On All People (Acts 2:1-21)

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I think a lot of people in our communities rejoiced a few weeks ago when local council libraries opened again. They had been closed for a while because of the COVID-19 restrictions which meant that many people’s access to books, videos and CDs was cut off during a time when not much else was available to them. The re-opening of our libraries has meant that we are now able to return to them, explore lots of different resources, and borrow them again.

I spent a fair bit of time in libraries when I was younger but only visited our local library a few years ago with our children. I was surprised and amazed at the wide variety of good things I could borrow! There were so many books, graphic novels, CDs, videos, and other items we could take home, not just for the kids but for adults as well. Of course, the problem with libraries is that we don’t get to keep the good things that we find. We can only have what we borrow for a limited amount of time, and then at some stage it needs to go back to the library.

What do you think it would be like to be able to go to the world’s greatest library, to find the best books, videos or CDs, and to be able to take it home to keep, absolutely free of charge? Would you go to that library to find what you were looking for? What if this wasn’t just available to you, but to every person in the world?

God’s gift of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament worked something like a public library. God gave the Holy Spirit, often referred to as ‘the Spirit of the Lord’, to certain people for a limited time to do something specific or to achieve a particular purpose. For example, we read in Numbers 11:24-30 that God gave the Holy Spirit to seventy elders of the nation of Israel. The story continues that ‘when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But this never happened again’ (v25b NLT). Here and in other Old Testament stories God ‘loaned’ the Holy Spirit to certain people to help them do something, but then the Holy Spirit returned to God when that task was completed.

Then, about five or six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Joel made an amazing claim. He wrote,

‘Then, after doing all those things, I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. In those days I will pour out my Spirit even on servants – men and women alike.’ (Joel 2:28,29 NLT)

This was radical for a few reasons. Firstly, Joel deliberately included women this prophecy. There had been a few women in the Old Testament who had received the Holy Spirit but here Joel was saying that what had previously been the exception would become the norm. Also, God would pour out the Holy Spirit on all people, not just a select few for a limited time. Instead of being like a public library where the books that have been borrowed would need to be returned, now all people could receive the Holy Spirit who would remain with them permanently.

Joel’s words were fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Peter specifically referred to Joel’s prophecy to show that God was fulfilling his message by giving the Holy Spirit to the followers of Jesus fifty days after his resurrection and ten days after his ascension. Pentecost was a spiritual game-changer as God poured out his Holy Spirit on all people, men and women, young and old, giving them what they needed to witness to Jesus and participate in God’s mission to the world. God wasn’t just loaning them his Spirit. God was giving his Spirit to them as a gift to go with them everywhere they went and to give them the power to be the living presence of the resurrected and ascended Jesus in the world.

Pentecost started a whole new way in which God was at work in the world. We continue to celebrate Pentecost because it reminds us that God began something new on that day in Jerusalem which he continues to do in us and through us. As Jesus’ disciples in our time and place, God pours his Holy Spirit into us so that we can have the power we need to be the physical presence of the risen Jesus in the world as well.

Over the last few weeks, we have talked about being Jesus’ witnesses in the world, being ready to explain the hope we have in Jesus, standing between God and the world to bring them together as holy and royal priests, and being a community of faith dedicated to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and prayer. All of these are only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, our relationships, and our community of faith. If we try to be all these things on our own, we will struggle and probably fail. However, God gives us the dynamic power to be his people in community with him and with each other, and to bring his goodness to the world by pouring the Holy Spirit into our lives and gifting us with everything we need to participate with God in his saving work in the world.

We can go to God like we go to the local library, looking for everything we need to live as his people and be part of God’s mission to redeem and restore the world, and the Holy Spirit will gift us with what we need. What the Holy Spirit has to offer us, though, is much better than books, CDs, and videos. The Holy Spirit gifts us with the faith we need to trust in the life-giving love of God for us in Jesus no matter what we might be going through in life. The Holy Spirit gifts us with the grace and goodness of God so we can produce fruit such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22,23) in our lives. The Holy Spirit gifts us with everything we need to live together in Christ-centred community, to serve God and each other as his holy and royal priests, to be ready to explain to others the hope we have in Jesus, and to witness to the life-changing love of Jesus in our whole lives, in both our words and actions.

We can find everything we need to live as God’s people and followers of Jesus in the Holy Spirit. Unlike a library, God won’t want us to return the Holy Spirit. The miracle of Pentecost is that God gifts the Holy Spirit to all of his people, men and women, young and old, to give us the power we need to be the people he is calling us to be, to do what he is calling us to do, and to be the physical presence of the risen and ascended Jesus in the world. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to us, with no return date, so we can be united with Jesus in faith and we can bring the goodness of God we encounter in Jesus to the world.

More to think about & discuss:

  • When was the last time you were in a library? What were some of the good things you found there? How did you feel about having to return them?
  • Do you find it easy or difficult to live as a child of God and a follower of Jesus? What would help you trust Jesus in every part of your life and live in the way he taught?
  • What is your reaction to Joel’s prophecy that God will pour out the Holy Spirit on all people? Have you ever thought of yourself as included in ‘all people’? Give some reasons for your answer…
  • Have you considered asking the Holy Spirit for what you need to trust Jesus and love others in the way he teaches? What might happen if you looked for what you need in your relationship with God, sort of like you might look for a book or video in a library?
  • The Holy Spirit can act in ‘supernatural’ or ‘miraculous’ ways, but also in ways that look more everyday and ordinary. Where can you see the Holy Spirit at work in your life?

You can find a video version of this message at https://youtu.be/j6xK2NV2gYo

God bless!

The Heart of Church (Acts 2:42-47)

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When I went to birthday parties as a child, we used to play a game called pass the parcel. If you have never played this game, what happens is children sit in a circle and pass a parcel wrapped in lots of layers of paper from person to person while music is played. When the music stops, the child holding the parcel removes a layer of paper, and then passes the parcel on again when the music resumes. The child who removes the last layer of paper wins the prize in the centre of the parcel.

The game has changed a bit since I was young. Then, there was only one prize underneath all the layers of paper. Now that our children are playing it, there is usually a small prize under each layer of paper so every person who participates wins something.

Sometimes I wonder if the church is a bit like a pass the parcel. We often think about church in different ways and when we use the word, many various images can come to mind. These diverse understandings can contribute to the overall character of church. However, if we were to peel away the layers, what lies at the centre of the church?

Six weeks ago, we looked at the story of Samuel anointing David to be king and we heard how God looks at the heart, not the outward appearance (1 Samuel 16:1-13). I suggested that not being able to meet together in worship and suspending most of our church activities due to the COVID-19 restrictions might give us a chance to look past outward appearances to explore what is at heart of being church. Acts 2:42-47 gives us a glimpse of what early Christians living in Jerusalem considered to be at the heart of their church.

In Acts 2:42 we read that this early community of faith ‘devoted themselves’ to four key elements: ‘to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer’ (NIV). A lot has been written on these verses and there is much we could discuss in them. I would share a few thoughts and explore what they might mean for us as a community of faith in our context.

Firstly, they devoted themselves to these four elements. As we read through Acts, we see that this community of faith was doing lots of things, but it made these four its priority. Like a pass the parcel has multiple layers, so does our life together as church. We have buildings, an organizational structure with committees and rosters, things to guide us in ministry such as our Discipling Plan and Growing Young, and different forms of worship. These are all good and helpful, like the prizes in the outer layers of a pass the parcel, but they are not the main thing. The main thing to which the early Christians devoted themselves was what lay under these layers: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer.

There are a few ways in which we can understand the apostles’ teaching. We can think of it as doctrine and what the church teaches about the Triune God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who they are, the way they are at work in our lives, and how that is good news for us. For example, the Apostles’ Creed is a summary of the apostles’ teaching from which we can always learn a lot. However, we can also understand the ‘apostles’ teaching’ as discipling us to live in faith and love as God’s people. In Matthew 28:20 Jesus commissioned his eleven remaining disciples to teach his followers to obey all that he had commanded them. If we read this through Jesus’ New Command to love one another in the way he has loved us (John 13:34,35), then we can also understand the apostles’ teaching as learning to live in the way of love that Jesus taught.

The early Christians also devoted themselves to fellowship. The word used here is koinonia and means much more than a social gathering. This koinonia fellowship is a deep communal relationship where every person is cared for by others and who also cares for others. We get a picture of these mutually giving relationships in the following verses where people were willing to give to provide for each other’s needs, even if it meant selling property to support them. This kind of koinonia fellowship can show itself in lots of different ways, but it involves having such deep relationships with each other that we know about each other’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs, and we give what we have to meet those needs. This flows from the deep koinonia fellowship we have with God the Father through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The third element to which the Acts church devoted themselves was the breaking of bread. Biblical scholars interpret this phrase in different ways, such as communal meals or Holy Communion. A widely held view is that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in the early church as part of a shared communal meal. Whatever our understanding of ‘the breaking of bread’ might be, it tells us that the communal meal is central to any community of faith. This is a real challenge for us while we cannot gather in worship because of the COVID-19 restrictions. However, when we are able to meet together again in corporate worship, it will be vital for us to remember that what is at the heart of our existence as church is not what happens around the meal, such as the order or liturgy, songs or hymns, but the meal itself.

The fourth element to which the early Christian community devoted itself was prayer. As a community of faith, prayer will always be central. It sounds obvious writing that, but it can be good to be reminded. Sometimes I wonder if people think that prayer is the pastor’s job and not something they can do, or if people are afraid to pray because they might get it wrong in some way, or if we get just get too busy and forget to talk with our loving heavenly Father. We can find lots of excuses not to pray as a community of faith, but the one great reason to pray is that Jesus promised to hear and answer us! Have a look at John 14:13,14 and 15:16 and listen to what Jesus is saying. Talking with God in prayer, both individually and together as a community, will always be central to being church.

During this time of COVID-19 restrictions, we can still function to a large degree as the church. Even without our buildings, our forms of worship and other activities, we can still devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, to supporting each other in koinonia fellowship, and to prayer. The day will come when we will be able to break bread together and share in the communal meal we have in communion with God and each other. Until then, I encourage you to keep peeling back the outer layers to get to the heart of what it means to be church.

Because what might our church be like if we looked past the outward appearances, and, with our brothers and sisters in Acts, devoted ourselves first and foremost to the apostles’ teaching, koinonia fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer?

More to think about & discuss:

  • When someone uses the word ‘church’ what do you think of: the building, organisation, worship, community? Or something else?
  • Spend some time discussing or reflecting on the way you understand the four key elements of church from Acts 2:42:
    • The apostles’ teaching
    • Fellowship
    • Breaking of bread
    • Prayer
  • What does each of these mean to you? How is your understanding similar or different from the way I’ve described them? What are some other ways people might interpret each of these?
  • When we are able to gather again as a congregation after the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, how might our community of faith look if we dedicated ourselves to these four elements of church? What might be the same? How might our congregation be different?