Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Pentecost Sunday, 8 June 2014, 11.00am
You can listen to this sermon here:
John 20.19-23 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
Acts 2.1-21 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" 13 But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 '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. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'
Someone said to me the other day,
that they were wondering whether Bloomsbury
had arrived at Pentecost a few weeks too early…
And it’s certainly true that our Sunday readings for the past few weeks
have seen us coming back again and again
to the topic of the ongoing presence of Christ
with the church by his Spirit.
But these reach their climax today, as we gather at Pentecost,
to remember the coming of the Spirit on the first Christians in Jerusalem.
The way Luke tells us the story,
through his gospel and then on into the book of Acts,
these first followers of Jesus
had had something of a roller-coaster ride of things.
They’d gone from the highs of sharing Jesus’ ministry,
with its healings and exorcisms and teaching,
to the low of seeing him crucified at Passover.
And then just when they’d thought it was all over,
their experience of the world had been transformed by resurrection
and they had started proclaiming Christ’s victory
over even the power of death itself.
The story of the ascension of Jesus, however,
leaves the disciples alone once again,
without the tangible presence of Jesus to sustain and encourage them.
And so when we meet them in our second reading today,
the disciples are gathered together in
despondently pondering their future.
But then suddenly we see them swing from disappointment at Jesus’ absence
to the high, expressed in this Pentecost story,
of their receiving the Holy Spirit.
This Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of Peace which John’s gospel tells us
he had promised to his followers,
came upon the disciples in Jerusalem in a powerful way,
leading them to speak of it as a rushing wind, as a burning fire,
as they sought to give voice
to the intensity of their Pentecostal experience of the Spirit of God.
It seems the descent of the Spirit upon these early disciples
transformed their experience of the world irrevocably:
Suddenly, barriers which had always divided people, one from another,
barriers of ethnicity, language, gender, class, economic circumstance, and age
were broken down by and rendered obsolete,
as the Spirit came on all people, equally, without distinction.
Those gathered there in Jerusalem from many nations, cultures, and languages
suddenly found themselves able to hear and understand,
each in their own language,
the truth of the mighty deeds of God’s power
that he had worked in Jesus Christ.
And so, suddenly, by the gift of the Spirit, a new community was created!
A community where the gift of mutual relationship and understanding
is given by the Spirit;
a community where
’s curse of a divided humanity is
The events of Pentecost have sometimes been called
the birthday of the church,
and this can be a useful way to think of it,
because it was with the coming of the Spirit on the followers of Jesus
that a new community was born,
a community quite unlike which had preceded it.
A community which continues down to us, here today.
You see, the gift of the Spirit of Jesus
broke down far more than just the language barrier
that everyone remembers
as the spectacular miracle of Pentecost.
When Peter, one of the twelve, came to give his sermon,
to explain to those watching on
the significance of what they’ve just seen,
he went back into the Old Testament
and turns to a prophecy by Joel:
‘In the last days … 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.’ (2.17-18)
It’s not just nationality and language-based divisions
that are broken down here:
The Spirit has been poured out equally
on male and female,
on young and old,
and on slave and slave-owner.
All the traditional divisions
of gender, age, class, and ethnicity
were transcended in the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit.
And this has some profound implications
for the ongoing life of the church
which was born that first Pentecost.
And it also has some profound implications for us, here today…
because to this day, Christians hold that all those who receive Jesus
also receive the gift of his Spirit.
All those who are baptised, are baptised with both water and spirit;
and all those who confess that Jesus is Lord,
do so by the Spirit of Jesus, the Lord of creation
And this gift of the Spirit of Christ,
is given to all Christians without distinction;
it unites us with one another, and with Jesus Christ himself.
Through the Spirit,
we are each able to participate in the ongoing life and ministry of Jesus
and through the Spirit of peace
we are each joined to our sisters and brothers in Christ,
with no division or distinction,
so that together we make up the church;
the body of Christ in our generation.
You can’t all see each other, but if I look around, I can see such huge diversity,
just here in this congregation, this morning.
We’ve got different ages, different skin colours,
different social circumstances, different genders, different languages.
I can’t think of anywhere else a group like this would meet,
apart from having been called together by the Spirit of Christ.
The gift of the Spirit breaks down barriers that would otherwise separate us,
joining us to one another in Christ.
And so, by the Spirit, the church of Christ is continually re-created,
as believers are born again from above,
just as the church was brought to birth that first Pentecost,
nearly two thousand years ago.
And as the Spirit-filled followers of Christ,
as the Spirit-filled
church of Christ
it is together that we participate in the ongoing life and ministry of Jesus.
Peter quoted from the prophet Joel,
clearly taking a prophecy and applying it to the church.
And I believe that, as a community called together by the Spirit,
we have a prophetic role together,
to offer to the world beyond the glass wall at the back.
A world that is so often seeking to divide people one from another.
I’m very worried by some of the narrative of division
that has taken root in Europe recently again.
‘Those people are out’, ‘these people are in’,
‘those people deserve to be here’, ‘those people don’t’.
It just seems to me to be wrong,
and speaking from a Judeo-Christian tradition
which says we should welcome the alien in the land;
and speaking from a Spirit-filled-church perspective,
that says the Spirit is present with all people,
whoever they are, without distinction,
I think we have something profound to offer
to the world beyond the four walls of this place,
about what it means to be human in a way that includes and doesn’t exclude,
which brings people in and sees them transformed and renewed
by the power of the Spirit,
and not excluded and told they don’t belong here.
So we are called to share in and participate in the ministry of Christ by his Spirit.
Another one of the ways we do this is by sharing with him
in what is sometimes called Jesus’ priestly ministry
Now, I don’t know what comes to mind
when you hear the word priest?
Maybe a shadowy figure straight from the Da Vinci Code
wearing purple and plotting in dark corridors?
But for a Jew at the time of the early church
‘priest’ meant only one thing,
and that was those people whose task it was
to serve God in the
The priests of
had a very specific function, Israel
and their job was to mediate between the ordinary people,
and the presence of the almighty God,
who was believed to dwell in the holy of holies
at the heart of the Temple.
So, the Jewish priests brought the needs of the people to God,
in the form of prayers and sacrifices,
and they spoke back to the people
God’s words of forgiveness and acceptance.
Since the time of Moses,
leading his people from slavery in
into the land God had promised them,
and giving them the ten commandments to live by,
the people of
had related to their God Israel
through the priests who served God
in the courts surrounding the holy of holies.
The Spirit of God was believed to dwell
in the holy of holies,
where the ark of the covenant also lay,
containing the stone tablets
on which God had carved the ten commandments.
And the Jews believed that ordinary, sinful, human beings
could never have direct access to the Spirit of God.
So the priests acted as intermediaries,
making sure that they were ritually pure
so that they could represent the people to God
and God to the people.
However, the message that Peter proclaimed that first Pentecost,
was that God no longer lived in the holy-of-holies.
Instead of keeping apart from humanity,
God had embraced humanity in the person of Jesus Christ,
and in so doing,
had opened in turn a new way for people to relate to God.
Before Jesus, the established way of getting a message to God
was to give it to a priest and ask him to pass it on.
But those who had met Jesus in the flesh
had encountered one who seemed to embody God;
they spoke of him as God-made-flesh,
not hidden from them behind curtains and ritual,
but available for meals and laughter and conversation.
And so, to express this immediacy they experienced in Christ,
this new access to the divine that he embodied,
the early church spoke of Jesus
as the great high priest.
Within the Jewish temple system,
it was actually only the high priest himself
who could enter the holy of holies,
and even then only once a year.
But in Jesus, the way to the presence of God
had been thrown wide open,
and anyone was free to meet God in Jesus,
to speak with him,
and so to encounter God direct.
As Jesus says in John 10:30
‘The Father and I are one.’
Those who know Jesus, know the Father,
and no longer have need of priests,
because Jesus himself fulfils the function of the high priest
in opening the way to the Father in heaven.
And so, following the story of Jesus ascension,
we get the Pentecost story
of the giving of his Spirit to be with his disciples.
No longer do people need to go
through a hierarchy of priests and high priests
before they can encounter the Spirit of God.
Rather, the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh, as Joel says,
And Jesus’ priestly function
of mediating God to humanity
and humanity to God
becomes at Pentecost
part of the ongoing ministry of the Spirit.
Just as the church which is gathered by the Spirit
shares in Jesus’ kingly and prophetic ministries,
so too, by the Spirit, it shares in his priestly ministry.
There is no longer any need for the priesthood in the temple,
instead, the Spirit has created a priesthood of believers,
where the fellowship of followers, the gathered spirit-filled body of Christ
have access to God
because of the high-priestly work of Jesus.
There is no longer a need for sacrifices to be offered
to atone for the sinfulness of the people,
because the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross
represents the once-for-all sacrifice,
which doesn’t need to be offered again.
In place of the offering of sacrifices,
the church participates in the sacrifice of Jesus
breaking bread and drinking wine,
symbols and signs of the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus.
And in place of going to the temple,
and presenting requests to the priests,
for them to take them to the high priest,
for him to take them to the Spirit of God once a year,
the church itself becomes the priesthood,
a priesthood of believers who have the Spirit dwelling amongst them.
The church of Christ presents its requests to Jesus the great high priest,
who takes on the role of interceding
on behalf of the church that confesses his name,
and within which his Spirit is to be found.
This is why, each week, we offer our prayers of intercession here,
as together we pray to God, with no human intermediary needed,
with Christ interceding before God on our behalf.
And this gives us a clue
to a very important point
about the idea known as “the priesthood of all believers”.
And this important point is, that the priesthood of believers
is the priesthood of all believers together.
It is not a priesthood of each believer separately
It’s not about me having access to God through Christ
and you having access to God through Christ
and you, and you, and you…
Rather, it’s about us, together, the
church of Christ,
sharing in Christ’s priestly ministry,
because it is when we gather together
that the Spirit of Jesus is present in our midst.
The priesthood of all believers
means that when we gather together as a church,
called and bound together by the Spirit,
we become a priesthood of believers.
There’s no place here for individualism:
it’s all about the community.
We’re back where we started;
it’s about all of us together,
not just the educated, the powerful, or the wealthy.
It’s all about the radical new community
that was brought into being that first Pentecost,
a community where there is no division,
because all have received the Spirit equally.
It is surely one of the great tragedies of Christian history,
that the church has so successfully re-invented
the Jewish system of priesthood,
in its attempt to determine who holds the power.
So much of the Christian church around the world
operates out of a system of authority and power,
which reflects the hierarchical system
One of the desires of those who developed
the congregational form of church government,
that we find in Baptist churches such as this one,
was to try and recover that radical vision of the first Pentecost,
where the Spirit is poured out on all people,
and there is no need for priestly mediation
to represent the people to the God they have gathered to worship.
The priesthood of all believers in a Baptist context
means that it is together, as the gathered people of Christ,
that we have direct access in the Spirit
to the will of God himself.
We don’t need someone to mediate God’s will to us,
because we believe that together we all share
in Christ’s priestly ministry.
Now, you might think that church meetings sound a bit dull!
and, I’ll grant you, some of the ones I’ve been to over the years have been!
But they don’t have to be…
in my experience, the church meeting
can be the place where the church becomes most true to its calling in Christ.
Church meetings, you see, aren’t really about voting.
they aren’t some hangover
from the Victorian trades-union meeting,
where people addressed the chair
and made points of order.
Rather, the church meeting is the meeting together of the church
so that it can fulfil its priestly ministry
in the power of the Spirit.
And if you think this doesn’t matter,
I’ll give you an example of why it really does.
You’ll be aware that one of the things that is threatening
to tear apart the church in this country is the issue of human sexuality.
There are church structures which are really wrestling with this.
Our good friends in the Church of England, for example,
because of the way they structure their church in a hierarchical fashion,
have to take a decision at the top,
which is then implemented in every congregation.
So the fact that you’ve got some Anglican churches
that are not comfortable with a diversity of expressions of human sexuality,
and some that are,
poses a huge problem for them,
because they’ve got to take a centralised decision,
because that’s the way they’re structured.
As Baptists, I think we have a very different situation here,
because the way we ‘do’ church
means that different congregations are at liberty to discern,
in their own context, what the right way forwards is.
So, there will be some Baptist churches
which are able to live with and embrace a variety of expressions of human sexuality,
and there will be some that aren’t,
and we do not have to divide one from another,
because we respect the fact that each gathered community,
before Christ, can discern what is right for them, in their place.
That’s a function of the outworking of the Baptist understanding
of the priesthood of all believers.
You see, church meetings really matter,
because it is there that we decide what kind of church we are going to be.
It’s there that we discern what we thing God is saying to us,
as we hear from one another.
It’s not down to one individual, it’s down to all of us,
from the most educated to the least educated.
If you are a church member, you are part of that process.
If you’re not a church member, and you come here regularly,
why aren’t you a church member?
We need you!
We need your voice, because it is together that we do this.
I sometimes worry that the Baptist practice of voting in our church meetings,
takes us away from what they are really about,
and I think that we would do well to remember
that the church meeting exists to discern the mind of Christ
not the will of the majority.
As Nigel Wright has said,
voting as a method of decision making
should be secondary to sensing the mind of Christ.
Seeking consensus is the essence of the process
not winning a vote by a narrow margin.
As Baptists, we believe that it is when Christ’s people
gather together in his name to seek his will,
that we discern the mind of Christ for our time and place.
That’s why it’s important that, at a church meeting,
anyone who is a member of the church
from the oldest to the youngest,
male, female, educated, uneducated,
high IQ or living with learning difficulties,
anyone who is a member of the church can participate,
and play their part in helping the people of Christ
to fulfil their priestly ministry,
as together we come before God himself,
just as Moses went before God on
to seek the Lord’s will.
And it is this way because, we believe, with Peter and Joel,
the Spirit of God is poured out
on all believers without distinction.
The ministers and deacons
don’t tell the church what the Lord’s will is.
Rather, they serve the church by providing a lead
in helping the people of the church
discern the Lord’s will for themselves.
This is where Ruth, and Dawn, and I, and the other leaders of this church
fit into the priesthood of all believers.
In a Baptist church, there is no authority higher than the church meeting
except Christ himself,
because we believe that when the people gather,
they gather as a priesthood of believers,
coming before the Lord himself.
Ultimately, of course, absolute authority belongs not to the church
but to Christ.
However, the authority that Jesus delegated to Peter
is the common property of the royal priesthood
of all the people of God.
In place of a priestly hierarchy
what we have is the power and authority of Christ,
diffused throughout the whole body of Christ.
And that is why we need one another…
each of us, every single one, without exception…
It is together that we are the gathered people of Christ,
called and empowered by his Spirit
to be a radical Pentecostal community,
without hierarchy, without division
where every member is a priest of God
and where together we are a priesthood of all believers.
It is together that we discern the mind of Christ,
it is together that Christ’s body is re-membered in our midst.
It is together that we bear faithful witness to the world
of the radically inclusive nature of the in-breaking kingdom of God,
where no-one is excluded by virtue of
their age, gender, sexuality,
ethnicity, nationality, social standing,
economic circumstances, or indeed any other division
that might tear apart the body of Christ,
which was broken on the cross for our reconciliation.
It is together that we take our place in the Church of Christ’s body,
as the Spirit of Peace breaks all barriers down (Eph. 2.14),
and calls us to give voice to bear testimony
to the new humanity that is born again
wherever people embrace the inclusive peace
of the Spirit of Pentecost.
So may the Spirit of the Lord be with us all. Amen.