For the past number of weeks we’ve been exploring the book of Acts in partnership with the vision statement that this church felt led to write around 20 years ago. I’ve been viewing this series as an opportunity for us as a church community to reflect on how God has been at work among us, and to pay attention to how he might be calling us in this season and what he may be inviting us to. Taking this time to reflect in this way doesn’t mean that anyone thinks that there’s anything fundamentally wrong with how we’ve been as a church. Instead, it’s a way of seeking to be watchful as we follow God’s movements here, holding on to what God is calling us to, and letting go of what is not needed on the way. It’s a way of checking in and asking, “Lord, is all that we say and do together as a church rooted in you and in your love? Are we remaining committed to you while also being flexible enough to respond to where your Spirit is moving?”
These are important questions to reflect on together because damage can be done when we don’t reflect on those questions. This week we’re looking at the part of our vision statement that reads, “We believe Christ-followers of all ages should be nurtured and trained as we yearn for continuous growth”. This statement called to my mind one way in particular that my church growing up sought to do its training. Many Reformed churches encourage people who were baptized when they were babies to make a public response to God’s love and action in their lives by committing to follow Jesus. This has a lot of potential to be a beautiful and powerful practice where young people are encouraged to own their faith for themselves and for others to celebrate and rejoice in the Spirit’s work and presence in their lives. I remember though, that when I and a number of my peers wanted to make profession of faith, we were brought to the church elders in their meeting room for what felt a like an oral bible knowledge and theology exam before we could make profession of faith. Maybe some of you had a similar experience growing up.
I don’t doubt that the men in that meeting room were sincere followers of Jesus who were simply doing what they thought needed to happen for discipleship. But looking back, I don’t think the exam part was a faithful or a helpful way of doing discipleship. And I even think some damage may have been done there. Damage like the idea that following Jesus is mostly about having the right information in your head and being able to give the right answers. Damage like the idea that following Jesus isn’t about a relationship of love with him at all, but rather it’s about having to measure up to a certain level intellectually, or being an articulate speaker. You don’t have to journey too far to find someone who has a story of how the way discipleship was done in their church growing up didn’t line up with the reality of the God in whose name this training is done. Maybe you have a few experiences that come to mind in this way.
I mention all this not to say that all churches are doomed to be damaging places, though churches have indeed done damage. Instead, I am convinced that God loves the church and has mysteriously chosen these gatherings of his people, imperfect as they are, to give his Spirit to and to work in and to draw others to himself. Because I believe that God works powerfully in his churches, I desire for us to seek God together in paying attention to how we are reflecting his name. I mentioned this story because to me this story and stories like it reflect the urgency and importance of the task we have to nurture and train Christ-followers of all ages as we grow together. And this passage in Acts has two key implications for how we do this together.
The passage we read directly follows the story about the coming of the Holy Spirit. This is the story that we often read at Pentecost and it describes a major transition in history where God makes his presence available to all through his gift of the Holy Spirit. Before this, God’s Spirit was just given to a few. But this event signals a major change in history which prophets told about. After Pentecost, the gift of the Holy Spirit isn’t just for Jews or men or adults or leaders in the church, or prophets, or people with some special calling. This gift of God’s presence living in each person as one who comes alongside to empower and to help is for all people, to all who God calls.
As Peter explains what happened at Pentecost in the passage we read today, I hear him saying two key things about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. We need to hear these things as we reflect together on how to nurture and train Christ-followers. The two things I hear Peter saying is this: First, no person or individual church has the power to control the Holy Spirit. No one person or one church can control who gets the Spirit and who doesn’t. No one can manipulate the Spirit, or sell the Spirit or decide when the Spirit will move or how. That’s the first thing.
We see that at Pentecost. The coming of the Spirit doesn’t seem controlled. Jesus’ followers were waiting for this gift, but they had no idea how or when it would come. It looked from the outside like something pretty chaotic was going on. Some people looking on thought these guys were drunk. When Peter stands up to explain what’s happening, he shares this beautiful prophesy from Joel of the generous outpouring of God’s Spirit on all people. God’s Spirit doesn’t come to just one category of people. God’s Spirit comes on sons and daughters. On young and old. On slaves. On both men and women. No one but God gets to decide who he’ll give his Spirit to. Which is why we can hear the Spirit coming from some unlikely and unexpected voices and places. We can recognize the Spirit in young children, in old men, in women and men living on the streets and the ones working in business, in people in prison and with those all over the spectrum of mental and physical ability. The picture we get in this vision in Joel is the generous outpouring of God’s spirit on everyone.
The church doesn’t get to give out the Holy Spirit. Spiritual leaders or authorities don’t get to give out the Holy Spirit. No one can decide how or when the Spirit is going to move. We can’t design our times together so that the Spirit will show up in a particular way. We can’t graduate from a class in order to get the Holy Spirit. It’s God’s free and generous gift of himself, of his very presence living in us, to all who call on his name.
What might that mean for how we seek to nurture and train each other to be faithful followers of Jesus? As individuals and as a community how do we honour the presence of the Spirit in our children? Is there space for God to speak through them? Is there nurture and training for them to grow deeper in their relationship with God and to cooperate with the work of the Spirit in their lives? How do we give space and nurture to the Spirit’s work and movement in our children? How about to our teens and our young adults? What about the middle-aged among us and the seniors? How do we honour the presence and movement of the Holy Spirit in our men? What about our women? What about people of differing abilities mentally and physically? What about for people new to the faith, old in the faith, different statuses socially? What about for people who make choices we disagree with? These are questions we must attend to together to be faithful to the reality that God pours out his Spirit freely on all who call on his name.
The second thing I hear Peter saying is that though no one can control the Spirit, we can choose how we respond to the Spirit. We can choose to either cooperate with the Spirit or not. The role of the Spirit is to come alongside us, to live in us and help and empower us to follow Jesus, to draw us deeper into relationship with him and to make him known in and through us. We can choose to intentionally devote ourselves to this work, or we can resist it. Though we can’t control the Spirit, we can intend and decide to pay attention and cooperate with the Spirit’s work in us...or we can decide something different.
Peter’s invitation to response includes decision and intention. The choice is to receive this promise and to live into it, empowered by the Holy Spirit. If we are to be followers of Jesus, it doesn’t only mean that we agree that Jesus is God, though that’s part of it. If we want to be followers of Jesus, that means we are with him to learn from him how to be like him. It means we are with him to grow in relationship with him. Dallas Willard describes discipleship in this way, he says discipleship is “Learning from Jesus to lead my life, my whole and real life as Jesus would live it, if Jesus were living my life.” Read that again. Our call is to live our real lives acting and responding as Jesus would if he were living our life. Though God gives his Spirit to whoever he wills, whenever he wills, discipleship and growing to be more and more like Christ won’t ‘just happen’. Growth in Christ takes intention, decision and prayerful cooperation with the movements of the Spirit in our lives, and the nurture, support, encouragement and accountability of some kind of Christian community.
What have you decided in terms of how to respond to the Spirit’s presence in your life? How have you lived with intention in seeking out God’s will for you as you live out your real life, in each part? Have you had the posture that your growth in Christ will ‘just happen’? Or have you had intention in decisions you make about nurturing and growing in this relationship? How as a community are we spurring one another on and encouraging and challenging one another to be faithful in our walk with God and to grow to be more and more like him and to grow deeper in our love for him?
As we seek to be Jesus’ disciples together, I have a few invitations.
The first, is Peter’s invitation to those listening who wanted to know how to respond. If you haven’t been baptized but you’ve recognized God’s invitation to you to follow him and be his child, I invite you to respond to this call. You don’t have to be a certain age. You don’t have to pass an exam. Baptism is one of the first steps of following Jesus. You don’t have to be a perfect Christian first. Instead, baptism is a response to God’s promise to you as his child. It’s a response to a desire and a decision to follow Jesus, trusting that he will guide you and give you all you need on the way. If you were baptized as an baby, and you’d like to respond as an adult to the promises made to you in baptism, I also invite you to share that commitment with the community. Going public with major life decisions can be part of living them out, by inviting the community to rejoice with the work of God in your life, and also to uphold you in prayer and encourage you and support you in what you’ve decided.
The second invitation is to take some action perhaps in response to where you feel ‘cut to the heart’ in terms of discipleship. Is there a practical way that comes to your heart or mind that you could nurture your own growth in becoming more like Jesus and responding to the work of the Spirit in your life? It could be as simple as a daily prayer asking God to show you how to cooperate with his Spirit living in you. Or it might be deciding to meet with someone on a regular basis to pray and seek God’s guidance in following him at work or school or in a particular relationship. Or maybe what comes to mind is a practical way you could nurture growth in Christ in others? Maybe it’s to ask God to empower you in the relationships with others you are already engaged in as a teacher or parent, youth worker or friend to point to God and train in the faith. Or maybe you feel God calling you engage somehow in how we nurture faith in community, by exploring scripture together or serving the wider community together in some way.
I invite you to find some way of asking God how to respond and cooperate with his Spirit living in you, remembering that the Spirit is God’s free gift to any and all who call on his name. His gift of empowerment, support, power and encouragement in all things.
Let’s pray and ask this of God together now.