Sunday, 4 June 2017

Pentecost 2017

We’ve got a story to tell.
What do you think it is?
Take a few minutes to just share ideas with a few people around you. What is the story to tell? How could you share it with other people?

Every now and again in my Christian life I learn something that makes me think ‘why have I never thought of that before?’. A friend sent me her sermon, written for this Sunday, for Pentecost, to read. In it she had said that the disciples were “gathered all together to keep the feast of Pentecost – and that’s a feast that’s about celebrating the giving of the Law”.

That was my light-bulb moment. The story of Easter doesn’t start with “it was Easter” the story of Christmas doesn’t start with “it was Christmas” but the story of Pentecost starts with “it was Pentecost”.
Pentecost was already a thing – it was the Jewish festival that came 50 days after the Passover. If you’re sitting there thinking ‘well, yes, I knew that!’ – why has no-one ever told me before?

And yes, thanks to my other friend, Wikipedia, I know now that Pentecost was also known as Shavuot or the Feast of
Weeks, and since part of the purpose of the festival was to give thanks to God for the Law, the tradition was to spend the first evening of the festival in all-night study of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures ( our Old Testament). The other tradition is to read the whole of the book of Ruth.
You knew all this? Why did no-one tell me??

The disciples didn’t just happen to be together in that reading we heard from the second chapter of Acts – they had gathered to thank God for the Law, to read the Scriptures, to celebrate what God had given his people.
Then.. pow!

When they think they are in for a nice, orderly, sensible celebration of the God who has acted in history – God’s power shows up. The Holy Spirit turns their expectations upside done and inside out & makes Pentecost a celebration of what God is doing now – bringing the church into being, converting frightened, bewildered followers of Christ into living breathing, prophesying, witnesses of the God who is doing a new thing.

The disciples become the church and are given the power to communicate with people in their own language – to spread the Good News of God’s love in Jesus to all points of the compass – North to Mesopotamia, South to Egypt, East to Asia, West to Rome.
The story of the God who is born among us in Jesus to live with us and for us, to die at our hands to show us the depth of his love, to be raised from death to bring us everlasting hope – that story of God’s kingdom of hope and joy and redemption is for everyone, and the disciples are driven out by the power of the spirit to take the message to the streets of Jerusalem and right across the world.
The week before last I was worshipping in Mbare Uniting Presbyterian Church in Harare – I was lucky enough to be on a visit to Zimbabwe with the URC’s Commitment for Life project and Christian Aid. The worship was joyous.
Three choirs, each one marvelous; percussion instruments that just kept popping up in different places to get the rhythm just right; people dancing, swaying, clapping and cheering…and right at the front six of us from the UK doing our best to keep up.

The most amazing point of the service for me was the prayers just before the sermon. Everyone praying together – in their own time, according to their own needs and inspiration, in their own language, at their own volume – but mostly, if I’m honest LOUDLY.
I have once heard it attempted in this country – but when we are British we might mumble a bit for a few moments, so long as we think no-one is listening, and quite quickly the prayers subside so we can get on with the rest of the service.

The prayer in Mbare went on.. and on.. and on. And eventually the choir started singing, but the praying didn’t subside , so we went back to praying for another few minutes, until a second time the choir started singing and this time everyone joined in with the singing quietly, and the prayers subsided, leaving a deep sense of expectation that God was truly in this place, and we were ready to hear the sermon.
A mighty noise, the raising of many voices, a deep hush – it was awe-inspiring.
The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost must have been all that and more.

So what are we doing this morning? Are we just listening to the Bible story – the story from nearly 2000 years ago – and giving thanks to God for what he did then? Or are we prepared to risk the chance that God might show up, that the Holy Spirit might come here and now and turn our life and our church and our worship upside down and inside out?

I have a confession to make at this point. I like my worship – ordered. It’s all very well in Zimbabwe, it was a bit like a holiday, it was different and exciting and nice for a change. But I like to know where I’m going in a service – I like to know how long it’s likely to be, whether I have a chance to eat a sweet in the sermon, I like to know where to sit and when to stand and I like it best when I know the hymns. And the Holy Spirit at Pentecost says – tough!
God’s power cannot be confined to just one way of doing things, the good news certainly can’t be locked up in the church, there will always be new things happening in God’s kingdom.

Just as I learned something new about the meaning of Pentecost this week and thought ‘why did no-one ever tell me?’  there are people around us every day of our lives who find the concept of faith in Jesus a mystery. Why does no-one ever tell them?

The Holy Spirit shows us that we need to find many languages to speak.
Not just, literally, different tongues – but other ways of communicating about God’s love – through works of charity and mercy, through fighting for justice through praying for peace.
I could understand very little of what the congregation in Mbare were singing – but the smiles, the clapping,  the dancing for joy, told me everything I needed to know. In the poverty of Zimbabwe, where drought is becoming more common and the rains of Summer more violent, because of global warming, people knew God’s love and rejoiced in it. They danced down the aisle to put what offering they could afford in the basket at the front and then they danced out of the church to share their joy with everyone around.

On the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit came, Peter reminded people of the prophecy of Joel.
God promises to pour out his spirit on all flesh – men and women, young and old, slaves and free. There will be visions, and dreams and signs… and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
How easy was it, earlier in the service when we talked about ‘having a story to tell’ and what it might be?. Did you notice that the young people found it easier to come up with answers? ‘Your sons and your daughters will prophecy’.

We see how the Spirit works in different ways, through different people, in different tongues. God comes in power to break down barriers, to send us out with Good news, to turn our churches inside out so that all people can hear the good news and be saved.

Are you ready? Me neither. Let’s go! And see where the Spirit takes us.

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