On All People (Acts 2:1-21)

acts 2v17 all people 01

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!

Babel Undone (Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21)

Babel to Pentecost 01

Do you know what it’s like when you try to say something to someone but they completely misunderstand what you’ve said?

For example, I’ve lost count of the number of times people have thanked me for a message I’ve given in worship, and then told me something they heard which I didn’t think I’d said. I don’t read from a manuscript when I preach so it is possible that I said something I didn’t intend to. However, it is also possible that they heard something I didn’t actually say.

There is a branch of philosophy which looks at human language and why messages we try to give aren’t always the same messages which are received. There are a lot of factors which shape meaning which is why messages can be misinterpreted and communication is often confused. I think all of us would have experienced it in one way or another. Either we intend to communicate an idea which is understood in a different way, or we hear people say things they didn’t mean.

When this happens, I go back to the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. This story gives us the ancient Hebrew understanding of why different languages exist and how people were dispersed to different parts of the world after the Great Flood. It also tells us why it can be hard to communicate clearly and why we often misunderstand each other. Not only was human language confused, but people of the same language group can also find it hard to understand and cooperate with each other.

This story is often connected with the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 in which God gave his Holy Spirit to the followers of Jesus. We read that when they received the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ disciples were given the ability to speak in other languages so that people from different parts of the Roman Empire could understand what they were saying. The disciples were able to tell people about the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for them, calling them to repentance and faith in the forgiveness of sins, in languages they could understand. The result was that about 3,000 people were baptised (Acts 2:41).

One way in which we can understand the story of Pentecost is that the confusion of Babel was overcome as people heard the gospel in their own language and were brought together into a new community of one people in Christ. The divisions and confusion between language groups of Babel are undone as the Holy Spirit did two main things. Firstly, the Spirit miraculously gave Jesus’ followers the ability to speak the gospel in languages that people from other nations could understand. Secondly, the Spirit also gave the hearers of their message the ability to understand what they were saying and to believe the good news. All of this – the message of the gospel itself, as well as the ability to speak, hear, understand and trust the message – all come from the Holy Spirit’s work in the lives of the people of Jerusalem at Pentecost.

I pray that God would pour out his Spirit on the church today just like he did at Pentecost. In so many ways, God’s church is confused and divided because of our inability to hear and understand each other. in our own congregation, we have been working towards having a much more intentional discipling focus through connecting, growing, equipping and sending God’s people to participate in his mission in the world. We have also been looking at how we faithfully and effectively pass the faith on to our young people. Both of these emphases involve cultural change in our congregation. However, every now and then someone will ask me how my outreach or youth program is going. So I sigh, say a little prayer, and then begin trying to explain again that we’re looking at growing a church culture in which everyone is involved, not running a program for a just few people.

It’s obvious sometimes that the messages I’m trying to communicate are not the messages people are receiving. Maybe I’m not communicating them effectively. Maybe people aren’t ready or able to hear what I’m saying. Maybe it’s a combination of both. Whatever the case may be, the Tower of Babel still casts its shadow over our church as there is confusion of language and divided opinions.

At the heart of both our discipling plan and our ministry with young people is the gospel of Jesus. They both grow out of and are oriented towards communicating the good news of Jesus. Our discipling plan is about connecting people with the gospel, growing together in faith, being equipped for ministry and sending out to live as the presence of the living Christ in the world. Our work with young people is about embracing them in the grace of Jesus through our church community so they can find their identity, belonging and purpose in him and grow to maturity as children of the living God. All of this is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us new life in Jesus, words of grace and truth to speak to each other, the ability to hear and understand the gospel, and trust in the good news of Jesus through a living and active faith. We can put all the plans, strategies, programs and processes in our church that we like, but in the end we rely on the Holy Spirit to give us the gospel to speak in ways that others can hear and understand, and create the faith we need to receive and trust in the good news of Jesus.

When I gave this message on Sunday I wondered what messages people would take from what I said. That’s the problem with language which began at Babel – the messages we intend to give are not always the messages people receive. I’m so thankful for the Holy Spirit who gives us the ability to speak the gospel of Jesus in ways that people can understand, and gives us the ability to hear it, understand it and receive it in faith.

More to think about:

  • Has there been a time when someone has misunderstood something you’ve said? Explain what happened…
  • Has there been a time when you have misunderstood something someone else has been saying? Describe what happened…
  • How can the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9 help us understand why we can find it hard to understand each other?
  • How do you see God undoing the confusion of Babel when he gave the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ followers at Pentecost (Acts 2)?
  • Have you ever asked the Holy Spirit to help you hear the good news of Jesus in a way that you can understand and believe? What might happen if you did?
  • When was the last time you asked the Holy Spirit to help you speak the good news of Jesus to someone? Who do you know who needs to hear the gospel in their life?
  • What do you think might happen if we asked the Holy Spirit to help us understand other people better, especially our sisters and brothers in the church?

Equipped (Acts 2:1-21)

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I love the story of the Apostle Peter. He began life named Simon and worked as a fisherman, an ordinary working man, until Jesus called him to be his disciple. As Simon followed Jesus for the next three years, he saw Jesus perform amazing miracles, witnessed his heavenly glory in the Transfiguration, and listened to Jesus teach about love, forgiveness and the Kingdom of Heaven. Peter often acted impulsively, literally jumping into deep water, and promised to stand by Jesus even if it cost him his life. Jesus gave Simon the named Peter, which means ‘Rock,’ when he confessed his faith that Jesus was God’s chosen Messiah.

When Jesus was arrested, Simon Peter denied him three times. Then, after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter returned his old ways and went fishing. Jesus met him there, cooked him breakfast, and re-established his relationship with him. In John’s gospel, Peter was among the disciples who were gathered together behind locked doors because they were afraid of the people who had killed Jesus. At the end of Luke’s gospel, Peter was one of the disciples who went back to Jerusalem to wait for power from heaven. I wonder whether Peter was still afraid and uncertain as they waited for Jesus to keep his promise and send them the Holy Spirit.

Then came the day of Pentecost when Jesus sent his Spirit to his disciples with the sound of rushing wind and tongues of fire. Many people focus on the Holy Spirit giving the disciples the ability to speak in tongues in the Pentecost story. I wonder if there is another miracle here which can be overlooked. That miracle was the way the Holy Spirit transformed Peter.

On the day of Pentecost, Simon Peter changed from being afraid and uncertain, to witnessing publicly to Jesus’ saving work. The power of the Holy Spirit equipped Peter with everything he needed to speak about Jesus, telling people about the wonderful things God has done in him, and bringing the gospel to the people of Jerusalem. Because of the way the Holy Spirit equipped Peter and the other disciples, about three thousand people came to faith and were baptised on that day (Acts 2:41).

One of the key ways the Holy Spirit equipped Peter to witness to Jesus was through the grace he experienced. The picture we get of Peter in the gospels is of a person who had good intentions, but who got things wrong along the way. Jesus never abandoned Peter or gave up on him. Jesus stuck with him, held him up above the waves, sometimes rebuked him, but forgave him, reconciled with him and restored him. Peter was able to witness to the grace and love of God through Jesus because he had experienced it for himself.

In the same way, when we experience God’s forgiveness, grace and love in Jesus, the Holy Spirit is equipping us to be his witnesses. Like Peter, God knows that we often have the best of intentions, but we get things wrong too. We mess things up, make mistakes, and damage relationships. But Jesus never abandons us. Through Jesus, God stays with us, keeps our heads above the waves, sometime rebukes us, but always restores our relationship with him through the forgiveness and grace he extends to us in Jesus. Through all of our mistakes and shortcomings, the Holy Spirit keeps us in God’s grace and love, equipping us to be witnesses of the good news of Jesus in our lives.

This witness doesn’t have to be like the witness Peter and the other disciples gave at Pentecost. We are not all called or gifted to preach publicly about Jesus. In Peter’s first letter, he gives advice to Jesus’ followers who are living in a culture that can be hostile to the faith on how to witness to what God has done for us in Jesus. Peter writes:

… even if you suffer for doing what is right, God will reward you for it. So don’t worry or be afraid of their threats. Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. (1 Peter 3:14-16a NLT)

Peter’s way of witnessing to Jesus starts with living in a way that is consistent with who God has made us. As the Holy Spirit lives in us and makes us God’s holy children, we witness to what God does for us by living holy lives. As we receive God’s perfect and infinite love for us in Jesus, we witness to God’s saving love by loving others around us. As people who are made righteous through faith, we witness to God’s goodness by trusting him in all things and doing what is good and right. According to Peter’s letter, our witness begins with how we live, the ways in which we talk to and about others, and how we treat others in our relationships. Then, when people ask us why there is something different about us, we are in a position to share the hope we have in Jesus who changes us by the power of his Spirit.

To witness like this, we need to be equipped by the power of the Holy Spirit, just Simon Peter. We hope and pray that all of God’s people would be equipped to be effective witnesses to Jesus in our lives. That is why we included Equipping as the third aspect of our congregation’s Discipling Plan. We want to see all of God’s people given the tools to be able to witness to what God is doing in our lives through Jesus by the Holy Spirit’s power. In time our congregation will be offering courses, studies and other programs to help equip us all as Jesus’ witnesses. In the end, though, we will need the Holy Spirit to be equipping us so that, like Peter, we can change from being afraid or uncertain of where God is leading us to being effective witnesses for Jesus.

Imagine what our church could be like if all of us were equipped by the Holy Spirit’s power to witness boldly and confidently to God’s saving work in our lives through Jesus, just like Peter and the other disciples. What could be possible if we witnessed the goodness of God in everything we said and did, in all of our relationships and interactions with other people, in every aspect of our lives? Not all of us are called to preach publicly like Peter did on that first Pentecost Day. However, as Peter writes in his letter, when the Holy Spirit equips us to live holy lives, doing what is right and good, and to be ready to give an answer for the hope we have to all who ask us, we will be Jesus’ witnesses in our communities, in our nation, and to the ends of the earth.

Disciples Forgive (John 20:19-23)

day of pentecost

Six weeks ago, on the Sunday after Easter, we looked at this same story from the perspective that Jesus sends his disciples into the world. Discipleship is about Jesus preparing and equipping us to carry on his work in the world on his behalf by the power of his Spirit.

As we celebrate God’s gift of his Holy Spirit to his people at Pentecost, I want to look at this story again from the perspective of the work the Spirit empowers us to do.

I have had lots of conversations with Christians over the years about how the Holy Spirit works in the life of the believer. One aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work that doesn’t seem to get talked about a lot, however, is the Spirit’s work of forgiveness. Yet here, at the end of his gospel, when Jesus appeared to his disciples in the evening of his resurrection, John makes a strong connection between the gift of the Holy Spirit with the forgiveness of sins.

Maybe one of the reasons we don’t talk about forgiveness a lot is because our culture doesn’t like talking about sin. We still suffer from the effects of sin, though, even if we want to try to deny its existence. So many people that I talk to describe how they feel guilty, or have regrets in life, or carry a sense of shame. The remedy for these afflictions rests in the gift Jesus gave to his disciples in this story: forgiveness.

Another reason talking about forgiveness can be difficult is that it doesn’t come naturally to us. We tend to find it hard to believe that we can be forgiven for the wrongs we have done or the guilt that we carry. We can also find it hard to forgive people who have wronged us. That is why the gift of the Holy Spirit is so important for us. The Spirit of God works in us what we can’t do for ourselves. The Spirit creates forgiving hearts within us by giving us the forgiveness Jesus won for us on the cross and the empty tomb. Then, having experienced forgiveness, we are more likely be forgiving people. That is why Jesus taught his disciples, including us, to love others like he loves us (John 13:34). To love someone means forgiving them and not keeping a record of their wrongs (see 1 Corinthians 13:5).

This isn’t a gift that is just given to pastors, priests, or whatever your name for the professional clergy might be. Just as one of the emphases of the festival of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit is given to all of God’s people, so all of God’s people have the authority and the privilege to lift the burdens of guilt, shame and regret by forgiving others. We all pray ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’ in the Lord’s Prayer. The sad reality is that some people never hear words of forgiveness outside of worship, so I consider it a high priority each week to tell people who live in a harsh, judging and condemning world that they are forgiven for Christ’s sake. It is my constant prayer that the Spirit of the living Christ will use these words to breathe life into people’s hearts so they can believe they really are forgiven children of God whom he loves and with whom he is pleased (Mark 1:11 etc), and they can in turn extend God’s forgiveness to the people in their lives who need it.

Obviously, forgiveness isn’t all the Holy Spirit does in the life of a believer, but it is a vital and life-giving aspect of the Spirit’s work. As we celebrate the festival of Pentecost, it is good to remember firstly that Jesus’ disciples are forgiven people and to ask the Spirit of Christ to give us a bold faith to hang on to the forgiveness he gives to us. As Jesus’ forgiven disciples, then, we are also empowered by the Holy Spirit to extend that same forgiveness to everyone in our lives, especially those who deserve it the least but need it the most.

More to think about:

  • Why do you think some people find it hard to accept forgiveness? Why do you think some people find it hard to forgive others?
  • Do you find it easy to believe that you are a forgiven person? If you are living with guilt or shame or regret, where do you think these feelings come from?
  • Why do you think John connects Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit to his disciples with the forgiveness of sins? (It might help to go back to Jesus promising the Paraclete [someone who stands beside us and speaks God’s truth to us] in John 14:16,17)
  • Who is someone that you find difficult to forgive? How might the gift of God’s Holy Spirit help you to forgive that person?
  • Who do you know that might need the gift of forgiveness? How might you be able to extend Jesus’ gift of forgiveness to them?