David Barton’s Pentecost Sunday Sermon, 8-Jun-14
Last week we went to the cinema, not to see a film but for a live viewing of an Art Exhibition! The Matisse Exhibition in the Tate Modern Gallery in London. Matisse was one of the great artists of the first half of the last century. He died in the fifties. He painted some wonderful pictures. But at the age of eighty he was diagnosed with cancer. They operated, successfully, but Matisse was left an invalid, unable to walk, often in pain, often in bed.
You might have thought that was the end of his art, but not at all. He simply invented an entirely new way of working. He cut out shapes from pieces of coloured paper – flowers, birds, leaves, shapes – and got his assistants to pin them on the walls of his studio to make the picture, doing it all from a wheel-chair or his bed. And for the next ten years there was a steady flow of wonderful, exuberant collages, full of life and happiness and fresh colour and vigour. You would never know it was the work of a sick man, often in pain. One of the last things he did was design a chapel for some nuns who lived in his village. He did it, he said, from an inner place, a place of prayer. Stained glass windows, murals for the walls, the crucifix, the vestments – it is an entire Matisse creation. He died soon after aged 90.
Joy, energy, hopefulness, newness. That is what emerges from Matisse’s last years. And you might say that that is what emerges from today’s first reading – Luke’s description of the first day of Pentecost. It is an extraordinary story. Frightened, tongue-tied disciples discover courage and a voice, startling everyone who hears them. It is not the only description of Pentecost we have. But Luke captures the remarkable impact of the church in its early years. It literally bursts the boundaries. Old ways of worshipping God were shattered. You no longer needed a temple, or priests and functionaries – Christians worshipped in houses. Women were given responsibility and equality with men. The division of Jew and gentile was shattered. People discovered an extraordinary sense of community. And it’s growth in speed and size was extraordinary. That long list of nationalities that we all have difficulty getting our tongues around, probably represents the places where there were Christian churches at the time Luke wrote.
Confronted with all of that I suppose there are several questions: how can we capture a bit of the same excitement and energy? Or more pointedly: Are we ready for such a experience? If the Holy Spirit came knocking at our door, would we actually notice? There is of course that other version of Pentecost – the one in the 4th Gospel, where Jesus comes among a small gathering of his disciples and breaths on them. It’s like a quiet little service in the upper room. Rather more Anglican we might think! No razzmatazz!
Well, whichever one you choose, I want to suggest three things we should take away with us from Pentecost, ways of thinking that need to be built into our Christian lives.
The first is, are we awake enough? It was a constant message of Jesus: stay awake, be awake. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. At hand – as if it were here, just within our grasp. We live in a God given world. A world where God’s stamp is on everything, and indeed on everyone we meet. Do we see that? What Jesus wants to wake us up to is presence, the presence of the mystery of Love which waits for us at every turning. It truly does. The disciples in the upper room knew this in the days after Easter. They had had six weeks when, totally unexpectedly, the ordinary routines of the day had suddenly dissolved into the extraordinary presence of Christ. It had taught them to see the world in a totally different way. Pentecost is of a piece with that. It is the day on which they suddenly find the voice and the words to speak about it all and share the experience.
So, are we awake enough? Aware enough to sense the presence of a God who is closer to us that we can imagine? Perhaps it would help to learn to stop, to silence the inner, self concerned chatter, and become alert to things outside ourselves – the beauty of a tree in the garden… the way the light falls…..the face of a stranger. Just stopping from time to time, pushing aside all the internal fussing around, and just looking, listening….. We need to practice that kind of stillness. It is as important as setting aside time to pray.
And then, we have to be ready for what is fresh, new. You can’t read the New Testament and not realise that a sense of freshness, newness, lies at the heart of the Christian faith. Behold I am making all things new, God says in the Book of Revelation. We are a new creation, Paul says. It’s ironic isn’t it, that the church of our society should be seen not as that, but as a bastion of unchanging tradition! Though I have to say, the ground is shifting. We have broken with tradition and ordained women as priests, and they have created further change. If all goes well this summer we could have women bishops by the new year.
What is important about that is that the fundamentals of faith have not changed, but their expression has. As our society changes we are going to need to adapt like that. And as we can’t imagine it now, this really becomes a question of fundamental faith and trust. Dare we trust that the Spirit will lead us? And dare we trust that when a change happens it is the Spirit’s work and not just a clever idea? Read the Acts of the Apostles, and it is clear that the apostles never really know what the next move might be. A church led by the spirit can’t fully know that. So are you and I ready for the unexpected? Ready to follow where the spirit leads?
And then finally: that remarkable picture of Christ in our Gospel this morning. He stands in the temple and says: Let anyone who is thirsty come to me. Let the one who believes in me drink. It is a picture that comes from Isaiah, but it is still extraordinary, and must have been to those who heard it and first read this. He just stands there and says that! Think about it as if he were standing here and saying it. It is a statement the digs into you. What do I thirst for? you ask yourself. What do I long for? What is my dearest, most secret inner wish? Jesus simply says he will answer it, answer it with extraordinary abundance. Out of the believers heart shall flow rivers of living water.
Rivers of living water…… The bible is rich in images of water. In Ezekiel’s vision of the restored temple, a great river flows out of it which will make even the Dead Sea fresh. Four rivers flow out of the Garden of Eden to create and nourish the whole world. In the Book of Revelation a great river flows from the holy city on whose banks are trees whose leaves heal the nations. And that in its turn is echoed in our baptistery window where the waters of life flow from the roots of the tree of crucifixion and of resurrection. And they flow into the font, the place of our Christian beginnings.
When I was in India I stayed in a retreat centre which was on a great cliff at the point where the river Ganges flows out of the high Himalayas to become the vast river that irrigates the whole North Indian plain. It comes tumbling down from the glaciers and melting snow high above, white water all the way, already a large river. But in this place where it meets the plain, it is forced through a narrow gap between high cliffs. It as an extraordinary sight, the great torrent powering through the narrow channel with unimaginable force.
That is the image Jesus intends. All of that rushes into, and, just as importantly out of, the one who believes in Jesus. To live in a church, powered by the Holy Spirit, is to take the risk of having all that wild, untameable energy sweep through us. Of course, you might think to yourself, we are a relatively elderly congregation, (and I count myself as part of that) so, surely, we are spared some of the force of it all. But, think of Matisse, aged 80 and an invalid, entering into one of the most creative periods of his life. The spirit flows where it wills. Think about it.