You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

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 baptised, 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 2:36-39

I was shopping in Bury St Edmunds recently, and decided to pop into the local branch of Debenhams (known locally as ‘the cow pat’ – Google it and you’ll soon see why!) for lunch. As I walked through the homeware department towards the café, I saw a sizeable crowd gathering. Being a bit of a sheep, I followed, to see what was happening. People’s attention had been caught by a man selling knives. Not just any old knife, though, but the sharpest knife in the world! These knives, we were told, made light work out of bread, could slice through tomatoes without them disintegrating, could be used for carving meat, and could even slice through bone (which sounds rather dangerous to me!). As he finished his spiel, the crowd was positively buzzing. How can we get our hands on these wonderful knives, everyone was asking. What can I do to get my hands on such an incredible tool?

The picture we get in the verses from Acts above is of a buzzing scene in which people are desperate to find out more. Peter, the apostle, has recounted the gospel message, telling the gathered crowd about the death and resurrection of Christ. The Holy Spirit had come upon the apostles and equipped them to speak in many different languages. The crowd was ‘perplexed’, and Peter explained the situation through his exposition of the gospel. He concludes with the statement above, “therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

At this, the people were ‘cut to the heart’. They were suddenly aware of the extent of their sinfulness, and they were ashamed. “What shall we do?” they asked themselves.

Peter responded by telling them exactly what they should do. They should repent of their sins. They should ask for forgiveness and turn away from their wrongdoing, resolving never to sin again. They should be baptised in the name of Jesus as a sign of their rebirth, their new start as followers of Christ. If they do this, then they will receive not just forgiveness, but also the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Peter’s reply here is a simple statement and affirmation of what we must do if we are to receive the Holy Spirit. We need to repent of our sin, and be baptised as a symbolic gesture of our new birth. If you’ve already done this, then you have the Holy Spirit! Peter’s statement is also an important reminder of the power of the gospel message. It was through hearing the gospel, preached by Peter, that the crowd were convicted of their sin and brought to their knees. Let us never forget the power of the gospel, and the importance of God’s word as we seek to lead others to Christ.

The Way, The Truth and The Life

55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

Acts 7:55-60

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.”

5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. 12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

John 14:1-14

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 22nd May 2011 at London Road Methodist Church in Horsham, West Sussex. 

There’s been a lot of talk this week about the rapture. Harold Camping, the leader of an organization called Family Radio, proclaimed that at 6pm on Saturday 21st May, 200 million Christians would be raptured, with those who had not been saved would remain on earth until God destroyed the planet on October 21st. Camping’s pronouncement gained worldwide attention. Christians and atheists alike mocked his claim, and are likely to continue to do so for many more months ahead. Whilst we need to be wary of people who prophesy the end of the world, it does spur us on to think about heaven, and that is what we’re going to be considering today.

Over the next twenty minutes or so, we’ll look at three points from John 14. You may find it helpful to have the passage open in front of you.

Firstly, we’ll see that even if the end of the world failed to come yesterday, one way we can be confident that we will go to heaven. Secondly, we’ll see that the only way to heaven is through Jesus, and finally, we’ll look at what our response to Jesus should be and the importance of prayer as we seek to live out the rest of our lives here on earth.

Let’s straight away turn to our first point, then.

Obviously we all know what happens when we die. We go to heaven. That’s what we’ve been taught, and, if we are Christians, that’s what we believe.

But do we really?

It’s one thing to believe that God was responsible for creation; we can look around us, and for many of us it makes sense that God must be behind it all.

It’s one thing to believe the words of the Bible and to accept that Jesus existed, that he did amazing things, and that he fulfilled scripture written thousands of years before.

But believing in an afterlife is hard. How can we be confident that we are going to heaven? How can we be confident that heaven even exists?

We can be confident because Jesus assures us that it is true. If we turn to John 14, we can see that Jesus says to his disciples, “my father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?”

Jesus’ disciples are upset because he has told them that he is leaving them. He shows them, however, that it is better for them that he does leave, because he is going to his Father’s house to prepare a place for them, and for all believers.

We need not worry about whether we’re going to heaven because the Son of God has personally prepared a place for us in his Father’s home.

He says to his disciples, would I have said that to you if it wasn’t true? Would I lie to you? Of course not, so trust me. Trust that I am going ahead of you to prepare a place for you in my father’s home.

What’s more, we need not fear about there not being room for us, either. Jesus assures us that his Father’s house has many rooms. There is room for all believers.

You might have heard that story in which a man has to travel for a census with his pregnant wife. When he arrived, all the hotels and inns were full; there was no space anywhere. In the end, he and his wife had to spend the night in a stable, where his wife gave birth.

I speak of course of the birth of Jesus. Jesus arrived amongst us in a stable because there was no room for him. When we arrive in heaven, though, there will be more than enough space for us. We won’t be turned away. We won’t have to stay in a lean-to bolted onto the side of heaven.

Jesus doesn’t just promise his disciples that there is a place for them in heaven. He also assures them that he will personally come back for them when it is their time to join him.

“I will come back and take you to be with me,” he says. He will personally meet us and take us to his heavenly Kingdom.

We don’t need to worry about whether we’re going to heaven, or how we’re going to get there. There’s no protracted interview prior to entry as some imagine. If we know and love Jesus, he has personally invited us to his father’s home, and he will personally escort us to there.

If we trust Jesus, if we follow him, we can be more certain of one day arriving in heaven than we can be of arriving back at our homes later today.

Perhaps, like Thomas in verse 5, though, we’re still not sure of the way to heaven. So our second point is, how can we know the way?

Our answer to this question comes loud and clear in verse 6. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

But look closely at that incredible statement. Jesus didn’t say, “I will show you the way.” He said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.” Others have claimed to show people the way to heaven, indeed, that’s what we should be striving to do. Jesus, though, is the only person who can claim that he IS the way.

How can we know, though, that Jesus really is the way? This is unpacked in the next part of this verse.

We can be confident that Jesus is the way because he is also the truth. Jesus shows us the truth about God. He shows us what God is like. When we look at Jesus, we see God, because Jesus is God. In our reading today, Phillip asks for assurance that Jesus really is the way by asking to see God. “Lord,” he says, “show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Show me God, he says, and I will believe.

How often do we hear that said today? If I could see God, I would believe. How can I believe in a God that I cannot see?

Jesus, probably a little exasperated that his disciples still didn’t get it, replied in verse 9, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How do you say, ‘show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?”

When we look at Jesus, we see the Father, we see God. Anyone who has seen Jesus has seen God. Because Jesus is the earthly revelation of God. When people complain that they can’t believe in God because they can’t see him, we need to point them to Jesus. In the four Gospels we have a record of Jesus’ life, of his miracles and his teaching. When we look at the heart of Christ, we see the heart of God revealed. Looking at Jesus we see not just him, but God himself.

Jesus asks his disciples, and us, not just to accept what he says, but to look at the evidence he has provided us with. Having witnessed all that he has done, he tells his disciples to “believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” Look at all I’ve done, he says. He fed five thousand people with just five loaves and two fish. He healed the lame. He cured lepers. He made the blind see. He raised the dead. He walked on water. He calmed a storm.

Look, he says to his disciples, and to us. How can you have witnessed all the things I’ve done and not believe that it is God at work. Weigh my claim up against all that you have seen. I. Am. God.

We shouldn’t let our hearts be troubled, we shouldn’t be worried, because when we measure Jesus’ claims against his actions, his claims make sense. If Jesus is God, when he assures us that he has prepared a place in heaven for us, and he will take us there, we can be confident that he is speaking the truth.

A little later in this same chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus goes even further than this. He says, “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”

Just as the Father is in Christ, Christ is in us, and we are in Christ. Since Jesus is the earthly manifestation of God the Father, when we look at our fellow Christians, we see God. When we see the work of a faithful servant of God, we see God himself at work in our world.

This leaves us, as Christians, with an awesome responsibility, but we’ll pick up on that point again shortly.

For now, though, we can trust that Jesus is the way, because he is the truth. He is God, he points us to God, and he shows us what God is like.

We can also be confident that Jesus is the way because he is also the life. Jesus died on the cross yet rose again three days later. He is the life because he defeated death. He is the life because it was through him that all life came about in the first place.

By dying and rising from the dead, Jesus demonstrated once again that he is God. If he is God, if he could raise himself from the dead, if he could raise Lazarus from the dead, if he was responsible for giving life in the first place, we can be confident that he is the life.

We can be confident that Jesus is the way to eternal life in heaven because he is also the truth, and because he is also the life.

Our third point today considers what our response to this wonderful news should be. We find that response in verse twelve, when Jesus states that “whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these.”

This, then, is how we follow the way. This is how we respond to Christ’s personal call to join him in his Fathers home. By doing the works that Jesus had been doing. These works are not how we get to heaven; Jesus, as we have seen, has already secured our place in God’s home. Rather we do these things to continue Christ’s work, to continue the spread of his gospel, and to continue to bring people to him. These are the greater things that Jesus says we will do; what could be more important than winning souls for Christ, than showing people how they can gain eternal life.

The way for Jesus ultimately took him to the cross, to death, all alone, abandoned by those he loved, humiliated in front of huge crowds.

Many others too, who have sought to follow the way and continue Jesus works, have discovered that the path to heaven has led them also through pain, suffering, and perhaps even death. In our reading from Acts we saw how one of the members of the early church, Stephen, was stoned to death simply for offending the religious authorities. For Stephen, the way led to a brutal death at the hands of enemies of Christ.

Maybe we won’t have to pay that ultimate price, but Jesus still demands our lives. Whilst there are plenty of examples of Christians who have died for their faith, we are all called to live for our faith.

Today it is Aldersgate Sunday, when we remember the conversion of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist tradition. Wesley oversaw a powerful movement that sought to do the good works that Jesus had been doing.

During his lifetime, John Wesley travelled 250,000 miles on horseback. He gave away £30,000, and he preached more than 40,000 sermons. He formed societies, opened chapels, examined and commissioned preachers, administered aid charities, superintended schools and orphanages, and wrote extensively.

When Wesley died in 1791, he died poor, having given away almost everything he earned. But he left behind a Christian movement with 135,000 members and 541 itinerant preachers.

Wesley didn’t die for his faith, but he did live for his faith. Wesley is a good example to us of what it means to do the works that Christ has been doing. As a result of his efforts, the Methodist Church around the world is still doing these “greater things;’ witnessing to Christ and winning souls for him.

We are by no means alone in doing the things that Jesus did. Jesus told us in verse 12 that he was “going to the Father.” He went to the Father so that we might pray to him. He assures us in verse 13 that “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and you will do it.” When we pray, Jesus will support us as we seek to continue his works.

There are two keys to understanding this section of the passage. Firstly, Jesus says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.” We need to consider what it means to pray in the name of Jesus. It means more than simply concluding our prayers with the words, “I ask this in the name of Jesus Christ.” It means aligning our will with his. We need to look back at the “evidence of the works” that Christ performed. We need to study his teaching.

There are plenty of examples of Jesus teaching people the importance of being humble, of turning the other cheek, and of supporting the poor and sick. These then, are the kind of things that we should be praying for.

Secondly, Jesus says that he will do whatever we ask, “so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

Our prayers, then, should be orientated towards glorifying God. Our prayers should focus not on how we can get power, or money, or glory, but on serving God.

This does not mean that we should not pray; Jesus tells his disciples on many occasions that praying is a good thing to do. God wants to hear what is on our hearts and minds. We should bear in mind, though, that our prayers may not be answered in the way that we expect. Our prayers will be answered in a way that gives glory to God.

Finally, then, let’s try to draw together what we’ve learnt today. The first is that we can be absolutely confident that we are going to heaven, because Jesus has personally prepared a place for us in his Father’s home. Secondly, we can be completely confident that Jesus is the way to the Father, because he is also the truth and the life. And thirdly, we need to consider our response to this. With the aid of Jesus through prayer, we need to ensure that we are living out a life that continues the saving work of Jesus when he walked amongst us.

Listen to this sermon:

I will send you

I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.

Acts 7:34

I always get a little concerned when people tell me they have a little task for me. Often it comes at a time when I’m preoccupied with something else, and I just want to get on with what I’m doing, but I’m expected to help the other person straight away. It might be my mum asking me to set the table. It might be my fiancee wanting me to help her find something that she’s lost. It might be my boss at work wanting me to write a new scholarship paper. Maybe I’m just too selfish, but all I want to do is to get on with what I’m doing!

In today’s verse, Stephen is recalling God appearing to Moses in the burning bush. Moses must have been wondering what on earth was going on; there he was minding his own business when he came upon a bush that appeared to be on fire, but wasn’t burning up. Then, much to his surprise, a voice came booming out of the bush telling Moses that this was God talking! Moses is then given a great task by God; he is to go into Egypt and tell Pharoah, who has been using the Jews as slaves, to let God’s people go. That’s quite a task, and Moses had some misgivings about his suitability for the role.

This verse highlights two key aspects of God to me. Firstly, God deeply cares for all of is people. He saw what was happening to the Jews in Egypt, and wanted to do something about it. Secondly, he uses ordinary people like you and me to achieve his goals. Reflect today on just how much God cares for you, and reflect on how God is trying to use you in his eternal plan!

God rescued him from all his troubles

Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him and rescued him from all his troubles.

Acts 7:9-10a

Sometimes in life we find ourselves caught up in periods of great change. The present time is one of those occasions for me. I have been off work unwell for some time, and am also preparing to get married, move house and find a new job, all at the same time. My fiancee is facing even more stresses as she also has job related exams to prepare for. Things seem to be fitting into place, however. Today we found ourselves somewhere to live, but were worried about how we would pay for it. When I returned home, I found a very generous cheque on my doormat. I know this sounds like one of those cheesy made up stories that Christians tell, but this is completely true, I promise! Not only did we find somewhere to live, but we even found the money to pay for it!

God is very good like that. If we trust in him completely, and try to follow his path for us, he will make those paths straight, and things will work out in the end. This was true for Joseph. His story is very famous; his brothers were jealous of him and sold him into slavery. He subsequently found himself in jail. From there, somehow he rose to become Pharaoh’s right hand man. Thats even more incredible than my story! Joseph was faithful to God, though, and God was faithful to him. God had a plan for Joseph that involved all of those painful times, but he then rescued him from all his troubles!

Joseph is a great example of how God looks after and watches over all of his people. Try putting your confidence in God and seeing where he leads you!

Arguing against ideas

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen.

Acts 6:8-9

I started my career working for a major multinational retailer. Soon after I began, the company’s fortunes started to nosedive. I always maintain that this had nothing to do with me, but my friends are not so sure! I felt that the company wasn’t addressing the big issues that underlay the poor trading so suggested lots of new ideas. Each time I did so, I was told that “this is not our way of doing business.” It seemed strange to me that the company had deliberately recruited dynamic young people onto their management training programme, yet weren’t prepared to listen to any of our suggestions. It was almost as if they felt threated by new ways of doing things.

The Church is very good at not listening to new ideas. We read about declining attendance, and yet often individual Churches don’t want to adopt new methods or think of new ways of doing things. Just like in my retailer, it’s almost as if they feel threatened. The same could be said for the early Church and its relationship with the leading Jews of the time. In our verses today, Stephen is achieving great things in God’s name, but rather than listening to Stephen, reflecting on whether what he says makes sense or not, and then taking the appropriate action, they quickly jump on him and start arguing with him. In the next chapter they will put him on trial and eventually Stephen will be killed for his beliefs.

Thankfully we don’t get many stonings in the west these days, but we can still find ourselves playing the part of the Jewish leaders. Do we listen to new ideas and consider new ways of doing things? Whilst the gospel message remains constant, every generation has their own ideas about how to communicate this. We need to be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things.