love. This means we will live with clear consciences, with gentleness and reverence. The love that comes to us through the Spirit will overflow into the lives of others. We will be agents of God's love in the world. Our lives will be evidence of the presence of the Spirit in our midst.
But is it our love of Jesus that redeems us? As I said earlier, I believe that it’s the other way around.
It’s because he loves us that we are saved.
So, what do we learn from this reading from John’s Gospel?
It’s that God wants us to have a living relationship with him. He loves us unconditionally and in order that we may walk with him now, here on earth, he gave us a living reminder, the Holy Spirit, so that we might commune with him.
Let us pray. Lord, as we struggle with life during this pandemic, we pray that your spirit will guide us on the path of righteousness and keep our eyes firmly on you. We pray for all those who have been adversely affected during this time, be it to their health, both physical and mental, or to their way of life, their jobs and relationships with those they love. We thank you for your gift of the Holy Spirit – a Comforter to be with us at all times. Bring us safely out the other side with a renewed love for you and with a will to improve both ourselves and the world that we inhabit. Amen.
This Sunday is a very special day in the life of mothers in most of the countries across the world, but in the UK they celebrate "Mothering Sunday" on March 25th (or the nearest Sunday). This day is nine months before December 25th and it was traditionally a day off for servants, who could use it to return home and visit their mothers, since they often wouldn't get to see them during the rest of the year.
Whatever day we celebrate it on, we pay tribute to those who raised us and shaped us into who we are.
If you’re like me and your mother has passed on, this reflection will probably resonate with you.
Jesus said: “I go to prepare a place for you. … I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” It sounds so wonderful, doesn’t it? It sounds perhaps like what we imagine heaven to be. If that’s so, then it’s a future place, a place that we’ll “go to.”
Well, that may be part of the promise that Jesus was making to his disciples, but the other part is in his answer to Thomas: “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
Yes, we are promised eternal life, but we’re also promised that we’re already housed by God, fed by God and carried by God. We already have a foot in that place Jesus prepared for us if we but look around, look within and listen. As nice as that sounds, doesn’t it often seem difficult to imagine that in this world, we should be seeing evidence of Jesus being the way, the truth and the life? If people truly believed that God is very much with us, wouldn’t “the world” be a different place - a better place?
Jesus often talked to his followers, and others who would listen, about the Kingdom of Heaven. He said that it was here already and also that we must join in the process of building it, using Jesus as the initial cornerstone, or capstone. This cornerstone is the first one laid when building a mighty edifice and it is imperative that it’s set correctly, as it’s the one on which all the levels and strength of the building rely.
Let’s stop for a moment and reflect on whether we’ve really progressed all that far from the kinds of things that were happening when the church was still in its formative years.
Today’s reading from Acts brings a dangerous and dark shadow over our Easter joy. Stephen, even though he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and evidently giving witness to what a life lived in imitation of Jesus should look like, is stoned to death by an angry crowd. They covered their ears and shouted.
Isn’t that a frightening image? We see a manic crowd, hostile to goodness and their anger and frustration feeding off each other. Why? They couldn’t imagine that God would become manifest in Jesus, live among human beings, die on the cross and rise victorious from the dead. We might think to ourselves, “How sad. They had Jesus right in their midst and they missed him. We certainly wouldn’t have made that mistake!”
Yet, look at what happens today. Groups of lay people, priests and nuns are brutally murdered by guerrilla groups with machine guns or machetes, just because they are working for freedom, or education, or because they belong to the wrong tribe. A group of innocent schoolgirls in Nigeria are kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam, because they are girls who are at school, brought up in Christian families.
So where is this Kingdom of Heaven on earth? For that matter, where is Jesus? Has he gone to prepare a heavenly place for us and forgotten to come back?
Do our hearts become troubled when we hear these stories? Yes, of course they do. We have to wonder just how it is that we can build our faith to the point where we can believe in a different world - where we can see God in the midst of hardship.
If we look at Peter’s letter to the early churches, we can believe that, yes, we can drink that pure, spiritual milk that God offers us. That’s where we can begin again, regardless of how long we’ve been in the church. We’re offered that nourishment in many ways - through prayer, through the words and symbols of our liturgies and through the example of those who love us because they believe in God’s love for all people.
Perhaps the most powerful way of growing in the spirit is through our sharing at the Communion table and believing that Jesus left this symbol with us so that we could touch him and know that he IS in us.
There’s the power. There’s the mystery that explodes within us if we just open our hearts and minds to all that God reveals to us. There’s the well of power that helps us continue looking for ways to build the Kingdom here on earth, while we wait to take our place in the world to come.
Peter reminds us that we’re chosen, we’re a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God. How many of us, I wonder, really believe that? If we don’t, then how can we begin to grasp the meaning of those words?
When people DO begin to believe these words, they find themselves doing amazing things. We might first think of those people like Stephen - and countless others in the years since - who have given their lives for what they believe. They’ve added their stones towards the building of the Kingdom.
But then we also have to think of ourselves. We’re the people who are called to build the kingdom in different ways, through teaching, writing, through the example of our integrity and genuineness.
Jesus never promised a safe and trouble-free life for those who follow him - far from it. He was always very honest about the fact that “the world” would most often cover its ears and shout, and sometimes throw stones. But if we try - if we believe that we’re chosen, that there is truth in the saying that one candle brings light into the darkness, then we ARE building it - piece by piece. We ARE adding stone upon stone, and we will feel the difference in ourselves.
We need to be careful, however, not to fall into the trap of thinking that we have to complete the building of the Kingdom either all by ourselves, or at least in our lifetime. Our human desire to be successful, complete and wholly satisfied, can be a stumbling block for us - just as rejecting Jesus was a stumbling block to them.
The Kingdom here will never be finished, it just continues to grow. We’re a part, a critical and unique part, but we’re not the whole. There’s always more to learn and more to offer of ourselves to others. Evil will never cease trying to destroy the goodness of a holy place. And so, there’s a need to continue building ourselves up, but also to work together, pray together, become that holy nation, that holy community.
Each and every one of us is called. Each and every one of us is invited to follow Jesus who is our way, our truth and our life and the Good News is that Jesus is with us. He has promised never to leave us.
We are holy. We are chosen. We are God’s beloved.
Are you ready to lay your stone at the feet of God and help to build his Kingdom? Can you think of how you might fulfil the role God planned out for you? It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as Stephen’s. Maybe you can pray for healing and restoration in the world. Maybe you can help out those less fortunate ones in our community by volunteering your time. Or invite a lonely neighbour over for a cuppa and a chat. There are many ways of achieving the Kingdom, but it all involves building it up, one stone at a time.
Let us pray. Lord, Bless all mothers - not only on Mothers’ Day, but every day. Even if we can’t be with them, I pray that they are aware that we love them deeply. Help us to become the people that you, and they, want us to be. Guide us in your Kingdom work and keep us safe, until we meet again. Amen.