Sunday, May 11, 2008

Power to Witness: A sermon preached in Ballyward and Rathfriland on Pentecost, 11th May 2008. Acts 1:1-21

How are you when you’re waiting? It might be waiting for a bus, or for relatives to visit. What if it is something you’re looking forward to receiving? Maybe it’s coming up to your birthday, and you can hardly wait to see what parcels arrive. Or there’s a cheque in the post. How do you wait?

At the start of our reading this morning, the disciples were waiting. Ten days before, Jesus had left them. He had ascended into heaven, no longer with them bodily. Do you remember what Jesus had told them? “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about… in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4-5)

It’s now ten days later – the Feast of Pentecost. Pentecost was fifty days after the Passover, and was the festival to give thanks for the harvest. As many Jews as possible had arrived in Jerusalem for the festival, following the command of the Law of Moses. Jerusalem was bunged!

In 2:1 we read that the disciples were all together in one place. This may have been the same room where the Last Supper had been shared. They had returned here after the ascension and were waiting and praying.

Suddenly, there is the noise like a violent wind, which fills the whole house where they are sitting. Sheer power is displayed in the noise of the wind. But that’s not all, as they see what looks like tongues of fire separating and resting on each of them.

Luke explains to us what was happening. ‘All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues (languages) as the Spirit enabled them.’

After the wait of ten days, the promise of Jesus is fulfilled, as he sends the Holy Spirit. Do you see that the Holy Spirit wasn’t given to them to sit back and say, well, I’m saved, and I’m sure I’m saved. No, the Holy Spirit was given to them to be active, spurring them on to service for Jesus. As they are filled with the Spirit, they were enabled to speak in other languages.

This was for a particular purpose, as the passage continues. Remember that Jerusalem was full of people, Jews from across the known world, all gathered together to celebrate the feast of Pentecost. It is these languages that the Holy Spirit enables the disciples to speak, so that the known world is able to hear about Jesus. Look at verse 11. ‘We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’

This is entirely in line with what Jesus had said in Acts 1:8. ‘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.’ The Holy Spirit comes to give them power; and in this power, they will witness about Jesus.

I’m always struck by the change in the disciples when the Holy Spirit comes. Remember that when Jesus came to the upper room on that first Easter Day, the disciples were inside with the doors locked for fear of the Jews. They were frightened people. Just seven weeks later, the disciples are no longer fearful, but go out onto the street to tell people about Jesus – to witness is to tell what you have seen. What made the difference? It was the gift of the Holy Spirit that gave them the power to witness.

But in the noise as the crowd gathers to hear these simple folk talk about the wonders of God in their own languages, there is confusion. Verses 12 says that the crowd was amazed and perplexed. ‘What does this mean?’ Why were they able to understand what the disciples were saying? What was happening?

Some people, in the crowd, however, thought it was just a bit of revelry. They simply couldn’t handle their drink, and were making fools of themselves. These are the people who laugh at the things of God, who make fun of the faithful.

Peter steps forward to speak to the crowd. As he says himself, he is going to explain what is happening. Some of the crowd think that they are filled with wine – but that’s just not right. Instead, they are filled with something else – with the Holy Spirit, as God promised.

Straight away, Peter takes the crowd to the Scriptures to explain what is happening. He quotes a long section from the prophet Joel, and then preaches from it. You see, in the Old Testament times, the Holy Spirit only came on certain people for certain tasks. So Moses had the power of the Holy Spirit in leading the people out of Egypt. The prophets had the Holy Spirit, and the kings.

But Joel had prophesied that there would come a time when God would pour out his Spirit on all his people. It would be in the end times, before the great and glorious day of the Lord. All of God’s people would prophesy, see visions and dream dreams.

This is what is happening now, says Peter. We’re in the end times. Jesus has completed the work of atonement, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father. Soon he will return, and in the meantime, God has poured out his Spirit to empower his people to witness to him, and to share the love of God.

Here we see the perfect union of God’s Spirit and God’s word. They can only function together. In Hebrew, the word for Spirit is the same word for breath – so the Spirit of God may be called the breath of God.

When I’m speaking now, the words and the breath go together – it would be impossible to speak without the breath going out as well. In the same way, the Spirit and the Word go together.

Some people in the Church today think that all you need is the word. They indulge in lengthy expositions, which turn into dull lectures without any power. In the end, the Word on its own is lifeless, if it is Spirit-less. But others in the Church think that all you need is the Spirit. They go chasing after the next big experience, the ‘liver shiver’ as one writer describes it.

Instead of either of the extremes, the Biblical model is to have the Spirit and the Word together. Without the word in our reading today, the crowd would have remained amazed and perplexed. They just would have seen the commotion and heard the voices. But when Peter, full of the Spirit, declared the Word of God, then things were happening.

The final verse of the reading, and also the final verse from Joel, declares that ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ We see that happening in Jerusalem that day, as Peter continues to tell the Good News about Jesus, and calls for repentance and faith from the crowd.

With the word and the Spirit, about three thousand were added to their number that day. From 120, to three thousand, in a matter of hours. And all because of the powerful combination of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.

So how do we look on that day? Was it just a one off? Something that is interesting as we remember the beginning of the church, but remote from our experience in the twenty-first century? Later in Acts 2, Peter declares that all who repent and come to faith will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (2:38).

The Holy Spirit isn’t just for the clergy. The Holy Spirit isn’t just for the keen people who turn up to everything. The Holy Spirit is available to every believer – here and now. There is now no more waiting needed – you can experience the power of the Holy Spirit in your life today. But remember – the Holy Spirit doesn’t come for us to feel holy and special. Rather, the Holy Spirit comes to empower us to witness to Jesus, and to strengthen us for service.

In some ways, today is another step towards the end of the waiting for me, as I’m now five weeks from ordination. As I prepare for ministry in Dundonald, I’m aware that I can’t do anything by myself. But with the Holy Spirit, we can do all things.

But even though this has been a time of waiting, it has also been a time of Spirit—empowered action. I’m thankful for the opportunity to have come alongside you, and to be involved in ministry with you here. And I’m thankful for the help and support from David especially, as well as from each one of you. I will not forget you in my prayers.

My prayer for you is that you will know the power of the Holy Spirit, through the word of God proclaimed in this place. And that as you all continue to grow in the Holy Spirit, you will see many more added to the Kingdom here.

And as I close this morning, I want to remind you again of the final words of our reading this morning. ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ That stands today for you. Perhaps you don’t know the Lord, and have been trusting in yourself for too long. Why not today, call on the name of the Lord, and you will be saved. Speak to a Christian that you know, or David, or myself. Not only will you be saved, but the promise of the Holy Spirit is for you as well. It will be the best decision you will ever make.


This was my farewell sermon in the parishes of Drumgath and Drumgooland.

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