Sermon - 8th June 2014
Scripture - Acts 2:1-8, 12-21: John 20:19-23
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Since Easter we’ve been reflecting, week after week on Jesus’ resurrection. We’ve considered some of his post-resurrection appearances, and we’ve been thinking about his long farewell discourse to his disciples as recorded in St John’s Gospel. Last week we celebrated the Ascension when Jesus left his disciples to get on with their mission without him. And now today the story continues with the giving of the Holy Spirit. In our reading from Acts we see the birth of the Church – the apostles preached and people responded. It is this response to the proclamation of the Good News that gave birth to, and continues to give birth to the Church.
The apostles in our reading from Acts were doing a new thing by going out and preaching to the crowds about the resurrected Jesus. Their experience of the Holy Spirit allowed them to make connections between their faith, their experience and their understanding of their world where pagans were longing for an authentic spirituality and where many Jews longed for a renewed faith which allowed them to cope with the complexities of a world where they were dominated by imperial might. So the apostles did a new thing and doing new things always involves fear.
I’m not clear whether John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wanted to be completely radical in his ministry. He saw himself as being a faithful son of the Church of England and he was an ordained Anglican priest. I’m not sure the CofE saw him as being terribly faithful and certainly, when he ordained his own ministers, there was something of a rift. This must have produced some fear in him. I wonder what the early pioneers of Methodism in Manchester and Chorlton felt. Were they afraid of doing a new thing; but did they feel impelled to follow where the Holy Spirit was leading them?
Were they afraid that they'd be seen as odd as they weren't part of the “proper” church? Were they afraid that they'd be seen as extremists or just as weird? Were they afraid that they'd never be able to afford to be church – after all buildings cost money, ministers have to be paid?
Fear is a powerful emotion. Last week we held our monthly support group for asylum seekers. At the previous meeting there was a side conversation about politics and, with the local and European election campaigns being dominated by rhetoric about immigration they were interested. I, therefore, printed off the policies of each of the political parties but only labelled the policies as belonging to Party 1, Party 2, Party 3 etc.
We went through the policies and discussed them - which got quite lively as they disagreed with each other about them; then I asked them to say which set of policies they liked best. Interestingly, they liked the Lib Dem policies a lot – but they were pipped at the post by the Greens. More interestingly they were surprised to find that the policies which they disliked the most were from the Labour party as many of them said they were Labour supporters.
As is often the case with politics they were surprised by some things, found they agreed and disagreed a lot and we had a good afternoon. I noticed, however, that the tone and style of the UKIP pitch on immigration was very different to the others:
These are anxious and troubled times. As crisis follows crisis, our politicians do nothing in the face of dangers rearing up all around us. Taxes and Government debt rise. Energy and transport costs soar. Unemployment is too high. The NHS and state education strain under a population increase of 4 million since 2001. Another wave of uncontrolled immigration comes from the EU (this time Bulgaria and Romania). Yet the political class tells us the EU is good for the UK. A gulf has opened between the ruling elite and the public. Because they must all follow Brussels diktats, each of the establishment main parties is now so similar voters have no real choice.
Now, no matter whether or not we agree with UKIP policies, the style is interesting as it uses fear to grab our attention. I personally don't recognise the description of our society that UKIP paints, but they use fear as their tool: talk of crisis, distant politicians, higher taxes and debt, soaring costs, talk of “waves of uncontrolled immigration” and a “gulf” between the governed and governors as well as the use of words like “diktat” all are cleverly designed to make us feel a little insecure, a little uncertain and so turn to a party with a clear answer. Fear is a strong motivator.
The Texts – Two Views of the Coming of the Holy Spirit
We see fear at work in both our readings today. The disciples were hidden away for fear of the crowds. They had said their farewells to Jesus, they had been commissioned by him for their ministry but it wasn't enough. They may have discussed how they were going to go about their mission but they were afraid. After all, the religious and political authorities had killed Jesus – they must have been afraid they were next.
In the Gospel reading, John has a different understanding of what we call Pentecost and, for him, the disciples receive the Holy Spirit directly from Jesus. But his first words are words of peace – he calms them, helps them overcome their fear.
In both readings fear is banished by the coming of the Holy Spirit. In both passages fear is replaced by a sense of mission; a commissioning if you like; a task. The Holy Spirit calms fear and commissions us.
Fear and Mission
The early Methodists in Chorlton knew their mission. They knew they were to offer a form of Christianity which made sense to their culture, which included working class people in every aspect of church life, which offered a vibrant community and which tried to change the world for the better – all this is part of what we mean when we say that we proclaim the Good News of the Coming Kingdom. Since the 1740s Methodists in Manchester have been doing this.
Each generation of Christians in general, and Methodists in particular, have had to work out anew how to proclaim the Kingdom. In one age it may have been helping people be free from drink, in another it might have been about building a community, in another it might have been around changing patterns of worship. Our challenge is to work out what it is now. All of us have a challenge of finding ways to show and tell others of the coming Kingdom which resonate with them, which make our world a more just place and which offers a relevant and satisfying spirituality to our world.
We may have some fear in this: fear that we'll get it wrong; fear that we'll look foolish (though it would be good for the Church to look foolish for the right reason for a change!); fear for the future of our church - after all so many churches have closed.
How can we face that fear?
The readings, for me, are about fear being banished by the Holy Spirit; fear being turned into mission. But there is more going on, particularly in the Acts reading where we hear that each of the races represented in Jerusalem heard the works of God in their own language. Ever since that time, the Church has tried to proclaim the Gospel in ways that make sense – linguistically and culturally. It seems to me that our task now is to know our culture better than, perhaps, we do. Often the Church looks back to what worked in the past rather than being a bit more radical, and edgy, and exploring what might work now. We need to pray for all of us who are Christians now that we can find ways of being connected with our neighbours, our friends and our wider culture so that we can be sure that God's work in the Church will continue in the future.
I haven't got any answers about how other than to follow the example of the apostles who found their fear was pushed aside as the Spirit came upon them and gave them the impetus to proclaim the coming Kingdom in their own way to their own people. Let's pray that we have the wit and wisdom, and the determination of the Holy Spirit to do the same.