Easter 5: Called to be an Abider

Easter 5: Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. If we want to stay close to God, to know and hear his voice we need to learn to be a Church that abides.

HVG Zoom 9:30
2/5/21
Easter 5

Acts 8:26-40
John 15:1-8

No photo description available.
Olive branches in St Remy, Provence

As we have mentioned, the Church is still in the Easter season between the Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost. The readings of these weeks tell the story of the early church and what the disciples were getting up to.

Last week in Acts, Peter was speaking to the elite of Jerusalem about the Good News of Jesus and this week Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch. The Gospel readings spotlight some of Jesus’ teaching. Sue M’s brilliant sermon last week talked of Jesus the Good Shepherd, she left us with the challenge to spend time listening for his voice. This week, Jesus invites us to abide with him as branches on his vine.

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch begins with an angel of the Lord visiting Philip. The angel tells him to ‘get up and go toward the south’. And he does. No argument, no excuses, Philip’s first response is not No! He simply goes. Most other people who encounter angels usually respond with surprise and shock, think of Mary, Joseph and Elizabeth. Philip doesn’t seem to register any fear or shock, he got up and went. The next thing that Philip does is hugely courageous. Again, he is told what to do and he does it. This time by the Spirit: ‘go over to the chariot and join it.’ Philip approaches the eunuch and asks if he understands what he is reading?

Whoa! Imagine for a moment the next time you are on a bus or plane or next to someone who is reading a Bible. Would you interrupt them and ask, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Would you do it?! This is courageous living! We have talked recently at some of the PCC’s and the Rural Review meetings about wanting more people to come to church; particularly young families with children. This is great and I am praying for that! We, and by this I mean you, us, need to be able to explain what faith is about. Not religion, not the churchy stuff, rather the Good News of Jesus as Philip did with the eunuch.

Philip in this account appears to be fearless. Why? I think he knew and recognised the voice of the one calling him. The angel and the Spirit both spoke to Philip and he acted in obedience. Like the sheep with their Shepherd, he recognised the voice.

Philip was right in the middle of the new church which was growing rapidly, more people were being added every day, there were prayer meetings and meals together. Lots of activity and in the midst of that, Philip recognised the voice of the one who was calling him. He had no reason to fear. Because he knew the voice, Philip was then obedient to what he was being called to do. So he approached the eunuch which led to an invitation to sit with him and proclaimed the Good News about Jesus. Then Philip baptized him – right then and there on the side of the road.

What good news for the eunuch. We don’t know his name – but he is a foreigner in Jerusalem. He would have looked and spoke differently. As he was a eunuch he could never be fully accepted by the Jews despite being wealthy and of high social status in his own country. It is good news for other people when we overcome our fears and share the good news of Jesus by our example and by our words.

How can we find the courage to recognize, face and overcome fear? By getting to know the one who calls us. Spending time in his company.

John calls this abiding. Abide is a funny word. It is not normal in most people’s everyday language. It feels somehow outdated as we live in a world that does not allow for much to be static; change happens quickly and we seem to be waiting for the next ‘new thing.’ There is a quality to abiding that speaks of commitment and endurance. To abide is much more personal than just hanging about or waiting.

In these early verses of John 15 Jesus speaks of the vine and the branches; He is the vine and we are the branches. The great desire of Jesus and of God the Father is that we remain together. There is also a warning about being apart from the vine; we can do nothing, we will not bear fruit and ultimately we will wither. The branches that do not produce fruit will be removed. I am sure we have all had times and seasons in our lives when we have been far from God and know what it is to wither.

‘Abide in me and as I abide in you’ says Jesus. Ben Quash, an Anglican priest and Professor of Christianity & the Arts writes, ‘the challenge of the finding the right ways to be an abider in such a world is huge. It’s the challenge of finding the source from which all life flows, the springs of our own being, the grain with which we are meant to live, and which it damages us to go against. It means being part of communities for whom ‘abiding’ is a watchword – above all, for Christians, the Church.’

We can see from this that Christian abiding is not keeping things are they have always been, nor it is about gritting our teeth and staying the course. Abiding is dynamic, it has a sense of full and personal commitment. As Christians we are to be part of churches who abide. That is what Jesus does for us when we let him abide. Can we do the same by abiding in Him?

The beautiful hymn ‘Abide with Me’ provides an excellent discourse on what it is to abide. The writer of that hymn, Henry Francis Lyte, died of tuberculosis 3 weeks after its completion. ‘Abide with Me’ was apparently played on the deck of the Titanic as it sank and it has been played in Remembrance Services across the UK and the world today. At the opening ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics, singer Emeli Sande performed ‘Abide with Me’ to a universal audience and introduced this fine hymn to a new generation – but even in that there was a haunting sadness and beauty to it.

It is a call to the ‘help of the helpless, thou who changest not’ abide with me. It also speaks to the time when heaven’s morning breaks and earth’s vain shadows flee.’ Better times are coming, stay close! Jesus abides in his Father’s love and we are to abide in Jesus’ love. We are called to be a part of this relationship. Abiding gives us a deeper experience of God’s love. As we experience that deep and full love, we should be able to love those around us deeper and better. People are always God’s priority. He first loved us and created us to be in relationship with him and each other.

As this Easter season continues to unfold around us, we have been given the opportunity to study the early church and how they became a contemplative, compassionate and courageous church. They did this day by day, one person at a time – always listening for the voice of God to guide and direct them, so they could be courageous and obedient in the spreading of the Good News. May we be courageous, obedient and so full of love for others that we can do the same.

Pentecost: The Uncomfortable Feast

Of all the Christian High Days, Pentecost has been the one that sits the least comfortably with me. Even now as one who has a solid understanding of the Holy Spirit as well as deep experience with and of it. I want others to understand the significance of Pentecost beyond the chaos that it often is presented as.

St Mary’s Langley Joint Pentecost Service

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

Well, it’s 11-ish in the morning, and we’re all gathered together in one place. Perhaps we should watch out for tongues of fire and listen for the sudden rush of a violent wind from heaven.

But I think we should pray first…Creator God, as your spirit moved over the face of the waters bringing light and life to your creation, pour out your Spirit on us today that we may walk as children of light and by your grace reveal your presence. Amen.

It doesn’t matter how many times I read Acts 2, it always sounds crazy, chaotic and it makes me somewhat uncomfortable. I am sure a few people here this morning who would love a little fire and wind to liven things up! I am equally sure that there are others who would prefer things a little more ordered.

I don’t think that being made to feel uncomfortable about this passage, or any other, is necessarily a bad thing. I don’t intend to leave you comfortable today either. Sometimes a sense of discomfort is needed to remind us of the areas in our faith that we may be ignoring or falling short in.

The Holy Spirit was sent to change people, including us; to send us away differently, refined, plucked or pruned. The process of change can be uncomfortable to downright miserable while in it. Unfortunately being a Christian was never meant to be convenient or wholly comfortable.

Philip, in the opening verses of the John reading wants a short-cut, easy way, the lazy way. ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Philip has missed the point; it is not just about being shown the Father. This is not possible in the way that Philip wants to be shown. Jesus says, ‘whoever has seen me has seen the Father’.

Jesus then points to the Holy Spirit to teach and remind the disciples everything that he (Jesus) had said to them. This is not a one-off, show me, show us event. The work, the presence of the Holy Spirit is an on-going, lifelong affair.

Now I can’t say that I truly fault Philip for his ask. Who doesn’t want it a bit easier? I think there are lots of Christians, here and everywhere who are looking for an easy satisfaction, an easy faith. Turn up on Sunday, bit of money in the plate (enough to be satisfied), a short chat with a few people if one stays around and home in time for lunch. Church attendance equals faith.

It doesn’t.

There is a disconnect here. It is only the Holy Spirit that can make the connection between God the Father, Jesus the Son and us.

In John 14, Jesus explains that that the Advocate, the Counsellor or the Holy Spirit will teach us everything and remind us of all that Jesus has said. The first thing we are taught about Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit is inextricably linked to the life of Jesus and his teaching. It is not some woo-woo spirit floating about like changing clouds.

‘IF you love me’ says Jesus, ‘I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate.’

IF implies a choice!

The love of the disciples for Jesus leads to Acts 2.

We do know that something astonishing is happening in Acts 2, barriers of culture and language are being broken down as the Spirit falls on those gathered that day. Luke in his writing is struggling to find the language to describe what is going on; things ‘seem like’ and ‘sound like’ which indicates he has never seen anything like what he is seeing before.

God is drawing a new people from every nation at the time towards him. The people, mostly Jews, are encountering the Holy Spirit and being changed. Jesus changes people. We are seeing an in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. We need to keep in mind that the Holy Spirit has been around from Genesis, it is not a new thing but this the most powerful outpouring that had been experienced.

The other thing to keep in mind was the timing of this event. God was using a long-standing appointment on the kingdom calendar of the Jewish people. The Feast of Pentecost was meant to pour out the ‘old’ spirit in a ‘new and powerful way’.

To be clear, Pentecost was called Pentecost before Acts 2. The term Pentecost comes from the Greek and means fiftieth. The number 50 points to fullness, ripeness, to a time that is ready for something to happen. The Feast of Pentecost later became one of the 3 great Pilgrimage Feasts of Judaism. Three times a year the Jews were, by law, required to travel to Jerusalem to worship. Pentecost is the second of the three and happened in early summer. For centuries 50 days after the Passover, the Jews have celebrated with a feast, traditionally called ‘The Feast of Weeks.

In the Feast of Weeks, God was creating for himself a new people. Similarly, after Jesus went up to heaven, the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost. When the disciples received the Spirit, they became witnesses for Christ. This event happened 50 days after the death of Jesus. Here to Jesus is forming a people for himself; His church and we are that church. Pentecost is not a random event! The feast was on the calendar and we see God take something old and familiar to the Jews to produce something new and fresh.

I now want to look at the 3 purposes of the Feast of Pentecost and how the Holy Spirit works and moves in the church today.

Firstly, the Feast of Pentecost is a time to remember and give thanks for what has been done for us. The Jewish people were to remember and celebrate their release from slavery by being generous to each other, feeding the widows, the orphans, the poor and other unfortunates.

Looking back to the past to help explain a current situation is a very common Jewish method of interpretation or way of coming to a new understanding called ‘midrash’.

Peter is doing exactly that in Acts 2 when he refers to the prophesy of Joel to explain to the mostly Jewish crowd what is happening beyond ‘we are not drunk at 9 am’!! Joel announced that God was going to do something very special on Mount Zion which is in Jerusalem and Peter is confirming that.

I think that it is important to remember where we have come from. But there is a caution when looking to the past; I am not suggesting we constantly rehash the past or not move on from it. Nor am I suggesting a rewriting or romanticising of the past either. We can remember again where we have come from, but we don’t live in that past anymore.

Secondly, the Feast of Pentecost was a time for great generosity; it was about generous grace and generous giving.

The Jews of the day had a slightly different take on it. For the Feast, the Jews were not allowed to come to the Lord empty-handed. Deuteronomy 16:17 – ‘each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the Lord your God has blessed you.’ (Read twice).

This actually makes me more uncomfortable than the wind and fire. I am not suggesting that we can out-give God, but we are to give him thanks and offer ourselves to Him and his service. We are called to be generous with our time, talents and possessions to meet the needs of others and the church.

Imagine for a second if this church and we as people gave to God in proportion to the way He has blessed us?

We would live and love in a completely different world and probably wouldn’t have a budget shortfall.

Rev Bill Albinger was an Episcopal priest in Hawaii whose small parish has a generous heart for the local people who face many social problems. I had a look at what Rev Bill had to say about Pentecost and giving. This is what he writes:

‘This is where the power of the church is – the Spirit is not a power to boost us up and make us feel good, but it is power and presence of God to bring a wholly new perspective in the way we live and love. It doesn’t matter so much if we are ‘slain in the spirit’ and knocked to the ground – what matters is the kind of changed person you are when you are on your feet. What matters are the gifts you bring to the building up of community and the gifts you bring to the healing and repair of the world. This is where the power of the church is.’

At Pentecost we need to remember where we have come from and give thanks. By way of thanks we are to be generous with our time, talents and possessions for the benefit of the church and others.

Thirdly, The Feast of Pentecost is a corporate harvest, the first fruits of church. The specific time of this event on Pentecost offers little doubt that God intended a highly significant feast of harvest.

The harvest of people in the streets of Jerusalem who met Jesus and went away changed. They went back to their towns and villages and they began to sow what they had learned and seen in Jerusalem, a call to a life in Jesus. We know they did as the church still exists today.

If the Jews are simply said, ‘well that was interesting, Peter spoke well, etc…’ and went on their way without being changed, who knows what would have happened. But they went and sowed.

But sometimes we don’t sow and therefore don’t see a harvest. Instead we tend to eat the seed. The American writer and bible teacher Beth Moore explained the principle of eating the seed after visiting villages in Kenya. Beth writes:

’One of the most frustrating things is that in the villages where they receive seed, they often eat the seed rather than planting and bringing forth the harvest. I couldn’t get that statement out of my mind and suddenly had an answer to the questions I most often ask God: Why do some people see the results of the Word and others don’t? Why do some study the Word of God yet remain in captivity?

Some just eat the seed and never sow it for a harvest. You want examples? Why have many of us read books on forgiving people, known the teachings were true and right, cried over them, marked them up with our highlighters, yet remain in our bitterness? Because we ate the seed instead of sowing it.

Why have we repeatedly heard how Christ has forgiven our sinful past and sobbed with gratitude over the grace of it, yet we remain in bondage to condemnation? Because we ate the seed instead of sowing it. Sometimes we don’t even realise the difference. We think we accepted the teachings because we were so moved by it. But you see, the seed of God’s Word can fill our stomachs and give us immediate satisfaction and still not produce a harvest – that is when we eat it but don’t sow it. Many times we apply biblical truth to our theologies without applying it to the actual practicalities of life.’

God repeatedly says that a harvest is to be sown and not eaten as seed. We were meant to eat from the sheaves and not the seeds. God wants to sow into our lives so we can sow into the lives of others.

On this Feast of Pentecost as we pray come Holy Spirit, let us remember what God has already done for us, show our thanks for what He has done by being generous to others and to the church. Let’s also think about what it is to harvest. If we can’t seem to find anything to harvest, have we sown anything, or have we eaten the seed ourselves?

To ask for the Holy Spirit is a choice as is to do any of the above. If we want to sow into the lives of others, we are using the Talking Jesus course as a means of helping us get better at that. It starts this week and the groups are open. If you want to.

If this isn’t your cup of tea then please consider what else you might do to share your faith with other people. ‘If you love me,’ says Jesus, ‘you will keep my commandments.’ If we love other people, then surely we must love then enough to tell them the Good News?

Pentecost was a very public event and meant to be shared. Live beyond your convenience and comfort! The Holy Spirit came to change us, the church and the world – unapologetically, wholly and completely. And uncomfortably when necessary. We are part of a greater story that involves the past, the present and the future; giving and receiving; sowing and harvesting.

All a bit chaotic.

All true to the life and ministry of Jesus.

All true to the life and faith of Christians.

Few short minutes of asking ‘Come Holy Spirit’