Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Pentecost without division

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 Jerusalem,
                        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 Babel’s curse of a divided humanity is reversed.

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.
What variety!
            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 Temple in Jerusalem.

The priests of Israel had a very specific function,
            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 Egypt
                        into the land God had promised them,
            and giving them the ten commandments to live by,
the people of Israel had related to their God
            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,
            without distinction.

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
            of the Jerusalem priesthood.

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 Mount Sinai,
                        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.

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