A sermon for Pentecost, preached online by David Barton on 31 May 2020
There are some important words of Jesus for us to think about in that Gospel.
‘As scripture says,“Out of the believers heart shall flow Rivers of Living Water”’.
I stayed in India once, in a little village at the point where the river Ganges leaves the Himalayas and meets the plains of North India. But before it does so it’s funnelled through a narrow gap in the solid rock. I used to watch the raw power of it, as the meltwater from the snow on the High Himalayas forced its way through the narrow space, foaming, seething and tumbling, then levelling off to provide water and life for millions of people across thousands of miles. That extraordinary, lifegiving power is the message of Pentecost.
We can’t pin down exactly which bit of the Old Testament Jesus is referring to in that Gospel passage. But “rivers of living water” echoes Ezekiel who paints a picture of the restored Temple in Jerusalem from which flows a stream of water that will make even the Dead Sea fresh. And that image goes all the way back to the book of Genesis and the rivers that flow out of Eden to give life to the world. It’s nothing less than new creation Jesus is talking about here. It’s the same with the first reading. Think of the wind and fire, hovering over the disciples as the foaming and seething of the spirit as it channels through them. The three verse list of places across the empire represents the thousands of miles through which the disciples will travel, by the end of their lives, bringing this great spirit of life to a thirsty world.
Here in Iffley we have our own Pentecost reminder. When we get back into church, open the West Door and look to your left at the Resurrection window, and the way the river of life flows down from the cross into the font in front of you. And then read the words New Creation. That’s who we are and who God longs for us to be. All that power, all that energy pouring into us, and, no less importantly, out of us to a thirsty world.
Pentecost is a gift. Unasked for gift. And it’s first and foremost a gift that is intimate, for each one of us: the unconditional love and forgiveness of God, which then reshapes us, making us truly ourselves, working more deeply in us than we can ever realise. But the freedom, and joy and hope and compassion we then discover are gifts for sharing. That’s the good news that comes bubbling out of the disciples on Pentecost morning.
Two hundred years after these events a great pandemic hit the Roman Empire. It was everywhere. Contemporary writers tell us that no household was untouched. People locked themselves away in fear. But not the Christian community. They were thought to be atheists, because they refused to sacrifice to the Emperor, and had been regularly persecuted. But now, and without any thought for themselves, Christians across the empire heeded Christ’s commands and came onto the streets and cared for the sick. It was an extraordinary expression of compassion and freedom, that pointed to a God of Love, not a God of vengeance. They don’t seem to have said much, but it was widely noted. From then on there was a new respect, and it paved the way for the official recognition of the church by Constantine a generation later.
As our pandemic lockdown comes to an end, there’ll be plenty of advice around about how we might rebuild the future, and plenty of blame about the past too. Many words. Instead of that we might ponder our Pentecost gifts: forgiveness, and love, bringing freedom and joy, hope and compassion. Our society badly needs such things. Indeed they are the ground base for any rebuilding. And it’s not words in the first instance that matters here. Rather, just living and doing hopefully, out the inexhaustible flow of strength that comes from God, God’s self. “Rivers of living water from out of the believers heart.” God’s grace living itself out in us, may be a greater witness than words can ever be.