Happy Birthday!

Reading: Acts 2.1-6
Happy Birthday, Church!

But, someone says, it's not our birthday and eleven more days to the anniversary of Church Union! You've made a mistake, got it all wrong!

Have I really? I thought I read it in the calendar of the Christian Church and in the lectionary too! It says "Birthday Sunday" - well, not actually those words, though reading between the lines I was quite sure that was what it meant!

Look, sir, you've only been here a bit over four months, but you should have begun to understand. We're a Uniting Church. That happened nearly twenty-three years ago. Of course, the story of this congregation goes back a lot further than that. We've got a great history, great names, great stories.

Now I am puzzled. When I came here I was sure this was the Church that was born nearly two thousand years ago. I hope I haven't made a mistake! Please be patient with me while I figure this one out. I'm sure if we go back to the records we will get a clue!

It Nearly Didn't!

Now let's see.

The Church I'm looking for began after a very traumatic time. Jesus, their Teacher and Lord, had been put to death on a cross - a very nasty Roman form of execution reserved for offenders from the subject races. Traumatic - and shattering! They had begun to build up hopes around him, thought he might be a special deliverer of their nation, knew him to be a matchless Teacher, a unique Person, felt the presence of God when they were near him.

Yes, sir, we know about Jesus too - we honour him and try to follow his teachings!

But, as I said, he died. It looked as if there never would be a Church - at least not the kind he had talked about. Just as you were saying, some of them were probably resolving (for he had influenced them so powerfully) - some of them were probably resolving to honour him and to try to follow his teachings. This wasn't actually what he meant when he had talked about the Church. In fact, it's doubtful we would have heard about it at all if it had been like that.

According to the record, he came alive and they saw him - yes, actually saw him with their eyes. He ate food in their presence, even invited a doubter to put a finger in the nail-prints in his hands. There wasn't any question about it really - it's just that it was such a shock, quite unusual and unexpected.

Look, sir, we don't want to be difficult, but we really do believe in the living Jesus. Our Creeds say that! But we live in a scientific age, and we're thinking people, we've come of age - dead people don't come alive, not even if their name is Jesus! We've come to appreciate the culture of that time. We still accept the basic thing that they were saying - that the Jesus idea is alive, that something of his personality lives on and that his teachings are still important.

Wait a minute! That's not what they were saying. One of them wrote that the whole matter of Christianity is nonsense if Jesus didn't really come alive (1 Cor. 15.13-19)! You see, they had the benefit, not just of his teaching, but of his life and example. Could they follow that teaching? Could they live the way he did? No way! At the end, one of them betrayed him to the Jewish leaders, another disowned any connection with him (three times, in fact) and the rest of them ran off! If they'd had ideas about themselves before this, there was no question then. They couldn't say, "We've been with Jesus, we're the special ones, look at us!" Crushing failure stared them in the face.

No. They met him all right. He was there - fully alive, literally and visibly present. He spoke to them, explained to them from the Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) that his dying on the cross was part of God's plan. They came to understand his death in a new way, too. They saw references to what had happened all over the place - "Because of our sins he was wounded, beaten because of the evil we did. We are healed by the punishment he suffered, made whole by the blows he received" (Is. 53.5). That was for them - and for everybody, for the whole world!

The Impossible Task

But they couldn't take it to the whole world. Four of them had been fishermen. Some three years or so before Jesus had said to them, "Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" (Mt. 4.19). That had been intriguing - a fascinating thought. But now he had given it global implications - "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Mt. 28.19-20).

Are you suggesting that this is what the Church should still be on about? that we should be going and making disciples? Actually, we've found it helpful to have a base these days - you know, set up a programme and get them to come to us! It doesn't get everyone, of course, but it gets a few! And the "discipling" bit is a little old-fashioned, don't you think? I mean to say - folk have to become themselves, creatively express their own personalities.

Yes, I am sure that going and making disciples is what Jesus meant the Church to be doing. While we insist so strongly on people coming to us, most people will never be reached with the message. The Church I've been looking for certainly went out fearlessly to where people were and, yes, they made disciples - disciples of Jesus, mind you, not copies of themselves.

But you're drawing me on here. They were as cautious as you seem to be about this whole business. Well, "cautious" may not be the word for it - uncertain and tentative, perhaps. No, that's not quite it either. I suppose they could have put up a little sign outside one of their houses in Jerusalem and said, "Come in here if you want to learn about Jesus." And with this discipling bit they had problems too - none of them had a rabbi's qualifications. Not that Jesus had the formal qualifications, of course - that was different. But it wasn't the strategy they had been given. They had to go to where people were, carrying the message of good news. He had said that "repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things" (Lk. 24.47-48).

"Preach", you say! But that's one-way stuff! A little confrontational, don't you think? We could dialogue with people, I guess. And this "witness" bit - that's one of those old-fashioned ideas. I mean - we only use the word today when we are thinking about a trial!

Is that such a bad idea? In a very real sense, Jesus is on trial. People need to come to a verdict about him - who is he? what's he here for? what's it got to do with me? In a sense they were to give the evidence that would lead to the right verdict. And that's rather important, because the time is coming when the situation will be reversed. Jesus will be seen in all his truth and glory - he will be their Judge!

But now we're really getting ahead of things - to the end of time, in fact, though I suppose it all helps us realise why they felt the way they did before the Church was born.

A mother is dying of cancer. Time is short and she says to her husband, "Mary has lots of musical ability. I know it's a bit awkward but I really would like her to go to such-and-such a school next year." A day or two and she's gone. And next year? Mary goes to that school! Some inconvenience is involved, but she goes.

These followers of Jesus had received solemn instructions from the Lord himself, and then - he was gone! They couldn't see him but knew he was alive - he had promised to be with them. A task was laid on them, and they couldn't do it! But they didn't set out on some alternative plans as we might have done - some second-best. No - they waited. Jesus had said, "…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1.8).

So Jesus had given them an impossible task, but promised that they would receive power through the Holy Spirit - God present and active within them. Up till then, only special persons had received this Holy Spirit power. With the birth of the Church, a new era would begin - the Spirit would be given to all believers. People would be "born again", born of the Spirit as Jesus had told Nicodemus one night.

The Church is Born

Anyway, it did happen - just as Jesus had promised.

It was the Jewish feast of Pentecost, just seven weeks after Jesus had come alive following his awful death. Striking that it should have happened at that feast, really. Pentecost was a kind of harvest festival. At that time the Jews also celebrated the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. They had a belief - not in the Bible, mind you - that when God gave the Law to Moses, all people in the world heard it in their own language. That's striking when you think of what happened when the Church was born!

That day, they were all together in one place - while they waited, they would gather together and pray. Suddenly there was this sound. We might have described it as the rumble of a Jumbo coming in to land - except that it wasn't coming from outside, just filling the house where they were sitting. Then there was something else - they described it as being like tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.

Hey, that's a bit odd. We don't go for that weird stuff here!

I'm just telling you how the Church was born. In fact, I don't know of any times it happened exactly that way again. Some people really get hung up on that, want to insist that those signs are an authentic pattern that must occur over and over. But it doesn't - not even for them! You see, the Church had been born - that bit of history can't be repeated! Most importantly, they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Powerfully and effectively they began to share the message. Before the end of that day there were another 3000 believers. Soon the number swelled to 5000.

Then the opposition got tough and killed one of them by the name of Stephen. But did that stop them? Not at all. Instead, it sent them everywhere, carrying this same good news of Jesus with them.

Say, you stir my memory! I think I have heard about it all before. Perhaps you haven't come to the wrong place, sir. Yes, that was the beginning of things, all right. It's just that we've got side-tracked along the way. Now - what was the beginning part again?

All the Church, then, needs to be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you have ignored, both Lord and Christ (Acts 2.36)!

Now I get it - Lord…and Messiah! Yes, I see! And about this discipling, what did they say about that?

"Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off-for all whom the Lord our God will call" (vv. 38-39).

Yes, I remember now - that was the call all right - repent and be baptised... And what was Church life like in those days?

"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer" (v. 42).

Yes, that was it! Thank you, sir! I think we may have wandered from the way a little. Ah, what a birth - and what a birthday! Lord, you haven't forgotten us - thank you!

© Peter J. Blackburn, Home Hill and Ayr Uniting Churches, 11 June 2000
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

Back to Sermons