Today is Pentecost, the only ancient Jewish festival to have made it into the church’s calendar when the first Jewish followers of Jesus began to call themselves ‘Christians’ and formed what we now call ‘the Church’. It was retained simply because they considered what happened on this day 2,000 years ago to be a moment of huge significance – in fact it is sometimes referred to as ‘the birthday of the Church’, because it was while those first followers of Jesus were gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost that God poured out his Holy Spirit and three things happened to spark the church into life:
Firstly the Disciples of Jesus were able to speak to people in their own languages, in ways that they could understand. And they could speak to people from all over the world in all sorts of languages, to explain who Jesus was and why he was of first importance in their lives.
Secondly, the people listening were suddenly able to understand. They ‘saw the light’ and understood how Jesus was not only of first importance in their lives but indeed, in the whole of human history. And they believed.
And thirdly, it made a new community. The people who now believed in Jesus changed the way they were living. They were baptised [as we are doing for Abbie and Mattie this morning] and changed the way they lived, from what had been doing and to living in a new way following Jesus. And most importantly, they did this together. They realised that the implications of Jesus for their lives required them to live their lives together as a new family, not merely as private believers, but as believers living and working together – and that was how the church began.
So if this is so important, it must mean something for us today also. And it does – it does those same three things in order to spark us into life today.
Firstly, let’s look at what this means for our own lives, because this begins with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is a bit of a shadowy figure for a lot of people. We can get Jesus and we can get God, but the Holy Spirit sounds a bit strange. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t have a name, which makes him hard to relate to. Or perhaps it’s because he used to be called the ‘Holy Ghost’, which makes him sound either scary or rather humorous, but either way people struggle with the strangeness of the Holy Spirit and generally feel much more comfortable when we talk about Jesus or about God the Father.
But the Holy Spirit is the same God. It’s just that Jesus and the Father are in heaven, whereas the Holy Spirit is the person of God we can experience here on earth. The Holy Spirit is everywhere, but he is also deeply personal. And he does many fantastically important things, which we don’t have time to go into fully this morning. But what is important for us to understand this morning is that he helps us to understand and he wants relationship with us. The Holy Spirit helps us to see Jesus as he really is, to understand the Bible and how it gives us light to see by, and to understand ourselves and who we truly are. And the best way to know whether God is real or not is simply to ask him – “God, if you’re real, reveal yourself to me. Come Holy Spirit”. And he will, because that’s what he does. And it’s the Holy Spirit who does that for us.
And he does it to have relationship with us. Love and enlightenment go hand in hand when you’re in relationship with God. He loves teaching us, showing us things, helping us to see more clearly and to understand things. We are, after all, his children. But it’s a real relationship. It requires us to be willing to love him wholeheartedly and to open our hearts to him to be loved.
And that is something many people struggle with. For some reason most of us have an in-built resistance to God. In fact, many of us also have an in-built resistance to love. I think men are particularly bad about this (and I speak as a member of the species) – we struggle to allow anything in that is emotional, because it feels like weakness, but in fact letting God into your life is strength – strength beyond any strength this world can offer. And joy beyond anything this world can offer. But we have to choose it, because God will never force himself on you – he gives you freewill, so it’s up to you to choose. But if you choose to open yourself to him and to let him come into your life, he will bring you alive in a whole new way, because among other things, the Holy Spirit is the giver of life. Without God in our lives, we’re only alive physically, but there is so much more to life. And we only truly find out what life is for when we choose to invite God into our lives. [We’re doing that for Abbie and Mattie today. When I pour the water over their heads, the Holy Spirit will be poured on them too. But for them to live that life, requires us also to choose to have the life of God within us, because we’re the ones who are showing them what that life looks like, so that they can make the choice for themselves as they grow up. And there is nothing better we could do for them in their lives than to make that choice for ourselves and bring them up within the life of God.] And if you make that choice, to allow God into your life, he will be there like a shot! He won’t force you to choose him, but he’s desperate for you to choose him. He’s poised, ready to come into your life at the slightest invitation and when you do, you feel as though this was what you were really made for. So choose him.
Second point: he brings us together. When you invite God into your life and the Holy Spirit helps you to see things clearly, one of the first things you see is just how far you were from God before. You realise what it really means for God to forgive you and to give you a fresh start in life. But he also requires us to forgive each other and to form a new and deep relationship, not only with God himself, but also with each other. It’s why, in a few moments time, after the baptism, we will exchange the Peace – to show that being reconciled to God also creates a new kind of relationship between us. People often tell me that you can be a Christian without coming to church and in one sense, of course, that’s true. But what you can’t be is a Christian who isn’t part of the church. You can’t be a lone Christian, because to be a Christian is to be part of God’s family. We can’t practice our faith, without learning to love each other as Christ loves us. And the church, fundamentally, is not a building or an institution, but a family. The building and the institution are just where that family meets, but unless we’re meeting we’re not a family. And if we’re not a family, then we’re not really living that new life that Jesus intends. We can only do that if we’re learning to love and forgive one another and to serve Jesus together. That’s what the Church really is. [That’s Abbie and Mattie are joining today and the family that everyone who has been baptised belongs to.] It’s a family that transforms our lives by giving us a weekly opportunity to forgive each other and learn to love each other more deeply. And that is something our souls need deeply – not just general goodwill towards humanity, but the hard work of loving your neighbour as yourself. The Holy Spirit brings us together in this way and helps us to discover who we truly are by the way we relate to one another.
And thirdly and lastly, he sends us out to speak to the world in a new way about Jesus. I suppose I’m preaching mostly to the converted here, but the Holy Spirit gives us the words to speak to people in their own language. Too often, the church has spoken about Jesus in its own language, not the language of its hearers. We speak about him in stock-phrases or religious language that normal people don’t use! But the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to speak to people in ways that actually speak to them, that are relevant to their lives. And before we can do that, he teaches us to listen to them. So the church is not to be a Holy Huddle, only talking to itself. It is to be living in our communities, living in deep and meaningful relationships with our non-Christian neighbours, genuinely seeking to serve them, to understand them and to communicate Jesus in a way that will really mean something to them, not just getting spiritual scalps or bums on pews, but helping them to understand how Jesus is the answer to their struggles and problems, how Jesus is of first importance in their lives and, indeed, in the whole of human history and how Jesus can bring them alive in a whole new way too. Because the Holy Spirit is for everyone and this family is for everyone. It can never be too big nor have too many members. And you can’t be too odd to be part of this family – every language and colour, people of all shapes and sizes. Even you and even me.