A sermon preached by the Revd Richard Newton

Pentecost, 20 May 2018

(Ezekiel 37.1-14)           Ps 104.26-30, 32           Romans 8.22-27

Acts 2.1-21                   John 15.26-27; 16.4b-15

1.         The gift of the Holy Spirit

Today – on this festival of Pentecost – we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit. And we celebrate (too) the beginning, or the birthday, of the Church.

Our readings, as you would expect on one of the major festivals of the Church’s year, are familiar ones – familiar ones which remind us about the work of the Holy Spirit.

  • Words from Psalm 104 remind us of the work of the Spirit in bringing forth creation.  “When you send forth your spirit, they are created”.
  • The Pentecost story itself, from The Acts of the Apostles, tells us of the Spirit descending on Jesus’ followers like fire, in the midst of a violent wind.
  • That gift of the Spirit was foretold by Jesus himself, as we heard in the reading from John’s Gospel, when Jesus speaks about the Spirit as advocate, who will guide those followers of Jesus and lead them into trust.
  • The reading from Romans is of the Spirit helping us in our weakness, and interceding for us (when we don’t know how to pray) with sighs too deep for words.
  • And there’s an alternative reading to Romans which we could have had from Ezekiel, which would have given us that wonderful image of dry bones being covered with flesh once more, and being brought back to life again, following the prompting of the Spirit.

So, taken all together, the readings represent quite a celebration of the life of the Spirit – and they remind us that the Spirit is present throughout the events that the Bible describes, right from the beginning of creation, through to the formation of the early church – and present (as well) after biblical times, right through to the present day (and into the future).

Those Bible passages present us with quite a range of images of the Spirit – of both the nature of the Holy Spirit and also the work of the Holy Spirit – which are quite different from each other.

Let’s explore those a little.

2.         The dramatic image of the Holy Spirit

At the wedding of Prince Harry and Megan, yesterday, the congregation were clearly captivated by the address from American Bishop Michael Curry.  From the looks on their faces, his was a style of preaching that many of them clearly weren’t very used to.

He talked, very passionately, about the power of love – quoting Martin Luther King, amongst others, and talking about what happens “when love is the way”.  He also borrowed an image from Teilhard de Chardin about the importance of fire to the human race, and said “if humanity ever captured the energy of love, it would be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.”

The image of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is also one both of power and also of fire.  It is dramatic, transformative, and (to some extent) chaotic.

The Holy Spirit comes unexpectedly.  We’re told “Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind”.  It alights on the apostles like tongues of fire – and causes them to speak all at once, so that the crowd each hear them in their own language, and in such a manner that some in the crowd think they’re drunk.

So we have images of wind and fire – images that evoke pictures of destruction and power, and have an emphasis on refining and cleansing and blowing away the debris.

We hear of the possibility of prophesying grand visions and having dynamic dreams, and of a devastating judgement.

That all paints a very dramatic picture of the nature and work of the Holy Spirit.  I guess all of us, in truth, need a bit of that. 

  • We need to be shaken out of our comfort zones, and woken up to the work of God.
  • We need to be inspired by the Spirit to dream dreams and have vision (in our church of the 21st century)
  • We need a dose of the passion and power that comes through so strongly in the events of Pentecost, and of which Bishop Michael spoke yesterday.
  • We need to have our lives turned upside down, as in the manner of the wind at Pentecost, or to be shaken into life again like Ezekiel’s bones

Thankfully, there are people who do experience the gift of the Spirit in that kind of dramatic way today.  It may not happen to everyone, and it may not happen every day of the week – but the experience of God’s Spirit suddenly breaking into our lives, continues to be a part of our story.  It’s part, too, of what we pray for – for the Spirit to bestow on us the assurance and confidence to live the Christian life and to proclaim the Gospel and to prophesy to our time and our world.   

3.         The Spirit that breaks down barriers   

A slightly different image of the nature and work of the Holy Spirit is of breaking down barriers, and of enabling us to hear God and one another.

What happens at Pentecost is the opposite of what happens in the story of the Tower of Babel.  In that story the people decide to “make a name for themselves” and seek their own salvation by building a city with a huge tower that reaches up to the heavens.  Genesis ch.11 tells us how the project fails, the tower is never built, and that from being a single people with one language they became a scattered people with many languages, unable to communicate with one another.

At Pentecost the opposite of that process takes place.  Rather than thinking they’re reliant upon themselves, the apostles are content to wait upon God.  And with the gift of the Holy Spirit comes the ability to communicate across languages.  There’s a re-uniting of humanity within the life of the Spirit. 

Not being able to communicate with each other can be a real problem, can’t it.  Kathy and I were very fortunate to be able to have a few days in America earlier this month.  People sometimes talk about ourselves and Americans as being “two peoples divided by a common language”.  It’s certainly true that we use a lot of different words and different phrases to describe the same things.  That can make communication difficult. We met several people, on our recent holiday, who couldn’t understand what I was trying to say at all – perhaps not that surprising, but illustrative, nevertheless.

  • When we went into a shop and up to the counter and ordered a pizza to eat in, and I said, “shall we take a seat”, the person serving us looked at me as if I was a criminal.  I think she thought I was going to steal the furniture!  Kathy helpfully said, “shall we sit at table”, and all was well!
  • When the waiter in a bar said to me, “would you like the cheque?” I thought “I must have won some money!”  Unfortunately, it was just the bill!
  • When we ate a meal at our hotel, on our last night, half way through the starter the waiter came and said to us “Are you OK for us to fire up the Entrees?”  I wasn’t at all sure what that meant – it sounded as if something very explosive was about to happen - but what we concluded was that he seemed to be asking whether they could start serving up our main course.  I replied that I didn’t want it while I was still eating my starter, and please could they wait . . . so it came a minute later anyway!

It’s difficult when we have problems communicating and understanding one another.  If we open our hearts, then the power of the Spirit that comes with Pentecost gives us the ability to communicate across whatever barriers there are between us.

As Christians, we know we should be listening to and hearing one another, and seeking to find common ground when there are differences between us.  Pentecost invites us to ask the Spirit to open our ears and minds to each other, as well as to God – to find the power of love which overcomes misunderstanding and suspicion and confusion.

4.         The Spirit at work quietly and imperceptibly

There’s a third image of the nature and work of the Holy Spirit in today’s Gospel reading.   Jesus talks to his disciples very calmly about the Spirit that is to come guiding them, and prompting them to understand what’s happening around them, and helping them to know what to say, and working within them to develop their faith.

Far from the dramatic image of the Spirit that Pentecost gives us, this is an image of the Spirit working quietly and almost imperceptibly.  It’s much more slow and gentle.  The Spirit indwells the disciples, gradually growing confidence and self-esteem, and enabling them to become what they’re meant to be.  It’s a similar image to the one in Romans, in which the Spirit comes alongside us in our weakness, and intercedes for us.

That image of the nature and work of the Spirit evokes the words of Psalm 46 “Be still and know that I am God”, and the experience of Elijah when he finds God in the “still small voice” that follows the earthquake.

As I know some of you have, I’ve been watching the BBC Young Musician of the Year recently.  It brought home to me how different musicians perform in such different ways.  There were those who gave great dramatic expressions of their musical passion with their arms or with their faces, as if the music wasn’t able to express itself.  And there were others, like the person who won, who simply felt all that inside, and played the music. 

There are parallels, I think, with how we experience our faith as Christians – some Christians very naturally express their passion for the Gospel in an exuberant and external way – others simply feel it deeply inside.

The picture of the Spirit quietly working away, which today’s Gospel and other readings give us, is much more the experience of many Christians than the dramatic experience of the Spirit that others may have.  There’s a sense, sometimes, that if we don’t experience those big dramatic moments in which we’re suddenly aware of the presence of God breaking into our lives, then we feel second-rate Christians.  Well, God doesn’t always work like that.  For many, God often seems to work in a much slower and more gentle way – infuriatingly slow and gentle, we might feel! – but sometimes that’s the way of the Spirit, and it doesn’t make our Christian experience any less real, nor does it make it second-rate.  It may be that it’s in a quiet way, centred on God, that we gain new perspectives, and how God’s light seems to shine.

5.         Conclusion

So as we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to us at Pentecost, we’re celebrating a multi-faceted gift:

  • there’s the dramatic, powerful and  instantly life-changing work of the spirit;
  • there’s the work of reconciliation and breaking down of barriers, that enables us to commune with God and with each other;
  • and there’s the quite, imperceptible breathing of the Spirit through our hearts and lives, that gradually changes us into the people God created us to be.

Let’s pray that, whichever way the Spirit comes, the Spirit will come to us afresh today and every day, working whatever the Spirit wishes to work in our lives, giving us dreams, giving us confidence and courage in our discipleship, helping us to be open, fanning our souls with his breath, and keeping us alive to the life of God, day by day.