A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Acts 2:1-41 on Sunday 3 May 2020.
Air. It’s all around us and our lives depend on it. But it’s invisible. We only notice it when it’s windy and we can see it in action. And we only know we need it when it’s taken from us.
So it is with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the invisible presence of God around us, with us and within us. The Holy Spirit is the very lifeblood of the church. We know him by what he does, because he is the only source of the love and faith and of all the gifts and blessings we possess to do God’s will. Take the Spirit away and the church becomes an empty shell. Like a tombstone marking what was once alive.
Too often we take the Spirit for granted like gravity. Like the air we breathe. Something that’s always there and doesn’t need thinking about. But if we are to be faithful to the teaching of the Scriptures and to the promise of the Lord Jesus then we must say as it is written in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit”.
This morning we are looking at Acts chapter 2. And in this chapter we see firstly the birth of the church. What happened on that day of Pentecost was something new and special. The disciples were all in a building in Jerusalem. One hundred and twenty of them we are told. All the followers of Jesus at that time. There was the sound of a rushing wind, and what looked like tongues of fire over each of the disciples. They were all suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in tongues.
Some Christian groups think that this experience is meant to be normal for all Christians, that you can’t call yourself a Christian unless you experience the Spirit like this and can speak in tongues. But the whole point of this passage is that it wasn’t normal. It was something new, something special. It was the fulfilment of the words of the prophet Joel.
In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. And everyone who calls on the name of the lord will be saved.
And with the coming of the Spirit on those first disciples, we witness the birth of the church, the tiny seed of the kingdom of God, as small as a mustard seed in human terms, but about to sprout and to burst into life.
Let’s look secondly, then, at the Spirit of Pentecost. Normally, the air is invisible. But when it blows you see things move. You can feel it on your face. You can hear it howling through the trees. The wind turns windmills, it drives yachts, it howls through the trees.
And so it is with the Spirit. We can see the effect of the Spirit on the first disciples in Acts chapter 2. How the Spirit gave them boldness. There they were, all huddled inside one house. Waiting. Nervous. A bit confused about what was going to happen. But when the Spirit came upon them, it forced them outside to mingle with the crowds that were visiting the temple in Jerusalem and to speak.
This is the Spirit’s work: to equip the people of God, to share his Word for the world. It is the Spirit’s work to give them the boldness and the words to speak, or with the grace to forgive, or with the love to care, or with the faith to persevere. Without the Spirit we would be that scared little inward looking group of disciples, huddled inside, caring only for ourselves. But the Spirit pushes us out to stop just thinking of ourselves and to think of others.
We also see in Acts chapter 2 that the Spirit gave the disciples the gift of languages. Because what the disciples did on that Pentecost day was not to speak in some strange, unintelligible language, like the language of angels. What the disciple did was to speak in foreign languages, languages that they’d never been taught, languages that they’d never spoken before. Of course, it was a miracle. I don’t deny it. But the miracle was not that God gave the disciples the gift of speaking strange words, but that he gave the foreign visitors to Jerusalem the gift to hear the good news of Christ in their own language. The visitors to Jerusalem on that day, didn’t turn to each other and say, “What on earth are they talking about?” They said, “Look at us, we’ve come from every known country in the world and we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own languages.” What they were hearing was the gospel. Not in the language of Abraham and of David and of Jesus. But in their own.
This is God’s message to us today. Not that he wants all his people to speak in the language of angels that no one can understand, but that he wants the world to hear of Christ. This too is the Spirit’s work to inspire us with the courage and the desire to tell others about Jesus and to give us the words to say. Mission isn’t just something that someone is going to do for you if you give them money and remember to pray for them. Mission is something you can do by the power of the Spirit. In your home. In your town. In your country. In your world.
So let’s look thirdly at the message of Pentecost. It’s the gospel, the message of Jesus Christ. Because the Spirit is like a floodlight. A floodlight doesn’t shine so you can see the light. It shines so you can see what it is shining on. In the same way, the Spirit’s work is not to draw attention to himself but to the Lord Jesus Christ. This is exactly what Peter did.
Men of Israel, listen to this. Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge, and you put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.
It is a message of Jesus’ life, of his ministry, his words, his deeds, his example. Jesus was a man sent by God and the proof is in the things he did. He did things that no one else could do, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, giving strength to the legs of the lame. And he did things that no one else would do, touching the lepers, eating with sinners, blessing the children, associating with the weak and powerless.
The gospel is also a message of his death, of his betrayal, his rejection, his execution, all of which happened according to God’s plan. For Jesus was a man sent by God to die, to give his life as a ransom for many.
But the gospel is also a message of Jesus’ new life. Death took him prisoner but couldn’t keep him. Jesus is alive and he is Lord and he proves it through the witness of his people by the power of his Spirit. As Peter said on Pentecost,
God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.
The hardest instrument to play in the orchestra isn’t the bassoon or the double bass, but second fiddle. The first violin gets to play the melody and receives all the glory and the attention. And second fiddle just supports the work of others, playing the harmony, making others sound good. But this is the Spirit’s work, not to draw attention to himself, but to let all the praise and glory go to the Lord Jesus, the one who is the hope of all the world. And the Spirit’s work in your life is not to make you successful or famous so that everyone gives you a clap, but to help you shine your light on Jesus too.
So let’s look lastly at the promise of Pentecost. When Peter stopped speaking, the crowd was overcome with guilt. The Lord, their judge would bear the scars of the nails that they had all but driven into him. “Brothers,” they cried, “what should we do?”
And Peter said, “Repent and be baptised.”
To some repent is such an ugly word. A word of shame and guilt. But it is a beautiful word. It is the promise of hope. To repent is to completely change your mind about the way you behave. It is a decision of the will, a resolution to cut all ties with a poisonous and destructive way of life. Because every journey in the right direction begins by turning around and facing the right way.
Repent, said Peter, and be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ. To be baptised in Jesus’ name means to swear allegiance to him. It means to make a commitment to him. Some people think that commitment is an ugly word too. They want to live before they commit, like commitment is a kind of death. But the truth is that life without commitment isn’t living. If we are not living for something, we are living for nothing. Our lives are just drifting, wasted, useless. If to repent means to turn around and to face the right way, then to be baptised in Jesus means to commit and take that first step along the journey to God.
And that commitment is symbolised with water. By being washed with water. Because water symbolises the two promises of Pentecost. Firstly, forgiveness. The washing away of our sins so that we stand clean, free of guilt and fear before God. And secondly, the gift of the Spirit of life, the Holy Spirit who came on Jesus when he was baptised by John to empower him for his earthly ministry, who came upon the disciples on that Pentecost day to equip them for service, the Sprit who comes upon us when we repent and believe, when we first commit our lives to Jesus, to make us new, to help us change, to encourage and support us as we make that journey towards God.
This then perhaps is the true promise of Pentecost, that the same Spirit who led that small, huddled group of disciples out into the crowd is with us today. Without air we suffocate and die. Without the Spirit, the church shrivels and dies, and our faith, our love, our joy and peace all turn to dust. To live, to thrive, to grow, to serve, we must believe in the Holy Spirit.