A sermon preached on the feast of Pentecost at St. Giles Church, Godshill 2017 by the Reverend John Towler
Tante agurri! Happy Birthday. Pentecost, Whitsunday is traditionally a day when we reflect on new life, on birth. The writer of Genesis reflects on the meaning of creation when he writes,
“…and the Spirit of God was moving over (or was hovering over) the face of the waters”.
St.Luke in his gospel story in announcing the birth of Jesus through the words of the angel writes,
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you”.
And again St Luke in the book of the Acts of the Apostles records his version of the birth of the church, a community of followers of Jesus of Nazareth when he writes,
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance”.
The anticipation of births is exciting and full of apprehension for the child bearer and those who stand by to witness the miracle. Births are painful processes producing considerable discomfort, sometimes anxiety as the mother prepares to bring to life the new born within her. Each birth is different. Each birth signifies a new life to be lived, a new person joining and searching to belong to the human race. Each birth is so normal and so special that we set aside a day in which we seek hold on to the significance of the miracle of life. St Luke paints a vivid picture for us in metaphor of the first Christians awareness of the Spirit. The word ‘wind’ is the same word as ‘breath’. God in Christ is as present to them as close as breathing. The Greek translation is ‘pneuma’ reminiscent of pneumonia and a pneumatic drill and the considerable power unleashed by it. Why ‘tongues of fire’? One explanation is found in a rare book in the Apocrypha, the Book of Enoch where ’tongues of fire’ refer to the indwelling of God in his temple-hence, tongues of flame representing the indwelling of God in his people.
As Jean Vanier writes, “There is a universal I hidden in the depths of every human soul, an I who gathers all together….fragile, secret, silent like the flame of a candle. And that is the true God.”
So it is right that today we as a Christian Community here should celebrate its birth once again. As we celebrate the Church birthday in today’s complex cosmopolitan world what have we to offer? Are we a dying institution or are we a spirit-filled community?
The spirit of truth is constantly prodding us to renew our perception of truth, cleansing our vision. We must confuse words as truth. We bring to words our experience and this makes it our truth. I use the word ‘prod’ advisedly. How much do we examine what we do and what we are for? What are we hanging on to which needs pruning? What questions are too difficult to ask? The message of the early church is that they found a new freedom from fear of others to boldly live by a set of values, kingdom values. How can we free up our Churches from encumbrances which tie us to old and worn out traditions and language? For me the Church is in danger of becoming too identified with a business model so that we are losing our spirit led freedom to respond in more spontaneous ways. Business like we must be as we are good stewards of our inheritance, but we are primarily ambassadors of the kingdom of God a way of being in the world and worshippers of Almighty God.
Hear the words of Martyn Percy , Dean of Christ’s College, Oxford:
“Only when the church is free of impose ideologies and agendas, can it begin to reclaim an identity as an institution that radically speaks of and embodies God-rather than being consumed by shallower mission and management targets.”
If we give some time to contemplation and meditation we shall find that the Spirit will bring to birth in us riches beyond our imagining. One of the daily times I treasure is in the practice of contemplation, meditation call it what you will. I am talking about a conscious effort to allow yourself to be aware of the mystery of God present within you. This requires few if any words. We can fill our God time with so many words that if we are not careful we shall miss a sense of his presence. Yes, it requires an act of faith on your part to allow yourself to rest in him, to let him take over you rather than you trying to badger him. And you have to keep at it even when you feel empty, knowing that his spirit will never abandon us.
To be aware of God’s Spirit within us is to seek to connect with a power, a dynamism, an evolutionary force of love which alone will transform people’s lives. Allow him to bring to your awareness all the things you are grateful for, all the people who have enriched and continue to enrich your life and that of his church. “He will bring to mind all of which I have told you”.
That is a great gift for our world. Many will never know the source of their capacity to love and serve. They may never know loves name. But that does not matter. Your being there in the presence of God on their behalf is a way of being Christ for the world. John Taylor a former Bishop of Winchester put it like this,
“Love for life, love for the world, love for little things, love for people you have never met is actually brought to birth as you meditate on what you have known and experienced. It is the bread of our love that is produced by this quiet milling over, which is also the work of the Holy Spirit”.
The celebration of Pentecost alerts us to the disturbing nature of the God we worship. We are to be renewed, transformed ourselves and be renewing and transforming agents of the lives of others. We are Spirit bearers and as such we live by a set of values which some will find odd. We shall be tempted not to believe it is the Spirit.
We are in danger of becoming a busy church, a money raising church, a local tribe only concerned with its own life and continuity. Jesus challenged us with much weightier questions, questions that a coming Election we could well ponder on.
Who expects us to forgive those who offend us? Who expects us to place the marginalised and the poor of the world before the respectable of society? Who expects all races and religions to treated with respect and tolerance? Who expects us to go the extra mile? The church is seen by many as an odd community. Believing in the power of the Spirit will cost us. As we celebrate the church’s birthday let us reaffirm our commitment to those spirit led values which make us fearless, believing, peaceable, loving and accepting and spirit bearers for all God’s people. It is by the tongues of fire at Pentecost alone that we can have life and have it more abundantly. T. S. Eliot in his Four Quartets gives the reason:
“Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove”.