08 June 2014
10.30 Priory Sung Eucharist
The Feast of Pentecost
Revd Simon Cowling
Acts 2. 1-21; John 20. 19-23
A few weeks ago, at the end of May, some research was published, as part of the annual British Social Attitudes Survey, which appeared to show that racism in the UK is on the rise. Statisticians, journalists, and political commentators immediately indulged themselves in a farrago of interpretation. Their reactions inevitably depended on their particular standpoint – academic or political; and in general more heat than light was produced by the resulting babble of conflicting voices. No doubt we will all have had our own reactions to the research. What gave me pause for thought was the fact that the research was published at more or less the same time as the European elections, at which the United Kingdom Independence Party’s rhetoric on immigration, linked with a policy of withdrawal from the European Union, chimed with enough voters to give them more votes than any other party.
All this gives plenty for Christians to chew on. Today we remember the astonishing and stirring events described by Luke in our first reading: the great gathering of Jewish people in the holy city of Jerusalem at the Feast of Pentecost. Judaism in the first century, as it still does, encompassed people from across the known world. That great list of countries in Acts chapter 2 is placed quite deliberately by Luke to put the reader in mind of the wonderful confusion of sound that must have emanated from the vast crowd. Yet what each person heard, was heard in a way that could be understood; and what each person heard about were the great things that God had done for all God’s people. Christians, who often understand the events we celebrate today as marking the birth of the Church, similarly embrace a culture that is transnational. What unites us more than ethnicity, or nationality, or language is our faith in Jesus Christ – risen, ascended and glorified, and our understanding, as Paul reminds the Philippians, that ‘our citizenship is in heaven’.
So like Christians in the early Church, and like all Christians since, God calls us to be disciples not in isolation but as part of a worldwide community who, together, ultimately seek the city that is to come. And within our local, temporary, community here at the Priory, as we journey towards the heavenly city, God challenges us to recognise that our welcome for others, our worship together, and our witness to Jesus Christ must be seen in the context of the bigger story which all Christians share. The story of God’s love for God’s people as shown in the life, death, resurrection and continuing presence of Jesus Christ. The story of the Acts of the Apostles, beginning with the great Pentecost event, shows us that, however fragile and uncertain, communities find power and strength in God far beyond what they imagine could ever be possible.
We remember today that this power and strength come through the Holy Spirit. The same Holy Spirit that Jesus breathed on his disciples in the upper room on the day of his resurrection; the same Holy Spirit present at the great Pentecost gathering in Jerusalem; and the same Holy Spirit that is present here, in this place, in our Pentecost celebration, transfiguring all our uncertainties as we seek to work out how God is calling us to be Church here at the Priory.
The Christian Church has often been a bit wary about the Holy Spirit. As early as the second century a Bishop whom we know as St Irenaeus was having to defend the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. But even he wasn’t the first to have to do so. We have just heard how Peter had to do exactly the same in Jerusalem during the very first public proclamation of the Gospel after the Ascension of Jesus. Peter had to speak sharply to those who thought that the ecstasy of the Pentecost event owed more to drink than the outpouring of God’s Spirit. Ambivalence about the role played by the Holy Spirit, both in the Christian understanding of God and in the life of the faithful has deep roots.
Sometimes this ambivalence has had to do with the teaching of the Church: it was several hundred years, for instance, before the Church came fully to accept that the Holy Spirit was divine, part of the Holy Trinity that we shall be thinking about next week.
Sometimes the ambivalence has been to do with the need of church authorities to control the behaviour of the faithful. The use of the word ‘enthusiastic’ to describe preachers like John Wesley and George Whitfield in the eighteenth century was not meant as a compliment. Enthusiasm implied espousal of a faith that was dangerously out of control and which risked disturbing the equilibrium of a social order that suited the Established Church very well.
Sometimes the ambivalence about the Holy Spirit has been to do with an understanding of Christian history: there are Christian groups who reject charismatic worship of any sort because they believe that the particular gifts of the Holy Spirit that Luke describes in Acts chapter 2, and elsewhere in Acts, ended at the time the first generation of apostles died. Speaking in tongues, the gift of prophecy, miraculous healing – all of these are activities that had ended by around AD 100, and any worship in which these activities appear today is, almost by definition counterfeit.
These examples of ambivalence about the role of the Holy Spirit, and there are others, all suffer from the same underlying problem: they are all concerned with keeping things under control: constraining people to believe in a particular way, behave in a particular way, worship in a particular way. But if we think of the scriptural images of the Spirit as fire, wind and dove – all to a greater or lesser extent hard to control; if we recall the picture in this morning’s reading of God’s Spirit being poured out on all flesh, it must surely follow that our worship and our lives of discipleship should be open and adventurous, attentive to the promptings of the warmth, the unpredictability and the freedom of the Spirit, unrestricted by customs or conventions that have grown stale.
In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul has another image of the Holy Spirit, a wonderful picture of the Spirit as a kind of seed planted in the heart of Christians. This seed, Paul says, will produce fruit: love, joy, peace; patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control. These fruits are what will reveal us to the world as a people whose lives have been forever changed by our encounter with the living Spirit of God. The Spirit who is alive and active among us here this morning is alive and active, not simply because it is Pentecost but because wherever God’s people gather to worship the Spirit is among us, bringing us into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and uncovering and revealing the many gifts among us with which we are equipped to serve God and each other.
How many of these fruits will we allow the Spirit to produce in our life together at the Priory? How will the Spirit change our lives, and the life of the Priory, as a result? What tasks might the Spirit be calling us to here, amidst the changes, challenges and opportunities that lie ahead of us? What is the Spirit calling us to do, and to be?Unlocked Spirit you are the breath of peace no door keeps you out: invade our warring confusion, disarm our defences and shape us to live as a people of forgiveness; through Jesus Christ, the word of reconciliation. Amen.