What I said last Sunday for the Feast of Pentecost


Last Sunday was, of course, the Feast of Pentecost. Here’s what I said in my sermon.

Acts 1.1-13; John 20.19-23

There’s not much that’s more annoying than a flat car battery.

You know what it’s like! The last time you used the car there was nothing wrong. Then you go out to go somewhere – and it’s always when you’re going somewhere important and are in a hurry – and the car won’t start. These days, with electronic central locking, you are forewarned because the remote control key won’t unlock the car. And you get that sinking feeling. And yet, having had to use the key the old-fashioned way and actually put it in the lock, you get in and even though you now know you have a flat battery you still try and start the car. You know it’s not going to work but you try anyway. No power! And you’re not going anywhere. And the worst thing is you know that it’s almost certainly your fault. Either you’ve left headlights on though that’s increasingly difficult these days. Or you’ve left the interior light on. Or – as I managed to do recently – you’ve left the boot slightly ajar so that the boot light had not gone out!

Fortunately the RAC (Royal Automobile Club – a breakdown service in the UK) mechanic lives locally so he knows where we live – yes, this has happened to one or other of us several times – and he is often at the house pretty quickly. In fact, on a recent call he said as I opened the door, “Which one of you is it this time?” And, having got the car started and the engine running over nicely and recharging the battery, before he goes he says: All I need to do now is check your oil level. They never used to do that and on one occasion I asked him why they now do. It seems that in these days when we are all short of money and increasingly people are putting off having their cars serviced as often as they should. Many people never check their oil level, and so the RAC now check it as a matter of course – it can save another call out later on.

The problem with your oil level is that unless you take positive action to check it, you can’t see it going down. And many people simply ignore indicators on the dashboard. And without enough oil you can cause serious damage. I’m no mechanic, so I looked on the internet to see what happens if your oil runs out and found this: First the engine temperature rises, carbonizing the existing oil, the added viscosity slows the flow of oil and the temperature begins to rise more rapidly.  Friction continuously increases, creating more heat which causes more overheating of the engine, and finally seizing or extreme wear of the metal components.  If it continues to run at all, it will be with loud knocking of worn-out bearings until total internal destruction. Regular servicing of your car engine is essential. Without it your car will keep going for a while, but in the end it will just seize up. And you’ll have no-one to blame but yourself.

In the gospel of John we hear how, when Jesus is preparing to leave his disciples, he tries to prepare them for what was to come. We have heard some of what he said over the two Sundays in the run-up to Ascension Day, in extracts from the body of teaching that Jesus gives to his disciples at the Last Supper that we call the Farewell Discourse. He is setting out the foundations for the new community that will carry on his work. The thing is, Jesus knew full well that if he just left his disciples to get on with things after he was gone that sooner or later this new community would simply seize up! They might have managed for a while, and on the outside everything might have looked fine, but sooner or later everything would have ground to a halt. With Jesus no longer at the heart of all they were doing they couldn’t keep going for long.

So – what to do to enable the new community of the Church to grow, to prosper, and to do the greater works that Jesus promised they would do? Jesus needed to ensure that he remained at the centre, the heart, of the Christian community. Yet he was going to the Father – that’s what he told them.

Jesus needed to find a way to keep the Church regularly serviced and running smoothly. And the solution, of course, was to send the Holy Spirit, as we heard two weeks ago: I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever … the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I said to you. And now in our gospel reading, we hear how Jesus, on the evening of the day of his resurrection, appears in the upper room and fulfils that promise by breathing the Holy Spirit into the disciples. And then that gift is confirmed in such a dramatic way upon the Day of Pentecost.

The way that Jesus sustains his Church, the way that Jesus is able to be right at the heart of the Christian community, his body on earth, is through the presence of his Holy Spirit. Like the engine oil that keeps the car engine running smoothly and according to the car manufacturer’s intention, the Holy Spirit is what lubricates the Church and keeps us running smoothly and in accordance with our maker’s intention.

And, of course, it is just as true today as it was then, that Jesus must be at the centre of the Church if it is to function properly and do, as Jesus promised his disciples, greater works than he has done. And Jesus enables this to happen by giving us the gift of the Holy Spirit. And just like a car that doesn’t get serviced and doesn’t have its oil topped up, sooner or later if we don’t keep Jesus at the heart of all we do, if we don’t allow this wonderful gift of his Holy Spirit to permeate every part of our being, we’ll just seize up and stop working. At first it might not be obvious – because like all those things we can’t see under the bonnet of a car, so there’s much in the Church that we may not see underneath that’s not functioning as it should. And a Church without the lubrication of the Holy Spirit is like a car engine without oil – it will keep going for a bit without anyone noticing that something is wrong and then one day, without warning, it will just totally seize up and in the end you get ‘total internal destruction’.

Jesus promised that his followers would do greater works than he has done. What did he mean by that? What might those greater works be? Well, contrary to the impression given by some churches they are not polishing the brass or trying to compile rotas that keep everyone happy or making sure no one piles chairs more than five high in the Church Hall. The greater works are not going to lots of committee meetings or even Bible Studies. They are works like those of Jesus: befriending the outcasts, healing the sick, speaking up for the marginalised, housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, speaking the truths of God to and about those in secular authority. And first and foremost bringing people into a living relationship with Jesus. Because that’s what Jesus did. And a Church with Jesus at its centre will do all those things. And a Church that does all those things will be seen to have Jesus at its centre. And a Church that is not doing those things does not have Jesus at its centre – however much it may think it does!

We can have Jesus at the centre of all we do and all we are! And all because of the gift that Jesus sends us from the Father. The Spirit who helps the Christian community remember all that Jesus did, the Spirit who helps us to know Jesus, the Spirit who helps us to be obedient to Jesus and do his work in the world. And all we have to do to receive that gift is ask – and he will come. And he will come straight away. Not like the RAC: ‘within the hour’. Not ‘later today’ or ‘sometime next week’. He comes straight away.

Let us pray

Father, open our hearts to receive your Holy Spirit into our lives and our church. Fill us with your Holy Spirit so that we may put Jesus at the centre of all that we are and all that we do. Through the power of your Holy Spirit may we do the works of Jesus, that our anxious and troubled world may know the peace that only Jesus can give. Amen.