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”.
May the words that I speak and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
What a gift of a reading today. The road to Emmaus. There is so much in this story, it’s one of my favourite passages in the Bible, one that I come back to again and again. So my challenge today is to focus on just some of the amazing richness in this passage.
Each year Easter brings us the same questions… What does the Easter experience mean for us today? How do we comprehend it? It’s such a familiar story, and yet each year it is an incredible story. Jesus…. The Jesus that rode on a donkey into Jerusalem just a few short weeks ago… Jesus who was tried and then crucified… Jesus who was then buried in a tomb… is no longer in the tomb…
Each year we have to face the questions…
do we really believe that Jesus was raised from the dead then?…
and do we really believe that God is present with us now, in all the twists and turns that our lives may take (and trust me… I’m becoming more expert by the day at the scenic route to life!)
This whole chapter of Luke happens on just one day… both last week’s reading about Thomas and today’s reading of Cleopas on the road to Emmaus. It was an intense day.
We’re told that these two disciples were going to Emmaus… but we’re not told why. Were they just going home? Or were they trying to escape from the terrible things that had seen in Jerusalem?
Theologian Frederick Buechner interprets Emmaus as “the place we go in order to escape – a bar, a movie, wherever it is that we throw up our hands and say – Let the whole damned thing go hang… it makes no difference anyway…. Emmaus may be buying a new suit or a new car or smoking more cigarettes that you really want or reading a second-rate novel…. Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred… that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die…..
Whatever our Emmaus… our escape…. The Risen Lord meets us in our ordinary places, in the reality, the experiences of our own lives…even in the places we retreat to when it all gets too much.
But this story warns us that Jesus may come in unfamiliar guises… when we least expect him.
It was only when Cleopas and his travelling companion stopped to share a meal together that they realised that it was Jesus with them. They hadn’t planned the perfect sacred moment with just the right music or incense or building or any of the other things that may seem important to us today… they hadn’t had time to prepare the perfect Masterchef meal… there were no Mary Berry cakes…
They just stopped to share bread with a stranger… It was in that act of sharing that they recognized Jesus…
The passage tells us that Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.
He took bread… the ordinary, the normal, regular food. He did something that happens every day, everywhere… taking the regular, staple food….
And then he blessed it…. The ordinary suddenly becomes sacred through that act of blessing. Every week we bless the bread here and share it… at home we say grace, we pray and bless the food that we eat… the ordinary becoming extraordinary…
And then Jesus broke it… Gary will be doing the same later… breaking the bread, opening the ordinary, making it available to all..
And then he gave it to them, he shared it.
That ordinary, simple meal of bread… Jesus broke it and shared it… the basic act of hospitality, sharing what we have….welcoming the stranger
And then the story changes… the hidden suddenly becomes visible… their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus… and then he disappeared from their sight.
I wonder if that is echoed at all in your own experiences of God… Theologian Alan Culpepper suggests that God’s presence is often elusive, fleeting, dancing at the edge of our awareness and perception. If we are honest, we must confess that it is never constant, steady or predictable….(and getting a piece of plastic round your neck doesn’t change that either…)
The nuns in the Sound of Music sing – how can you catch a moonbeam in your hand, how do you hold a wave upon the sand? The mystery of God, of God’s presence is experienced in fleeting moments… in the middle of the ordinary… the extraordinary breaks through and then the mundane closes in again.
Often it is only in retrospect that we learn to treasure religious experiences. Followers of St Ignatius use the daily prayer of examen… reviewing the day with gratitude, focusing on the day’s gifts, noticing its joys and delights… paying attention to the small things… the food we eat, the sights we see, and other seemingly small pleasures…. God really is in the details, in the ordinary things of our lives. What is it like for you? Where do you notice God in your life?
For these disciples… they finally recognise Jesus and then he is gone…
In retrospect they notice “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
Do you have any physical experiences that correspond to your spiritual encounters? A wise nun once suggested to me to notice how my body feels as I pray… it is in the ordinariness of being ourselves that we experience God… it may be a tingling in your body… it may be the warming of your heart… how can we attune ourselves to notice God in our own day to day lives.
I find the expression ‘our hearts burning within us’ to be fascinating. I was recently reading some research by a professor in Oxford, David Patterson, who has found that our hearts actually contain neurons too, similar to those in our brains… that our hearts and brains are closely connected… his research shows that these neurons in the heart are part of our decision making… and that this heart brain connection is at work when you experience feelings of compassion and empathy.
Somehow, in our hearts, our brains, our bodies we too can encounter God through bread blessed, broken and shared.
And it changes everything… these disciples return to Jerursalem, and encounter the eleven proclaiming “The Lord has risen indeed”…. And they have to share their experience, it comes bubbling out of them.
Easter isn’t over at the end of Easter Sunday… or even at the end of the 50 days of Easter that we’re in now….it stretches into the rest of our lives… these disciples may not meet Jesus on the road again… but that encounter changes everything. Whether we encounter God at the tomb, on a lonely road to our own Emmaus, or in hospitality with others… those encounters transform us… and our hearts too can be strangely warmed.
The Lord is risen indeed…and he continues to meet us on the road
We recognize him in the breaking of bread then, and in the breaking of bread today…
And we share our stories… our own ordinary stories, our own experiences…. Of the sacred and the ordinary, and together, let’s encourage each other as we gather to worship our Risen Jesus, to share bread and wine… and then as we go back out into the world with our stories to tell of our own encounters.
I will end with a poem by Ann Lewin:
‘Don’t talk to strangers,’ we are
Told in childhood. It takes years
To grow through infant training.
Daring to trust comes with maturity,
Or perhaps is born of desperation.
The Emmaus two discovered
That the stranger unlocked
Shared food became a blessing.
(Thank you to The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary on Luke)