Acts 16. 9 – 15
John 14. 23 – 29
My favourite subject in school was history – I always preferred to argue a point, rather than memorize equations and formulas.
And so I’ve always enjoyed reading the Acts of the Apostles, which sort of feels like a history book of the doings of the earliest Christians.
But it’s a history that strikes me as strangely chaotic, as we see today.
St Paul has a vision in the night and so they set off across the Aegean Sea at once, with nothing more than this ghostly figure of his dream to go on.
When they get there they wait around, perhaps for another vision. Then on the sabbath they go for a wander to the river, and speak to whoever they find there.
As a result, Lydia and her household are baptized. But soon after, Paul and his friends are beaten and thrown in prison.
It’s a far cry from the careful mission plans and evangelism initiatives of our own Church! And I wonder whether those who plan such things would see this mission of Paul’s as a success?
All that effort and risk, and presumably expense, for just one household to turn to the faith? I’m not sure that would unlock a second round of Strategic Development Funding!
But there’s something in this spontaneity that speaks to the action of the Spirit, and the life of faith. And it’s something that we’re in danger of forgetting about, in today’s Church.
There’s an old saying that when we make plans, God laughs. And it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the Spirit is already active – already doing things within and amongst us. The trick is not to get in the way with our own plans; but to join in with what God is doing.
When Christ chose his disciples, it didn’t seem very strategic – he happened upon these rough fisherman or tax collectors, and said ‘follow me.’ He took them from place to place seemingly randomly; sometimes he went away on his own and they didn’t know where he was.
Sometimes he performed healings and other miracles, drawing people to himself; and then told them not to tell anyone about it.
When he sent them off on their first mission, he told them to take nothing with them, and simply to stay in the first place they found.
I can feel the collective pulse of the Church Commissioners quickening in anxiety, at such a chaotic use of resources.
But in Jesus’ ministry, and in our reading from Acts, it’s all about being attentive to the work of the Spirit; and a willingness to go where the Spirit wills.
We’ll celebrate the Ascension of Jesus on Thursday evening. But before Jesus goes away, as we heard in our Gospel reading this morning, he promises that he will send the Spirit, the Advocate, to guide and inspire his followers.
But the Spirit doesn’t arrive with a five-point plan and a team of mission enablers; the Spirit arrives in fire, with the sound of a rushing mighty wind, and the babbling of many tongues. It’s chaotic; it’s perhaps a bit frightening.
Being attentive to the calling of the Spirit requires courage; it needs patience. It needs us to be open to the fact that it could take us anywhere. When I was reading my history books as a young boy in Melbourne, I had no idea the Spirit would end up bringing me to this pulpit in Ilkley, on the other side of the world! I’m glad it did, though.
And attentiveness to the Spirit needs trust: trust that Jesus means what he says. That God’s promises are true, even when the Spirit calls us into places where we might not be completely comfortable.
“Peace I leave with you … Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
The period from Ascension to Pentecost has long been kept as a time of prayer for the renewing gift of the Spirit. I know I’ve been a bit sniffy about the way the modern Church works in all I’ve said so far – but it’s wonderful that our Church has recaptured this prayerfulness in recent years with the ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ initiative.
With Covid falling behind us, and new and exciting possibilities ahead of us, I encourage you to enter into this time of prayer, and pray for the gift of the Spirit. And pray for attentiveness to the Spirit.
What is the Spirit doing? Where is it leading us? Is the Spirit calling you to serve our church community in some way? Is there someone you know with whom you might just strike up a conversation about faith; or invite them to church?
Is there an opportunity to witness to the faith in a group, or a club, or an organisation that you’re a member of?
I don’t think the Spirit will call you to get on a boat and sail straight to far off lands, like Paul and his friends – though you never know.
But God calls each one of us to be a part of something much bigger than ourselves, and to grow it even more through the gifts he has given us. And he gives us all that we need to do it, through the gift of his Spirit.
So come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Amen.