Sunday, May 20, 2018

'I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh' (a sermon on Acts 2:17-18)

One of my favourite movies is an old 1990 flick called ‘Almost an Angel’; the main character, Terry, is played by Paul Hogan, of ‘Crocodile Dundee’ fame. Terry is a criminal, but on the way out of a bank heist he sees a little girl about to get hit by a car, jumps into the road to save her and gets hit himself. To his surprise he finds himself in heaven talking to God – who looks remarkably like Charlton Heston. God seems to be a little surprised to see Terry – ‘It’s a long time since we’ve had a scumbag here’, he says – and then he tells Terry he’s being sent back to earth.

So Terry’s life changes as he sees himself as ‘almost an angel’ – “I haven’t got my wings yet”, he says. At one point later on in the movie someone asks Terry to pray for him. Terry frowns. “I could”, he says, “but it might not do any good. Last time I was talking to God, he called me a scumbag!”

I have to say as a clergy person that I gave a grunt of recognition when I first heard that line! I often get asked to pray for people! Many people seem to think that the prayers of a priest or pastor are automatically more effective than theirs. But we clergy know our own hearts, and so does God!

There’s an interesting story in the Old Testament book of Exodus. The Israelites have escaped from slavery in Egypt and have arrived at Mount Sinai where Moses first met God. God gives a dramatic display of power as he comes down on the mountain – lightning, thunder, billowing smoke, the earth shaking and so on. The Israelites are terrified, so they turn to Moses and say “Yougo up there and talk to him for us. We’ll wait for you down here! When you come back, we’ll do whatever he’s told you!”

I sometimes refer to this as ‘the cult of the mediator’. A relationhip with the living God is too demanding, too scary for ordinary people, so we set aside special, holy people and get them to do the hard work of relating to God on our behalf. They’re our ‘go-betweens’ - that’s what the word ‘priest’ means in many religions, including the Old Testament.

In the Old Testament there’s little expectation that ordinary people can know God: they’re just told to obey his commandments and show up to offer sacrifices – that’s it. Special people – kings and warriors like David or Samson, prophets like Moses and Miriam, priests like Aaron – they’re the ones who receive the Spirit of the Lord (by the way, ‘spirit’ in Hebrew is ‘ruach’ which also means ‘wind’ or ‘breath’). Kings and priests were exclusively male in Israel, and were appointed by their bloodline – a hereditary power structure. Prophets were more of a wild card – God called who he wanted, men or women, rich or poor, scholars or farmers – and they spoke the word of God in God’s name.

The cult of the mediator is still strong today. Many people think it’s Christian, but it’s really not. Interestingly enough, the word ‘priest’ is never used for Christian ministers or pastors in the New Testament. Congregations are cared for by people called pastors, or overseers, or elders. But the word ‘priest’ is used in the Church in two senses: for Jesus, our great high priest, and for the whole Christian community together. The message is clear: This is not just for the lucky few! Everyoneis invited to know God and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We see this on the Day of Pentecost which we read about this morning. It seems as if a hundred and twenty believers were gathered together in one place, and we don’t read of there being any kings or Jewish priests among them. They are male and female, blue collar and white collar – all social classes. Suddenly the Holy Spirit fills them – God breathes his new life into them, and they’re aware of his presence in them in a new and amazing way. This new life overflows with joy; they begin to praise God in languages they’ve never learned, languages the people around them can understand. And this new life also overflows in witness: the crowd gathers, and Peter begins to explain to them about Jesus and his gift of the Holy Spirit. In Acts chapter 1 Jesus had promised them, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses” (1:8) – and that was exactly what was happening to Peter.

Our first reading gives us the first part of Peter’s sermon. The believers had been accused of drunkenness because of the joy of the Holy Spirit, but Peter offers an alternative explantion. Look at Acts 2:16-18:
“No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy”.

‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh’ (17). This doesn’t mean that everyone will automatically receive the Spirit; our God never forces himself on anyone against their will. What it means is that all mayreceive the Spirit if they choose. No one is barred because of their gender, their social status, their status as priest or lay person, their level of education and so on. All are now invited into that most intimate of all relationships – having the ‘Breath of God’ breathing in you.

The fact that this applies to both men and women is especially emphasized in Joel’s prophecy. We know that women were present on the Day of Pentecost; Acts 1 lists the male disciples and then adds ‘…together with certain women, including Mary, the mother of Jesus…’ (1:14). Joel had foretold this - a day when the ministry of prophecy would be exercised equally by men and women – ‘…your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour our my Spirit, and they shall prophesy’ (17-18). 

We have to admit that this equality was only partially achieved in Bible times. In a patriarchal society it was natural that people saw what they expected to see, and so we don’t see an absolute equality of partnership of men and women in this minstry of declaring the word of the Lord. But we do see signs of it, and Luke, the author of Luke’s gospel and Acts, seems to have particularly rejoiced in it. It’s clear in this text that gender makes absolutely no difference when the Breath of God comes down!

Let me say one more word about what this means. Our Anglican Church is a structured church with clear lines of demarcation between ordained and lay people. So it’s natural we should think in terms of ‘who can get ordained’. For myself, I’m happy and proud to be part of a Church that ordains men and women equally, and I’m happy to argue the case with anyone who disagrees.

But this text goes far beyond that issue. To ‘prophesy’ in the Bible doesn’t mean ‘to foretell the future’ (although prophets do sometimes do that). Fundamentally, it means to be given a messge from God to speak to others in God’s name. Joel is saying that the day will come when allpeople can do this – men or women, young or old, slave or free – simply because God’s Breath, God’s Spirit, is in them. There is no hint of a difference here between clergy and lay people: the Spirit is given to all, so all can speak God’s word to one another.

Note that we’re not talking about lone rangers, people going off on their own to enjoy a one-on-one ‘me and God’ experience. We’re talking about the whole community gathering together in ministry, listening to the Word of God together, weighing up what’s said together, submitting to each other, serving together – because everyone shares in the gift of God’s Spirit.

Even slaves! Verse 18 says, ‘Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy’. Slaves were the lowest social class – they were possessions, or tools, owned by others. But God values them as individuals, God breathes his Spirit into them, God makes them ministers!Imagine a first-century Christian aristocrat receiving a word of prophecy from his slave! That’s revolution! As Mary had foretold in Luke 1, ‘He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly’ (Luke 1:51b-52).

This is God’s intention: that the Gospel should go out to all people – Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and free. This message is not just about having your sins forgiven and being adopted as God’s daughters and sons, although that’s wonderful enough. No: it’s also about indwelling– about God being with us and in us. God’s breath, God’s wind, God’s Spirit will live in the whole Christian community, and all can minister in God’s name. There’s no hint of the cult of the mediator here. No one else can do the hard work of relating to God for you.Youare called to be filled with the Spirit, to learn to pray, to learn to listen to God’s voice in the scriptures, and to step out in witness for him. “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8). That’s your birthright as a baptized Christian.

A bit later on in the chapter, in verses 38-39, Peter gives the crowd an invitation:
“Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins may be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him”.
The promise of the Spirit is for allwho believe and are baptized. In Old Testament times the sign of God’s covenant with his people was circumcision, which was fine as far as it went, but it only went as far as half of the human race. In the New Testament the sign is baptism, which is offered to men and women alike. All can receive the Spirit and be included as equals in the covenant community.

The New Testament tells us the story of the first generation of Christians. Most of them heard the Gospel as adults; the Spirit worked in their hearts, and they put their trust in Jesus and committed themselves to him. They were baptized as adults and the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on them.

There are very few stories in the New Testament of Christian families applying this to the upbringing of their children; this came later. Gradually, most Christians came to believe that it was right for children of Christian homes to be received into the community by baptism. The model here is of the community as a school of disciples, wth baptism as enrolment, even at an early age. Jesus told us, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name  of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a). So we baptize our children and enroll them as Jesus’ disciples so we can teach them to follow Jesus. The promise of the Spirit is given in baptism, but it also needs to be ‘lived into’ as we pray each day to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Today we include little Alex in this promise. As Ryan and Jenny bring him for baptism, he will take his place with us as a full member of the community that St. Paul calls ‘the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’. And when he’s been baptized we’ll pray for him in these words: ‘Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon this your servant the forgiveness of sin, and have raised him to the new life of grace. Sustain him, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit’. We’ll also say ‘Give him…a spirit to know and love you’. In other words, he will need to learn that Christianity isn’t just about going to church and learning Bible stories. It’s about living in relationship with God – receiving power to live for God – finding joy in witnessing to others about God’s work in our lives. AllChristians are called to these things.

Including you and me. What is this saying to us as baptized Christians?

It’s reminding us that the Breath of Godis in us– but we need to breathe it in daly! It’s not enough just to breathe once – you have to breathe over and over again! So: let’s pray daily, even hourly, that the Spirit would fill us and strengthen us and guide us to live for God.

It’s reminding us not to settle for the cult of the mediator.That’s paganism, and even Old Testament Judaism, but it’s not Christianity. You’ve been offered the Breath of God – the very life of God in you. Why would you settle for an oxygen tank brough to you by someone else? Peter says, “The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:39).

It’s reminding us that the Church is a fellowship of the Holy Spirit.The English word ‘fellowship’ or ‘communion’ translates the Greek word ‘koinonia’ which means ‘to have something in common’, ‘to share together in something’. In the early chapters of the Book of Acts we don’t see lone ranger Christians going off on private projects for God. We see a joyful community doing God’s work together. By ourselves we don’t always find it easy to discern what God is calling us to. But the Holy Spirit is strong in the community,  so we come together, we talk things through, we pray, we wait on God, and the Spirit guides us. So we’re called to commit ourselves to this fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

We’ve seen that the passage is reminding us that the Breath of God is in us. It’s reminding us not to settle for the cult of the mediator. It’s reminding us that the Church is a fellowship of the Holy Spirit. And finally, it’s reminding us to remember our call to be a ministering community, a serving community. Men and women, rich and poor, young and old, people of all backgrounds and races and classes: we’re all joined together as priests, prophets, witnesses, servants and ministers of Christ.

A pastor called Jon Wimber told a great story about this. He was the founder of the first Vineyard Church which became a community of thousands of people with a large staff and structure. One day a person called him in a state of some agitation. “Where is everyone? I’ve been trying to get hold of someone at the church for days! I met this man who was homeless, and we got talking, and I realized he really needed a place to stay and some food. So I called the church several times, but no one answered. Eventually I had to take him home to stay with me and give him some food myself. Don’t you think the church should help people like that?”

Wimber was quiet for a moment, and then he said one simple sentence: “Sounds like the church did”.

If you are a Christian, then you are the Church, together with all Christians. The Spirit - the Breath of God – lives in you, connects you to God, and equips you for the works of service he’s called you to. So: take a deep breath, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you, and then step out in faith to follow Jesus wherever he leads.

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