This time last year I was just getting ready to start running the Potters ‘Arf. This year’s participants are gathering now, as we meet, ready to set off at 10:30 on their 13 and a bit mile journey around the city. Just over an hour later the winner will finish, with the rest of the pack following on over the next few hours. Most competitors will find it tough going in places, easier going in others. I suspect that all of them will enjoy reaching the end, being cheered along the final stretch towards the finishing line.
In some senses it feels a bit like our journey through Acts over the last six or seven weeks has been a bit of an endurance event. We’ve been thinking about the theme of witness, learning different things about it from the account that Luke, a careful investigative author, wrote for us. There have been bits which might have been tough going for some us, and other bits which were relaxed and easy. This week we end our journey through the life of the early church in a crowd, a noisy crowd, a city centre crowd much like the one that is gathering in Hanley. A crowd that has come from far and wide to celebrate together.
Just like the runners this morning, the ground we have covered has bought us almost in a circle. We started our journey in this Pentecost crowd, where we heard Peter say to them, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses”. Then we heard about what Peter told those who were convinced by that eye witness evidence to do, “Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins might be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls”
Next we found out about what all these new believers got up to, what difference it made to their lives. What people on the outside of the group of the believers witnessed, what they saw them doing, how they saw them living.
“Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved”
But then things started going wrong. People started to get upset about what Jesus’ followers were saying and doing. They were offended by the witness statements that they were hearing. Stephen, one of the first followers of Jesus had been telling people about what he witnessed in Jesus’ life. Because of this he was put on trial by the religious leaders of the time and they took offense at him and what he said.
In the middle of all these angry people and hate that was being directed towards him we are told that, “Filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” And a little later that as he died he said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
These two verses reminded us of the importance of keeping our eyes fixed on God’s glory and of forgiveness when people attack us for our faith and witness to that faith.
We then left Jerusalem and went with Paul to Athens and heard about his witness in a different culture and community.
Last week we headed back towards where we started, and heard some of Jesus’ last words to his friends before he returned to the Father’s side. He said to them, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
We concentrated on the second half of that verse, where Jesus said “You will be my witnesses”. He didn’t ask his followers to be his witnesses. He didn’t command them to be his witnesses. He just said that they would be his witnesses. They were known to be his followers, and whatever they did or said would be a witness about Jesus. Just like them, we also are known to be Christians, and so what we do and say forms a witness to others of what Jesus is like. As an example of this we were reminded of how love and unity in our church community is a powerful positive witness of God’s love to the wider community.
Last week we put on one side the first half of that verse, a promise that Jesus made to his followers “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” This week we have heard how that promise was kept. Jesus’ friends did what he had instructed them to do. They had returned to Jerusalem and waited. At the harvest festival, known as Pentecost, they had received power. This power was expressed physically by flames of fire and the roar of a gale. It overflowed with the gifts of communication, so that the great works of God could be shared with all the people who had gathered for the harvest festival.
Luke tells us, “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
Just imagine what it would be like if it happened like that now. What would be the reaction if the Holy Spirit came like that here today? If there were flames and the rush of a gale through the building. If we found that we could speak Urdu, Polish, Cech, Tamil, Sinhalese, Hungarian, Swahili, French, Romany, Punjabi, and overcome by the excitement we swept out of here, telling everybody about how great God is, through Hinde Street market, the crowd gathering round us as we went, up into Market Square to the crowd there, telling everybody in ear shot about Jesus and his impact on our lives. How would the crowds react?
I reckon that their reaction would be pretty similar to the one that Luke records in Jerusalem, “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” We might even get some echoing the other reaction from the Pentecost crowd, “they must be drunk”.
Now, I’m not suggesting we go about it quite like that, but it seems to me that one of our tasks as God’s people is to provoke amazement in the people around us so that they ask, “What does this mean?” The disciples did it like that on the day of Pentecost because that was what the Holy Spirit gave them the power and gifts to do on that day. They didn’t do that every day, they did other things that provoked the same question on other days. We’ve heard about their love for each other that provoked this question and drew others in. I wonder what the Holy Spirit wants to empower, gift, and guide us to do today, and this week, to provoke the question, “What does this mean?” I wonder if we are ready and willing to accept the Holy Spirit’s power, gifts, and guidance. To run the risk of being accused of being drunk, in order to provoke the question.
“What does this mean?” It seems to me that this is one of the most important questions that can be asked. We really hate it when something happens that can’t be explained, that appears to be meaningless. We always want to know, “why?” Not knowing the meaning of something makes us feel insecure, threatened, and uncertain. Knowing the meaning often reassures us and restores our feelings of safety.
As we heard at the beginning of this Easter sermon series, Peter was ready with an answer. He knew what the meaning was. He knew that the disciples weren’t drunk, but that they had good news to share. He knew that this gift of the Holy Spirit was another fulfilled promise of Jesus that showed his trustworthiness. He knew that it all pointed to Jesus as the one who is able to rescue people from the mess that they’re in. He knew what it meant and, newly filled with the Holy Spirit, he began to explain it to the crowd.
Following his example we are also called to help those around us find meaning in their lives. We too have been given the Holy Spirit to do this. We might feel that this is too much for us, but I want to suggest this morning that we can have confidence in the God who has called us to help us do what we have to do.
There are two questions that might give us a starting point for helping people to understand what it all means. How did you first become a Christian? What is the best thing for you about being a Christian? For me the answers might be something like this:
How did you first become a Christian? I have been a Christian as long as I can remember. I grew up in a Christian family, and as I’ve got older I’ve got to know God better and realised more and more just how much God loves me, and have become more and more passionate about following Jesus.
What is the best thing for you about being a Christian? The best thing about being a Christian for me is seeing the difference that knowing and loving God makes in peoples’ lives, including my own. I have seen people grow and blossom, be released from pain and fear, becoming more who they are meant to be.
As come to the end of this marathon, as we draw near to the finishing line of this series thinking about what God is saying to us about our witness, what better time could there be to think about these questions for ourselves, so that we can explain what it means when people are amazed by God’s work in our lives and ask, “What does this mean?”
As we go out this week, filled with the Holy Spirit, let us be confident to tell the stories that allow people to find meaning. We might get sneered at, but let us bear witness. Let us be provocative, do things that amaze and perplex and then let us be ready with witness.