Sunday, May 20, 2018

Pentecost

If last Sunday was Ascension Sunday that means that this Sunday is Pentecost. So, we will, once again, set aside our journey through Romans in order to take a little time to reflect on another event in the history of redemption. Pentecost is the next to last act in Jesus’ work to redeem this world. The last act will be His return.

The Ascension is a big deal because Jesus now intercedes for us at the Father’s right hand. Okay. So, why is Pentecost a big deal? One popular notion among some Christians these days is that Pentecost is when the Spirit finally shows up. It is the advent of the Spirit who has come to create the Church. Well, that can’t be right. For one thing, the Spirit was actually quite busy before Pentecost. It was the Spirit who, in the beginning of creation, hovered over the face of the waters. When it was time to build the Tabernacle in the desert, it was the Spirit who gave Bezalel the ability to do some very beautiful work. The Spirit blessed David as king, which is why he prayed, ‘Take not Your Holy Spirit from me’. The Spirit filled John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, to speak words of prophecy. It was the Spirit who anointed Jesus for ministry at His baptism. And let’s not forget that the Spirit was working through Moses and the others to inspire the first part of the Bible. So, I think that we’d be way off in thinking that Pentecost is the time when Spirit finally shows up.

And when the Spirit makes an appearance on Pentecost, what does He do? Well, He doesn’t create the Church. Consider those who lived before Pentecost, people like Abraham and David. Weren’t they saints like us? They believed the Gospel as it was revealed to them, in things like the sacrifices. They were believers. So, what shall we call them as a group? Referring to the saints of Moses’ day, Stephen calls them ‘the church in the wilderness’. The Spirit didn’t start the Church. The people of God, the saints, the Church, existed way before that Pentecost recorded in Acts.

Well, we still haven’t answered our question. Why is Pentecost a big deal? What did the Spirit do on that day in the first century? Listen to what Jesus said to His apostles.


But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. Acts 1.8

The Spirit didn’t start the Church, but He did dramatically change it. Up to this point in the history of God’s work of redeeming the world, the Church kept the truth of God pretty much to itself. It was rare for God to tell a prophet to speak to the nations. That changes at Pentecost. When the Spirit comes, He empowers the apostles to be witnesses to Jesus. And the Church starts a new chapter. Now, the Church is to spread the truth of God, the Good News about Jesus, but not just in the Jewish places of Jerusalem and Judea. It is to also spread the News to the sort-of-Jews of Samaria and then on to the Gentiles all the way to the end of the earth. The Spirit takes the Church to the nations.

By the coming of the Spirit the Church becomes a missionary Church. That’s what’s new. It’s obvious as you read through the book of Acts. The proclamation begins in Jerusalem, and it spreads until it reaches the end of the earth, Rome. The Spirit redefined the Church.

And that’s why Pentecost is a big deal.

What I’ve just described to you defines one aspect of who we are as Faith Reformed Church. There are three basic aspects, three faces, to any church. There is the upward face: the worship of God. There is the inward face: the communion of the saints. But then, there is the outward face: the spread of the Gospel to the nations. The changes of Pentecost speak especially to the outward face.

I’d be very surprised if what I just said about the outward face would be controversial for any orthodox Christian. However, it can get a little controversial when you work at answering what looks like a simple question. How? How is a church supposed to pursue this aspect of what it is, the outward face?

In the days of my youth, the common answer to that question was labelled personal evangelism. So, everyone gets trained in some simple four-point outline of the Gospel that they either memorize or have written out in an attractive booklet. And each local church has some sort of program organizing a way for the members of that church to present that outline to people who aren’t Christians. Back in the day, that was just normal for a lot of evangelical churches. So, there was ‘The Four Spiritual Laws’, ‘Evangelism Explosion’, ‘The Bridge’. Remember those?

I think that you’ll agree that we don’t see this sort of thing very much these days. No Gospel outlines or organized programs for individual Christians to present those outlines. These days it’s all about getting people to come to your church. To do that, you make coming very appealing. So, there’s a place you can get a cup of latte in the lobby. The music is contemporary and professionally performed. And the messages for the adults are advertised as inspiring and engaging, while the kids go somewhere else for something they will enjoy. ‘Hey, come to our church. You’ll love it.’ Very different from the days of my youth.

Now, what I think is particularly interesting is that the second method is actually closer to the model presented in the New Testament than the first.

Consider. Read through Acts. How is the Good News about Jesus spread? It’s through preachers preaching. Peter starts it off in Jerusalem on Pentecost. Philip, the evangelist, preaches in Samaria. Then Paul becomes a Christian. And off he goes, sometimes with Barnabas and sometimes with Silas, preaching his way through the Roman Empire all the way to Rome. The evangelism of the book of Acts is done through preachers just as it was in the Gospels.

Now, what about the New Testament letters, what instructions about spreading the word do they offer to those baby churches? I think that what you find there is actually quite interesting. No organized programs are mentioned. There isn’t anything about memorizing a four-point outline or anything like it. There isn’t even anything about how those new Christians are supposed to go and tell people about Jesus, no instructions about personal evangelism. I find this most interesting.

So, does this mean that Jesus’ call to spread the word ended with Paul, that there is nothing for the rest of us to do? I hope that the absurdity of that suggestion is obvious. Jesus commands His Church to make disciples of all the nations. I think that we can agree that that goal hasn’t been reached just yet. So, there still is work for today’s churches to do when it comes to spreading the word, lots of work.

But we still have our question. How is the Church to fulfill this aspect of what it is, the outward face?

Let’s consider those NT letters. What are they about? One very simple way of understanding them is to see that they are about things we are to believe and things we are to do as a result of believing. Sometimes you can actually see a letter separated into those two parts. Ephesians is a good example. Chapters 1-3 are things we are to believe, and chapters 4-6 are things we are to do as a result. These two, things to believe and things to do, get more mixed up together in a letter like 1 Corinthians, but they are still there. I think that seeing the NT letters in terms of these two categories makes sense. And seeing this will lead to an answer to our question.

Consider the beginning sentences of chapter 12 of Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. In this letter these two sentences are the hinge between things to believe and things to do.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12.1-2

So, what is the thing to do here? Part of it is ‘be transformed by the renewal of your mind’. And this thing to do is the result of certain things to believe, things that Paul summarizes by the phrase ‘the mercies of God’. He has spent the previous eleven chapters explaining those mercies. He’s talking about the Gospel. He’s telling these saints, ‘Having believed the Gospel, I want you to be dramatically changed in how you think.’

And how does all of this show? Paul includes two things: forfeiting your life for God’s sake (or ‘present your bodies as living sacrifices’) and refusing to accept the prevailing culture’s assumptions about the nature of a good life (‘do not be conformed to this world’).

Think about those two things a moment. Doing them will make you strange. But that’s not Paul’s goal. The goal is for each Christian to reveal what the nature of a good life actually is. The goal is to offer a competing notion of real living, a competing notion that will be very striking to the world, repugnant to some but attractive to others, something that will be strange to all.

Now, here is something that is very important. Living according to what Paul wrote won’t work unless the Bible is actually true. If the Bible is wrong about reality then a church that believes it and tries to live it may look strange, but it won’t be attractive. And that’s because the lives of those who are believing the Bible will just be a different kind of messed up. And sooner or later the world will see that.

But if the Bible is right about the things that are to be believed and a church is working at believing them, and if the Bible is right about the things that are to be done and a church is working at doing them, then there will be a strangeness that will say something. It will be a strangeness that reflects reality. That church will be living according to what is real. Life always works better when that happens.

And that’s how those NT letters think about evangelism. Living according to reality is one reason why a little group of 120 in some upper room in Jerusalem on Pentecost was able to conquer an empire in a relatively brief span of time. They believed truth. They acted on that truth. They lived well. And people around them noticed and wanted to know how that works.

And that’s why I said that that second option, the ‘come to my church’ model of evangelism, is a better answer to our ‘How?’ question about spreading the Good News. But the attractiveness of such a church isn’t about lattes or those other silly lures. It’s the lives of the saints, lives that are obviously working better than the lives of their neighbors.

You see, what happens when a group of people work at believing and doing according to the reality that is portrayed in the Scriptures is that the Spirit blesses. He blesses the efforts of such Christians, and they actually make progress in living according to reality. Their lives work so much better as that happens. And that will show. That’s what showed and was so attractive in the Church after Pentecost, just as God had predicted. Listen to this prophecy.

Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’ Zechariah 8:23

Better than a program of a memorized four-point outline, better than latte in the lobby is a group of people with lives that are obviously changed, lives that are obviously working. That will attract attention.

None of this means that we should expect complete strangers walk in off the street on Sundays to join us for worship. No, it works differently. It starts with how you interact with the people you know, neighbors, co-workers and others. In those contexts, as you see reality more clearly and work at living it, you will encounter people who have no clue about reality. And their lives will show it. And at different times and in different ways you will express some truth about reality, some truth about how life actually works, some truth about the Gospel. And one reason that you will say something is that you will be so thoroughly convinced of those things to believe that you will feel compassion for those who don’t believe them. And, in effect, what you will be saying to them will be, ‘If only you understood reality better, your life would work better. If only you knew Jesus like I do’. And you’re going to say something like that not because you’re supposed to do some evangelism. You’re going to say something because you believe and you care.

Things will start small. You’ll offer a very not-religious-sounding bit of advice here and there. But in time, it will become clear to whomever it is you are talking to that the reason that your life works, the reason that you give them good advice, is Jesus. It’s in those situations, when the person you are talking with is attracted to what you are saying, when he or she is beginning to get it, beginning to understand what you’re saying about the Gospel, that’s when you say, ‘You should come to my church. We always talk about Jesus and how He makes life work.’ And that’s how we are to be what the Spirit has come to make us, a missionary church.