Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost
15th May 2016
Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost 2016
“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” Acts 2.4
Those of you who are observant may have noticed a distinct change in the appearance of the church this morning. I do not mean the obvious change from the liturgical colour white for Eastertide to that of red for Pentecost. No, you will notice that the great Paschal Candle, which has been lit on the Sundays of Eastertide, is now extinguished and placed not at this end of the church, in the sanctuary, but at the back of church next to the font. This symbolic moving of the candle tells us that Eastertide, the time of Resurrection, is for the time being, ended. In the yearly liturgical cycle of the church, however, there is never a complete ending. One season gives way to yet another. And in this way the moving of the paschal candle tells us of the great shift that has now occurred in the Church as she receives at Pentecost The Holy Spirit, which the life and death and resurrection and Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ has made possible.
For the followers of Jesus the moment of the coming of the Holy Spirit was both singular and devastating. For these men and women, many of whom had been with Jesus, his teaching and his example of Jesus Christ had provided a Gospel and a witness of unparalleled spiritual power. Works of healing flowed naturally from this power as did the inspiration to preach, testify and to witness conversion. Pentecost had come to them in the giving of spiritual gifts. And the giver was the Giver of all things, God himself. The Christian witness developed out of this same Holy Spirit, which had been given to refresh, establish, sustain, re-invigorate, deepen and enlarge the Christian witness. This witness had hitherto been essentially a responsive one. Responsive in the presence of Jesus Christ himself, whether in the flesh or as He appeared to them as their resurrected Lord. The Christian Church came into being not as an act of human will, but as a gift from God, freely given in His Son Jesus Christ. It was given, moreover, to be re-imagined, re-given, re-expressed and continually restored in his likeness. It bears testimony to a living church not a dead one. The description of the proliferation of languages is the one which establishes the scope and the scale of Pentecost. It is a breakthrough moment in the lives and fortunes of the early Christian witness at the smaller level at the larger level, a quantum movement forward in the life of the people of the whole world. But the important fact is that the initiative and the providence always remains with God and not with men and women. They have been overtaken, as it were by the generosity of the God who has in Jesus Christ, gone before them, and who now lives with them in an utterly transformed way. The Holy Spirit has been gifted and it will remain. In John’s Gospel there is no doubt, but that this gift has transformed the consciousness of who God is and what God does:
God is a Spirit, and they that worship him, must worship him in spirit, and in truth.
King James Version (1611)
The term ‘Spirit’ or ‘Spiritual’ is of course not an easy one to define. People talk about the 'spiritual' in a loose way and it can refer to the atmosphere of a church like this one. It is used in many different ways. On the one hand, people say that they do not believe in God but they are nonetheless ‘spiritual’. On the other hand, there is a whole level of Christian understanding which comes to us as ‘spirituality’ as indicating depth of knowledge and of prayer. It has been of vital importance for the Church to anchor this term ‘spiritual’ in terms which make it legible and which establishes a preventative against its misapplication. In our anointing with Holy Oil this morning will we have the sign of the Cross impressed upon our foreheads and the anointing sets a seal upon the life giving Spirit. In the sacraments of Confirmation and Ordination, a central place is established for the formal summoning of the Holy Spirit by the Bishop, movingly expressed in the ancient hymn ‘Come Holy Ghost our Souls Inspire and Lighten With Celestial Fire’, written in the ninth century and translated by Bishop John Cosin in the 1640s.
Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
and lighten with celestial fire.
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.
Thy blessed unction from above
is comfort, life, and fire of love.
Enable with perpetual light
the dullness of our blinded sight.
Anoint and cheer our soiled face
with the abundance of thy grace.
Keep far from foes, give peace at home:
where thou art guide, no ill can come.
Teach us to know the Father, Son,
and thee, of both, to be but One,
that through the ages all along,
this may be our endless song:
Praise to thy eternal merit,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit’s startling movement through the barriers of language and culture remind us that its nature is to challenge the Church to look beyond itself. The gift of the Holy Spirit is the one which calls the Church to see the person of Christ all around us - in the eyes of the stranger, the visitor, the refugee, the homeless one, the marginalized, the gay person, the drunk, the depressed, the impossible and the despised and the fatalistic as well as my family and my church friends! A Bishop once reminded me that a church like Holy Cross is only as effective in Christian terms in its ability to minister to its most trying and difficult members. The Spirit is holy and gives nourishment, and it can console. But it also calls us out of ourselves and beyond the level of our natural complacencies. It settles and it disturbs, it enlightens and it confounds at the same time, because it is a truthful spirit and we do not always live in the light of God’s truth. God is to be found in the other, in the realization of things beyond our immediate realisation. He is often called ‘The Holy Other’. In this, in the wisdom of God, there may come new life, for the Spirit renews us as it draws us out of ourselves. So- let us be alive and awakened to its presence! Let us wait on this same Holy Spirit which came upon the followers at Pentecost. May it enlighten and strengthen and re-awaken in us to a truer and braver sense of God’s purposes for us and for our world.
It is now our task to understand what has been happening; that the paschal light has lead us surely to the Pentecostal fire – and so now we are called to become lights for Christ in our own generation, for
Unless the eye catch fire
The God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire
The God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire
The God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire
The God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire
The God will not be known.
From 'Pentecost' by William Blake.