Waking up to God’s life changing gifts.
A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by David Barton on the Feast of Pentecost 2019.
Life changing moments. Times when suddenly the ground shifts, and an entirely new understanding, a new way of looking at things dawns over us. I went to stay at Taizé in the summer of 1968. Earlier that year there had been a series of student riots across Europe and particularly in Paris, where they had been harshly suppressed by the police. In consequence there was widespread disillusionment. Brother Roger, who was the Prior and founder of Taizé, offered an open invitation to any student to come to Taizé that summer to talk. They came, in great numbers, covering the hillside with a tent city, often as many as 3,000 young people! Facilitated by the brothers, they talked and talked. And, four times a day, everyone gathered in the chapel. It was already large, but the brothers knocked down side walls and put on canvas extensions to cope with the numbers. And this was worship with an extraordinary depth – that remarkable blend of singing, and Br Roger’s simple prayers, and above all silence. You could sense a new purpose emerging from the confusion. Most movingly, from time to time small groups of students came forward and were commissioned to go from Taizé to work in the favellas of Rio de Janeiro and Recife, or the slums of Mumbai and New Delhi. Bro Roger called it a springtime of the church. I went away with eyes open to a new reality, aware of depths I’d never fathomed before.
And I’ve never forgotten it. And that’s the point here. In the end it’s less the experience, more what the experience gives. The wind and fire and the speaking in different languages of Pentecost are impressive. But for the disciples, it was not so much a new spiritual experience as the discovery of a new spiritual reality. Everything they understood before was now superficial. Now they faced a depth of God and reality that was life changing.
In this moment they truly understood the authority of Jesus. He was and always had been, totally filled with the life of God. His were the words of life. Indeed more: they were were life giving. And they themselves were empowered. “The spirit of truth will be with you and in you” Jesus says in that Gospel. Stepping out from the Upper Room the disciples knew just that. It was not something they summoned up in themselves, as it were. It was gift. That’s the real symbolism of Luke’s tongues of fire and wind. We don’t make those things. They are God gifted. The world was God’s, and they could step out into it as heralds of a new order.
But when the early church wanted to talk about this, it’s interesting to notice the language it uses. Our second reading is from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul had his own Pentecost moment, shaking him into the depths of God. But he deliberately chooses, not the image of the Promised Land, but the language of the Exodus story (those long wanderings in the wilderness). We may live in God’s new day, but the world is still a mess. The church is like the Israelites in the wilderness: led by God’s spirit, assured of God’s love, walking away from slavery, confident of the future. But……..there is suffering, and they – we – have not arrived.
Now if we are going to be true to the commission of Pentecost – to go out and proclaim the good news of Jesus – we have to be aware of the world in which we do so. The church grew up in, and has spent most of its life in, a world that had some kind of grasp of spiritual reality, and in many societies across the world that is still the case. But the tough thing that characterises our particular patch of the world is that, not only is it in a mess, politically and socially, it appears to have lost all sense of spiritual language and experience. Recently I read a piece by an American economist who said that the fast moving economies of the west, along with the dominance of the internet, have made us forget our history – indeed, it’s almost as if we have no use for it. Present events simply explain themselves. When that fire, in Holy Week, engulfed Notre Dame in Paris, the News at 10.00 on the BBC, managed to report it without a single mention of the words Christian, Christianity, Catholic, worship, worshippers, sacred, Mass or Holy Week. And the next morning the New York Times reported the dramatic reduce of the Blessed Sacrament from the cathedral – and it explained to its readers that the Blessed Sacrament was a statue of Jesus. It all makes our task a tough and perplexing one. And yet, people still seem to yearn for the spiritual, even though they appear to have no means of understanding what faith says, or symbolises.
But, this is Pentecost, and what we need to do is perhaps clearer than we think. A few days after the fire in Notre Dame, on Easter Sunday, human tragedy struck on an entirely different scale in Sri Lanka. 250 people lost their lives, the majority of them in Christian Churches as they met to celebrate Easter. It was an appalling, deliberate attack on Christians. And it was also a terrible reminder of the way the church across the world suffers in a way that we do not. The ancient churches of the Middle East have been decimated. Christians in China suffer. It’s a sharp reminder: the church grew out of the cross. It is utterly central to our message. Later, that same Easter morning the Pope spoke about the place of suffering in our Christian lives. He said “There is no negotiating with the cross. One either embraces it or rejects it.” You and I need to remember, that in Christ we are all one church. We need to pray with and for our suffering sisters and brothers, and stand by them. We have much to learn, and they have much to teach us.
And as we do that we should contemplate the simple truths that are there in today’s Gospel and make them our own. “Whatever you ask for will be granted”, Jesus says. The spirit of truth, still incomprehensible to the world, will be with you and in you. With Jesus we have entered into a new intimacy with God, and we should grow into it as deeply as we can.
And then, one final thing to say about Pentecost. We actually have two different versions of the coming of the Spirit in the New Testament – this public one from Luke, and a very private one in John. But both agree that the disciples were locked in the Upper Room, not daring to go out. And we know the feeling. What do we do in the face of all this? How do we speak?
So let me end with a little story from the Zen Buddhist tradition which might be helpful. It’s about a man, hanging by his teeth onto a rope, and below him is a very deep drop. Don’t ask me how he got there, but there he is, hanging by his teeth, and below him a big drop. And another man comes along the path below and asks the Buddhist equivalent of the question, “What can I do to be saved?” The man on the rope knows what to say, he knows the answer. He does not want to fail in that. But tosay it he would have to open his mouth……. As always with a Zen Koan there is no given answer. Supply it yourself!
But……. if Jesus has the words of life, then, all will be well, whatever happens. Trusting the spirit of Jesus is the essence of Pentecost.
Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:14-17, John 14:8-17