Pentecost Sermon 2020

Pentecost Sermon

Throughout the Old Testament God promised that he’d send his Spirit not just to special people like Prophets, Priests and Kings but to all his people.  We heard Peter quoting such a promise from Joel in our opening reading and Jesus reinforces this promise.  However, he makes it clear that this will not happen until he’s returned to his father; he tells his disciples: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate (or helper) will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.’ (John 16:7) 

However, the Church traditionally does a strange thing – after celebrating Jesus’ Ascension we wait expectantly for the Spirit ‘as if’ we’re those first believers waiting for it for the first time - whereas actually we receive this gift when we come to faith.  My favourite prayer in the Baptism service (which is the outward sign of inward faith) is the one where I ask that God would ‘daily renew the candidate with his anointing Spirit.’

In his letter to the Ephesians St Paul assures his readers that all believers are ‘sealed’ with the Holy Spirit; he writes:   

In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.  (Ephesians 1:13-14) 

Seals were used on cargo and documents so that the receiver would know whom the delivery came from.  So for example if a king sent an important document it would be folded over and secured with his royal seal, signifying his mark of ownership; this would ensure protection of the document until it was safely delivered to its destination. So when Paul states that we’re sealed with the Holy Spirit, he’s saying that this marks us out as belonging to God and that God will protect us through the trials of this life, right through to our eternal redemption.

Here Paul also describes the Holy Spirit as a pledge or down payment.  When we pay a deposit on a house, it guarantees our future ownership and is a promise of full payment in the future.  So the Spirit both guarantees our future home and is also a foretaste of our eternal future. 

But we need to understand that the Holy Spirit is a gift of God’s grace through faith – we don’t earn it and it’s not dependent on us being super spiritual.   Jesus told the disciples to Wait for the promise of the Father…’  (Acts 1:4) and this Father doesn’t break his promises, the Holy Spirit is a source of help, wisdom and comfort for every believer.  Nonetheless, despite Paul saying that all believers are ‘sealed’ with the Holy Spirit, later in the same letter he  encourages believers to be ‘filled’ by it.   He says:

 …  do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves…’  (Ephesians 5:18-19)  

The tense used here indicates that there’s a need for us to go on being filled with the Spirit – and that this happens especially when we worship together.  This is one reason that we gather together each week – it’s like drawing up at the petrol station and filling up our car for the week ahead.  I don’t know if you’ve ever filled your car up with the wrong fuel – I have and soon afterwards I needed to replace it!  Likewise if we fill ourselves up with the wrong fuel it damages us – anyone who’s experienced a rotten hangover will know this first hand. Paul tells us that inspiration is better than intoxication – and is far less damaging to our health and relationships.  

So again being continually filled with the Holy Spirit isn’t a luxury for the enthusiastic minority – it’s the necessary fuel for us to live our lives in the way we’d all want to – where we exhibit the fruits of the Spirit - things like kindness, patience, self-control and love.

Paul majors on ‘love’ in his second prayer found in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus that we heard in today’s reading.  (We explored the first prayer last week – and like last week, this prayer remains relevant for us today.) 

The Biblical idea of love goes much further than the Hollywood version.  In the Greek language (which is what the New Testament was written in) there are several words used to describe love. There’s the word eros,which is to do with sexual love, philia, which is to do with friendship, and agape – which is the love that’s prepared to extend itself to the point of self-sacrifice.  

So when Paul prays that believers will be rooted and grounded in love’ he uses the word agape.  He’s praying that at the very foundation of our being, we’d have an understanding of Christ’s agape love for us – that this would be the soil from which we grow.  He prays that we would be able to grasp the ‘… the breadth… length… height and depth’ of this magnificent love.

I believe that even just getting a glimpse of how much we’re loved by God is  a life-changing experience, it’s this that provides us with the basis for Christian living. 

When we know we’re loved we have nothing to prove and it makes us feel secure – this challenges our tendency to ‘drivenness’ because we know we don’t need to earn God’s love, approval or affection.   We know we can’t make God love us any more than he already does. This doesn’t mean that Christians shouldn’t have ambitions though - we should be hoping that with God we can change the world!  Grace isn’t opposed to effort - it’s opposed to earning.    So we should have hopes and dreams, and desire to do whatever God’s called us to as best we can – whilst at the same time knowing that our success or failure doesn’t determine our worth.   We’re beloved children of God – whatever!

Knowing that we’re loved by God also strengthens us to face challenges.  This was the thing I first noticed when I became a Christian at the age of 35.  I happened to be at Art College at the time and so attempted to describe this experience in a rather obvious painting.  It was of a life-belt on a deep blue background and what held it in place was a rod of gold coming down from the top of the painting.  Because I felt as if I now had an invisible, precious rod going through the centre of me which made me feel so much more robust to face life’s challenges..  This is why I do what I do  - because I want everyone to experience this.  This is why Paul prays I pray that…he may grant that you be strengthened in your inner being with power through his spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith…’

Paul’s prayer, that we looked at last week, reminded us that the power available to believers was the same power that raised Christ from the dead. It’s this power that strengthens us and does its renovating work of making us more Christ-like.  The more we’re fuelled by the Holy Spirit, the more the pattern of Christ will increasingly shape our lives.  

And we know from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1:13) that agape love is how this power should best manifest.  God’s love is embodied in Christ and mediated by the Holy Spirit and this in turn enables believers to offer love, without the expectation of reward to others.    

Knowing that we’re loved and accepted by God despite our flaws makes it easier for us to love others who are flawed.  Knowing that we’re forgiven makes it easier for us to forgive others.  The love we receive from God is generous and this in turn enables us to be generous with our words, time and resources. 

But the key to living a life full of supernatural loving power is to find ways to ‘refuel’ and to become more sensitive to the presence of the Holy Spirit within us.  One easy way of doing this is to set aside a brief period of time (maybe 10 minutes) each day to ‘practise the presence of God.’ 

Identify a time and place when you can do this regularly. It might be whilst you’re walking or whilst you drink your morning coffee. The important thing is to deliberately and intentionally invite God into the moment and choose to become aware of his presence. You’ll be amazed at what a difference just 10 minutes a day can make to your sensitivity to God’s presence with you.

This exercise will increase our awareness and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, it’s like building muscle – the more we use it the stronger it is – and the more we’ll be able to know and recognise the Spirit’s prompting and wisdom.  We are sealed with the Spirit – but sometimes we forget – and fail to wait for promptings from this elusive source which ‘blows where it chooses.’ (John 3:8)

Amen


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