Let’s start with what happens after the ending of the apostle Peter’s first sermon. “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, 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” (Acts 2:37-39). You have to admit, this was a pretty powerful way to end the birthday party as about three thousand believers were baptized and added to their number that day.
For the last five-hundred years the Christian church has disagreed about baptism. How much water is required to make baptism an acceptable baptism? Should a person who has been baptized in another denomination be required to be re-baptized when they change churches? How many times do we need to be baptized in order for baptism to make us right before God? How old should a person be before they are baptized and how old is too old to be baptized (especially when they can’t remember what they had for breakfast!). Does baptism save the sinner from eternal damnation, or will its abuse bring judgment upon ourselves like the abuse of the Lord’s Supper.
A number of years ago, the Presbyterian Church had an infestation of squirrels. After much prayer and after considering the writing of John Calvin they concluded that the squirrels were predestined to be there, and that they shouldn't interfere with God's divine will. After a while, the squirrels made their way into the Baptist church next door. The animals took a major interest in the large baptismal pool in the church. As such, the deacons decided to build a water-slide on the baptistery in the hope that the squirrels would slide down and drown themselves. Instead, the squirrels enjoyed the pool and learned how to swim. They had so much fun that there were twice as many of them the following week. Some squirrels made their way to the Lutheran church which was on the other side of the Presbyterian church. The Lutherans decided that they were not in a position to harm any of God's creatures so they live-trapped their squirrels and set them free near the Baptist church, but the squirrels returned to the Lutheran church when the Baptists took down the water-slide. The Catholic church came up with most creative way to deal with the problem! They baptized all the squirrels and made them members of the church. Now they only see them at Christmas and Easter. The Jewish synagogue had the most experience with dealing with problems. They took the first squirrel and circumcised him. They haven't seen a squirrel since.
No matter who you are or what you are doing in life, I can guarantee that you are always, in one way or another, dealing with solving life’s little problems. You may be trying to find a new way to repair a hole in a garment, find a better way to fasten two pieces of wood together or trying to solve any one of the great theological mysteries of the church – like Baptism or Communion. We almost, daily, find ourselves trying to solve a problem that has squirrelled into our lives.
Simply consider the story of the man walked into the book store and asked the clerk “where can I find the section that contains the self-help books?” The salesclerk responded “if I told you that it would defeat the whole purpose of doing it yourself, wouldn’t it?
The self-help industry has been growing in leaps and bounds. When Mary and I purchased our first home I also picked up a couple of books on home repair and home renovation because I was determined to learn how to do it myself. There is a great deal of self-help books today on just about everything, all directed at how we can self-improve ourselves. Back in 1936, Dale Carnegie wrote a book on ‘How to win friends and influence people’ which has sold over thirty million copies to date, although I personally wonder about if ‘influencing’ is something I would want to do to a friend? Some might prefer books like ‘how to raise the perfect dog’ or ‘how to raise emotionally intelligent children’ while the more stubborn in our midst might like the book ‘how to change your mind’ which might help read the book ‘how to make happy memories’. Last month, a new book hit the shelves called ‘how to survive a pandemic’ which might go well with ‘how to babysit your grandma’ when we get to either the new-normal or back to the old-normal which might help us deal with ‘how to be spiritual in the rise of a new spirituality’. I’m a bit of a procrastinator and I especially like the book ‘21 great ways to stop procrastinating and get more done in less time’ although I haven’t had any time to read it yet. By now, you should have noticed that God is not part of the world’s idea of self-help or self improvement. The focus is on what I can do for myself.
Generally speaking, I believe that most people are always looking for ways to improve and change their lives for the better. As such, there’s a whole industry out there feeding on people’s desire for self-improvement. Simply look at the number of commercials that advertise special diets and exercise programs to lose weight and firm up sagging muscles. The cosmetic industry is a continuous stream of products to make us look younger, improving our appearance which will make us feel better about ourselves. People are looking for those self-help products that will improve hair, reduce wrinkles, and firm up abdomen muscles. We want to improve ourselves. We want to change for the better. Isn’t that why we go to school and attend on-line education? Isn’t that why we attend conferences & seminars? Isn’t that why people see counsellors & psychologists? Isn’t that the reason some go to church? We all want to change for the better.
Do we all want to change for the better? Let’s consider that question for a minute. If there was one thing about yourself that you would like to change what might that one thing be? (pause). Now that you have considered the question about personal self-change, I need your attention again as we ask ourselves a slightly different question – does God want us to change for the better.
Although we sing wonderful hymns like the 1835 rendition of “Just as I am” by Charlotte Eliot, who wrote in verse 5 “Thou wilt receive, wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve” it might surprise you that although we are received ‘just as I am’ it’s not God’s intention that we remain there. Elliot writes that she wrote the words after a night where she was kept awake by the distressing thoughts of her apparent uselessness which led her into spiritual warfare questioning the very reality of her spiritual life and salvation. She realized that no amount of self-change or self-improvement was necessary to come to the one “whose blood can cleanse each spot”. The hymn would become the altar call song for the Billy Graham Crusades which further challenged people to move from being a sinner to living as an accepted and forgiven child of God.
It might surprise you but scripture is clear in that God is interested in change. We also need to be clear on one point, God will not force change upon anyone. When we were created, God gave his human creation, made in the image of God himself, a special gift - the freedom to choose. First, the man was given free access to everything God had created. “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden” (Genesis 2:16), but, “you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17). For thousands of years, humanity has pondered the great theological question as to why God would leave such a great temptation right under the nose of Adam and Eve. The answer is simple, to give them the freedom to ponder their great gift – the freedom to obey or to disobey (which we continue to also exercise every moment of every day).
The three first temptations are identical to the self-help industry of modernity. “The fruit of the tree was (1) good for food and (2) pleasing to the eye, and also (3) desirable for gaining wisdom” (Genesis 3:6). Humanity’s disobedience had showed how they had missed the target when it came to the freedom to obey or disobey. Temptation had opened the door for Sin to enter. Sin ultimately leads to death as the apostle Paul would conclude; “Sin was in the world before the law was given” (Romans 5:13) and “the sting of death is sin” (1 Corinthians 15:56). If we are left unchanged from our exile from Eden – we are destined for death apart from God and God is not willing to leave us there which is why God acted in the incarnation, the cross and Easter.
Today, God is acting and breaking into the finite world of his human creatures again. Today’s readings makes it abundantly clear that God is interested in changing his people - God is interested in changing you if you are willing to freely chose to obey. Last Sunday, we heard how Jesus’ disciples were told to wait; “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised” (Acts 1:4). Today, on the Jewish celebration of the ‘Feast of Weeks’, which takes place seven weeks after the Passover, the waiting was over for the disciples as the lives of 3000 people were changed by God that day. “Those who accepted [Peter’s] message were baptized” (Acts 2:41).
Two major changes took place on that first Christian Pentecost. The first change directly impacted the lives of those disciples. Initially, the disciples were confused about the many things Jesus had said and did. They didn’t understand although they believed that Jesus was going to stay with them. Because of their confusion, they were hesitant and nervous about sharing the Gospel with others. How can you share something that you don’t really understand? But, after Pentecost they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in foreign languages they had never learned before. A crowd gathered, people from all over the world, and that crowd listened as the disciples proclaimed the Good News and gave glory to God. Then, from the timid little band of unlearned men Peter addressed the crowd – giving them a beautiful sermon that God the Holy Spirit inspired him to preach, a sermon that converted the hearts of his listeners.
It’s not hard to see the before and after picture of this story. All of the confusion is gone. The disciples completely understood God’s plan for the salvation of humanity which began with the forgiveness of sins. “Repent and be baptized, 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” (Acts 2:38). There was no hesitance or fear. They were confident and spoke boldly about the wonders of God.
But something else happened that day and we could argue that this second change is more spectacular than anything that happened to the disciples or to Peter. “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said … what shall we do” (Acts 2:37)? ‘What shall we do’ sounds familiar – doesn’t it? We could rephrase it something like ‘they were deeply hurt’ by what Peter had just announced saying “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36). ‘Whom you crucified’ is powerfully accusative. First, we see the effect of repentance showing itself when ‘they were cut to the heart’. What shall we do, they ask? Then, Peter offers them the possibility of change saying “Change your life. Turn to God and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so your sins are forgiven” (Acts 2:38 Message).
So, who were those 3000 who received the forgiveness of sins and were baptized that day? Have you ever wondered? Scripture doesn’t tell us anything about them. We can only speculate. We know that Jerusalem would have been crowded with people because of the Jewish festival of Weeks which Moses defines, as the third great festival of the Hebrew people, described in the Old Testament book of Exodus. It was an agricultural festival and a time to give thanks to God for the harvest. But today, they happened to be in the right place at the right time, because their whole way of looking at God, their world and themselves was being changed. God was changing the world by offering His people forgiveness and the desire to go and to forgive others.
The single word that best describes the meaning of Pentecost is the word ‘change’. The world God had created had been spoiled and blemished, had been changed by humanity’s disobedience – by sin. Now, the world is being changed by God, first through the Incarnation, then the death and resurrection of Christ, “the lamb of God who takes away sin of the world” (John 1:29), and now our world was being further changed by God again with the coming of God the Holy Spirit.
The lives of the disciples were changed that day and a miraculous change also took place in the lives of those 3000 persons because they freely chose to accept what God was doing in their lives. Most of the self-help seminars, to do books and commercials today, that direct us to improve ourselves, are aimed at our ego, our looks, clothing and personality – everything that we can do for ourselves for our benefit and which are external and visible for other people to see.
Jesus was once asked “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life” (Matthew 19:16)? When Jesus told the man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor and then to follow him - the man went away greatly saddened. Humanity is selfish and self-centered. Little has changed from the time of Adam and Eve. Most people don’t want to change because they like things, they like themselves just the way I am. Why would I want to change anything?
If I am a forgiven sinner, because of the cross of Christ, why would I want to change my life of sin if I know I can continue doing everything that I used to do just the same way? Why would I even want to forgive those who sin against me? It would be no different than winning a ten-million-dollar lottery and never giving any of the blessings I have received away to anybody else!
But, that not what the immeasurable grace of God is, as the Holy Spirit shows us the wonder of the Father’s gift to him children; salvation, life eternal and the forgiveness of sin, proclaimed by Christ on the cross of Calvary. It’s a wondrous gift which is freely given to us to change our selfishness in such ways that we want to share the good news in word and deed. The gift of salvation and the forgiveness of sin ought to cause us to, not want to stay ‘just as I am’ but rather to change into what the Father wants us to become – which is a work-in-progress as we freely allow the Holy Spirit entry into our lives as we allow ourselves to be changed. That’s what Pentecost is all about. It’s not about what I can do for myself but what I allow God to do as the Spirit points us towards Jesus from whom we receive the forgiven of sin and the power to go forth and to forgive. God loves & accepts us just the way we are but like any good Father he doesn’t want us to remain stuck in our sinful ways because it’s God desire that we change for the better because we are a work in progress as the Holy Spirit is changing us into the image of Christ.
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We are a family of followers of Christ, who learn and share the Good News of Salvation, making disciples of Jesus Christ.
We hold weekly Sunday morning services at 10:30 am. We also host a Bible Study each Sunday morning at 09:30 am and on Tuesday afternoon at 1:00 pm. Please join us.
Our music team plays from a repertoire of many hundreds of Christian songs and Hymns, occasionally with new arrangements of traditional and contemporary selections.