Acts, 2 1-21; Psalm 104, 24-34; Romans 8,22-27, John 15, 26-37, 16, 4b-15
Hymns, O thou who camest from above; O holy spirit Lord of grace; Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire; There’s a spirit in the air
This major Festival of the church year represents the final gifting of God’s self to the world, though that doesn’t mean that was the last time God was involved in the world. The Feast of Pentecost stands for the completion of the sowing and harvest in the final three-part jigsaw of God, giving us the food we need to live our life under God’s wing, living for the benefit of the world, our neighbour and ourselves. Of course, we have to be willing both to accept this final gift of the Spirit and, rather more important, to be animated with it in our everyday day life, rather that pop the last piece into the picture and turn our backs on God other than for an hour on Sunday morning.
Let me recap the way in which today fits into that sequence of events emanating from God which are set out, week by week, in the first half of the church year. God is and was always everywhere but, still everywhere, God our Creator also came to earth as God our Redeemer at Christmas, died and lived again at Easter, and ten days ago quietly rejoined God Creator and God Comforter on Ascension Day. God the Christ promised on that day then that God would send the Spirit, our solace and indwelling supporter. That promise was fulfilled, as we heard in the first reading, like a blaze of fire, stirring, shocking, overwhelming, those many people standing around waiting. Yet the Holy Spirit, often represented as a gentle dove, and thus rather optional, is more properly and sensibly seen as a clear stream of water, without which there is no life. Indeed the whole of the psalm we read talks about life, the creatures, the trees, the ships, and about the breath of God, the Spirit of God, on which all rely. ‘Send back your breath, and we are renewed.’ That harks back to Ezekiel, often read in this Easter-Pentecost season: ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone’… to which God responds: ‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you.’
Well, God Creator had breathed the life of Jesus into Mary, Jesus coming to earth to teach, to show, to exemplify God’s way, as is told weekly in the Gospel readings and further discussed in the Epistles. As part of that teaching, God reaches out to us again, to be with and in us, this time sending God’s Spirit as our Advocate, speaking for us, our solace and consolation, our inner animator. The Spirit is not an optional extra, just as lacking life, trees, people, flowers, are just shapes, assemblages of cells. Pentecost is the completion of stage one in order for people to carry out stage two, and live lives animated, filled, with God.
Initially, it had been the followers of Christ who had the benefit of forty days learning more from the risen Christ, and ten more days waiting specifically for the coming of God’s Spirit so that, fully fed and watered by God, they would be sufficiently strong for their task of carrying and carrying on God’s work on earth. When the Spirit came, when the tongues of fire skipped over the heads of all there, suddenly every single person in that motley crowd understood what the message was, ‘each in their own language.’
At the time, clearly, all there were amazed – but they would all have understood that what was happening was not only the fulfilling of the promises of Christ which we heard in John’s Gospel, ‘I [God] shall send you an Advocate’ but also the fulfilling of the prophet Joel , with which they would all be familiar: ‘You shall know that I the Lord am your God and there is none other…I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, your sons and your daughters shall prophesy; Your old people shall dream dreams and your young men and women shall see visions. I will even pour out my spirit upon male and upon female slaves.’ And they would have understood the significance of fifty days after the resurrection, because that was also fifty days after the start of the grain harvest, when the first fruits of that harvest were taken to the temple to feed the stranger, the widows, the poor and the isolated. Thus they would know that day as completing a cycle for a purpose, to enable the time beyond to start on the firmest foundations, the most efficient and positive way possible.
Given that this is a completion for the future, a founding of the Church of God on earth, why do many churches effectively ignore or diminish the place of Pentecost in their church life? Do some draw back lest they be associated with Pentecostal churches with their obvious enthusiasm for God? Do we so scorn or fear talking in tongues but throw the baby out with the bathwater, rejecting anything which smacks of ecstasy? Paul was clear that if talking in tongues was only understood by the speaker, it was of little value in building up community, but speaking in a prophetic voice, reflecting on the text and challenging the lives of listening followers was essential. Joel wasn’t talking about glossolalia when he mentions sons and daughters prophesying, but excitement, commitment, involvement of all, young and old, male and female, slave and free, in a foretaste of Galatians 3.27.
Bishop Ignatius of Latikion, in Syria, one of those countries from Libya to Iran via Egypt and Iraq from with those Pentecost watchers came, spoke of the place of the spirit at a WCC meeting in Uppsala, Sweden, some years ago:
‘Without the Holy Spirit, God is far away, Christ stays in the past, The Gospel is a dead letter; church is simply an organisation; authority is a matter of domination; mission is a matter of propaganda; the liturgy no more than a reflection of Christians living a slave mentality.’
Strong words. And true. Pentecost completes the foundation, the being and the works of God. But if we want an orderly shape without the potentially disordering challenge, we are preferring the skeleton, with Ezekiel’s bones, without hope, and without life.
This day is the image for joy, which is shown in the picture from Northern Cameroon on your service sheet, joy for everyone, with no one, and no category of person, excluded. Fully equipped as we should be, let us go forward to show the fruits of the Spirit in our lives.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Heidelberg 24th May 2015