Thursday, 5 June 2014

Who are we?

The following sermon actually pre-dates the one on the previous blog entry, but is on the same theme. Sadly it was interrupted when a member of the congregation was taken ill but I was able to conclude it later in the service. I am pleased to say the lady was taken to hospital but released later and has recovered.

Who are we? Acts 1:1-8

Introduction
Nowadays people seem to be more and more confused about who they are. Whether that is a lack of confidence because of the multicultural society we live in with its different religions (and none), or because we move around a lot more so we lose our roots I don’t know. But people want to find out who they are, and they going back in time to help them. So we have this growth in interest in family trees and ancestors with TV programmes like “Who do you think you are?”

I have a theory that the Church is suffering the same kind of identity crisis. It doesn’t know who it is any more. And because it doesn't know who it is—or what it is—it no longer knows what it exists for. The one affects the other.

So I want to answer those two questions this morning:
1. Who or what is the Church?
2. What is it for or why does it exist?

Next week is Pentecost Sunday.  A major festival in the church’s year. Traditionally it’s described as the birth-day of the Church —when the Church came into existence. But before that happens Jesus gathers his disciples to him one last time to teach them three important things they will need to know before that day.

The first we find in verses 3 and 6.
Here Jesus teaches them about is the Kingdom of heaven.
As I read about how slow the disciples are to grasp what Jesus tries to teach them I find myself feeling very sorry for him and what he had to put up with…..until I realise that I too am slow to grasp the most simple truths about God. Jesus only had to put up with these men for three years but he has had 33 years—so far—to put up with me!

Verse 3 tells us that Jesus teaches them over the 40 days about the Kingdom of God but this isn't the first time. Look back over the gospels and there are long sections and parables of teaching about the Kingdom by Jesus. If anyone should know about the Kingdom then they should. But in verse 6 their question to Jesus shows us three major mistakes:

First, they ask Jesus when he is going to restore the kingdom. They were clearly expecting the kingdom to be something political—ruled by a human king/human administration—and also something territorial—with physical boundaries.
Second, by talking about the Kingdom of Israel, they were thinking that Jesus was going to return everything back to the way it was when King David ruled and Israel was at its largest, most rich and powerful and most influential.
Thirdly, by referring to “at this time” they were expecting something instant and immediate.

On each of the accounts they demonstrate that they had completely misunderstood Jesus’ teaching. For if you look back at just one passage where Jesus taught about the Kingdom you can see how mistaken they were. It’s Luke 17:20-21 where Jesus says that the Kingdom is not something that comes with careful observation so we can say here it or there it is. In fact, he says, the Kingdom of God is within you.

So if we can’t see it in terms of buildings or boundaries, and it is “within” a person, then it immediately clear that the disciples are way off in their understanding. And this is made clear in point two.

The second thing Jesus teaches the disciples is about the importance of power that comes from the presence and person of the Holy Spirit (see verse 8).

At the end of the 19th century Alfred Nobel invented a powerful explosive substance for which he became famous for. But before he patented it in 1867, he had to find a name for it. So he went to a friend of his who he knew was a Greek scholar and asked him what the Greek word was for an explosion. The word his friend came up with was “dunamis” the Greek word for “power” or “force”. It is from that word that Nobel called his invention “dynamite”. And its that same word that we find Jesus using in verse 8: “But you will receive power (dunamis) when the Holy Spirit comes on you.”

Jesus is making two important points here to his disciples:
First, the Kingdom of God is not meant to be something political or territorial and its not meant to cover a physical area or country like Israel. So he is ruling out the idea of a Kingdom as we know it—like the United Kingdom of Great Britain. No, what he is talking about therefore is something spiritual—of the Holy Spirit. That is why he gives the command earlier in verse 4-5. So clearly the kingdom of heaven/God has more to do with the Holy Spirit and people than with political systems or earthly territory and power.

The second point is about the importance of power or “dunamis”. Verse 8: “But you will receive power…”

Whatever the Kingdom of God is, it grows and is spread by the power of God not the power of man.

Paul was the greatest missionary of the first century and planted many churches across the Mediterranean. In his first letter to the Corinthians he writes this about his work:

“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?”   (1 Corinthians 4:20-21)

The work he established was not something he forced on them but came about by the power of God. In fact he admits earlier that he wasn't even a good preacher.

“My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Cor 2:4-5).

It’s been estimated that Billy Graham the great evangelist has over his lifetime—and including through his radio and television broadcasts—had an estimated audience of over 2.2 billion. He has been a spiritual adviser to several presidents and written many books. Once someone asked him how many converts he had made during his long ministry. Without hesitation he replied “not one”. Not one! Why? Because the power of God saves a person. Here is Paul again to the Romans:

“I am not ashamed of the gospel—the Christian message/good news—because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.”  (Romans 1:16).

No wonder Jesus gives the instruction not to do anything, but wait until power of God in the person of the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples. He knew that nothing of lasting significance would happen otherwise. And that remains the same today. Whatever we aim to do for God, we cannot do without God. So the person and power of the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Godhead is indispensable to the disciple and the Church.

Lastly, the third thing Jesus teaches the disciples is that all he expects them to do is say what they have seen or experienced and no more. They are to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem...Judea...Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” (verse 8).

The first thing to say about being a witness is this. You cannot give testimony to something you have not witnessed or are not certain about. Imagine taking the stand in a court of law and being unable to answer a question under cross-examination. If you are a Christian you will know it as certain as you know you are alive or you are married. John writing his first letter to the early Christians says this:

“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”  (1 John 5:13)

It was this knowing, this certainty, that they were able, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to go to their deaths believing that they would soon be with God, that made the early Christians such effective witnesses. And we see the same today with that Christian woman Meriam Ibrahim from the Sudan who has taken such a firm stand in the face of her death sentence for apostasy.

Second,  a witness is only expected to say why they believe and no more. They are not expected to persuade, argue, prove God but simply tell whoever is interested why they have their hope in God. And that means every Christian who is knows they are a Christian can speak up for Jesus. Of course there are some individuals who have the intellectual ability and knowledge to argue in defence of the Christian faith but they are the exception not the norm. The norm is to just share what makes you believe in Christ.

So to end lets come back to my opening questions. What is the Church? What is it there for?

First, what is the church? The church is a collection of people in whom the Kingdom of God resides. In fact you can almost dispense with the word 'church' altogether unless you mean it in the way it was originally meant—a gathering of people.

Second, what is it for? It exists to bear witness to the risen and reigning Jesus in and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

If we hold on to those two biblical answers—as given by none other than Jesus himself—then the changes that are about to take place in the church in Wales take on a secondary significance to the real work God has called us to. We need not worry about Ministry Areas and what they bring. Our calling is to be and to bear witness in the power God has given us by and through his Spirit.

Another Pentecost? Yes please.

The following is a short talk I gave at one of our midweek services. It is part of my ongoing reflection on the work of the Holy Spirit, which the Nicene Creed identifies as "the Lord, the Giver of Life."

Acts 1:8

As Area Dean I get to visit other churches, some to preach in and others to inspect. The growing picture is one of decay and decline, reminding me of that rather sad and dreary line from the hymn "Abide with me" which runs "change and decay in all around I see".

I visited one church recently which is in a desperate state. It’s a huge building with lots of space, a large hall and plenty of rooms for different meetings and functions. However it is full of damp, mould and patches of missing plaster. There is vegetation growing out of the wall and there is mould everywhere. Things are so bad that one of the wardens has to come in sometimes several times a day when it is raining, to empty on of some twenty buckets of water spread around the premises and which catch the drops falling from the roof where it leaks. One part of the worship space has been cordoned off because large chunks of plaster are falling off the walls. And as we met with the PCC there was a noise at the other end of the church and on investigating we spotted another piece of the masonry had landed just by the altar.

As we met we spoke of the glories of former years, choir festivals, full churches, Sunday Schools full to overflowing. Now the congregation averages 16 with an average age of about 70 plus. They looked resigned and defeated. Ultimately although it will be their decision whether or not to close their church, I suspect the building itself will make up their minds for them.

The picture is one of powerlessness, decline and deep sadness for past glories.

Step back 2000 years to Acts 1 and the promise of Jesus to his disciples. Earlier he has told them to stay in Jerusalem and to wait for the ‘gift’ that his Father has promised. Then in verse 8 he says what that gift is, it is the gift of power in the person of the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity. This gift is given to impart power in order for the disciples to bear witness to the Risen, and therefore ever-present Jesus, to Jerusalem and "to the ends of the earth" (verse 8b). As the camera moves forward 10 days we see that promise begin to take effect on the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit falls on the waiting disciples. And as we move through Acts we see how this explosion of power—'dunamis' from which we get dynamite - ripples across Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and outwards to the ends of the earth.

Now set these two pictures alongside one another. On the one hand a decaying early 20th century edifice with a dwindling, dispirited, ageing congregation, rooted in one spot, and near to closing a church they have invested their whole lives in. And on the other, a  dynamic, powerful movement of excited and Spirit-filled individuals who are prepared to go anywhere, do anything and suffer whatever consequences that come as a result for the sake of their Lord and master Jesus.

What is missing in the first picture? Not money - some grant to renovate the building. Not more families to generate a Sunday School? Or a few extra young people to give a sense of new life? Not even a bit more energy to meet the demands of an institution which is trying to stand still as the tides of change sweep over it?

What is missing is simple. It is power. The gift of the Spirit. That inward spark of life that makes the spiritual heart pump faster, which enthuses the individual in his or her relationship with the Risen Christ. We need that power again. We need the Holy Spirit. We need another Pentecost. Nothing less will save us.

And the exciting truth is that God has never withdrawn that promise to his Church. As long as we are willing to carry out his will and purpose in the world and be his witnesses he will always make his Spirit available to us.

“If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another counsellor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth.” John 14:15-16

Jesus keeps his promises. Question is, do we trust him?

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