Is there anything that can really make us different – that can shake us out of our apathy and anxiety, that can inject enthusiasm and joy into our lives? The poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Every great and commanding movement in the annals of the world is the triumph of enthusiasm. Nothing great was ever achieved without it”. Can we find it in Christianity?
In Acts 2:1ff we read:
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
The Day of Pentecost has been called the birthday of the church for it was the day when Jesus switched on God’s power supply amongst his people and the impact of his life, death and resurrection began to spread. God’s Spirit turned cowardly disciples into intrepid apostles.
Pentecost is the Jewish festival that celebrates the giving of the Ten Commandments. Violent wind and tongues of fire had enveloped Mt Sinai when Moses was given the law. But the law failed to change the world because the law had failed to change people. Now once again at the time of Pentecost, God was coming with fire and wind. This time it was not to impart his law, but to impart his Spirit. The sound of a mighty wind symbolised Jesus’ power. The fire symbolised his purifying and cleansing work. The speech that day announced the good news of Jesus reaching people from every nation.
And so, in v.5 we read:
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. … And everyone was bewildered because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
The crowd was composed of people from the Caspian Sea in the east to Rome in the west, from modern Turkey in the north to Africa in the south. ‘How is it we can understand them in our own native language?’ they asked. The cynics mocked and said they were drunk. But Peter responded, ’No! We’re not drunk. It’s only nine o’clock in the morning – the bars aren’t open yet. This is the Spirit of God at work.’
It was God’s Spirit who enabled people that day to hear and understand in their own native language or dialect, what was being said. It was not inarticulate babbling, as some describe it. It was the miracle of language being wrought by the ultimate Author of speech. It was the ‘remaking of language’ so that it could be understood by all. It was the reversal of Babel.
The disciples who had been demoralised and defeated, came out on the streets with a new enthusiasm, confidence and joy. Who would have thought that Peter, who had so vehemently denied that he even knew Jesus, would ever speak up in public in the face of potential death, saying that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah? No longer a coward, he was a courageous preacher.
THE FELT SPIRIT
What made that difference? It was the Spirit, the ‘Companion’ Jesus promised (John 14:16ff). For many, Christianity is little more than a moral code that they must struggle to observe, or a creed they must recite mindlessly every week. But in John 14 Jesus had spoken of ‘Another Helper’ who would enable his people to experience a vital, personal and trusting relationship with the One who is at the heart of the universe. He is trustworthy because he is true.
It is, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:3, the Spirit who opens our eyes to our need to respond to God’s good news. It is he who turns our hearts to love and trust the Lord Jesus, enabling us to experience a peace and joy, enthusiasm and courage that is beyond human understanding. As we read on in The Acts of the Apostles, we see what happened then, and what can happen now when God’s Spirit is at work.
Let me urge you, as you read this, to pray. Pray that the Spirit of God will truly fill your life, instructing you from God’s Word, bringing the presence of Jesus Christ into your life, enabling you to call upon God as ‘Father’, equipping you to be the person God wants you to be, giving you purpose, joy and a new enthusiasm in your life.
Almighty God, who taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending them the light of your Holy Spirit: so enable us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things and always to rejoice in his holy comfort; through the merits of Christ Jesus our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (BCP, Whit Sunday – adapted)
Writing in the New York Times yesterday (April 28), David Brooks asked, ‘Can bad people be good leaders – people who, by implication, have power?’ “People who are dishonest, unkind and inconsiderate have trouble attracting and retaining good people to their team… Leaders who lack humility are fragile…” I quote this, not to engage in a political discussion, but to raise a point of principle. One of the striking features about Jesus is that although he possesses power that can only come from God, he is also in every way a good man – he is goodness personified.
GOODNESS AND POWER
Consider the scene in John 21:4-14:
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
In the same way John testified that Jesus was truly dead when he was taken from the cross, he now provides further testimony that Jesus was raised physically from the dead. In this encounter, Jesus lit a fire on which he was cooking fish. Ghosts cannot physically handle things, for wraith-like fingers would pass through objects. Indeed, when the disciples brought in their miraculous catch of fish, Jesus was the one who gave them the bread and the fish for breakfast.
A feature of this narrative is the way Jesus turns up in the normal events of a day. In a state of frustration Peter and the disciples had gone fishing, but that night they had caught nothing. As the day was breaking, a figure on the beach called out to them, ‘Have you caught anything?’ ‘No,’ they replied. ‘Throw your nets off the right hand side of the boat,’ responded the lone figure. The catch was astounding: 153 large fish.
It is tempting to look for symbolism here, but it is more likely that John is focusing our attention on the reality that the risen Jesus is still in charge. He directed where the nets were to be thrown; he was the host at breakfast, taking the bread and fish and giving it to them. And there is something else here that is significant: Jesus uses his power not to serve his own interests but to serve the needs of others.
It is most reassuring to know that the risen Christ does not just possess divine power; he is also kind and compassionate to his people. We can depend on him at every point in our lives.
Almighty God, you alone can order the unruly wills and passions of sinful men and women. Help us so to love what you command and desire what you promise, that among the many and varied changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys may be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Occasionally op-ed pieces attempt to bridge the divide between the culture and faith. In 1998, Hugh McKay, a Sydney commentator opined: ‘The historical, literal truth about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus has little connection with the Easter celebration of Christian believers. Faith thrives on doubt and therefore, even if Jesus didn’t live, die and come back to life again, Easter would still have meaning.’
HOPE WE HAVE
It’s quite attractive to say that Jesus’ resurrection is no more than a mystery of faith. But this is one thing the New Testament refuses to accept. For contrary to what society thinks, what some theologians teach, and what some ministers preach, it is insistent: Jesus’ tomb was empty. His first followers, who were very ordinary people, staked their lives on the claim that they had seen something very extra-ordinary: they had seen Jesus’ physically alive. Indeed, every outreach talk they gave was based on this assertion.
During this Easter Season it is worth taking time to consider the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.
1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
One of the remarkable features of the account of Jesus’ resurrection is the witness of the women. All four Gospels record women going to Jesus’ tomb first and finding it empty. If Jesus’ resurrection was fiction, women would not be the first witnesses. In fact they would probably not be witnesses at all. Under Jewish law the testimony of a woman was not admissible. Indeed, even in enlightened Roman society a woman’s testimony was not treated with equal weight as that of a man. Yet women were the first witnesses to the empty tomb.
In John 19:39-41 we read that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had buried Jesus’ body according to Jewish custom, wrapping it in linen cloths spiced with a mixture of myrrh and aloes. It was a new tomb and fulfilled what Isaiah prophesied: his tomb was with the rich (Isaiah 53:9). Focusing our attention on one of the women, Mary of Magdala (there was more than one woman, hence we in verse 2), John records the events of the first day of the week. Seeing the stone had been removed from the tomb and doubtless fearing Jesus’ body had been desecrated, Mary raced to tell Peter and John.
John’s witness is significant. Even though he outran Peter, he was not the first to enter the tomb. Peter was. Both men saw the linen wrappings lying there and the linen cloth that had been around Jesus’ head… rolled up in another place. The evidence was clear. Human hands had not removed the body. John saw and believed. Jesus had gone to be with God the Father as he had said (John 14:2-4). However, neither John nor Peter yet understood what Jesus meant when he said they would see him again, physically risen from the dead.
Like John the Apostle, we may believe that Jesus has gone to be with God, but we find the idea of his physical resurrection difficult to grasp. Yet the weight of evidence is that Jesus did physically rise from the dead. In his resurrection we have the assurance of faith, the defense of the gospel, and the foundation of our hope.
Grant, Lord, that as we have been baptized into the death of your dear Son our Savior Jesus Christ, so by continually putting to death our sinful desires we may die to sin and be buried with him, and that through the grave and gate of death we may pass to our joyful resurrection; for his sake who died and was buried and rose again for us, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, Easter Eve – adapted)
Further reading – John 20:1-18
Back in 1985 Christianity Today carried an article by Marshall Shelley entitled:
The Problem of Battered Pastors”. He observed: “the modern preacher has to make as many visits as a country doctor, shake as many hands as a politician, prepare as many briefs as a lawyer, and see as many people as a specialist. He has to be as good an executive as the president of a University, as good a financier as a bank president; and in the midst of it all, he has to be so good a diplomat that he could umpire a baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.
Given the diversity of expectations of ministers what does the Bible teach us about their role?
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep”.
Reflect – In John 21, Jesus challenges Peter three times: “Do you love me…?” At the Passover meal on the Thursday night Peter had said he would lay down his life for Jesus (John 13:37), yet three times he had denied him. Now the risen Jesus turns specifically to Peter and challenges him three times: “Do you love me?” Three times Peter says, “Yes, Lord”. Three times Jesus commanded: “Feed my sheep”. With these words Jesus was telling Peter he was forgiven. At the same time he was commissioning him along with the other disciples, to be his apostles. It is not about making Peter’s ministry pre-eminent, it is about reinstatement. Central to their ministry was the task of ‘feeding his sheep’. God’s people are Jesus’ sheep, not Peter’s or the apostles’ sheep. God’s people are to be fed God’s Word.
Peter took Jesus’ words to heart. Indeed, he echoes them in his First Letter where he writes: Be shepherds of God’s flock (1 Peter 5:2). Peter passed on the commission and the challenge that, in principle, applies to all who would be teachers of God’s people in every age – in church, in Sunday School, and in the home. Ministers, Bible study leaders, Sunday School and Scripture teachers, and parents, are charged with the task of instructing those in their care with the food of biblical truth and morality. They are to defend God’s people from the ravages of false teaching, tend the young, care for the sick, and rescue the wandering.
Feeding God’s people with God’s Word is front and center in the services (Ordinal) for the ordering of Anglican Church ministers. Archbishop Cranmer’s 1552 Ordinal, reaffirmed in 1662, sets out clear job descriptions for all three ministries. None of these services focus on ritual or ceremony but rather each ministry primarily involves the proclamation of God’s gospel and disciple-making, the protection of biblical truth and the care of those in need. All three ministries involve the feeding and protecting of God’s people.
‘Who would be a minister?’ we might ask. Some sheep resist the diet and many ignore it. Others can’t get enough of it. In 1 Peter 5:6-7 we read: Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. Yes, true ministers feel the burden of the ministry of God’s Word weighing heavily upon them – as do godly parents. However, we must be humble enough to share this burden with God himself, with Christ who is the Chief Shepherd, for he cares for each one.
How important it is that we pray for, support and encourage our ministers, Bible study leaders and parents. Especially we should pray that they are faithful in their teaching of God’s Word and that their character and their lifestyle exemplifies what they teach.
Prayer – Heavenly Father, give us faith to receive your Word, understanding to know what it means, and the will to put it into practice; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP – adapted)
Further reading – Read John 21:15-25.
The world was appalled to learn last Thursday of yet another atrocity carried out by al Shabab terrorists in Kenya: 147 students at Garissa University were shot and killed because they indicated they were Christians. In recent years al Shabab has been responsible for killing hundreds of Christians in Kenya. On Good Friday, the Anglican Archbishop of Kenya requested prayer for the grieving families. He also called upon governments to act with wisdom and determination to bring to an end the current terrorism.
But, as I said in my Easter Day sermon at Christ Church New York City, there is a tragic irony. On Wednesday last week, the London Telegraph reported the former British Education Secretary, Michael Gove as saying:
To call yourself a Christian in contemporary Britain is to invite pity, condescension or cool dismissal. “In a culture that prizes sophistication, non-judgmentalism, irony and detachment, it is to declare yourself intolerant, naive, superstitious and backward. He was also reported as saying:
Christians in Britain are being cowed into hiding their faith for fear of being viewed as a ‘bigots’… or simply fools… Were the students in Kenya simply naïve in saying they were Christians, especially in the face of certain death?
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not disbelieve but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Reflect – One of the encouraging things about the Christian Bible is its downright honesty – not least about its heroes. Thomas, one of Jesus’ first followers expressed his frustration at the Passover meal when Jesus said he was going away: “We don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas wanted clear and concrete answers to perplexing questions.
He had not been with the other ten when Jesus appeared to them on the day that changed the world – the day of Jesus’ resurrection. This may be why he could not at first accept the fact that Jesus, whom he had seen crucified, was now alive.
Unless I see the nail marks on his hands and put my fingers where the nails were… I will not believe, he said.
A week later when Jesus appeared again to the disciples Thomas was present. Jesus responded to Thomas’s unbelief:
Put your finger here and see my hands, he said.
Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Don’t disbelieve but believe. Unbelief was Thomas’s problem, not ‘doubt’, for doubt is not the opposite of belief. Indeed, Jesus commends the millions who would come to believe without seeing – suggesting that to believe in him is to see.
Thomas, experiencing first hand an unexpected joy, and without touching Jesus, responded,
My Lord and my God! It was the testimony of an eyewitness, a perfect confession of faith.
John concludes the chapter by summing up the purpose of his book: These things are written so that you may know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, so that believing you may have life in his name. Jesus had brought Thomas from unbelief to belief, and that belief brought hope.
Let us thank God for the courage the Kenyan students showed last week in declaring their faith in the face of death. Let us pray for the same kind of faith and courage to testify to Jesus and his resurrection.
Prayer – Eternal God, who strengthened Thomas your apostle, when he was disbelieving, with sure and certain faith in the resurrection of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ: so grant that we may not be faithless but believing, until we come to see our Savior in his glory face to face; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP, Collect for St Thomas’s Day – adapted)
Suggested reading – John 20:19-31