Pentecost (and Songs of Praise)

Verses from Acts of the Apostles. Ch.2
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language speaking about God’s deeds of power?” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

From John 15.
Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

I have been thinking about hymns this week.  We have our Songs of Praise service tonight so my sermon this morning is not only a reflection on Pentecost, but also a prelude or introduction to tonight’s service.

Our reading from John today is one that makes me a little uncomfortable:

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth;

That text has been used to give divine authority to the Church.  Jesus could not say everything that needed to be said while he was alive – so his successors in the Church, and particularly the Spirit-led Clergy.

If the Church acts with the authority of the Holy Spirit then its authority is unquestionable.  And too bad if you disagree, are a women, or are gay.

“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely; ecclesiastical power corrupts diabolically.”

However, the passage from John is valuable because it reminds us that Jesus did not think his words stitched up every ethical, moral and religious issue, that there is room for development and growth.

I actually don’t believe that Church or its leaders have any spiritual authority at all.  I believe in the disestablishment of the Church of England, and think the sooner Lords are reformed and the Bishops evicted the better.  The church has a practical authority to maintain an institution, it needs its rules and regulations.  But this is a secular authority, it does not speak for God, and if any religious leader claims to be speaking for God I suggest you walk away, or maybe run…

The authority of the Church is purely charismatic, if what the church is saying resonates in your life then listen for some more.  If it doesn’t resonate there is no reason to listen further.  That was Jesus’ approach.  He preached, and people listened or walked away.  He did not insist that people listen or obey.  He talked about Judgement, but judgement was not based on obedience to him, accepting him as saviour, or joining the church, judgement was based solely on our love for our God’s children, our sisters and brothers in need.

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth;

As long as we see Jesus words as allowing a diversity of opinion through time and not giving the Church some sinister authority.

This diversity, and the charismatic authority of religious teaching and words has been illustrated in the selection of music for our Songs of Praise Service.  When I suggested tonight’s service I had no idea what sort of hymns would be chosen.  I wondered if there were any dentists in the congregation who would choose “Crown Him With Many Crowns.”   I thought some keen golfer might select “There is A Green Hill Far Away” or some shopaholic might want “Sweet By and By.”   The Geologist’s Hymn is of course “Rock of Ages” whereas a tax collector likes to hear “I Surrender All.”

You may have heard before the recommend hymns for speeding in your car:

AT 75 miles per hour: “God Will Take Care of Me”
AT 85 miles per hour “Guide me, O Great Jehovah”
AT 95 miles per hour “Nearer My God to Thee”
AT 105 miles per hour: “Lord, I’m Coming Home”

Jokes aside Hymns resonate deeply within our spirituality.  Sometimes, the words move us, sometimes the tune, sometimes the time when we heard it.  Often they sum up comfort we received from God at a certain point in our life.  Often what we love someone else will hate and visa versa – tolerance in our worship is important.

Music itself is an amazing gift from God.  To me it is a sacrament.  In communion ordinary bread and wine become for us the body and blood of Christ – the normal becomes the sacred.  In music the sound of wind through pipes, or strings struck or plucked, or the vibration of vocal chords become something that defies description.  Music is a sign of the Kingdom of God – that the ordinary can become the sacred.

In essence this is the hart of Christianity, that an ordinary human life, the life of a wandering penniless preacher, who lived in a small county under Roman occupation 2000 years ago could reveal to us God, in all God’s fullness.

That also, bread and wine can reveal to, today God’s presence with us still.

And, perhaps most significant of all, that our lives, can be transformed, by the presence of God’s Spirit.  A hymn not chosen tonight, but which makes the point of this sermon more eloquently than I could is “Teach me, my God and King”

All may of thee partake;
nothing can be so mean
which, with this tincture, “for thy sake,”
will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
makes drudgery divine;
who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
makes that and the action fine.

This is the famous stone
that turneth all to gold;
for that which God doth touch and own
cannot for less be told.

“nothing can be so mean which, with this tincture, “for thy sake,” will not grow bright and clean.” – bread and wine can become for us the body and blood of Christ, as sound waves can become music, so can our lives be lifted, transformed, made into a sacrament of God’s love and presence

Finally, as a postscript to this sermon: a cautionary tale about hymns…  I have a curious inability to remember numbers, phone numbers, house numbers, dates, bible chapter-and-verses and hymn numbers.  I can forget a hymn number in the time it takes for me to look up from my notes and announce it.

A man went to a friend’s wedding and was impressed with the choice of hymns, especially ‘Love Divine’. He was due to be married himself a few months later, so he made a note of the number: 343.

When he next met with the minister who was to conduct his wedding, he told him he would like hymn 343.

‘Are you sure?’ asked the minister. ‘It is rather an unusual choice!’

‘No, I am certain. I heard it at my friend’s wedding, and it is just what I want to say,’ insisted the man.

What he had not realised is that his friend was married in a Methodist church, using the Methodist hymn book, whereas at his wedding they were using Hymns Ancient and Modern.

Imagine the surprise of all – not least the bride – when they started to sing:

HA&M 343:
Come, O thou traveller unknown
whom still I hold, but cannot see;
my company before is gone
and I am left alone with thee;
With thee all night I mean to stay,
and wrestle till the break of day.

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The Truth of the Ascension

On Ascension Day we had Bob Callahan from Inclusive Church come to preach.  He said lots of lovely things about the Church of the Ascension.  He also talked about the Chapel of the Ascension in Walsingham where in the plasterwork of the ceiling there is a cloud sculpted, and disappearing into the cloud are two feet…  It makes me think of Monty Python, but it is supposed to be Jesus’ ascending.

I have had a complicated relationship with the Ascension.  I am talking about the idea of the Ascension – Jesus disappearing into the clouds – rather than the Church of the Ascension  – perhaps that’s another sermon there…

I was brought up a Northern Irish Baptist – brought up to believe the Bible was given by God – that God dictated the text of the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.   And so, if the Bible was so God-given then it was true in every way that it is possible to be true: spiritually, historically, scientifically…

So the story of the Ascension was difficult because it is just so hard to believe as a historical event.  It works OK (just about) if you believe in the classical 3-tier universe: earth in the middle, the underworld below, and heaven above…  But we know the earth is round, to quote John Lenon there is “no hell below us, above us only sky.”

As a youth I was not only a fundamentalist Christian, I was also a science geek (I was a glutton for punishment, and not very popular with the girls), and I worried about Jesus body.  I worried because with our current knowledge of science we know that any human body would burn up on trying to leave the atmosphere, and even if God was able to protect Jesus body in a bubble of oxygen, there would be no where in space for Jesus to go once he was out there.  (I worried about a lot of things as a youth – I really want very popular with the girls…)

There were other things I struggled to believe, but this one just seemed so very odd.

Added to this I felt the Ascension was a strange day to celebrate, as it was a miserable occasion – it is a sad goodbye – a ridiculous day for a festival, and a ridiculous event to name a church after…

You will be glad to hear that my opinions have changed.

So we have this strange story of a seemly rocket-propelled saviour.  You may wonder what really happened to make the first Christians tell this extraordinary story?

Well get ready, here is the truth.

First lets look at the Bible.

The early manuscripts of the earliest Gospel, Mark, do not have any resurrection sightings of Jesus at all, and so no ascension either.

Matthew has Jesus make a lovely farewell speech “remember I am with you to the end of time…”  But he also has no account of Jesus departure.

The ending of John is my favourite, because it keeps us humble, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”  John has no ascension story, just an assertion that there is a lot we don’t know.

In the letters of Paul and other New Testament writes Jesus is described as “exalted to Gods right hand,” or “raised up” or even, “ascended on high.”  But all of these could be spiritual rather than historical statements.  It seems in the New Testament only Luke had heard the story of Jesus taken up into the clouds.

Turning to our readings for today, we must note that the Ascension does not feature of some of the earliest manucrips of Luke.  In some of the earliest manuscrips it just says that “Jesus parted from them” later manuscrips add “and was carried up into Heaven.”

So Acts has the only solid account of the Ascension.

So what do we make of this tale, seemingly known only to Luke?

The key line for me is “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

The truth is that it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter.  Now, I can already hear people bristle.  How can the truth not matter?

Personally, I don’t take this story literally.  I don’t think this story presents itself as literal, historical fact.  If you need proof of the non-literal nature of the story, just look at the two accounts, both written by Luke, one at the end of his Gospel, the other at the start of Acts.  In Luke the Ascension happens in Bethany.  In Acts it happens in Jerusalem.

It is fascinating to reflect on what made the early Christians (or Luke, at least) come up with this story of Ascension.  I could regale you with the latest theories.  But that is to miss the point.

I am not being anti-intellectual here, I am not saying just “I don’t believe this, but its best not to think about it too much.”

As a liberal Christian I have to insist on the orthodoxy of non-literal interpretation of the Bible.  As an Anglican Christian living in our wonderfully diverse tradition I also have to insist that people are free to interpret Scripture differently to me.  Bishop Richard Holloway put it very well in his marvellous book Doubts and Loves when he said that while Christians are free to believe whatever they like it is not the church’s job to ‘preserve antique mental furniture…’

The Flat Earth Society still exists.  They claim that the idea the earth is round is a hoax and a conspiracy (and they sometimes use the Bible to back up their claims).  It is not the job of the Church to try and eradicate the outdated and bizarre views of the Flat Earthers. People are free to believe whatever they like, but it must never, ever be the job of the church to “preserve antique mental furniture.”

Every time I have led an adult confirmation class someone has asked me “I don’t have to believe in this Virgin Birth thing to be confirmed do I…?” or “I believe in evolution, can I still be confirmed…?”  The idea that we have to believe the impossible to be Christians is out there, and it damages the Gospel.

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

I believe that the Ascension is not about doctrine, it is about a challenge.

That is true of Christianity.  The greatest enemy of orthodox Christianity, from the earliest days of the Church, was Gnosticism.  Gnosticism taught that salvation was all about having special sacred knowledge.  With knowledge of the secret truths you drew closer to God.  This was in stark contrast to orthodox Christianity which was often called “the Way.”

A Way of life, following Jesus teachings of a radical, inclusive love, versus a set of sacred truths.

This has been the battle the Church has fought and refought over the centuries.  The Creeds were drafted to combat Gnosticism (and other heresies) and then became exactly the kind of thing they were created to defeat – a set of sacred truths that measured your Christian faith.  I believe that modern day Fundamentalism is just a new manafestation of the ancient Gnostic heresy.  Our oldest and most insidious enemy.

We follow a Way, not a set of dogmas.

“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?.”

And so the Ascension, this strange story of a flying saviour is not to be a statement we have to believe, to tick off on a list of dogmas that make up a true Christian.

This story of a sad goodbye, is also a happy festival – it marks a coming of age.  Christ trusts us with his mission, as he disappears from our sight.  We can stare up into heaven no longer, its time to follow on the Way…

The truth of the Ascension, the truth that I think this Church of the Ascension has at its heart, summed up in the famous words of Teresa of Avila:

“Christ has no body now on earth   but ours.

no hands   but ours,

no feet   but ours.

Ours are the eyes through which must look out Christ’s compassion on the world.

Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.

Ours are the hands with which be blesses now.”

We have to decide how we understand the will of God, and then it is up to us to do it.  The Wash House youth club, offering free ESOL classes, our involvement in Holy Trinity Centre, in LEWCAS, our involvement with Majority World charities, our Visiting team, our commitment to Christian Aid, are just some of the manifestations of our commitment to the only truth of the Ascension that matters:

Christ has no body now on earth   but ours.

no hands   but ours,

no feet   but ours.

And as we trudge around our neighbourhood with a bundle of Christian Aid leaflets, or we attend a really dull meeting about financing one of our community projects we must remember that we are doing this to follow Christ.  This is the message of ascension.  Perhaps it is the most challenging of all the celebrations of the Christian Year.  Perhaps the most fitting name for a Church.  The Ascension reminds us that we have a responsibility.  The truth of the Ascension is that the work of Christ is now up to us.