Sunday, June 5, 2022

Many gifts for many needs


A Sermon preached at Pentecost June 5, 2022, at St. Augustine’s and St. Christoph

Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:14-17, John 14:8-17, 25-27

Today we celebrate the church’s birthday, Pentecost. Before Pentecost there was no church, just a small group of men and women who could all fit into a single house. By the end of that day, there would be more followers of Jesus than could fit into a single room, and they never would again. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, calls Pentecost something like the Big Bang, as all Christianity radiates outward from this moment of creation. Another commentator said that “without the Holy Spirit there would be no prophecy, no preaching, no mission, and no Christian Movement” and no St. Augustine’s Church either.

It is the gift of the Holy Spirit that drives the church out into the world, which is something we celebrate not only at Pentecost but at every baptism by water and the Holy Spirit. Water is very visible, and tangible, the spirit on the other hand is neither visible nor tangible. At the baptism it is symbolised by the special oil, blessed by a bishop, that I use for anointing.

Luke, the author of Acts, can’t really describe it either. He writes of “a sound like the rush of a violent wind,” but not the wind and of “divided tongues, as of fire,” but not real fire. (Acts 2:2-3) The violent wind and the fire recalls Elijah’s encounter with God (1 Kings 19:11-12) when there “was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” And fire also reminds us of John’s prophecy just before Jesus’ Baptism that “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16)

But however difficult it is to describe the Spirit we still notice its effects – for if we are open to the Spirit’s influence it will make a significant change in our lives. For the men and women on that day of Pentecost the first change came with their ability to speak in tongues. Some commentators call this the reversal of the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis when humans try to become greater than God: “Come [says the Lord], let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.” (Genesis 11:7-8) In the Acts reading we hear instead how people have come from all over the face of the known earth to the city of Jerusalem where they hear the disciples “in our own languages (…) speaking about God's deeds of power." (Acts 2:11)

This is an ability we still need today. Just like the disciples, we receive the spirit to be able to share the good news with more people in a better way. We need to speak, we need to translate our language about God and God's deeds of power into a language that can be understood by all people, and not just those who regularly come to church. They need to hear how God has made a difference in our lives, and how God can make a difference in their lives too.

The second change that the Spirit brought about that day was the ability to prophesy as Peter explained, citing the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” (Acts 2:17-18) The Spirit goes where the Spirit chooses; it knows no boundaries neither gender nor age nor social class. All flesh can receive the spirit and speak truth.

To speak the truth is another ability we still need today. We need to identify what is broken and what is harmful in the world, anything that denies our common humanity, anything that puts one person, group or nation above another, any attempt to use force and power for personal gain, anything that stands between us and the love of God. We need to name and work on changing it – with all like-minded people of faith, any faith, and all people with good intentions. This is when the “Advocate” who Jesus describes in John’s Gospel works in us, “the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you." (John 14:17)

Finally – for today – we have that much more intimate, individual effect of the Spirit that Paul and Jesus depict in the extracts from Romans and from John’s Gospel. Paul emphasises the role of the Spirit in establishing our relationship as adopted children of God and co-heirs with Christ. The Spirit binds us together and with God and lets us encounter God not with fear, but with loving trust. Jesus focuses on the role of the Spirit as advocate. The word advocate is one we really only know from its legal usage. But it could also be translated as 'helper', 'defender', comforter', or 'supporter'. Someone who stands by your side, who argues your case in front of others and who has your back. The Spirit makes a difference in our lives by being with and in us, by the peace it brings, by the assurance of God’s presence in our lives. The Father will give us another advocate, Jesus says, because Jesus himself is the first one. “The Spirit, not bound by the physical limitations of Jesus of Nazareth, who could only be in one place and one time, is therefore one who is sent to us to continue the ministry of Jesus – God with us.”[1]

I think one reason why the Spirit brings so many different gifts, and even today we have heard of only a few, is because there are so many different needs to be met in our lives and in the lives of those we encounter. At its core the Spirit is simply God’s personal presence abiding in us, helping and guiding us, and empowering us to do the works that Jesus does and, in fact, even greater works than these. (John 14:12)


[1] From Thy Kingdom Come 2022 - Day 7

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Becoming one


A Sermon preached on Easter VII, May 29, 2022, at St. Augustine’s and St. Christoph

Acts 16:16-34, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26

I know that Hannah Cranbury only preached about unity only a few weeks ago, but both with today's gospel reading and having just returned from the Katholikentag[1], which is an increasingly ecumenical event, and where I was helping to staff the ecumenical stand run by the ACK, the German Council of Churches, I can hardly not talk about church unity.

Here, in the longest recorded prayer of Jesus, he prays to the Father, asking that his disciples enjoy and preserve the unity shared between the Father and himself. But as we also heard, he prays not only for those in the room with him, “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,” (John 17:20) so in a sense, Jesus is praying for us!

This a special sort of unity, divine unity, it is not enforced or commanded. Jesus asks and desires it. It is the unity of love and a reflection of the intimate unity of the Father and the Son: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” (17:21)

Unity is a theme of our service every week, when we recite the Nicene Creed and say together: “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” How can we claim to be one if we are clearly still divided? Well for one thing we say we believe, not we are. We can believe that we are one even if that oneness is not immediately visible. The Nicene Creed is for example a shared creed. Unlike the Apostle’s creed, which has its origin in the western church, this is also used by the Orthodox and Oriental Churches. But we are one even when we don’t share a formal, written creed, like many free churches. All it takes to be part of the ACK is to “confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior according to Scripture and to seek to fulfill together what they are called to do, for the glory of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”[2]

In his prayer, Jesus also made reference to this glory of God as a sign and element of unity: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:22)

Not only do we believe that we are one, or should be one, but also that we are holy. Holy is another overladen word. “Holier than thou” describes a form of excessive self-righteousness. Holy can be understood to mean perfect …. which we are not, and the church is not! But we use holy here to mean devoted to God and to God’s work, to fulfilling together what we are called to do, and that is certainly something all churches should share in.  

The church we believe in is also catholic. Not catholic as in the sense of Roman Catholic but meaning universal. As Anglicans we do not claim to be the Church, but to be part of God’s universal church. together with the RC and OC, and the Lutherans, and the Reformed, and the Baptist, and the Orthodox and any church that shares in God’s mission of reconciliation.

Finally, the church is called apostolic. To be apostolic means two things, that the church is built on the teaching of the apostles. As Jesus said: we are those who believe in him through the word of the apostles. Secondly it means we are sent (Greek = Apostolos – one who is sent) with a mission (Latin = Mission – to send), “so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23) The Church’s purpose is to bring the Good News of God in Christ and of the God of love to the world.

Again and again in this prayer, Jesus says that it is when we are completely one that the world will believe that God has sent Jesus. Clearly, we are not yet completely one and that can hinder the mission if we send conflicting messages to the world or if we stand more for division than for the Oneness of God. “If we are one in faith, there can be no final reason why we may not be one, also, in our life and worship;”[3] Tom Wright says when commenting on this passage. As I said earlier, I have just come back from the Katholikentag and we are not one in worship while we cannot all share in the bread and wine made holy at the Lord’s Table.

Of course, when Jesus is taking about unity he was not thinking of denominational boundaries. I doubt that even Jesus foresaw how creative we can be in finding and defining differences! The unity he was thinking of is the one crossing all the traditional barriers of nation, race, class, custom, gender etc. His word, his teaching, his sacrifice, his promise was and is meant for all people.

And yet, however important it may be, unity, divine unity cannot be forced. It is not uniformity, as Hannah told us a couple of weeks ago, nor is it sameness. Too often, throughout history, unity has been enforced by coercion, by propaganda, and the elimination of dissidence and difference. I understand that it was the custom of the time, but I still always feel a little uncomfortable when I hear, as we did this week in the Acts reading, that the gaoler “and his entire family were baptized without delay” (Acts 16:33) or last week that Lydia “and her household were baptized.” (Acts 16:15) How much choice did they have in the matter, I ask myself.

Here in Germany, after the Reformation, the principle known as cuius regio, eius religio provided for internal religious unity within a state: The religion of the prince became the religion of the state and all its inhabitants and the only escape for those who could not conform to the prince's religion were to leave and to move to a place where their particular brand of religion was established or at least tolerated. That is not the unity God wants.

God’s unity is never coercive, it is an invitation into a relationship with God through Jesus and through Jesus with one another. Divine unity flows out of that relationship when “the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (17:26) Our unity with other Christians is not so much the result of structures, but a sign of the presence of Jesus in our churches, in the sacrament, and in us. It is this presence that provides the great bond of union connecting Christians of all times.[4] Christians are not one, for the sake of being one, but are called to be united in the love of God and tasked with bringing that love into the world. It is when we embody this love that we will be like an advertisement, inviting people to join in union with God – in whichever church may suit them best. Our invitation is to share in one single common life in Christ, the invitation we heard at the end of the Book of Revelation:

The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’

And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’

And let everyone who is thirsty come.

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. (Revelation 22:21)




[3] John for Everyone II, N.T. Wright, p. 100

[4] Raymond Brown, The Gospel and Epistles of John, p. 86