19 May 2013
St Mary’s Hadlow
Readings: Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-17
Heavenly Father, my the words of my lips this morning, reveal something to us of your written word and so, through your Spirit, lead us ever closer to your living word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I have a theory, or perhaps more accurately, a suspicion. I would be more than happy to be proved wrong about this suspicion, and when you are a man who has been married for a while you get used to being told you are wrong, so that is fine.
My suspicion is this, that many Christians simply do not have a joined up view of God: I suspect that many of us here are quite happy to relate to God as Father. Someone who is bigger than us, more powerful than us, perhaps someone who works on an entirely different plane from us. Someone to whom you can look up, respect and approach with some diffidence. In fact a real Victorian father, perhaps someone who dwells in their study providing for and loving their family but in a slightly distant manner.
Those who are more evangelical in their leanings seem to focus much more on the person of Jesus, and how much we should love and worship him. It may have changed a bit now but there were certainly a whole spate of evangelical worship songs which could be described as “Love songs to Jesus”. Of course that is an unfair characterisation, but you probably understand what I am talking about.
And then there are Christians who seem much more focused on the work of God the Holy Spirit, that charismatics (who are named after the charisms or gifts of the Spirit) or the pentecostalists, named after the events of today, Pentecost. Their worship focuses on outpourings of the Holy Spirit and its manifestations, especially things like speaking in tongues, prophecies and dramatic healings.
Some of you may now be getting an image of John Cleese looking down on Ronnie Barker looking down on Ronnie Corbett – if you are too young to know what I mean have a look on YouTube.
Again I am more than happy to admit that I may be wrong about this but I think that we are very good at carving up the Trinitarian God and focusing on and relating to that part of the God-head with which we feel most comfortable, whether by dint of our upbringing or character– Father or Son or Holy Spirit. Even if I am wrong about that I have no doubt about this: if someone stood up, at the wrong time, during one of our morning services and started speaking loudly in a foreign tongue then a good number of people may well think that they had had too much to drink.
If there is any truth in my suspicion then this season which has included Ascension, Pentecost, and of course Trinity Sunday which is next week, ought to be a powerful reminder that God cannot be easily divided up into manageable proportions which suit us and, more importantly, the work of God cannot or should not be limited by our imagination or preferences.
For the last few weeks Jesus has been reminding us again and again that he and the Father are one. In today’s Gospel he says:
“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father… Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?…Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me;”
And having asserted his unity, his indivisibility, from God the Father, Jesus again reassures his disciples, as he did in the readings before Ascension Day, that when he is no longer with the church in person that he and the Father will send another to be with them and to empower them:
“…I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you for ever – the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”
Of course while Jesus is speaking to them, the disciples have no real idea what he is talking about but all becomes a little clearer on the Day of Pentecost.
The opening verse from today’s reading from Acts tells us that when the Day of Pentecost came around the first followers of Jesus were gathered together in a house in Jerusalem. This may have been the same house in which Jesus celebrated the last supper only a few weeks before. But not only are the disciples gathered together that day; it seems that Jerusalem was filled with Jewish people who had gathered from all over the Roman empire and beyond. The reason they were all gathered together was because Pentecost was originally a Jewish festival. In fact the Qumran scrolls suggest that there were three festivals called Pentecost called the Day of the First Fruits, the Day of New Oil and the Day of New Wine. The last one is particularly pertinent, not only for those who go to New Wine festivals today but also because this may help explain the assumption that the disciples had been at the wine when they started behaving oddly.
So the disciples are gathered together in a house and, in verse 2, we are told that a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house. In Hebrew the word for wind, or air or breath is “ruach” – which also means “spirit”. If you think back to Genesis 2 we are told that God brought Adam to life by breathing the spirit of life into him. In fact in John 20:22 Jesus also breathed on the disciples saying: “Receive the Holy Spirit” and in Acts that action is being repeated and amplified. God is breathing his spirit, the spirit of life into the Church.
But this descent of the Holy Spirit is such a difficult phenomena to describe that the writer can’t contain himself to simply being the ‘ruach” of God. We are also told that something like tongues of flame separated and came to rest on each of them. It must have been both an amazing and a terrifying experience.
And of course this is by no means the first time that we have encountered the Holy Spirit descending at an important point in the New Testament. Any guesses as to when else we see this happening?
At the baptism of Jesus we are told that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove.
So in just a couple of verses here we are told that God is doing at least two things to the gathered followers – he is breathing life into them and he is baptising them into a new state of being.
And of course when I say ‘God’, it is worth pausing and thinking about who is meant by that. The creed tells us that the Holy Spirit proceeds from God the Father and the Son. For the moment I shall spare you the theology of the ‘and the Son’ part, but in any event the Holy Spirit is sent from God but, and here is the important bit, the Holy Spirit is also God.
We often talk about Jesus being the incarnation or the embodiment of God, well if you can imagine this, the Holy Spirit is also the incarnation or embodiment of God but without a body – except, of course that the God the Holy Spirit, does have a body – and I am looking at a lot of them right now.
When God the Holy Spirit landed on the first disciples with the sound of a wind and looking like tongues of flame what did they start to do? This group of Galileans started talking in at least 15 different languages – and this is not the mysterious ‘speaking in tongues’ which comes a bit later, but they were speaking in the languages of all the people who had gathered together in Jerusalem from all over the empire. The church had transformed in a matter of moments from being a monoglot gathering of the like minded who are only talking to each other to being a miraculously multilingual community who are suddenly able to talk to everyone around them in their own language and we are told that:
“…we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”
The Holy Spirit enthused the church to declare the wonders of God. And I use the word enthused advisedly because it comes from the Greek – en theos – which means enGodded – or to be filled with God. The Holy Spirit filled the people of God with the presence of God, and that is exactly what he continues to do today.
But, at the end of the reading, we get one of those little details or throw away comments which, for me, makes the account so much more authentic. Yes, some people heard the disciples declaring the wonders of God in more than a dozen different languages, and we know that that was the start of the church’s rapid expansion, but there were also others present who are capable of seeing nothing other than a group of people who seem to be drunk – they made fun and said:
“They have had too much wine.”
In some ways the mockery and disbelief of those who did not recognise the work of the Spirit should reassure us that even in biblical times there were always plenty of people who were not open to the work of God and were more willing to make fun. In todays Gospel reading Jesus himself said that the world cannot accept the Spirit of Truth because it cannot see him.
But perhaps the disdain of those who do not understand should also give us pause for thought. Going back to what I said at the start of my sermon I wonder what many of us would think about encountering charismatic or Pentecostal worship, or how we would react if people started praying or talking in tongues. If there is a possibility that we would think that such people are drunk or mad then have we become the ones who are laughing at the disciples and not recognising the work of God?
On this day of Pentecost, and in preparation for Trinity Sunday, I want us to take seriously the fact that the Holy Spirit is not an optional extra for those who like that sort of thing but that the Holy Spirit is God, the same Spirit who hovered over creation from the beginning, dwells in the church and in each of us and that we should pray earnestly for the fruits of the Spirit and that we should each be enthused, en theosed, to go out into the world and to proclaim the Wonders of God and not to care too much if some think we are drunk.