The Breath of Life: Acts 2

1. The Invisible
This post is dedicated to George Floyd who had the breath of life taken from him in horrific circumstances on 25th May 2020.

I am something of a fan of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. For me, his book the Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece. One of the reasons for this judgement is that, like the Bible, it has a richness and depth. There is a sense that behind it lies something remarkable and mysterious. Of course, with the Lord of the Rings this is the life-long musings and imagination of its author. With the Bible it is the inspiration and providential hand of an author of a very different type—the Holy Spirit.

One of Tolkien’s most remarkable creations is the creature Gollum. He is known to many of us more recently as acted and voiced by Andy Serkis in Peter Jackson’s films. Gollum appears briefly in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. For most of his appearance he plays a game of riddles with the Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. This is a game with serious consequences. If Bilbo wins, Gollum will lead him to safely out of the maze of dark dank tunnels beneath the Misty Mountains. If Gollum wins? Let us put it this way he won’t go hungry for quite some time.

One of the riddles from this serious game reads:

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.

Like all riddles when we have the answer it is obvious. The answer for this riddle is time.

A number of the riddles in The Hobbit concern things that are invisible. Reminding us that just because something is not visible it does not mean it is not real. A virus can only be seen with an electron microscope, but we knew they were real before the microscope was invented because of their effect. Some things are invisible not because of their small size but because of their very nature. Time is of course like that. We are literally in it and cannot perceive it directly although we can measure it physically with great precision, for example with the National Physical Laboratory’s atomic clock. Or we can measure it spiritually and emotionally as we number our days on this earth.

Another riddle from the Hobbit is much closer to the Pentecost story.

Voiceless it cries,
Wingless flutters,
Toothless bites,
Mouthless mutters.

The answer this time is wind. Seen not by its nature but by its effect. The half-mast flag waving in the breeze marking the tragic death of George Floyd, the scene of devastation after a tornado, or more pleasantly the slowly drifting smoke rising above the first post-lockdown family barbecue.

This is how it is with the Spirit of God. We perceive his work by consequences not because we can perceive him directly. In Acts 2 we can see the Spirit indirectly as language is employed at near breaking point. There is a wind—’a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house’. There are flames—’They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them’. We are left puzzling over how literally we understand these metaphors, which are an attempt to describe the indescribable. There are languages too as the disciples speak other tongues—another sign of the invisible Spirit.

2. A New Beginning
In reading this passage we already know it marks a new beginning for God’s people. It is the birth of the Church, although at the time it might well have felt like a renewal of Judaism.

As the birth of the Church, or the rebirth of God’s people, it echoes the birth of the biblical Israel. Their leader Moses experienced wind and fire on Mont Sinai. The whole nation saw a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day which they followed.

It is not just the wind and flames that show this to be a new beginning—the birth of something wonderful. It is what has just happened over the previous 50 days, or so, and what happens next. The cross, the resurrection, and the ascension of Jesus have redefined the hope for a messiah. Jesus is the messiah. He fulfils the promise but redefines it too. This Jesus Christ is now seated at the right hand of God.

And what he said just before his ascension, unfolds on the Day of Pentecost:

He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
Acts 1:7–9, NIVUK

The sermon that follows the wind and flames fulfils Jesus’ words of ten days earlier. It fulfils promises from the Book of Joel, just as Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfils the Psalms. This is all explained in Peter, the Fisher of Men’s first sermon.

So, what is this power imparted by the Holy Spirit? The word ‘power’ in our English translation is dunamis which gave its meaning to dynamite—this is serious power. What dynamite have we the Church been given as Christ pours out his Spirit?

This is a controversial topic because so often the Church has sought power of an all too earthly a nature. The first point we should note is that this power is sent by the one whose best expression of the grace we need, was surrender to death on a cross. We would do well to remember this and to be cautious that this power is not to be equated with military might. It is not coercive in any sense. It was after all, for freedom that Christ has set us free. We are no longer to be slaves to a yoke of slavery.

3. To the Ends of the Earth
The subject of the Holy Spirit is a divisive one, which for me is the saddest and most horribly ironic aspects of the worldwide church. Where Jesus’ Spirit is really at work, we would expect walls to come down. That is of course exactly what happened on that first Pentecost. Jews—the people of Israel—had been scattered across the whole of the Roman Empire because of their persecution at the hands of first the Greek Empire and then the Roman occupiers of their nation. The list in Acts 2 is comprehensive. It is as if God’s people have all been re-gathered in Jerusalem to be made one people again. The festival of Pentecost was a time when many scattered Jews made a pilgrimage to the City of Peace Jerusalem. It is God’s timing that people are in Jerusalem from the ends of the earth.

What they witness and take part in is a reconstitution of the scattered people of God. But now the rules have changed, in the freedom of Christ and the freedom of the Spirit. Now Gentiles get admitted to the people of God. This is after all the mission that Jesus gave to his disciples before he ascended:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
Acts 1:8, NIVUK

Here in Acts 2 we are in Jerusalem with representatives of the nations, and by the end of the Book of Acts the gospel is set firmly on its way to the ends of the earth.

Church History reveals the most remarkable divergence in how this work unfolds. And on occasions Church History reveals events in which we struggle to see God’s work being done. At one extreme there can be the deadness of dry empty institutional religion. At the other can be the theatre of the televangelist or fundamentalist personality cult. Both belittle the true power and the real life to be found in God’s word through God’s Spirit.

Closer to home it is all too easy for us to mistake our words for God’s and our desires for the prompting of God’s Spirit. May we never be a church in which anyone claims to have heard the Spirit’s voice as a trump card to stifle other voices.

4. We Are All in This Together
One thing we can note from that first Christian Pentecost is that the disciples were all in it together. The eleven of them together have had the same message from Jesus and the same Spirit poured out upon them. But they like us are still distinct individual people. Only one of their number had to preach on that day. Doubtless as they set about dealing with the three thousand new converts that day, they each used their different abilities. We can but use our imagination, think of all the conversations and practical matters that are needed to cope with 3,000 new disciples.

As Christ’s Body we are all in God’s mission together but we each have different tasks. We can depend on each other. We know that no one person exudes spirit-inspired hospitality, bakes superb cakes, has evangelistic talents for reaching 2 year-olds and the over eighties, leadership wisdom, the gift of healing, administrative excellence, talent with the flute, speaks in tongues, can calculate doses of radiation to heal people, performs worshipful dance, builds PA systems, calculates budgets, makes great coffee, casts out demons, and leads prize-worthy contemplative prayer.

We are not called to be Jesus as individuals! We are the body of Christ together. We nurture our own gifts and look to encouraging others with theirs.

5. Good News
The Gospel is a message of good news. It was Isaiah who coined the term ‘good news’ or evangelion from which we get the terms evangelism and evangelical. Isaiah’s’ words—from what some call the fifth gospel—has enormous resonance with the Pentecost story:

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
‘Your God reigns!’
Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices;
together they shout for joy.
When the Lord returns to Zion,
they will see it with their own eyes.
Burst into songs of joy together,
you ruins of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord will lay bare his holy arm
in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see
the salvation of our God.
Isaiah 52:7–10, NIVUK

Peter of course tells the Good News in his Pentecost sermon.

Preaching the gospel rarely looks like this for us of course. One of the biggest challenges of the modern Western church is how to preach the good news. The days of mission tents are long gone, here in the UK. As humans we want things to be simple but reaching people today with the good news is not simple. Not simple, if by simple we mean a big organised event with immediate fruit. And yet on the other hand it can be simple. We are all free in the Spirit to dream dreams. This is the promise of the Prophet Joel, the promise of Pentecost, the good news enabled by the Spirit.

Each of us needs to understand our gifts and our priorities before God. If we honour God with our Spirit-inspired gifts and give him back some of our time we will find ways to show the gospel and to speak it. It might not look tidy and neat. And it is of course only when we work together that the good news can be heard in all its richness.

The biggest challenge for Church Leaders is to enable us to nurture the loving organic relationships which is where so often the Spirit blows and fires up hearts.

How can we achieve together appropriate space and time in which the gospel can be heard and responded too?

Pray for your friends and the Spirit’s leading. Pray for your church leaders and the Spirit’s leading.

I will finish by praying Psalm 126 (The Message version) which has long been my prayer for our church. Maybe it could be a prayer for yours too?

It seemed like a dream, too good to be true,
when God returned Zion’s exiles.
We laughed, we sang,
we couldn’t believe our good fortune.
We were the talk of the nations—
“God was wonderful to them!”
God was wonderful to us;
we are one happy people.

And now, God, do it again—
bring rains to our drought-stricken lives
So those who planted their crops in despair
will shout hurrahs at the harvest,
So those who went off with heavy hearts
will come home laughing, with armloads of blessing.

Matthew 28:16–20: We Have One Job . . .

1. Making Disciples—Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations . . .

“You had one job”, has become a popular Internet meme over the last couple of years. It is a way of celebrating those tasks that seem like they should be simple, but an individual has managed to get them disastrously wrong. To this end, the Internet is awash with examples of benches facing walls, tee-shirts with upside down logos and ineffectual security barriers. The one job that the Church has differs in just about every way to this meme. The one job of the Church is stated in the famous Great Commission:

Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations . . .

A job, or task, it might be. But let’s be honest this is not an easy one. It is rather more challenging than getting benches the right way around and logos up the right way. And a lot trickier than building a barrier. We can all remember times when this one job might have looked rather less than straightforward. There are times when being a disciple feels embarrassing. There are times when it brings fear. Perhaps the fear of losing our job or of discrimination. For some it might bring the fear of violence. Even when we overcome fear and embarrassment the right words seem difficult to find in the heat of the moment. On some occasions the right words do come but the person we share with, smiles happily that our faith is good for us, but they have their own alternative. Sometimes our efforts elicit hostility; when we listen in turn we find out about someone’s pain from how a Christian ill-treated them. There are also times when we encounter someone who cannot entertain the idea that God is a God of love due to some personal tragic experience.

All of these obstacles, and more, can be roadblocks where our effort at discipling grinds to a halt. Sometimes these obstacles are merely hard ground which we can overcome. But let’s be clear it’s a difficult job. There are two things that help with this job. The first is to remember that the calling is a corporate one. The second is to remember the remarkable resources that God give his people to carry out this commission or mandate or job. I’ll look at three such resources each of which reminds us that we are called as churches, in fact the Church, to this task.

2. Resource 1: The Authority of Jesus—All authority in heaven and on earth . . .

The task of making disciples is not a hobby or a marketing exercise. It is not something based on the authority of politicians, business people, economists, experts or any frail human. This is something that is God’s plan for creation. He doesn’t just permit it, it’s the actual point of the Church. William Temple, a Twentieth-century Archbishop of Canterbury, put it this way:

“The Church is the only organisation
that does not exist for itself,
but for those who live outside of it.”

It is important to note that the world is also ready for this role of the Church. This is all part of God’s post-Eden plan. The way back to God is the one-by-one discipling of those who hear the gospel. We can do much to serve people outside of the Church, and so we should, but our greatest hope is for them to become disciples of Jesus and to join God’s plan.

Sometimes we worry about such single-minded mission. What about the Church? By which we mean us—what about all our issues, concerns and needs? There is no tension if we understand mission and discipleship correctly.

God’s mission—being made a disciple—is not a one-time event. It is a lifetime pilgrimage. It is a lifestyle. Mission and discipling are on-going way of being and doing. As Church we are an organic living body—the body of Christ. As an organic entity we grow, firstly, by each of us becoming healthier, holier, more virtuous, more like Jesus (or whatever term we prefer), second, as new disciples join us. Paul famously said, that the gospel was “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16). This might not only reflect the obvious racial and religious distinctions at the origin of the Church. Perhaps today he would say: “the gospel is first for The Church and then for the Nations”. Perhaps. In any case, the gospel of Jesus Christ is an organic reality—if the gospel is not alive and well in our lives and collective life—if we are not growing as disciples—we cannot disciple.

All authority has been given to Jesus and he freely delegates it to us—that is we his body. Like most biblical images its more than a picture, it’s an expression of an incredible reality. The plan was, and is, audacious. The Three-in-One-God sent the Son to become the man Jesus. Then Jesus who was both God and man made for himself a group of disciples. These disciples are no less than a revived Israel. This is the significance of the twelve – although at the Great Commission there are only eleven of course. The final stage is that Jesus delegates authority and empowers his disciples by the Spirit.

God’s authority had already been given to God’s people, of course. They were to reach and teach the nations—the ups and downs of that commission is the narrative core to the First Testament. Sadly, the story of Jonah sums up the overall impact made by the people of God. Jonah famously didn’t want to go and disciple the nations but went in another direction.

At the Great Commission the disciples were still reeling from recent events. They were still eleven not twelve. They had seen Jesus die the death of an insurrectionist. They had seen him resurrected. Some still doubted. They were, like us frail. The Great Commission started, and continues, from such a point of frailty. That is the right place to start because we have resources from God himself. For a plan such as this has the authority of God. An authority worked out in death and resurrection. An authority given first to Jesus and then to us. Surely such a mandate must stir our hearts to overcome fear? Doesn’t such authority put embarrassment in perspective? Surely such an important call must impact our life choices?

In this Great Commission we are the first to know the freedom we have in Christ. The gospel reveals God as a God of freedom. The gospel reveals that we are free in Christ. If we know what it means to live in such freedom we can’t help but contribute to the core work of the Church—in being free we become active for God.

3. Resource 2: The Baptism of Jesus—Baptising them in . . .

Have you ever thought about baptism as a resource? It is, but like all expressions of the gospel in our Information Age we can lose confidence in it. Despite first appearances, baptism is a powerful act—but it is not just something we do. It is not an arbitrary rite of passage. It is not a test, although maybe we experienced one afterword like Jesus did. It is nothing less than being incorporated into the body of Jesus. For as we go down into the water we die with Christ. As we rise from the water we are resurrected with Christ. It is the visible start of the life in the body, the Church. This is something to be remembered. It is something to call to mind as we continue the long walk as followers of Jesus.

But baptism is not about an individual. This sounds especially odd to those of us who see so-called believers’ baptism as the right approach (as do I). But it is only in our ridiculously individualistic modern world we could see it as an individual affair. It is about joining a body of people. Sometimes the individual guilt and feeling of failure we have around speaking the gospel is because we see it as an individualistic enterprise. It is not. We all have parts to play to be sure—but as corny as it sounds we are a team. But the Jesus team takes teamwork to a whole new level—we are one body. We need to know our part in the bigger work of the Church. Because together we have been baptised into one body. None less than the body of Jesus Christ.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins captures this idea in his short but remarkably rich poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, where he says:

. . . — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Christ plays in the churches, as we gather in worship and fellowship. What a beautiful truth.

Many religions have acts of cleansing with water. But no other has an act of union with the living God. As we carry out Jesus’ task, we baptise in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Baptism is a great encouragement—when we see others baptised we are reminded of our baptism. This rather odd act is a life-giving one. It is an organic act. We visibly see the Church grow, one disciple at a time. As we see others baptised we see the gospel at work in the present and remember it at work in our past.

4. Resource 3: The Presence of Jesus—I am with you . . .

What a remarkable promise. What an encouragement. But what does it mean? Firstly, we can note that God has always been with his people. As Israel set out to inherit the Promised Land, we hear, God speak to Joshua:

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

Joshua 1:9

On the return from exile and during the building of the Second Temple we read:

Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, gave this message of the Lord to the people: ‘I am with you,’ declares the Lord.

Haggai 1:13

How do we experience the presence of Jesus? Let’s be real and let’s be honest—it does not always feel like Jesus is right here in our midst. But our feelings are no measure of spiritual reality. There’s also some serious theology behind the promise of Jesus being with us. Because God as holy creator is distant, or transcendent. Yet in His grace He is close, or immanent. It has always been so. The first two chapters of the Bible show God as transcendent in the first creation account (Genesis 1:1–2:3) and God as immanent in the second creation account (Genesis 2:4–25). After the events of Genesis Chapter 3 it is in Jesus Christ that God’s resolution of the problem of our frailty and his holiness is made. God the Father is wholly other—neither our flesh, nor spirit, can survive his presence. But in Jesus, the God-Man, we have God with us, by the Spirit. This is mystical and not magical. We can’t conjure Him, we can only seek to experience him because God has promised to be gracious to us. And Jesus has promised to be with us to the end of the age. He’s bridged the gulf between us and God. Unlike the human response to fixing a broken relationship, Jesus didn’t meet us halfway—he came the whole way. Jesus came the whole way to make us disciples. He came the whole way to make disciples of all nations.

Sometimes we joke that God must have a made a mistake in delegating the discipling of the nations to the Church. But this is no joke. We are not inadequate for the task, because despite our weakness we have been given resources from God:

  1. We have the authority of Jesus himself.
  2. We have the gospel on show here in our midst in numerous ways including baptism.
  3. More than these two, we have Jesus with us.

We have not been set-up to fail. We have been equipped by the living God so that together we can make disciples of all nations.

 

Book Review: The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails

Mark Roques, The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails: Creative Ways of Talking about Christian Faith, Leeds: Thinking Faith 2017.

ISBN 978-0-9957572-0-2, 182pp., £8.99

Many books are available on Christian apologetics but very few focus on communicating faith. Mark Roques recognises this and encourages us to try something that we might just be able to do. His project is no intellectual programme to out-think militant atheism nor is it an unrealistically intensive evangelistic programme—this is human-centred and culture-centred storytelling. It focuses on the act of storytelling that people do every day, the need for narrative that Jesus shows to be the way that human beings communicate. Few people will ever be persuaded to undergo the paradigm shift to Christian faith on the basis of intellectual apologetics. The drip feed of new ways to look at reality that comes from storytelling, on the other hand, has a hope of penetrating the wall that modern Westerners build around themselves.

Mark Roques Book

This book not only promotes a great way forward in how we can share our faith it does it in a highly engaging fashion. Despite being a short book it has a solid underpinning intellectual depth and rigour. This necessary background is however put over as engagingly as the stories Roques encourages us to share. The core call of this book is to see the culture we live in as a resource, a common language for us to use in creative dialogue with others. In this way James Bond can become an ally as we talk about our faith and show others they too have a faith, albeit in things other than Jesus. Roques knows that Bond won’t work for everyone and to this end the variety of ideas to inform our storytelling is remarkable. Who would have thought that Ivan the Terrible, Glenn Hoddle, Anna Nicole Smith and the Duke of Edinburgh would be such vital assets to our endeavours in personal evangelism?

The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails can be purchased here: http://thinkfaith.net/realitybites/spy-rat-nails