Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: Spirit-filled history

26 April 2015
10.30 Sung Eucharist
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Revd Simon Cowling
Acts 4. 5-12; John 10. 11-18

It’s very hard not to feel what Tony Blair once called ‘the hand of history’ in Bolton Priory. It’s a history that is both tangible, present in the stones around us; but a history that is also intangible, through the centuries of prayer that these stones have soaked up. It’s this history that draws so many to worship here, so many to visit, and to pray; and to recognise, with the poet Philip Larkin, that this is a serious house on serious earth. And it is a statement of the obvious to say that the history of Bolton Priory, its stones, its centuries of prayer, is inseparable from the Christian story, a story that began over a millennium before a few Augustinian Canons made the journey from Embsay to settle here in the twelfth century. So the greatest gift we offer to those who come here as visitors is a connection with this Christian story.

I’ve always thought it a matter for regret that the Church doesn’t always make quite as much of the Acts of the Apostles as it might. The Christian story that we help people to connect with at Bolton Priory relates intimately to the history of the early Church as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles.  Acts helps us to understand how, two thousand years after it was written, we come to be here, worshipping in this Priory Church; and therefore, indirectly, it also helps us to understand why so many people continue to value what they find here.

St. Luke, who wrote the Acts of the Apostles as well as the Gospel that bears his name, is responsible for nearly a quarter of the New Testament. His two volumes are integrated not only through their common dedication to a man called Theophilus, who is mentioned in verse one of both volumes, but even more significantly through the clear sense Luke gives us of the progress of the Gospel message. Immediately after the Resurrection, as we heard in last week’s Gospel reading, all the disciples were terrified, hiding from the authorities because of their association with Jesus. Yet as the Acts of the Apostles unfolds these disciples became confident apostles, ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ as Luke describes Peter in this morning’s reading. The Gospel moves from its precarious beginnings behind closed doors in Jerusalem to an ever-wider acceptance by all manner of people, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, slaves and free, around the Mediterranean basin.

We don’t hear much of this story, our story, in our Eucharists Sunday by Sunday except in Eastertide when, in successive weeks, we hear a number of incidents from the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. Peter is often the main player in these incidents, as he is this morning. This is the same Peter who fearfully denied Jesus three times during his Lord’s final night on earth. But today we meet him as a fearless prisoner for the sake of Christ, preaching the Good News of the Resurrection. How has this come about?

The final Resurrection appearance of Jesus described by Luke comes in Acts chapter 1. The disciples are still displaying their characteristic lack of insight: ‘Lord, will you at this time give the Kingdom back to Israel?’  Jesus’ reply to the disciples is brisk to the point of being curt: it is the Father who sets the times and dates, and he does so by his own authority. In other words, stop asking questions. Your task, Jesus says to them, is to be ‘witnesses for me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ Fundamental to the disciples’ fulfilling of this task is to be the Holy Spirit, who will come upon them and fill them with his power.

We shall be celebrating this coming of the Holy Spirit in a month’s time, on Whitsunday. But this morning’s reading from Acts is set just after those great events at the Jewish Feast of Pentecost. Peter has been transformed through the Holy Spirit from a forlorn and guilt-ridden figure into the confident apostle we meet today, imprisoned for his activities yet willing to confront his fellow Jews in the religious establishment. Already thousands have been added to the number of believers through his preaching; a way of life based on mutual support and the sharing of possessions is beginning to emerge; and Peter has healed a crippled beggar in the name of Christ. It is a startling transformation.

But it is a transformation that takes place within the wider context of the story told by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. This story, this special kind of history, is infused by the Holy Spirit. It is an account of how the Holy Spirit gave birth to what has become a world-wide community of men, women and children. A community of people who have all received the gift of that same Spirit through baptism and who are one in Jesus Christ.

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. It was a novelist, not a historian, who wrote those words. But this view of the past is, implicitly or openly, actually held by many historians: the gulf between past and present is simply unbridgeable. For Christians, this view of the relationship between past and present is inadequate. Of course, on a prosaic level it’s manifestly the case that the past is different. Rowan Williams has warned against relating to the past as though it’s the ‘present in fancy dress’. But a deeper Christian understanding of history must embrace eternity as well as time. The God of all creation, through whose eternal Word that creation came into being, is seen working in that creation now through the Holy Spirit. This is what makes the Acts of the Apostles a special kind of history and what makes us a part of the same history. This Holy Spirit is what draws us here each Sunday to celebrate and proclaim the Resurrection of Jesus Christ; this Holy Spirit is what draws to this place so many thousands of people whose prayers and candles are testament to the Spirit’s promptings. We are all part of the fabric of this Spirit-filled history – described in particular detail in the Acts of the Apostles but discerned throughout the whole of our scripture and tradition; a history that connects past, present and future in and through the God who was, and is, and is to come; to whom be glory now and to the ages of ages. Amen.