Today we celebrate Pentecost, the day that the Spirit filled the house the apostles were in. It was a miraculous event that resulted in the number of believers growing hugely. This day is sometimes referred to as the birthday of the church because of what we read in John. Jesus had told the disciples that he was returning to the Father and that he would send the ‘Advocate’ to come to be with them. This day, Pentecost, is that day that the Advocate came: visibly, audibly, powerfully and actively. Jesus also calls this Advocate, the Spirit of truth. Other translations refer to the comforter, helper, counsellor, intercessor, strengthener, companion… most of the time, we say, the Holy Spirit. We have here a beautiful picture of the Trinity. Jesus going to the Father, who sent him, now Jesus sends the HS, who comes from the Father, who will glorify Jesus and speak whatever he hears the Father saying. All that the Father has is Jesus’ and the Spirit will declare that to us.
And so before we unpack the events of that fiery, windy, speaking-different-languages day on
Pentecost. I’d like us to reflect a bit on the Trinity, and what Jesus means when he says that it is the disciples advantage that He goes, because then the Holy Spirit will come.
I imagine the disciples found it hard to believe that anything could be better than Jesus being with them. They wouldn’t have wanted him to go. Jesus knew they felt sorrow. And so he reassures them. But it isn’t a half-truth reassurance, like when your mum tries to tell you that it is to your advantage to do your homework. When Jesus says that something is to our advantage, he really means it. Like, really really means it, advantage in a good, I can see right now why it is good, kind of way.
I’d like to take you on a journey if you will – in your imaginations – to try and show you how I think God has explained this to me. We like to go on bike rides as a family, I feel so happy then because I always dreamed of this when I was younger, that one day, I would have my own family and we would go on bike rides together – all of us. But what you might not see, is how long it took us to get to that point. In order for us to go on a bike ride, we all had to be able to ride bikes. I had to teach the children how to do that; one, then the other. This took patience, skill, practice – for them and me! For the first few years of riding, there was no chance I could get on a bike as well, I had to be on foot to assist with things, help them back up, follow them around, and be readily available to scoop up a grazed knee when it inevitably happened. Once both children could ride well, and I got myself a bike, we began to build up to longer rides where we could actually get somewhere. This is where I quickly felt out of my depth.
You see, if you have ever tried to go anywhere with children, by any means of transport, you will understand that they need a certain amount of shepherding. When on bikes, you are fairly limited to just going forwards in one direction, and you can’t hold anyone’s hand (most of the time). Crossing the road for example is a much harder. If I was in front of the children, then I could show them which way to go, make sure everyone stopped at the road and waited until it was safe to cross, I could guide and lead, set the speed and direction, but I could not see them! I could hardly hear them to be honest. And if one started straggling behind, we were in real trouble. Whereas if I stuck at the back, then the one at the front was vulnerable and unsure where to go. And so, we reached a point in our cycling journey, where we simply could not go out on long trips unless we had what we really really needed, which was Gregg.
When we had both parents in the party, one could be at the back and one at the front – sorted! This made all the difference. Suddenly we could go for miles and miles, hours and hours, because we had a functioning system, keeping everyone safe and on the right track.
This is how I imagine Jesus and the HS in our reading from John. Gregg naturally goes at the front. He leads the way, and the children know to follow him. He checks the paths are safe, alerts us when the road is clear to cross, and he makes sure we go in the right direction. ‘Follow daddy!’ You might hear me cry. Without him, we wouldn’t get anywhere. This, to me, is like Jesus returning to the Father. He goes first. And because he has gone to the Father, in his fully human form, we can go to the Father. We follow him. He doesn’t lead us down dead ends on a pointless journey, but we follow him to the Father. He leads along safe paths, by still waters when we need to rest, he leads us away from danger and keeps us in the right direction to reach our destination. ‘Follow Jesus’ we call to each other. Without him, we wouldn’t get anywhere. Except, as I discovered when trying to make bicycle rides just myself and the children, it is really really hard to take kids on a bike ride when you are in front and there is no one at the back with them. It works when we are all together because I naturally go at the back. I bring up the rear, you could say! I make sure that everyone is doing ok, I am on hand with water bottles for the weary, and answers to the questions about how much further. If one gets stranded in a huge puddle, Gregg might have no idea at the front, but I do. I am on hand the help them out. I put chains back on bikes, adjust those helmets, pick flies out of little eyes, I carry the plasters, I notice tired little legs and encourage rest breaks at the traffic lights, I carry the hoodies when they get too hot, and my personal favourite, I am a motivational speaker when we are going up hill. I have been known on occasion to get off my bike and give a great big push (we call it a boost). I am the strengthener, the encourager, the comforter, the explainer, the carrier of all things we need.
This to me, is like the Holy Spirit. It’s not that Jesus is so far in front he has no idea what is going on, but he knew he was going to the Father and so he sent the Holy Spirit to be with us now, doing all these things to help us on the way. This is why it is to our advantage – not because life without Jesus is better, but because without Jesus going to the Father, and the Holy Spirit coming to be with us, we would never get anywhere. THIS, this is how we get to our destination.
But what does this mean for our church today and what about these weird flames on people’s
heads? Well the flames are symbolic throughout Scripture as a place where God meets his people. A place where God’s presence dwells. We’ve seen this before in the burning bush, the temple and the tabernacle. These flames are not just a gimmick, they indicate God’s presence. And in the case of Pentecost, for the first time there are flames resting on individual people. This means that God’s presence now dwells within the people. ‘Resting among them’.
At that moment – God just got a whole lot closer to humanity. Initially God dwelt in the tabernacle, then through Jesus, God dwelt among us, but now, from that moment at Pentecost, God’s presence dwells within us – as individuals and in the collective as the church.
This is pretty significant when we think about what it means to be church. Especially when we
have had so much time away from the physical building. The reason we gather in church is not because this is where God is. There are good reasons why we gather when we can, but rest assured, if we can’t get here, it does not stop us from being in God’s presence. We are the new temple: the place where God dwells.
This means that church is the place where God dwells. And we know that that place is us. So we can still be church if we are not in the building. It also means that we are not automatically the church because we are in the building. It is the Holy Spirit acting through us that makes us the church, not our location, or name on an electoral roll. And when God so clearly and visibly rested upon those first disciples – what did he do? What did the power of the Holy Spirit stir up? Through such beautiful means the HS draws many of the different groups of Jews from every corner of the world as Luke lists, and they become believers. So prophecy begins to be fulfilled and the gospel spreads very quickly. The reason I say the means are beautiful is because the power the HS first gives is communication that leads to connection. And in an unashamed way that people question if the disciples are drunk. I like to imagine they were so animated and charismatic, exercising their sudden gifts of speaking in other languages, and suddenly able to share the good news to other people, that they were wildly gesturing and laughing with joy, that that is why they appeared drunk!
I think we can learn lot from how the HS drew them together – enabling that connection with each other. For the sake of the gospel. The basis for all mission, evangelism and discipleship is real connection with each other. But how often are we speaking other languages and not understanding each other. Speaking at cross purposes. How often in the church are we seeming to be working for different agendas. One wants this, the other wants this, but both passionately. The people, three thousand odd, who were added to the believers number that day, were all visitors to the city (for Pentecost) this means they then travelled back home with the HS and the gospel. They were instantly sent out.
What would it look like if we prayed for the HS afresh today, to rest upon us, what could happen? I wonder who we might be able to communicate with, who would we reach that we couldn’t before. What barriers might be broken? Where might God want to send us, as we go out from this place? I would suggest that the Holy Spirit is doing so much more than we imagine, already in our lives. Without the Holy Spirit, there would be no discipleship, no understanding of Jesus, or Scripture, no fruits of the Spirit, no life within the church – no church at all. And I would also suggest that we are only just scratching the surface of the power of the Holy Spirit at work within our lives. If we weren’t restricted by COVID, there is a chance today that we might have sung ‘Holy Spirit you are welcome here, come flood this place and fill the atmosphere.’ My favourite line is this:
‘I’ve tasted and seen, of the sweetest of loves,
where my heart becomes free, and my shame is undone.’
On my heart this morning for the church is this: the Holy Spirit can undo our shame. I sing and
believe that line with conviction because it has happened in my own life. Shame is a lie, spoken in our minds and through the world, that we are bad. Shame says that you did a bad thing so you are bad. Shame says you aren’t enough. Shame stops you from getting close to people. Shame disqualifies you, shrinks you back and denies your talents. Shame tells you God doesn’t want to know you. All of that is a lie. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, and whispers over you, again and again until you listen and believe, that you are good, you are not the mistakes you have made. You are enough. You will be accepted by other people, you called, chosen, wanted, loved, by God the almighty. The advantage Jesus spoke of, is about more than just getting us to our destination. God is now closer than ever to humanity. Resting on us. God wants to be that close to us. We don’t need to be afraid about where we should go, or what we should do. Because this is God’s mission. When he sends us somewhere, he doesn’t send us alone. We are not like little children on a rocky path with a broken bike, no map and no clue. We are children who will be carefully taught, and when we are ready, sent out, but never alone, always with super parents close by, directing our paths.
Holy parenting, for God’s holy children.
May I encourage you to listen to the Spirit of truth today, and secure your safety helmet, for the most wonderful adventure of your life.