Pentecost Sunday 2018
Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This week is Pentecost Sunday, and next week is Trinity Sunday, and those two weeks together ought to remind us, loud and clear, that there is much more to God then we can possibly imagine.
Actually, why don’t we try that for a moment this morning. Close your eyes and imagine God. And I don’t mean dwell in his presence, because that is another thing entirely, I mean imagine what you think God is really like.
And now come back to Earth for a moment.
Now, focusing our minds on God in this way is doubtless a good thing, and it may be a first step to moving us deeper into contemplative prayer, but here is the thing: whatever we imagine God is like, is wrong. The theologian Anselm said that the God we can imagine is never God because, if we tried a little bit harder, we could probably imagine a greater God. Whatever image came to mind when you thought about God a moment ago I am sure, if you tried, imagine something bigger and older and more loving.
Does the God of our imagination not only bestride all of time and space but does he intimately know and infinitely love every creature and every corner of the universe? And, even if we say ‘yes’, of course, these are only words which seek to convey a meaning, but none of our human minds can truly comprehend the size of the universe or the age of creation – if we struggle to remember the name of that nice person we met yesterday or which Christmas it was that Auntie Bertha dropped the Christmas pudding, then let’s not kid ourselves that we can truly take in the universe, and if we can’t imagine the whole of creation then we shouldn’t be shocked that we can’t really comprehend the reality of that which not only brought creation into being but which upholds it from moment to moment, and which knows the beginning and end of all things.
If someone ever asks you if you believe in God, then it is perfectly valid response to ask what they mean – because most people’s explanations of the God they are asking about are not the God I believe in. And that is not evasiveness because, actually, a truly Christian understanding of the nature of God can be transformative of our beliefs in and about God.
So, on the one hand, the wholeness of God is beyond our human imaginings. But that doesn’t matter and should not cause us any consternation, because we were not created to understand God but to love him. And if you think that love needs understanding then I can tell you that I don’t understand my wife and children most of the time, but I still love them.
There is another reason why we should not allow the limits of our imagination about God to deter us from seeking him. And that is because a truly Christian view of God is shaped by these twin events of Pentecost and Trinity.
The God I know and love, and with whom I sometimes tussle, or don’t speak to enough, or blame too easily is not, ultimately, a God who sits far off and remote from his creation. As Christians, as followers of Jesus, we spend much of our liturgical year thinking about the events of Jesus’ life – his birth, his life and teachings, his death and resurrection. Of course they are all foundational for the Christian life. But, even as Christians, I wonder how easily we forget that this man Jesus was also the incarnation of God on earth. How easy it is for Christians, even for theologians, to slip into talking about God and Jesus as if they belonged in different categories. But, actually, in Jesus God himself took on human form and in the Ascension the resurrected body of Jesus returned to sit at the right hand of the Father. Therefore the vastness of God also includes the earthiness of humanity. I shall probably return to that next week.
This week we are reminded that God did not just reach out to the world by being incarnated as a person 2000 years ago and 2000 miles away. At Pentecost we are see once again that God reaches out to the world through his Holy Spirit. I once heard a preacher say that the Holy Spirit came into being at Pentecost, but of course that is nonsense – the church as we know it came into being at Pentecost, but the Holy Spirit had been with God and part of God since the beginning – in Genesis 1:1 we encounter the Spirit of God hovering over the waters. The Holy Spirit is evident throughout the Old Testament, primarily in the lives of the prophets. But the New Testament is full of the Holy Spirit, and much of that before Pentecost. The obvious example is the Holy Spirit ‘overshadowing’ Mary at the Annunciation but the Spirit is also present in the story of John the Baptist, with Simeon and Anna at the Temple and at the Baptism of Jesus.
Prior to his Ascension Jesus promised his followers that he would not leave them comfortless, and we heard those words of promise in our Gospel reading this morning – Jesus would send his followers an advocate. When I was a lawyer I often acted as an advocate in the employment tribunal and, as an advocate, your job is to step into the shoes of your client and to speak on their behalf, saying the things they would say if they had the knowledge and vocabulary so to do. But the job of the advocate is not just to represent their client’s case to the court, it is also to explain to the client how the system works and what is happening. So the advocate is not just a mouthpiece but is better understood as an interpreter – translating client speak into court speak and vice versa.
And we see much of this in the work of the Advocate, that Jesus promises to send. Jesus says that the ‘Spirit of Truth’ will testify on his behalf and will prove the world wrong about sin, and righteousness and judgement. So the Spirit will stand in the shoes of Jesus and continue to speak into the world. But the Spirit doesn’t just speak into the world – Jesus says that the Spirit will also speak what he hears and declare it to the followers of Jesus, because they are not able to bear everything now. So, in that sense, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit is representing God to the world and to the church. But we also believe that in our baptisms each of us becomes recipients and dwelling places of the Holy Spirit and as that Spirit leads us into truth we hope also that he acts as our Advocate to God, saying what we would say if only we had the knowledge and vocabulary.
In our reading from Acts we saw the events of the first Pentecost, and we also learnt an important lesson. God the Holy Spirit doesn’t just exist ethereally or in the abstract, rather the Holy Spirit is made manifest in the body of the church – on their own wind and flames are unintelligible and unknowable but when they land on the church and people start to speak as they hear from the spirit, then barriers are broken down and individuals become a church. In a very real sense, if Jesus is the incarnation of God the Son then the Church is the incarnation of God the Holy Spirit.
Whilst we celebrate and remember Pentecost as the Holy Spirit giving birth to the church we should also remember that this was not a once and for all occasion. Only a couple of weeks ago I spoke about the Pentecost of the Gentiles, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on Cornelius and his family in Joppa, I have already mentioned the work of the Holy Spirt throughout the Old and New Testament, in John’s Gospel Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on his followers even before the Ascension and we believe that the Holy Spirit continues to be poured into the church, which, of course, also does not exist ethereally or in the abstract, but only exists through each and every one of us.
Our homework for this week, as we prepare for Trinity Sunday, is to take seriously and prayerfully, the proposition that God the Holy Spirit is present and dwelling within you right now. That through you the Holy Spirit acts as God’s Advocate to the world but that he also acts as your Advocate to God.
God is vaster than we can ever imagine, but he also looks at the world through your eyes and cares for the world through your hands, because the Holy Spirit dwells amongst us and within us.