SERMON for Pentecost

SERMON for Pentecost

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Clare Hayns on 19th May 2024

Acts 2. 1-21, Romans 8. 22-27, John 15. 26-27, 16.4b-15

Last year I was given the privilege of leading the prayers of intercession at Christ Church Cathedral for the Patronal Festival of St Frideswide, which was also to be the blessing of the new St Francis window. The Cathedral was packed with people from across the Diocese, and all around the world. During the service there was a procession to the Latin Chapel to stand around the tomb, and another procession to the window. And there was incense to mark the specialness of the occasion.

Our thurifer (the incense waverer) was very enthusiastic.  I knew something was wrong when the smoke from the incense started to obscure the people around me. But I stepped forward to lead the prayers.

Halfway through, a booming voice came from the Cathedral loud speaker which resounded across the cathedral, and an alarm went off. The voice boomed: ‘leave the building from all available exits. This is an alarm. Leave the building’.

It was certainly dramatic. We left, waited outside for 10 minutes as the incense subsided, and filed back in leaving my prayers unfinished.

There is similar drama at the gathering in Jerusalem on the feast of Pentecost.

Pentecost marks the momentous beginning of the life of the church. Jesus had left his earthly ministry to ascend to heaven to join his Father. Before he left, he promised his disciples that they would receive his Spirit. They are to remain in Jerusalem and wait for the Spirit to come on them. In his final teaching he tells them that:

‘It is to your advantage that I go away, for I do not go away, the Advocate (the Holy Spirit) will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you’. (John 16.7)

And this transformative moment in history arrived at a festival in the life of the Jewish calendar. Pentecost was a Jewish festival, also called the Festival of Weeks or Shavuot, and took place 50 days after the Festival of Passover. (Pentecost is the Greek word for 50).

It was one of the three major festivals of the Jewish calendar. Levitical law commanded that all men were to travel to Jerusalem, to give thanks. It was akin to our Harvest Festival, where the first fruits of the harvest were taken to the Temple and there would also have been celebrations, music, and feasting.

And so Jerusalem would have been full of people from far and wide, ‘devout jews from every nation under heaven’, with multiple languages and nationalities. And it’s here, amongst this celebratory gathering of people that the Holy Spirit descends in elemental power.

There was wind – ‘suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind’. (Acts 2.2)

There was fire – ‘divided tongues as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue of fire rested on each of them’. (Acts 2.3)

It seemed both elemental (fire, wind) and also supernatural.

The first thing that happens is the barriers of language, which had been in place since the time of Babel, had been broken down. They could suddenly understand one another, they could communicate the love of God and the message of Jesus to people who they wouldn’t have been able to speak to before.  (Acts 2.5-9)

The next thing that happened is Peter is empowered. He is no longer scared of what others might think of him. Remember Peter not long ago denied Jesus, and here he is preaching to the crowds, and with eloquence. (Acts 2. 14-21)

He explains what’s happening. They’re not drunk, they are filled with God’s promised spirit. In his first sermon Peter takes them back to the prophetic words of Joel.

‘In the last days… 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’ (Acts 2. 17-18)

Those days that Joel prophesied had come.

And so now for the first time the Holy Spirit wasn’t just given to a select few. The Spirit of God had always been present since the creation of the world, but until this moment had only been gifted to particular prophets or leaders (mainly male, only Jewish, mainly those with leadership or prophetic calls). There were long periods when God’s spirit seemed largely absent.

But from this moment the Holy Spirit is released on ALL PEOPLE, to Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free. This transformed everything. Ordinary people could do extraordinary things in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Communities of faith begin to live differently, sharing their possessions and their lives. Women are raised up to lead churches in their homes, Ethiopian Eunuchs come to faith and are baptised. Read Acts for the stories of these early Christians filled with Holy Spirit.

This isn’t just good news for those disciples 2000 years ago at the Festival of Weeks. This is good news for us today. Because the Holy Spirit is released to us, and also gives us just what we need to love and serve those around us.

When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost the gift needed was the ability to understand one another.

When Jesus was baptised the Holy Spirit appeared to him like a dove and he heard the words he needed to sustain him in the wilderness: ‘You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased’. (Mark 1.11)

Let us pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit for us now, for this community.

The Holy Spirit empowers us when we are fearful, nudges us when we are complacent, convicts us when we are wandering away, comforts us when we are sad and grieving.

God knows what each one of us needs, whether that is comforting or convicting, to be emboldened or empowered. The Holy Spirit gives us dreams and visions, enables us to imagine the world differently and empowers and equips us with gifts to realise this change.

There are many examples in history of people transformed by the Holy Spirit with dreams and visions to then make changes in our world. People like Cecily Saunders who started the Hospice Movement or Martin Luther King (I have a dream), these great visionary dreamers who were given the power to change the world.

But there are also countless examples of how the Holy Spirit has empowered ordinary people in ordinary communities; in creativity, in imagining the world differently, in not accepting the world as it is and bringing about change. I think of all the artistic creativity that has created this church to be such a beautiful space that so many people travel miles to visit, I think of the work of the Community Cupboard here in Rose Hill which supports and feeds so many who are struggling. These are works of the Holy Spirit.

Just this last week I spoke to somebody who the Holy Spirit had been nudging them to think about the people who will be coming to live just next to us, in Court Place, people who come from all around the world, who will be coming into our community, who may feel far away from home, and we were imagining how we might welcome them, how we might speak to them in the language of hospitality that shows them the love of God.

So Pentecost is a time to celebrate, and to invite the Holy Spirit to empower us, comfort us, nudge us, inspire us, and equip us.  God knows what we need as a community, and what each one of us needs individually.

At the end of the service, we’re going to do something a little different. I’m going to light a hand-held candle from the Easter candle and then we’re going to give that light to each one of us and extinguish the Easter Candle.

We will turn towards the door as we will be commissioned take that light into the world.  

It is a reminder of the candle we were given at our baptism, and a reminder that we are to be the light of Christ in our world, and we are given the Holy Spirit to enable us to be this. We remember again our baptism vows, and we can remember again the Spirit’s voice to Jesus,

You are my son, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.

I’m going to end with an invitation from the Bishop of Oxford who preached this on Pentecost a few years ago:

Come seeking grace and power for the great ministry and work of love to which God has called you.

Come seeking guidance into all truth from God’s Spirit where you are perplexed and struggling.

Come seeking God’s renewing grace as you walk in holiness and bear the fruit of the Spirit in love and joy and peace.

But come most of all to hear again the life-giving word which is the Spirit’s. You are loved beyond measure, without limit, forever. [1]