This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church over the Internet.
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I’m going to start off a little bit curveball because that’s Main Street. I miss Ricicles, that sweet, popped cereal which had so much sugar on it that you could rot your teeth as quick as anything. I think that Jamie Oliver’s healthy eating campaign put a stop to those Ricicles. Oh, Ricicles how I miss you. It took some while to come to terms with the fact that I would never enjoy a Ricicle ever again, but after some time and having made my peace with that, I became okay with the new Ricicleless world.
I look back with pleasure at those halcyon days. They’re the best days, aren’t they? Looking back through rose-tinted spectacles, how comforting. No mystique or fear, or perhaps the best days are yet to come. Even if they are and forever will be forever we’ll be Ricicleless. As we look back upon the backstory to the events of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came, we can trace the promise of Jesus that he would send his presence to be with his friends. I wonder what it was like for them in the waiting. They look back to those former times, those best times when Jesus was with them, teaching them, doing miracles, enjoying their company, looking back with a sense of gratitude, and yet with a sense of resignation that never again would things be the same. Would the good things ever roll again? What would the future be without Jesus?
Not like Ricicles at all really, more important than that. Together, it seems the disciples, the apostles, that list that Dick mentioned to us from Acts 1, they managed to get through not knowing what the future held without Jesus, they remained in the city just as he had told them. They’d done their best to obey Him while he was with them at times, so it made sense to obey Him now as He told them that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them. What would this be? What would this mean? How could they go on without Jesus?
Now here on the day of Pentecost, they would discover that it was a day that started the last days. This was a gigantic step towards the new creation, and the full Kingdom of God that Jesus kept on talking about, and they were a part of it. It was a hugely different time from anything they’d expected or experienced. Together, this community would have to step out in ways totally unknown and never walked before, totally unprecedented, utterly scary with no one to tell them that this was the way to go.
Not just them, what about us today? How is our community going to be part of it as we work our way forwards this Pentecost? First and foremost, we know the importance of a gathered community and the strength of being together, either by phone or by zoom and certainly in person gives us. It’s hard to be unified when we haven’t been in the physical presence of one another for so long. That somehow, unity and trusting Jesus is the key. Maybe this is something we can learn from the persecuted church across our world, knowing that others are praying for them. Maybe that gives them comfort and strength throughout their lonely spiritual journey.
Unity through prayer and worship in the face of uncertainty gives us spiritual sustenance. Unity is what the book of Acts tries to seek, even in the hard times. In our message last week, Peter, then Simon, became the first of Luke’s story accounts to become a follower of Jesus to catch people. Today, Peter is figuratively catching fire by the Spirit, clothed with power from On High. I guess he hasn’t really got a clue what’s happening until he’s inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus has promised power from On High and as the faithful followers wait in their upstairs room, we know they’re praying. They’ve chosen a new apostle to replace Judas who betrayed Jesus, thus becoming a full set of apostles in the line of the 12 tribes of Israel once again. This is togetherness and it becomes a regular feature of the early church as much as possible. As they pray, and they wait, they have no idea what Jesus was going to do, or what being clothed with power from On High would mean, quite scary, until the day of Pentecost, and the Holy Spirit came.
Then it all changed with a massive whoosh and tongues of fire, a supernatural experience to be sure, the speaking in different languages, and the new sense of being clothed with that power gave the gathered group the confidence to stand and to speak, not initially about Jesus, but about the last days. It meant a new way of thinking, a new way of being, a new arrangement because of the work of the Holy Spirit.
If you know much about the Gospels, you’ll know that Jesus and first-century folk would talk about the present age and the age to come. The present age was the day then, today, and the age to come would be when God’s kingdom would be in full swing. In between time, what Tom Wright calls the time between God’s kingdom being launched by Jesus and it being completed in Jesus’ return, we have the last days. These are found in the words of the prophet Joel. Keeping in step with first-century thinking, you might try to imagine poring over those Old Testament Scriptures, praying about what it might mean, assuming that it’s meant for some time in the way off future, only to be confronted with a surprising and scary fact that this prophecy is coming true in this moment, how do you get your head around that?
Outside the room with all Jesus’ followers is the city of Jerusalem, buzzing because of the Harvest Festival, where Jews from across the world are gathered. It’s Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks. The Shavuot, where faithful Jews gather to celebrate the first sheep being presented to God for thanksgiving, for all the specific crops about to be gathered in, but offering God the first fruits of this particular harvest. The harvest has become more than this as the faithful remember the time when the Israelites, the people of God from the Old Testament recall their arrival at Mount Sinai, the mountain of God, days after they’d escaped being slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years.
When Moses had gone up the mountain and come down with the 10 commandments, their new code for life. The law and the prophets were central to the Jewish faith, hence, Jerusalem, 50 days after the celebration of Passover, once again becomes full of the faithful wanting to celebrate God’s goodness in giving them the law and also good harvest crops. With Jesus’ closest followers, all of this is now overlaid with their experience of the ascension of Jesus, how he had gone up, and now, in this moment, coming down again with the dynamic energy of the Lord designed to be written on human hearts.
The ascending and descending links, the old testament to the new, the prophets with Jesus, and everything with what Peter is about to say, to the gathered masses, who all think he and the Jesus community are drunk at nine o’clock in the morning. Peter, full of the Holy Spirit, has no hesitation in standing in unity with the other 11 and proclaiming that the last days are beginning here and now with the coming of the Spirit.
This Holy Spirit is God’s guarantee that he is still here amongst the whole of his people, no longer only particular kings or prophets or individuals. With this change comes a ramping up of God’s doing stuff in partnership with all of his people. The beginning of the last days mark a start of something new which will result in the full new creation, which John talks about in Revelation, and before which Paul talks about the old creation groaning in anticipation.
The last days calls all of God’s people to arms, to act, to receive the Spirit of God just as Jesus blew on his disciples at the end of John’s Gospel. It’s his great commission to go and to speak to the world of Jesus’ rescuing work of salvation, grace, and forgiveness to turn and return to God. The last days that will usher in the new creation begins here and now in Jerusalem, with the Jesus community who everyone else thinks is drunk. What a way to start a new wave? This is God’s fresh way of doing stuff through his people, through the church. It’s going to be the way of things until the day of the Lord when Jesus returns to begin the age to come.
Pentecost is the perfect time for God to show his power amongst the faithful Jesus folk, as well as the faithful Jewish believers who are all gathered from the corners of the known world. Without the internet, God could communicate his words and powerful actions through 12 and through 120 people that will then be heard and taken back to the rest of the world, because of the 3000 that were added to their number that day.
Everyone who can has packed themselves into Jerusalem for the Pentecost Harvest Festival and they’re all excited. Imagine being surprised to hear over the kerfuffle of noise and excitement, the voice of an uneducated Galilean by the name of Peter as he stands and he proclaims what he interprets as the Prophet Joel’s words come true today, in their hearing, in their midst. He says that this can be true for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord, everyone. Everyone, this is something new, and something unexpected.
Peter is preaching about salvation, that is to say, not just about the historic rescue of the Jews from Egypt that they remember this day, but more importantly about Jesus, the rescuer who has come, who’s been killed by the Jews, who’s been miraculously resurrected by God, and who’s very breath now inhabits those who choose to follow him. These last days is where the church comes into its own. Now, the church, galvanized and invaded by the very presence of God Himself, are in those last days before the coming again of Jesus and the start of that new creation.
All of this beginning here and now with God’s own people. How weird and scary and encouraging and exciting and spiritually worrying is all of that? Peter cleverly connects this blessing on that day of Pentecost directly with the promise of Joel, that God would, in the last days, pour out His Spirit in a new way on all people. The work of that new creation is beginning here in this room where with Jesus’ closest friends and family, these folk who had actually spent time with Jesus, who had seen him die and be resurrected and ascended now, they were the first to be filled with the very spirit of Jesus, to tell others about him in a new way.
A starting point that culminates in the new creation spoken about with joyous language in Revelation 21 and 22. This relatively small group of people, now filled with the Holy Spirit, know and share God’s rescuing power. Today, this Pentecost 2021, after the year that we’ve had, there’s a sense of last days and a new creation about it as well, as we continue and consider what it means to be followers of Jesus where we are, what it might mean for us as church together as Main Street.
Fearful, though, it must have been for Peter and the others to have stood up and spoken about God’s new way of doing stuff. What might it mean for us as we emerge from the pandemic, has God got anything to say about how we move forward, about our natural worries and fears, as well as that tinge of excitement that comes with the possibility of a transition? I hope that my recent missives, those weekly newsletters I’ve written for those past 14 months or so have exposed us to the importance of Christian unity as well as hints of needing to pray about how God would have us move on with Him in these days.
In my preparations for this message, I came across some notes that I took from an online seminar I’d been to back in January, it was hosted by Share Jesus International on the theme, digital church. Maybe it was almost prophetic in the way that I found them when I wasn’t really looking, but I was already musing about what the future of church might involve. Those notes record the importance of creating community in a variety of different ways that are culturally relevant to the time and the place because it was a seminar on electronic or digital church, it talked about the importance of maximizing live-stream activities.
It challenged me to think about how it is that young people, particularly today, are so digitally engaged that it’s now a fabulous and God-given opportunity for the church to reinvent itself to being hybrid, something we’re trying out as we do some services from the church building and some from home. We’ve heard how in lockdown, people have searched for God. Many have found God online. It may never be that they darken the doors of a physical church building because, in many ways, that’s an old hat for a new generation.
How are we with new things that God is doing? It seems that he’s speeded up stuff because of lockdown, and the rise of technology and the internet. Mission online is the mission of God through online as well as through our life and work in the community. If so, what will that mean for us, as a church, our building, ourselves? The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote this in a recent article in Christianity magazine. He says technological developments that we expected within a decade happened in six months. These changes will be revolutionary for most of us, they’ll change the way that we live, work, and learn. With change comes tension between the old and the new and both are essential.
We need to draw on the old and respect our past but not get stuck in it. We need, he says, to look boldly and courageously to the world ahead. Peter and the 120 were on the cusp of being part of the Holy Spirit generation, something that had never happened ever before but which shaped the world and the church from that moment on. Imagine them feeling out of their depth and fearful and yet strangely warmed by the hope of something, someone, filling them with the confidence that this was the new way to walk in, embracing their past and acknowledging that Joel’s prophecy was being fulfilled in the now.
How excited they were to know that this was God’s breath in them, for them, and leading them. That this was the new way Jesus was with them, in them, and for them as they walked forwards into the unknown. We imagine Peter as he rises with the others with trepidation, as he opens his mouth to the traditional Jewish followers, and as he, filled with the Spirit, boldly proclaims a new interpretation of the prophet Joel, not knowing if he was right, but just knowing that God had given him the power to speak about God pouring out His Spirit on all people in those last days and that those last days were starting that very day.
This was the very start of something new and big and scary for the Jesus followers. Now for us, this Pentecost, this remembrance of the church’s birthday, it took a step of faith to build a place of worship 149 years ago. It took the faith and trust and the unity of many who are here today to move the building on rollers and to build a new worship area where it is in its place now. It was what was needed at the time. Yes, it was scary and many a leap of faith, but you did it.
We’re all living proof that as you stepped out, God blessed that work. We can’t say this is the way we’ve always done it, because part of Main Street’s way of doing it is somewhat a little curveball of that, exciting and scary. A little odd or off the wall. Well, why not? Prayerfully and together, I think that’s the Main Street way. What are we being called to next? What are we being called upon to do and to be now? What if the methodology of our mission has run its course? What if church services in buildings are becoming a thing of the past and something about technology and online is a way forward?
What if the day is fast approaching or has already arrived when we are asked to be radical in the way that we worship? Maybe not immediately, but on the horizon, how do we feel about a step-change which actually keeps the mission of the Church the same? For years, people have been pining for new people to come into the Church when they’re really asking for someone to go out into the streets and put bums on seats so that they can hear about the message of the Church in the building.
Was that ever the way of Jesus to bring people in to hear about him or was the Holy Spirit galvanizing his people to go into the world to care for those that need extra love and grace, to love their neighbour and reach out to the widow and the orphan. I’m becoming ever more convinced that, should we choose, we are in a transition period, a transition period away from those activities and structures that have served us so well for so long and which may not be fit for the purpose in the new way. Not swept away, of course, but begun to be laid aside for something that people will see as God’s kingdom coming, a way which we might not yet understand, but which if we don’t take hold of as we emerge from the pandemic, might prevent us from moving on in a way that God is obviously using.
We don’t want to miss being part of a transition that moves the mission of God forward in leaps and bounds in order for us to be comfy and happy where we are. It’s not easy for me to say, but we need to be open to change and to listen to what God has for us. I’m quite confident that our building and our worship will be part of that whatever next. Maybe it’s not the whole picture. My sense is that people and technology and buildings and working in unity, God will further bless his work in Frodsham.
We might not see people becoming Christians in the way that we expect but I am convinced that what I stated last week, Jesus’ agenda for the kingdom is not about personal renewal but about societal transformation. I think that’s quite key. We’re a church that likes to get stuck in. We’re right in the middle of town and that’s all for our good. I have the sense that’s exactly what’s happened to Peter and the others on the day of Pentecost.
Getting stuck into the world to look for signs of God at work in the world, continuing to get stuck in. Sometimes, that’s easy, sometimes, that’s hard. Let me say by way of huge degree of comfort, the Church has always belonged to Jesus. His spirit is with us and guides his bride the Church. It was true on the first day of Pentecost and it remains true to this day. It will be true on the first day when Jesus returns for his bride when the age to come begins and the new creation comes in all its fullness. The Church has always belonged to Jesus.
What if the present way of doing Church has become irrelevant to so many? Is it fulfilling its mission? Did it need something big to jolt it into another way of becoming? Just like Pentecost jolted Peter and the others through fear and faithfulness probably in equal measure. Maybe part of the transition as we come to grips with the jolting experience of change is that we know that God is gently taking us by the hand, looking at us with those loving eyes and a warm heart and asking, “Do you trust me, my beloved bride? Do you trust me? Do you trust me with your unknown?”
You see, Peter only had his voice. We have a building with which so much good has come for the glory of God over 149 years and will continue. We also have Zoom and the potential for a social media footprint that will allow others to know about the love of Jesus too, even if we don’t know where that leads them. It won’t replace the relationships and the building but maybe we need an upgrade of our tools that allow us to communicate to our community and to our world more widely that God loves them.
As we go forward, let’s not merely go back to pre-pandemic church. Let’s learn afresh how to find Jesus filled with his spirit in us. Let’s look back to the early churches. Yes, struggles that they had. They had no buildings, only homes, the temple courts, and relationships, and the guiding sense of the spirit of God. God added daily to their number, those who were being saved. Scary, isn’t it, and at the same time, mischievously exciting as well. God wants to join in this adventure with us and in us.
We are going through transition. There’s no way to say this other than it’s hard. As we follow Jesus, as we work and walk together and trudge just one foot in front of the other, slowly but surely and by God’s grace, we will become part of that new creation to which God will safely and inevitably bring us. Don’t fear. Be filled with the Holy Spirit and trust that God loves his church and will bring it through in his ways which are higher than ours.
Like I said earlier, I miss Ricicles. I know they will never return to my breakfast bowl. Maybe I should celebrate the tastiness of Ricicles and how they served me well for many years. Let me not forget the joy that Ricicles brought me, but now, let me move on to a new breakfast item. I hope I haven’t offended anyone with this example as this was never my intention. I meant it as an example to show sometimes progress happens. It takes us a while to understand and to appreciate.
Ricicles were never good for me, but when the choice of eating them was taken away, I was sad about that. Over time, I got used to the status quo and began to understand why they were taken off the shelves for the good of my teeth and my health. May God be with us by his very present Holy Spirit as we bravely breathe in and take transitional steps towards his new creation. May we be granted enough excitement and anticipation that doesn’t leave us rooted to the spot in fear. May we trust that God knows what He’s doing with us and with his Church.
References and sources
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