Monday, 10 May 2021

Pentecost without division

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

Pentecost Sunday, 23rd May 2021

Acts 2.1-21

Listen to this sermon here:

Today is a moment of change, a day of significant transition,

            in the life of the gathered people of God.


Today, the church moves from one way of being to another,

            from one mode of existence to another.


And I’m speaking, of course,

            not just about the fact that today is the beginning

                        of our new weekly hybrid worship services

                        based once again in our building on Shaftesbury Avenue,

            after a year of worshipping mostly online due to the pandemic.


But also about that fact that today is Pentecost Sunday,

            when everything changed for the early Christians in Jerusalem,

            and after which nothing was ever the same again.


That first Pentecost, fifty days after Passover,

            was the day that Spirit of Jesus came upon the disciples in a powerful way,

            leading them to speak of the experience as a rushing wind, as a burning fire,

as they sought to explain 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

                        as they had been revealed in the life and person of 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

                        was given by the Spirit;

            a community where Babel’s curse of a divided humanity was 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’d just seen,

he went back into the Old Testament

            and turned 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 were broken down here:

The Spirit had 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 had 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.


Not everyone in our congregation today can each other.

            Some are online, some are in other countries,

            and some of us are here in central London.

But as a congregation we embody diversity:

            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 gather,

            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 our own community.


The world is so often seeking to divide people one from another.


And I’m profoundly concerned by the narratives of division

            that have 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

                        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 who were tasked

            with serving God in the Temple in Jerusalem.


The priests of Israel had a very specific function:

            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.


For many centuries, the people of Israel had related to their God

            through the priests who served the Lord

            in the courts surrounding the holy of holies.


And the Spirit of God was believed to dwell in this holy of holies,

            where the ark of the covenant 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.


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,

became 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 direct 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 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.


You see, church membership, and church members’ 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.


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.


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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