Monday, 20 May 2013

The Foreigner


I am sure many of us have been abroad perhaps on a foreign holiday. Maybe in preparation we have tried to learn a little of the language. As we go from tourist destination to tourist destination we clutch our phrasebook or dictionary in the hope hope that through some miracle of osmosis, we might suddenly be able to speak and be understood.

It’s interesting that we still talk about going on a foreign holiday - the word foreign implying something exotic, unusual, challenging, maybe comfort-zone removing, perhaps even threatening. We talk of doctors finding a foreign body as they perform surgery - something that just shouldn’t be there, something alien or invasive, something out of place.

Yet as we go abroad on holiday, we are the foreign body - out of place, challenged often linguistically, maybe out of our comfort zones. Learning some of the language is about us trying to blend in; but as we struggle with pronunciation, we become more and more conspicuous.

But we speak with much more than our words. We speak with our clothing, our political affiliations, our music choices, with our hands, the expressions on our faces - all communicate something very deep about who we are, what we believe and what we hold dear, but it is still what we say that states that most powerfully.

Jesus’ disciples lives spoke volumes at this point. They looked like every other good Jew living in Jerusalem. Their accent gave them away as Galileans but essentially they blended in with the countless others in the city to celebrate the festival of Pentecost.  There were many foreigners in the city due to the immanent celebrations, yet it’s clear that on that day that the disciples felt like foreigners - locked away, frightened, aware that their experience of God in Jesus was different. They must have felt out of place in their own city and in their own religion. And then something happens.

It’s clear that what Luke is doing at the beginning of this account is trying to use language to speak of the unspeakable, to describe the indescribable and even language reaches it’s limits. Don’t be too hung up on the descriptions themselves because whatever took place in that room on that day as the Holy Spirit moved among the disciples in a new way - foretold by the prophet Joel  and promised by Jesus himself - utterly transformed them as they were made anew by God.  In Genesis we hear of the Spirit breathing life into the dust and creating a human being. In Acts 2 the same Spirit breathes life into once cowardly disciples creating new men and women who have the gift of bold speech.

For Luke, the writer of the Acts of the Apostles, the gift of God’s Holy Spirit has one purpose - to inspire believers in Jesus to speak God’s message with new boldness. Even Jesus is clear that this is what the Holy Spirit will do. He calls Him Advocate - someone who will speak publicly on behalf of another often in court of law. Because the Spirit will abide with us and in us says Jesus - He will speak through believers like us.

Talk of the Holy Spirit for some of us might seem foreign implying something exotic, unusual, challenging, maybe comfort-zone removing, perhaps even threatening. Perhaps we have heard of manifestations of the Holy Spirit in other places in different sorts of churches, but because of what we hear taking place being unusual or challenging our expectations of life and faith -- we are swift to dismiss it as hysteria - people filled with new wine.

We talk of doctors finding a foreign body as they perform surgery - something that just shouldn’t be there, something alien or invasive, something out of place. We invoke the Holy Spirit in the Sacraments of the church to transform the faith and life of the believer - but talk of experiences of the Spirit outside these signs of grace - might seem alien or invasive to our experience of faith. Friends, don’t get too hung up on descriptions. The simple fact of the matter is - just in the same way that we are still inspired to lively faith following Jesus and we believe that God still speaks and answers prayer today - so I believe and have experienced that the Holy Spirit continues to move and inspire and make new the lives of Christian men and women today in similar ways to those first disciples - in lives lived that speak in new bold ways of Jesus Christ.

The gift of the Spirit, according to Jesus, is an inevitable gift for those who are faithful to Him. If we love Christ we will keep His commandments, and if we do, He will ask God to give us the One who will speak the Truth of the the things of God to dwell in each one of us.

In both the Acts reading and in the Gospel - there is no sense of the Spirit being a gift to some and not to others, somehow reserved only for a certain sort of believer or certain sorts of Evangelical church today. It is the Spirit, a gift of Christ to all faithful people - crossing boundaries of gender, age and social status according to the prophet Joel, that makes our lives and our churches evangelical - our lives transformed and made new, and fills men and women like us with a fresh boldness to make known in word and action the love that God has for the world in Jesus Christ. 

Pentecost was not a once only event like the Crucifixion of Jesus - once for all.  Nor is it just an anniversary to be celebrated with a birthday card and song.  Jesus is clear that His gift of the Holy Spirit is personal and to all the faithful always and should be received with love like a birthday gift each year, each month, each day.

I wonder how long the disciples would have waited in that room on that day before returning to their lives and homes and livelihoods if the Spirit hadn’t come?  The Spirit did come and made them new - gave them boldness to go public outside the safety and security of that room and to attract a crowd to hear good news of the love of God in Jesus Christ which spread far from Jerusalem as far as Mill End/West Hyde and Maple Cross.

The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to the church still, both within and outside the Sacraments. It is still the power of God Himself at work in all of our lives, if we wish it, that enables us the church to go public boldly, to attract a crowd in and amongst our wider community with news of God’s love in Jesus still worth hearing.