Pentecost – a sermon not THAT good

Acts 2.14-21

ImageThe Vicar was saying goodbye to folks at the door after the service.  A woman said, “Vicar, that was a marvellous sermon.” The Vicar said, “Oh, I have to give the credit to the Holy Spirit.” “It wasn’t THAT good!” she replied.

Today we are thinking about the Holy Spirit, and as we do, “Happy Birthday to us!”  Pentecost is traditionally seen as the birthday of the Church.

If we conflate the stories in the Gospels and Acts we read how the disciples, who were the Church ‘in embryo’ had been traumatised by Jesus death, become ecstatic at Jesus resurrection, and were astounded by Jesus ascension.  They have been on an emotional roller-coaster for months, and now they gather, and are literally aflame with inspiration and passion for the Gospel.

Something remarkable happened after Jesus death – the disciples moved from despair to hope, their faith in Jesus, once shattered, changed into a courage and a faith for which they were prepared to die.  Jesus is transformed from a historical human being, to spiritual being, to God, Godself.

The early Church found it hard to put this experience of Jesus-after-the-crucifixion into words, so they started to put the experience into the language of resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost.  

Death was not the end of Jesus: so they talked of Resurrection

But we still have to say goodbye to Jesus: so there was an Ascension

We are changed by the experience of Jesus – the Spirit of Jesus now lives in us: so the story of Pentecost. 

Whatever we believe, it is certainly true that after the crucifixion of Christ the disciples had been cowering in secret, but now the doors are flung open and they enter the streets, they are so full of Joy and excitement, that bystanders accuse them of being drunk.

Though we can not know for sure, tradition has it that all of the disciples went forward from this day to face martyrdom.  The flames of Pentecost were not quenched by death and persecution.

All this, the book of Acts tells us, because of the Holy Spirit.

The ‘Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church’ describes the ‘Holy Spirit’ as ‘…the Third Person of the Trinity, distinct from, but consubstantial, coequal and coeternal with the Father and the Son, and in the fullest sense God.’

This description of the Holy Spirit won the argument that had raged for the early centuries of the Christian Church.  It was formally accepted in terms similar to these at the Council  of Constantinople in 381.

The Bible does talk about the ‘Spirit of God,’ and the ‘Holy Spirit.’  And as Christians pondered the mystery of God as revealed in Christ, and in the workings of the Spirit, a theology developed that placed the Holy Spirit in the context of a Trinity.  

That is the theme of next Sunday, Trinity Sunday.  (When I will explain the Trinity and clear up any questions you may have about it!!)

Today, as we think about the Spirit I want us to consider that the Spirit of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, what we, in Christian New Testament terms describe as the Holy Spirit, is the Hebrew word ‘Ruach’, which is feminine in form.  God is beyond human gender and beyond human language, but in the same way that “God our Father” is a male metaphor for God, so “Holy Spirit” is a female metaphor – the Spirit’s gender is literally lost in translation.

Spirit is not the only female image for God in the Bible.  One of my favourites is Holy Wisdom:  For example in Proverbs chapter 1, we read:

“Wisdom cries aloud in the street; in the markets she raises her voice…  Give heed to my reproof; behold, I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you…  Those who listen to me will dwell secure and will be at ease, without dread of evil.”

Wisdom is a feminine image of God, just as Logos, God’s Word, is an image for God in the Gospel of John (traditionally read at the end of Carol Services “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”). 

Other female images for God in the Hebrew Scriptures include Mother (Hosea 11.3; Isaiah 66.13), and Mother Eagle (Deuteronomy 32.11-12; Psalm 57.1).  God is like a woman in travail (Isaiah 42.14), God is frequently ascribed a womb (Job 38.30; Isaiah 46.4 and 49.15) and God gives birth to her people (Deuteronomy 32.18; Numbers 11.12).  God is both the master and mistress of the house (Psalm 123.2).  God is a midwife  (Psalm 22.9-10).

In Genesis 1.27 God is described creating humankind with the words ‘in the image of God he created them, male and female, he created them.’  The image of God is as much in women as in men.  Women and men reflect God’s image equally.

And it is tho idea of God-in-us that leads us back to the Spirit.  The Spirit is the spark of the divine that lives in each one of us.

This is a magnificent Church.  But of infinitely more value and worth, is the Church that St. Paul calls ‘the Temple of the Holy Spirit’, and that is you, and me.

God the infinite Creator of the universe, the Saviour who came down to earth as the most inspiring figure in human history, this is the God who has chosen to make her home in us.

How else could a small group of mostly uneducated, poor, ragged disciples of a Lord executed in the most horrific manner, turn the world upside down?  

If you continue to read the book of Acts you will find them persecuted, on trial, in prison, flogged, stoned, despised by the authorities of the day, but always coming back for more.  They were unstoppable.  It is not long since Jesus was executed, their lives were still in danger, but they could not contain themselves.  The Holy Spirit was amongst them – they ran out into the street deliriously telling the world the Good News.

They devoted their lives totally to God.  They shared a common purse, giving to each according to their needs from a pooled fund.  They were inspirational characters, apostles, saints and martyrs.  We hold feasts in their honour, depict them in stained glass.

But I  strongly believe that the Holy Spirit was not in them more than she is in us, nor was the Holy Spirit stronger in them than She is in us.

On the day of Pentecost they became aware of truth, that is just as true today as it was back then.  The Holy Spirit is in you.  God is to be found in the human heart and mind.  We are temples of the Holy Spirit

Let us live like the people who know it.

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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.