Pentecost – a sermon by Margaret Offerman

Margaret Offerman, Reader at the Ascension

Margaret Offerman, Reader at the Ascension

The Feast of Pentecost

Th e fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness and self control.   Paul’s letter to the Galatians, ch. 6 v. 22.

Today we celebrate the symbolic moment when the disciples received the gift of God’s spirit.  It  came in the form of a mighty wind followed by dancing flames of fire.   Peter addressed the huge crowd who had witnessed the event.  He referred to the prophecy of  Joel.  God said: I will pour out my spirit on all humanity.   Your sons and daughters shall prophesy.  Your young men shall see visions and your old men will dream dreams……………The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood , in that great resplendent day.

The coming of the spirit is accompanied by disturbances in nature and prophetic utterance  replaces normal speech.

The power of the spirit of God is a recurring theme in the bible.  The second verse of the bible describes God’s spirit moving over the darkness of the newly created earth;  the primal darkness became light.

When Moses was close to despair after forty years of wandering in the wilderness, striving to reach the Promised Land,  he had to listen to the constant complaints of the Israelites who looked back on the days in Egypt where even as slaves  they ate meat and fish for the asking, cucumbers and watermelons, leeks and onions and garlic.  Moses cried out to Yahweh whose response was to pour out his spirit on seventy men, elders who could  bear part of Moses’s burden of leadership.   As the spirit alighted on them, they were seized by a prophetic ecstasy and normal communication was suspended.  Moses expressed his relief:  I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that he would bestow his spirit on them all.  

The writer of psalm 139 describes the pervasiveness  of God’s spirit:  Where can I escape from your spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence?  If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will be guiding me.

The spirit is creator, provider, guide, protector, encouragement,  conscience, liberator, source of hope and fountain of wisdom.   In poetic language or in homely prose the  authors  of our sacred story  have shed light on aspects of the workings of the spirit.

Once the spirit had descended on the apostles at the feast of Pentecost, and after they had been through the almost mandatory period of  ecstasy which in their case led to speaking in tongues, they began to establish the  way of life that we recognise as the life of a religious community.

They met for synagogue  worship regularly on the Sabbath day.  They spent time in prayer and study of the scriptures.  They broke the bread – commemorated the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in  their reenactment of the last supper.   They supported each other financially: there was never a needy person among them, because those who had property in land or houses would sell it, bring the proceeds of the sale and lay them at the feet of the apostles to be distributed to anyone in need.   They listened to the stories which were becoming part of their sacred story, relating events in the life of Jesus to episodes from the Hebrew scriptures.  They reached out to friend and stranger, enlarging their number with a missionary zeal which impressed Jew and Gentile.

There were setbacks – the ideals of community living were not always achievable.  Some individuals,  like Ananias and Sapphira, couldn’t accept the notion of sharing their wealth.  There were personal quarrels at all levels of leadership, notably the quarrel between Paul and Barnabas.  There were serious disagreements about the criteria for membership of the Christian body, eg over circumcision as an entry ritual.  Some groups became disorderly and disreputable – in the passage from the letter to the Galatians which immediately precedes Paul’s list of the fruits of the spirit, he warns against the kind of behaviour which will exclude them from the kingdom of God – fornication, debauchery, idolatry, envy, fits of rage, selfish amibitions – all human failings but these can’t be the characteristic or the life style of a Christian community.  Paul takes a similar line in the letter to the Corinthians, reprimanding them for sexual impropriety,  infidelity, factionalism,  personality cults.

The early followers of the way were living out their faith in turbulent times.  There were bound to be lapses from the standards of behaviour  they had chosen to live by.   But they lived with hope and mutual love.  Paul wrote:  though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not love, I am like a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  The insistence on the primacy of Jesus’s commandment that his followers love one another suggests that this was the salient characteristic of the early church.  I am convinced, wrote Paul to the Romans, that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.  And in the first epistle of John, we are told that perfect love casts out fear.  This is an extraordinary statement, given the threats of violence and death that were recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Epistles.  We feel that they must have lived in constant fear, of illness, of the tyrannical  power of the occupying Roman government, of natural disaster, of crop failure, of war, of  many of the sources of fear that are familiar to the people of Syria for example, or Libya or Palestine in the present day.  But they were  persuaded that surrounded by the love of God, they need not fear.

In our own society and in our own times, we are prey to fear.  It would be facile to tell the people of Nepal that they had nothing  to fear in the face of their recent experience of the power of an indifferent, possibly hostile natural universe.  Many people in SE13, given the uncertainty of their employment prospects or  living conditions are fearful for their future and that of their  children.  Talk to some members of the congregation at the HTC and they will tell you of their fear of being sanctionned because of an infringement of their benefit regulations.  Our children are warned at school to fear  ‘stranger danger’.  Nick Clegg made an emotional, almost elegiac speech when he announced his resignation after the election.  He said:  It is clear that in constituency after constituency north of the border the beguiling appeal of Scottish nationalism has swept all before it and south of the border a fear of what that means for the UK has strengthened English conservatism too.  This now brings our country to a very perilous point in our history where grievance and fear combine to drive our different communities apart.

Last Sunday saw the end of CAW.  CAW is the week when we can show that we really understand what being part of the Christian community is about.  We give our time and risk our dignity begging for money from strangers.  We produce plants and cakes and we dig into our pockets for the sake of people we’ll never see.  We commit ourselves to the cause of social and economic justice,  hoping, praying that it’ll eventually be achieved.  We know from some of the responses we get that a significant number of people think we are  nuisances or deluded idealists.  But as we heave sighs of relief that it’s over for another year, we recognise that although what we do is making a tiny difference, it’s going some way to stem the tide of cynicism and self absorption   that threatens our society.

Peter, Paul, Philip, Barnabas, Dorcas, Lydia, Stephen, Julia, the countless members of the church, some of whom are mentioned by name, others  as someone’s  brother or sister or mother in law,  were nothing  if they weren’t risk takers,  showing in their lives the fruits of the spirit.    They gave their houses, their money, their food and clothing, in some cases their future to be followers of Jesus.  They worked tirelessly and sacrifically for the gospel.  They knew that nothing could separate them from the love of God.  They were spirit filled.

This prayer comes from the service book we use on weekday mornings:

God our father, you have called us
In order to make us like your son, our lord Jesus Christ;
Change us day by day,
By the work of your spirit
So that we may grow more like him,
In all that we think and say and do,
Amen

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