A sermon preached by Graham Low at St Mary’s, Iffley on 28th May 2023
When clergy retire, they often give careful thought about the best possible date. I chose to retire on the feast of Christ the King, which ends the Church’s liturgical, or worship, year. Liturgy has always been an interest of mine. Last weekend we said farewell to Andrew and Sarah. Andrew said that he had chosen to retire after the Annual Parochial Meeting – the last step of the administrative year for the church. Andrew was a gifted administrator. But I think there just may have been another reason as well, because our gospel readings in the last few weeks have come from the gospel of John and were from the farewell discourses. These begin the second part of the gospel, in which Jesus reveals the glory of his death and resurrection to his disciples. Chapters 13 to 17 are about Jesus’ efforts to prepare the disciples for his final farewell. In recent weeks Andrew has done much of the preaching here. It has been remarkably profound, and it has included elements that have been a gift to help us prepare for this new time here at St Mary’s. For any who may have missed these sermons, they are available on our website and merit reading again. We might also note that Andrew left us immediately after we celebrated the Ascension, the day on which tradition states that Jesus left his followers and left the earth for heaven. And so we come to the day when God’s presence is marked by the gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift that enables us to look forward with the assurance that God is with us.
It’s interesting to note that the origins of Pentecost are pre-Christian. The Greek word for Pentecost refers to Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, 50 days after the Passover. It was an agricultural festival linked with the harvest. Later the festival was associated with the covenant made with Noah (Gen 8.20-22), and the giving of the Law on Sinai, reckoned to be 50 days after the first Passover. Our reading today from Acts 2 resounds with echoes of the giving of the Law at Sinai. In particular we may understand from Paul’s writing, about the contrast for Christians who now live under the Spirit rather than under the Law. We also may note that there is a similarity between the visible gift of the Spirit in tongues of fire and the descent of the Lord in fire on Sinai. Thirdly, we find a link between the harvest of 3,000 converts in Acts 2.41 and the harvest theme of the Old Testament. Today we remember that the gift of languages, or glossolalia, is to be understood as the reversal of the scattering of the nations at Babel (Gen 11.1-9). And now we understand Pentecost to be a festival of unity (1 Cor 12.13), a foretaste and promise of the unity of all nations of the world, through the gospel (Acts 1:8;10;45).
The passage we have just heard from John’s gospel includes the words “As the father has sent me, so I send you”. These words have been called the great commission. Now, following the resurrection, we are sent, as the Father sent his Son. This sending is intimate. We are to participate intimately in God’s activity. How are we to become thus involved?
In today’s passage Jesus says “peace be with you” twice, and a week later he says the same when Thomas is present. Peace, or shalom, is at the heart of the nature of God. This is not about peace in any kind of political or economic sense: clearly the disciples will go on to face many challenges and persecution. The peace of God is about our finding forgiveness and wholeness. It is a peace which we offer to others by being their servant, following the example of Christ whose life was shaped by being a servant to all he met. We are now sent as Christ was, to empty ourselves and wash feet, both literally and metaphorically. The world in which we live is a world in which there is an absence of a desire for peace among many who lead nations. It is also a world in which many children live without love or peace in their homes, or in the environment in which they live, particularly because of what they see and write and read on their screens. And it is a world whose climatic and economic bases are predictably highly unstable rather than peaceful.
It is into all of this that we are called to bring the peace of God. We are called to become involved in re-creation. We read that the disciples are given the Holy Spirit on this day by Christ breathing over them, to bring about re-creation. Let us never forget that we are enabled to re-create by the same spirit at our baptism. This reminds us of the wind, the breath or the spirit of God moving over the waters at the beginning of creation. Life came forth in abundance then. New life is now experienced by us in the risen Christ. Andrew has helped us to prepare to live in that new life, for which we are very thankful.
May we rejoice in the new life given to us through the Holy Spirit. May we live in it, both here at St Mary’s, and wherever we may be. Amen.