I haven’t been able to get Pentecost out of my mind since rereading the story again for our Pentecost service. Although I know that in once sense, like the cross and resurrection, Pentecost is a unique and unrepeatable part of the saving work of Jesus, there is another sense in which we should expect the Holy Spirit to be more active in our church than perhaps we are. The first disciples were filled with the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost and we are all commanded later on in the NT to be “filled with the Spirit.” So I have been wondering what lesson we can learn if we want to be disciples and a church that is filled with the Spirit?
I suspect that Acts chapter One may be one of the most neglected chapters in the whole of the Bible. Most of us naturally want to get stuck into Acts 2 its full of the action, the important, controversial stuff, the Holy Spirit falling, the burning tongues of fire, the speaking in tongues, the first christians sermon, people getting saved. But chapter 2 couldn’t have happened without chapter 1 and I am not just talking chronologically but theologically. There are things that happened in chapter 1 of the book of Acts which prepared the church for what God did in Acts 2. I would even go as far as to say if the attitudes and actions we can so clearly see among God’s people in Acts 1 had been absent, Acts 2 could never have been written.
What I am suggesting is that there are attitudes and actions in Acts 1 which created the conditions among God’s people for the Holy Spirit to fill them and launch them into the world in mission so powerfully. Which means Acts chapter 1 could and should be one of the most important passages of Scripture for us as we seek the Holy Spirit’s empowering to become the church .
Specifically, I can see 4 things which characterised this first church in Jerusalem which need to be found among us as if we are really serious about being the Church the Holy Spirit wants to make us.
Its easy to overlook this but the actions of these first disciples are characterised by obedience to Jesus. Just think about it for a moment, in verse 4 Jesus says “Do not leave Jerusalem, …” …. in verse 12 we get their response “Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem …” Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem, so they didn’t go home to Galilee, they waited in Jerusalem. There was no hesitation, no prevarication, what Jesus told them to do, they did. I have a quote from a Victorian preacher which says “The way of obedience is the pathway to usefulness” The language may be a bit out of date but the principle certainly isn’t. As far as I can see it, we cannot be a church in which the Spirit is fully at work unless we are committed to being obedient disciples. I believe that the Holy Spirit wouldn’t have come to this church if they hadn’t got right with Jesus in terms of doing what he commanded and stayed right with him. If you read through the book of Acts you see this principle at work time and time again. Its the church which obeys Christ whom Christ can use.
If we are serious about seeing the Church work at a deeper level among us and through us, then we need to be willing to commit ourselves to doing what God clearly says in His Word and what we come to believe His Spirit is saying to us individually and collectively. This means among other things being obedient to Jesus in in our working life, our businesses, in our attitude to wealth and property, in the way we express our sexuality and in the way we treat other people. We need to learn the lesson that we do in private has a deep impact on the public impact of our church.
The next characteristic which created a community which could be filled with the Spirit is a no brainer its so clear. Luke says they “…. devoted themselves to prayer” It wasn’t an occasional activity, it wasn’t once in a while, these people were devoted to prayer. The only conclusion we can draw is that it is the community which is devoted to prayer that is empowered by the Spirit and sent on mission with Christ. Prayer was their priority, I am sure they prayed together as a whole and at the Temple, they prayed individually and probably prayed in groups. How they prayed is probably not as important as the fact that it was woven into the fabric of their community. We need to think about what it means in practical terms to be people who are devoted to prayer. How do we make prayer such a defining feature of Westlake so if someone like Luke was to look at us and try and describe us, they too would say “they are devoted to prayer.”
I was struck reading Acts 1 by the potential for conflict that existed among this group of people. Given the background of the people in the Upper Room, this community could have been like a powder keg just waiting for a spark that would make someone explode. Jesus disciples and his family had never really gotten on that well during Jesus ministry. Matthew had been a Roman collaborator, Simon was a Zealot, a sort of anti-Roman terrorist, that must have made for interesting dynamics when it came to conversations on politics. James and John had tried to do a behind the scenes deal with Jesus to give them special positions of power in the Kingdom of God above the other disciples, the other disciples had been more than a wee bit annoyed when they found out. Yet we are told “They all joined together constantly” the phrase “joined together” means more than just being physically together in the same place, its a far more significant unity. Its a word that describes a unity that stems from sharing the same passion and purpose. They were willing to give up their own preferences, work through their differences and treat each other with grace because the most important thing to them was the Kingdom of God.
Can I be frank? If we want to be empowered by the Spirit then probably the one thing as Westlake we are going to have work hardest at is unity. Many of us come from different cultures and church backgrounds which means that there is the potential for us to badly misunderstand one another and for that to lead to conflict and disunity. Any human group which is growing and changing will inevitably be faced by tension. Churches that create an environment for the Spirit to be powerfully at work have actively chosen unity over conflict and tension. What should be unique about church is not the absence of conflict, we are still sinful human beings, its our response to conflict that should mark us out as followers of Jesus. We need to treat each other with grace, interpret what each other say in the best possible way and work hard at keeping our unity. Most of all we need to keep the main thing, the main thing, the Kingdom of God because only by sharing the same passion and purpose will any unity threatening differences become secondary.
I am captivated by what Michael Green says about Acts 1 and 2 and these first believers attitude to the Holy Spirit “”Unless we are in vibrant touch with the Holy Spirit, little of his character will be seen in us, and our impact will be negligible. I do not imagine the disciples waiting for the Holy Spirit before Pentecost knew quite what they were waiting for. …. They had seen one outstanding life which seemed to them full of the that great Spirit of God, the life of Jesus. They had his promise that the Spirit would be passed on to them. They did not fully know what that meant but they were open. They didn’t deny the possibility of some of the ways of the Spirit becoming real to them, while welcoming others.”
Gathered in the Upper Room this group didn’t allow their past experiences of the Spirit to dictate his future activities among them. They didn’t put the Spirit in a box by setting out how they would allow him to minister in and through them. They were open to the Spirit. As far as I can see it, they didn’t try and whip up or manufacture some preconceived experience they wanted the Spirit to be involved in and they didn’t resist His new ways of inspiring, guiding and using them either. They didn’t allow fear to make them resist Him either. Scot McKnight in a great book called OPEN TO THE SPIRIT says “Each of us is designed by God to be receptive to the Holy Spirit. We are SPIRIT-ual beings. We can be open or we can be shut but we cant deny our design. We are built to be a home for the Spirit.” I want to be open not shut, what about you?
So these are the four characteristic which I believe created the conditions which allowed Jesus to unleash the Spirit on this community and the characteristics we need to be committed to and cultivate if we want to see the Holy Spirit unleashed in and through Westlake.