Monday, 9 May 2016


Acts 2:1-13

Pentecost (Shavuot) was an agricultural festival during which the first fruits of the harvest were brought to the Temple. Pentecost comes from the fact that there are seven full weeks, 49 days, from the second day of Passover to the day before Shavuot. The 50th day is Pentecost (fiftieth). The festival is associated with the giving of the Law, Torah at Mount Sinai.

So since it was the day of Pentecost, they were all together, suddenly


unexpectedly there was a sound of a roaring sea, a wind-like, vibrating. !t filled the room, possibly somewhere in the temple precinct where they were sitting. They saw fire shaped like tongues separated on each of the disciples. The Spirit came on each one of them, all of them were filled, realizing 1:5 "will be baptized." They began to speak out aloud, forcefully in other tongues- ecstatic prophecy. 
There were staying in the area God-fearing Jews possibly Jewish pilgrims from the Roman provinces visiting Jerusalem for the festival. When they heard the disciples they were shocked at hearing their own language (like prayers at the Selly Oak colleges in 50+languages). “Galileans”, they said- What identified them as Galileans? Their accent, which meant it carried over into the tongues. Then there is a list of countries and races present representing the Jewish disporia. There were visitors from Rome both Jews and converts to Judaism temporarily resident in Jerusalem. “We hear them declaring the wonders of God” they said. They were puzzled, shocked and they asked one another “What does this mean?” Some people made fun of them, ridiculing, sneering (so today). “They have had too much wine!” 

So for Jews Pentecost meant the birth of Judaism, for Christians it means the birth of the Church.

So who are were filled with the Holy Spirit. Luke says in chapter 1 

"all these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers." 

Luke goes on to describe a crowd of one hundred and twenty people who he calls "brothers" and addresses as "male brothers" (the NRSV says "believers" and "friends"). At first impression it would seem as if the crowd was constituted only by males, but this is not so as mentioned women as part of the group. That Luke meant both men and women being baptized by the Holy Spirit is made clear not only by 2:1, where it says that the day of Pentecost "they were all together in one place," but also by quoting the prophecy of Joel who talks about an indiscriminate pouring of the Spirit upon "all flesh…sons and daughters…young men…old men…slaves, both men and women…" (2:17-18). Therefore, those who received the Holy Spirit were every one of the one hundred and twenty gathered together in the upper room. 

What exactly happened? Wind and fire, two of the natural elements of the ancient world’s cosmology, are mentioned. Fire is often associated in the Old Testament with the divine presence (Ex 19:18; Is 66:15-16). Wind is described as one of the instruments through which God acts (Gen 2:7; Ex 14:21). The sound of the wind was only heard by those gathered in the house. What the crowd heard was not the sound of the wind but the sound of the voices speaking in tongues. The tongues here are not the ecstatic speech of the Corinthian church, a kind of spiritual language. Here it refers to actual languages. This was so important to Luke that he mentions it three times in seven verses.  For him this is the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise that they would be Jesus’ witnesses to the entire world (cf. 1:8). Here they are, in Jerusalem, but the church will rapidly move into Judea, Samaria, and eventually, the whole of the known world: the ends of the earth.

Why Peter’s speech and the quotation from the book of Joel? Strictly speaking the speech is a response to the accusation that they were drunk. Peter says that they were not filled with wine, but with the Spirit, as the prophet Joel had promised. For Luke the outpouring of the Spirit demonstrated the re-establishment of the prophetic role, which was believed to have been discontinued after the last great prophet, Malachi, had spoken. The New Testament is consistent in affirming at the beginning with Jesus’ ministry the heavens had opened again and the Spirit of God was empowering people once more (cf. Mk 1:9-11; 9:2-8; Acts 2:1-4; 7:56).

The quote from Joel reinforces Luke’s understanding of the early church as a community where, at least ideally, distinctions of gender, ethnicity, and social status were erased. From the point of view of God's plan of salvation, all are equal before God.

So Pentecost is the bedrock of Christian mission. Paul understood the implications of Pentecost and was prepared to stake his reputation on what Pentecost stood for. The effect of the gospel, Paul affirms, was to de-stigmatize people: Jews, gentiles, barbarians, women all now stand on an equal footing under God. Paul had not suspected that God was like that. His theological studies had told him that God was loving and merciful; but he had thought this love and mercy were expressed once and for all in the arrangements He had made for Israel's blessedness-'the plan of salvation.' 

Christian missionaries have assumed that since all cultures and languages are lawful in God's eyes, the rendering of God's word into those languages and cultures is necessary. More than 1,800 languages have been employed in translating the Scriptures. There is hardly any language that does not have some portion of Christian materials available in translation.

Without the Spirit we are like board members of British Gas. It is the Spirit that marks us out, inspires us and gives us that 5th dimension. It is the Spirit that gives life to the churches and without it we are like hollow shells (white anted). So pray for the Spirit as individuals and as churches. We need it!

"If you believe and I believe and we together pray
the Holy Spirit must come down and set Gods people free..." African hymn

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Easter 4 John 10 The Good Shepherd

The story of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is fully of imagery.

The Shepherd-Have you ever met a shepherd? I have an image of a weather beaten man with a sheepdog on the Welsh hills or David sitting on a Palestinian hill or  Brokeback Mountain with those beautiful scene of the hills and the shepherds on horseback.   Shepherds care for their sheep, make sure they have food and water, and protect them- in first century Palestine, from wolves. 

When I was little my favourite book was about Sooty the sheepdog who fought off the bad wolf who came to harass the sheep and even stole one. Powerful imagery. 

The Sheep Gate is less clear to me. But my grandma had a picture of sheep in her bedroom and when I stayed over she told me to count sheep. The sheep were enclosed in a field by a gate. So the gate also protected the sheep and controlled who came in and who came out.

The Shepherd’s Voice-Sheep and sheep dog are trained to respond to the shepherds voice. A shout, a word means everything-from the shepherd. There is the story of the man who gets lost in the mountains in a snow storm. He hears the voice of a well known mountain guide who tells him to jump. It’s a drop and he cant see what is at the bottom but he trusts the voice. He jumps and is saved.

Sheep have a bad press. “Like sheep”! “Dressed like mutton”…but also “like a lamb” for trusting passivity. Sheep are lost without a leader, a shepherd. They will die without a good shepherd.

Gates-Some powerful gates for me are the gates to the nunnery on Iona, which are latticed and latched and creak in the dark, dark nights on the island. Or the sheep gate on Holy Island, which is a metal gate that lets only one person through and is too complex for the sheep in the field to fathom. There are other gates: the gates to Winson Green prison, the gates to the church heavy and old with a loud clunk when it shuts. Gates control space and are boundaries to activity. Gate keepers are important people like lock keepers.

Jesus is saying he is a gate keeper as well as a shepherd. 

One of the most powerful images of Jesus is as the good shepherd with the lost sheep on his shoulders. Jesus the good shepherd has come to seek and save the lost sheep. And one of the most well known biblical text is the “The Lords my Shepherd” Ps 23. So it’s a very powerful image of God too.

Most shepherds take care of sheep, although they may be responsible for goats as well. They often work in isolated areas and may work independently except for the assistance of herding or guard dogs. Many sheepherders must be on call for their animals around the clock. 

A shepherd’s primary responsibility is the safety and welfare of the flock. Some flocks may include as many as 1,000 sheep. The shepherd will graze the animals, herding them to areas of good forage, and keeping a watchful eye out for poisonous plants. Shepherds often live in trailers or other mobile quarters. As the sheep eat all the grass in an area, the shepherd will move both the sheep and his living quarters to fresh pasture. In most cases, the shepherd and his dogs will move the sheep out to fresh grazing each day and bring them back to bed down in the same area each night.

To protect the sheep under his care, a shepherd may use guard dogs or other guard animals. Sheep predators include coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, bears and domestic dogs. Domestic dogs are a menace because they may chase sheep to exhaustion and cause the ewes to abort their lambs. In addition to using guard animals, many sheepherders carry rifles to shoot predators that are attacking the sheep. Cell phones and radios may also be used to call for assistance when necessary.

Like other animals, sheep are susceptible to diseases, and they must also be monitored during the lambing process. They may also be bothered by insects, some of which carry disease. Shepherds are often responsible for minor injuries or basic medical treatment, especially since they work in isolated areas far from veterinary services. In addition, shepherds may administer worming medication or vaccines and apply insecticides. During lambing season, the shepherd will make frequent checks on the ewes at all hours of the day and night, and may assist the ewe if birthing problems occur. Shepherds may also dock, or cut off, the tails of young lambs.
Unlike other animals that shed their hair in the spring, many breeds of sheep must be shorn -- have their fleece cut off with shears or clippers. This task may be assigned to sheepshearers, whose primary occupation is shearing, or it may be the responsibility of the shepherd. Sheep may be sheared in the open or in holding pens. An experienced shepherd is expected to shear up to 125 ewes a day without nicking or cutting the skin, and to remove the fleece intact.
Shepherds themselves need to eat sleep and rest because they are potentially on call to rescue lost sheep and they need to be alert and wise to wolves.

Who in your life has been a good shepherd to you? I did a funeral for a man called Ian. He was a senior paramedic at West Midlands Ambulance Service -and he cared about people-loads of people. He was a good shepherd.

One Anglican Bishop practiced his sermons by preaching to his sheep when he was first ordained. They listened to his voice, which they recognized. They stayed near to him knowing that they were safe there. I wonder what they thought of his sermons!

Some years ago I was invited to speak to the Presbyterian Church in Wales. I said that I thought the church in Western Europe was declining because we failed to be good shepherds. Our society desperately needs spiritual shepherds. There were nods from an audience many of whom were sheep farmers or who had sheep farming in their family, in their genes.

In our time there are many voices competing for our attention. In economic recession there are strident voices encouraging a way, the right way, nationalism and Xenophobia. We may lose the voice of the good shepherd and go astray from time to time and fall into danger, perhaps following a voice that sounds strong and smart and seductive, but different. We may follow a path that leads us away from God. Whose voice do we follow? What gate do we enter by? What gate do we lead others through? I leave you to ponder.


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