This is Rev. Graham Crawford’s sermon for 24 May 2015 (Pentecost Sunday):
Inevitably, given the debates over the last few years, various groups have formed within the Kirk: some more liberal, some more conservative.
I happen to be part of two of these groups:
Here is the confession of the Covenant Fellowship:-
“I believe that the Church of Scotland is moving away from its roots in Scripture and the Westminster Confession of Faith. I believe that the time has come for the creation of a ‘Covenant Fellowship’ within the Church. This Covenant Fellowship will draw together those who believe that the Scriptures, in their entirety, are the Word of God and must provide the basis for everything we believe and do. This vision is nothing less than the reformation and renewal of the Church of Scotland, in accordance with the Word of God, and by the empowering of his life-giving Spirit.”
I believe that, on this Pentecost Sunday, this renewal by the empowering of the Holy Spirit is the most crucial thing that we need at this time.
The events of Pentecost
However, let us remind ourselves of the events of Pentecost all those years ago (Acts 2: 1 – 21):
2 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.7 Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans?8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’ 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’
13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, ‘They have had too much wine.’
Peter addresses the crowd
14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: ‘Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
17 ‘“In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
19 I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20 The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21 And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Parallels with the Old Testament
The account of Pentecost begins with the arrival of the Holy Spirit from heaven. Looking back into the Old Testament, you see similar events when the presence of God has been like a fire, such as the burning bush and the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites at night across the desert. Thus any biblical scholar will recognise that something significant is happening. Perhaps one of the most significant aspects of the event, of course, is the reversal of the after-effects of the tower of Babel, a monument to the greatness of humanity. Remember that story? (Genesis 11) –
5 But the Lord came down to look at the city and the tower the people were building. 6 “Look!” he said. “The people are united, and they all speak the same language. After this, nothing they set out to do will be impossible for them! 7 Come, let’s go down and confuse the people with different languages. Then they won’t be able to understand each other.”
So God gave people different languages so that we would be less proud and more humble. But the trouble with this is, of course, revealed when God blesses Abraham and tells him his descendants will be a blessing for the whole world. How can they be a blessing if people from other countries cannot understand the witness that they bring?
So, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gives the disciples the power to speak in other languages – to unite everyone around the cross of Christ. Everyone is able now to hear the testimony and witness of the disciples. It is a marvellous thing. Yet, even as God tries to unite people, even as he tries to bring them together, there are some who are sceptical. There are some who say the disciples are drunk.
The division between the faithful and the unfaithful
And herein lies a crucial fact: there is always going to be some division between the faithful and the unfaithful.
The church is being fed a fairy-tale that, if we simply water ourselves down enough and are all-inclusive, there will be no more division and somehow this will make us more attractive. It is a fairy-tale; it doesn’t work.
The more we water down our witness and our claims for Jesus, the less attractive we become, as we offer nothing of significance, nothing that is different from the things the world offers. The church will simply become indistinguishable from the Moray Council Social Work Department, if we continue down our current revisionist route.
Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones
And yet the message of scripture is true and bold: anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
Through the Holy Spirit, given at Pentecost, anything and everything is possible.
One of the other scriptures for this morning is Ezekiel 37. It is one of my favourites:
37 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me to and fro among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’
I said, ‘Sovereign Lord, you alone know.’
4 Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones and say to them, “Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.”’
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
9 Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.”’ 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army.
11 Then he said to me: ‘Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.”12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.”’
Sons and daughters of St. James, these bones are the Church of Scotland. “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.”
Therefore, we must prophesy and say to them: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will bless you. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.”’
God’s Spirit was able to bring back to life the dry bones of Israel. God’s Spirit can bring back to life the dry bones of the Kirk. The Spirit of the Lord can do this. The Spirit of the Lord has done it before. He has brought revival to the people of Israel and to the church down through the ages at different times and in different places and he can do it again.
As Jesus himself said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But, with God, anything is possible.”
Did you know that the word “possible” never appears in the Old Testament?
It is only with the advent of Jesus, and with the power of the Holy Spirit, that there is the hope where things that once seemed out of reach suddenly become possible.
I have to confess, however, that at the moment I am at a loss. I am at a loss to know what to pray for. On the one hand, I want to keep the Church of Scotland together. I want to pray for renewal, for a fresh wind to blow through which will destroy the populist movement and bring back faithful discipleship.
However, on the other hand, I have a deep respect for groups such as the Eco-Presbyterian Church in the USA which has said enough is enough and they have stepped away from the PC(USA) and formed a new evangelical movement. It is their national gathering that I will be attending next January.
One of the other proposed readings for this morning is from Romans 8, where Paul writes:
26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
So maybe, at this difficult time in the life of the church, we simply need to pray for renewal, pray for the Holy Spirit to fill this church anew and trust that God will reveal the way forward that will be to the benefit of his Kingdom, and let the Holy Spirit take us forward, interceding for us, revealing the way forward for us, as we seek to be faithful Spirit-filled disciples of Jesus Christ.
Image source: Thanks to Jamie Denyer for allowing us to use (a cropped version of) his photo of St James’ Church, taken on Christmas Day 2014.