St Michael’s 31st May 09 (Opening service)
So do you like the new building? What is it that you particularly like about it?
The thing I like about the new building, and I’m not sure if you’ve even thought about it, is the windows. One of the many problems with the old church was that it was impossible to see out of it into the road. I don’t know if it was designed to help people hide from the outside world or to stop the people from looking in, but one way or another it was impossible for anyone in Albert Road to guess what has happening inside, and vice versa. The impression was that this damp, grey building was only for the chosen few who had dared to enter its portals, and brave the chilly, mould-laden atmosphere.
But now as we sit here all snug and cosy we are completely at street level, and it’s almost impossible to avoid noticing what’s going on as you walk past. And isn’t that the way church is meant to be? After all, the reason why the church grew so quickly at Pentecost was precisely because those outside were able to see and hear what was going on inside, and stopped to ask what was happening. And if we are serious about this building being a tool for outreach and mission, then I believe this story of Pentecost teaches us some important lessons about how the church of St Michael’s can be an effective, ongoing witness to the gospel.
So, with that in mind, let’s look a little more closely at this passage from Acts chapter 2, and ask ourselves what exactly the people in the street saw and heard. Would anyone like to tell me what they noticed?
First of all, and perhaps not very obviously, they saw a people united in prayer. Verse 1: When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. None of this, “it’s a lovely day and I think I’ll go down to the beach instead”. Or “I think I’ll have a quiet morning in, doing the housework”. For the early church, prayer was their number one priority, and whenever they met to pray everyone was there. And it’s interesting that when you look at church history, the times God has seen fit to bless and refresh His church have almost always coincided with occasions when people have had a real burden to pray. It seems that God loves to bless the prayers of His people as they together seek His will. Look carefully at every new movement of the Spirit, every outbreak of growth in the church, and you will find people who have prepared for it in prayer.That’s why as we begin to think how to use this new church building, we are putting prayer at the top of list. I’m experimenting during the month of June with holding daily prayer from Monday to Thursday at 4pm. I know that the St Michael’s prayer group which meets every other Thursday at 11am is planning to move down here, and perhaps have lunch. And most importantly and most excitingly of all, we are starting our monthly prayer breakfast for all Christians in the area this Saturday at 8am. I’m not saying that we will necessarily see instant, dramatic results, like the first Pentecost, but I do know that by making prayer our number one priority we will keep on track with the Father’s will and make sure we are only doing what He wants.
And then secondly, as many of you have just said, they saw the tongues of fire and heard the people praising in other tongues. There was, in other words, clear evidence that the Spirit was at work. How might people see the Holy Spirit at work in St Michael’s today? Well, it might be that some of us have the gift of tongues, and we might from time to time see some supernatural event take place. But really, the lasting evidence of the Holy Spirit being in us and among us lies not so much in this or that supernatural gift, but, as we thought a couple of weeks ago, in the quality of the relationships we have in this church. You may remember that the end of this account of Pentecost has this wonderful description in Acts 2:42-47 of the believers united in prayer and worship and giving. With what result? Verse 47b: the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. you see, when the Spirit comes and fills each of us with a deep, deep Christ-like love for each other, then the world cannot fail to sit up and take notice.
And actually, although one person might experience the Holy Spirit as a mighty wind, or another in speaking in tongues, or another as a still small voice, it won’t in the end really matter. Because where the Holy Spirit is genuinely at work, then we learn to love one another for who we are, to be willing to learn from one another, listen to one another, and reach out to the stranger and the newcomer. Or to put it more simply, we become the body of Christ where it is obvious Jesus is dwelling among us.
Then thirdly, as we’ve already thought, they heard people declaring the wonders of God in their own language. And that shouldn’t surprise us because a church should be a place of good news, shouldn’t it? Of course I don’t mean by that that we all going round wearing big Anglican grins and pretend everything is all right all the time. But what I do mean is that as the body of Christ we will share stories with one another of God’s love and faithfulness and compassion. For example, a person who has been through a long and difficult illness, will be found praising God for always being there in times of need. Someone else who has been struggling to get a job will praise God for providing for him and his family in their hour of need. And still a third will be found praising God for the fact she has discovered new life in Jesus Christ. Their prayers may not have been answered directly, they may still be facing all kinds of issues in their lives, but they can still bear witness to God’s mercy and goodness.
And it is those ordinary stories of God’s mercy and goodness, in my experience, which so often attract people to the Christian faith in the first place and start asking them questions about Jesus. Because we live in a world where good news is in short supply, isn’t it? And if we are known as a church of good news, where the praise is genuine and the love is real, then surely others will want to find out more, won’t they?
So at that first Pentecost the people outside saw the people inside united in prayer, they saw and heard the Spirit at work, and they heard them declare the wonders of God. How true will that be of St Michael’s in the months and years to come, I wonder?
However the story doesn’t stop there. Because as you read on in verses 12-13 you discover that the people outside reacted in two different ways to what was happening. There was first of all the group who simply stood there and mocked. Verse 13: Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine”. And ever since then, there always have been people who have thought Christians are a little bit crazy. You may even know some yourself. Speaking personally, I don’t mind a little bit of opposition, a little bit of mockery. It does at least mean folk are hearing what you’re saying and reacting. And I think we have to be realistic and say that if St Michael’s grows and flourishes then, yes, from time to time, we will encounter hostility and opposition. It is, in an odd kind of way, a sign that we are doing things right.
But of course not everyone was hostile that Pentecost morning. There was the second group who were standing around amazed and confused as to what was going on, saying, as verse 12 tells us, what does this mean? And it was because this second group were asking questions and trying to work out what was happening that Peter stood up to speak. It wasn’t that the apostles suddenly thought, “Hey, we’ve got an opportunity for mission here”, as they pushed Peter out of the door with a megaphone. Or that Peter suddenly felt guilty he hadn’t handed out his quota of evangelistic tracts for the week. It was that people had seen, people had heard, and they wanted to know more. And that’s the way mission and outreach should happen in this new building. Not forcing ourselves on others, not making people feel guilty, but naturally, spontaneously responding to people’s interest and curiosity.
Now it might be that one or two of us are like Peter and can address a large crowd. Certainly it’s something I’ve learnt to do over the years, although you should have seen how nervous I was at the beginning! But for most of us, I reckon the conversations will be something like, “I came to your church last week, and was impressed with the way you all got on together. How can I find out more?”. Or “I really appreciated the way you prayed for my friend and put his name on the notice sheet. Why did you do this?” And it’s then you have the chance to talk about Jesus. And my advice is, use it.
Because in the end the good news we want to share this morning is not just that there’s a new church open in Albert Road, or there’s this lively bunch of people meeting in it, but as verse 21 puts it, that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. And if God’s word says everyone, then presumably that means everyone. Including the people who pass by our windows indifferent to what’s happening inside. Including the people who mock and make fun of our faith. Including the people who just stop and wonder what’s going on. And really, all I’ve been talking about this morning really boils down to how we take this good news out of this building into the lives around us, to show them that there is a Saviour, and that His name is Jesus. Not by high pressure salesmanship, or aggressive evangelism, but by prayer, by the power of the Holy Spirit, by praising the name of Jesus, and being ready to answer the questions others ask of us.
That, then, is our task, that is our challenge. So the question is: are you up for it? Now I realise that in the weeks leading up to the opening of St Michael’s we have had a lot of talk about whether the building should be licensed or consecrated, and I’ve appreciated the frank and useful discussions about the whole subject. My take on the issue is that, if we are going to be up for the task the Lord has given us, then our priority should be to ensure that we ourselves are consecrated as God’s people for His service. After all, there’s no point talking about mission and outreach if our own experience of the Holy Spirit is a distant memory, or we have never felt His touch upon our lives.
That’s why in a moment we are going to sing, “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me”. Because as we look forward to the next chapter of St Michael’s history, as we wonder and pray about all that lies ahead, let’s make sure that we part of the story by asking the risen Lord Jesus to fill us with His power and His presence, to wash away our sin and our wrongdoing, and make us fit and clean to serve Him, and Him only.
Let us pray….