- William Wilberforce, as portrayed by Ioan Gruffudd in Amazing Grace (2006)
This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.
The text is Acts 2:1-21.
William Wilberforce had a problem. He was trying to figure out what to do with his life. Most youth and adults know what that’s like. However, what makes this case different is that Wilberforce was already a successful member of the British Parliament. In American terms, he would be called a Congressman. To be where he was (especially in 18th century England), one would assume that he had already climbed the ladder of success!
The thing that had Wilberforce all worked up about his future is that he had recently experienced a profound and life-altering spiritual awakening. His personal relationship with God had suddenly taken over his life to such a degree that Wilberforce was thinking of quitting politics for good and entering ordained ministry in the Anglican Church. He was at a loss over what to do.
While he was in this state of mind, Wilberforce was introduced to a group of Christian activists who were campaigning heavily for the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain. The beginning of Wilberforce’s involvement with this group (later known as ‘the Clapham sect’) is depicted beautifully in the 2006 film Amazing Grace. Seated around his dining room table, they showed him examples of the irons used to restrain captured slaves during their journey across the Atlantic. Conditions were so brutal that no one was guaranteed to survive. They introduced him to Olaudah Equiano, a liberated slave who became an active abolitionist. Equiano showed him the scars on his body. While Wilberforce’s mouth was still hanging open in shock, Thomas Clarkson and Hannah More delivered what I believe to be the best line in the film:
Thomas Clarkson: Mr. Wilberforce, we understand you are having problems choosing whether to do the work of God or the work of a political activist.
Hannah More: We humbly suggest that you can do both.
And I think they were right.
The members of this group understood one very important truth that most Christians tend to forget. It’s a truth that we celebrate every year on the feast of Pentecost. And here it is: The Holy Spirit ordains all people to preach good news to the world.
Not just some, but all. Have you ever noticed something strange about the early church in the book of Acts? Most other radical movements in history emerge with a chain of successors once the initial founder is out of the picture. There was even biblical precedent for this. After the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire, people everywhere recognized his apprentice Elisha as his chosen successor. They said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.”
But that didn’t happen in the early days of Christianity. Jesus Christ had no heir or replacement. The title ‘Messiah’ did not pass to a predetermined chosen one after his departure into heaven. Instead, the Holy Spirit, the very power and presence of God, came to dwell within the entire community of faith.
We read, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
This kind of thing was totally unprecedented, although the ancient prophets had prayed for something like it to happen. One time, when people complained to Moses about unauthorized prophets in the Israelite camp, Moses said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” Later on, God spoke through the prophet Joel saying, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”
And that’s exactly what happened. The entire community of believers on Pentecost was filled with the Holy Spirit and each one started “speaking about God’s deeds of power” to people from “every nation under heaven”. There was no seminary course or board-approved examination. They simply opened their mouths and started to speak “as the Spirit gave them ability.”
There was no single successor to Jesus’ ministry. There was no special order of priests or prophets. The only qualification for speaking forth good news in the power of the Holy Spirit is that you had to believe. “Out of the believer’s heart,” Jesus said, the Holy Spirit would flow, like “rivers of living water”. He never said, “Out of the apostle’s heart” or “Out of the pastor’s heart”. No, Jesus said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”
Anyone with an open heart and an open mind about Jesus is a vessel for the Holy Spirit. This is an important piece of good news for us to hear, on this day of all days. Later today, a new pastor will be ordained in this church. But, if we take the message of Pentecost seriously, then we must admit that there is a very real sense in which all of us are already ordained as ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, each of us has a responsibility to answer God’s call on our lives and preach good news to the world around us as the Holy Spirit gives us ability and opportunity.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we all need to become experts at delivering sermons. That’s only one way to preach the good news. A single act of kindness can be a sermon unto itself. You can even preach by listening while people tell you about their problems. You might not have fancy theological answers to questions about Christianity, but the simple fact that you’re letting someone ask a tough question is sometimes enough to speak to that person’s heart.
William Wilberforce found his way to do the work of God and the work of politics at the same time. He devoted the rest of his life to fighting slavery. He sent petitions, lobbied Members of Parliament, spoke out in the House of Commons, and wrote legislation. Finally, in 1807, he succeeded in ending the British slave trade once and for all. He never became a member of the clergy, but this was his life’s work as an ordained minister of the good news.
In the same way, each one of you is an ordained minister of the good news. You will leave this church today and go back to your neighborhood, your family, your school, your shop, or your office. As you go, let this reality sink into your heart. Let this mentality take over your brain: You are a missionary. The place where you stand is your mission field. Be open to whatever ministry opportunities the Holy Spirit may bring into your life today. Be faithful in your calling as an ordained minister of the good news of Jesus Christ.