Pentecost - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons



Pentecost (1909), oil on canvas by Emil Nolde (1867-1956)

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I love working with young children, because I learn so much from them - particularly about theology. Because untrammelled by any fear of embarrassment, or of looking stupid, children of a certain age are completely unafraid to ask the glaringly obvious but really important questions - the kinds of questions that adults tend to shy away from.

Some of the really challenging questions that I have been asked by children during the course of my ministry include the following: "If Jesus conquered death, why do people still die?" And what about this one: "Before he created the universe, what did God spend his time doing?" And one of my personal favourites: "At the feeding of the five thousand, what did Jesus do about the people who didn't like fish?" (I love the idea that there was an annoyed contingent amongst the crowd demanding to know why Our Lord had not thought to lay on a vegetarian option.)

Anyway, there I was with a very bright and sparky group of juniors from the local primary school, telling them the story of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, when one of them, looking rather puzzled, asked me an astonishingly good question, which was this: "Why did the disciples have to wait for the Holy Spirit to come at Pentecost when he was already there?"

And there is a sense in which that little boy was, of course, absolutely right: both Old and New Testaments are packed with references to the Spirit of God at work in the world prior to the coming of the Spirit upon the disciples at Pentecost. Indeed, the sheer range and variety of references to the activity of the Spirit throughout scripture is pretty impressive. In the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis, we are told how the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters at the dawn of Creation. The Spirit inspired the Old Testament prophets, as in the famous words of Isaiah: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor'.

And, of course, the Holy Spirit played a role of central importance throughout the whole of the life and ministry of Jesus, too: he was conceived by the Holy Spirit; at his baptism the Spirit descended upon him; the Spirit led him (or drove him, according to which Gospel you are reading) out into the wilderness where he was tempted for forty days; during his ministry he was empowered by the Spirit to heal the sick and cast out demons.

The Spirit is at work everywhere, throughout scripture, in an astonishing range of ways: the Spirit brings order out of chaos at the Creation; the Spirit brings peace and hope and healing to troubled lives and troubled souls, but also, at times, causes turbulence and chaos in the lives of the comfortable. I have a friend who runs a small Christian retreat house in the north of England, who once told me that it had been suggested to her that every Pentecost she and her companion should pray to receive once of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. She confided in me afterwards: 'I am starting to wish we hadn't actually done that - all kinds of extraordinary things certainly started to happen as a consequence, but you can't imagine the trouble it's causing!' In other words, if you want a life that is quiet and safe and predictable and uneventful, don't meddle with the Holy Spirit!

But let's go back to that little boy's very good question about the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. Because despite the fact that the Spirit is most certainly at work prior to Pentecost, that one event, which we celebrate today, does, nevertheless, have a very particular significance. Because the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost marks the dawning of a new era. An era that was foretold by the prophet Joel, who spoke of a time that was to come when the Lord would pour out his Spirit upon all flesh. That era began when, at Pentecost, the Spirit descended upon the disciples of Jesus, empowering them to take the good news of his death and resurrection - the good news of the Messiah - to the ends of the earth.

The real significance of that highly dramatic event at Pentecost which we heard in our reading from Acts, full of rushing winds, and burning flames, and empowering the disciples with the gift of tongues, is that it marked the origin of the Church. And for that reason, Holy Spirit and Church were, and remain, absolutely inseparable. We cannot make sense of either one of them without reference to the other. The Spirit needs the vehicle of the Body of Christ, the Church, to take God's love, and the good news of the Gospel out into the world; and the Church needs to Holy Spirit, to be empowered to fulfil that calling.

The former Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, wrote this on the subject of the Church:

For many [people] the very word 'church' will carry the overtones of large, dark buildings, pompous religious pronouncements, false solemnity, and rank hypocrisy ... But there is another side to it, a side which shows all the signs of the wind and fire, of the bird brooding over the waters, and bringing new life. For many, 'church' means just the opposite of that negative image. It is a place of welcome and laughter, of healing and hope, of friends and family and justice and new life.

It is where the homeless drop in for a bowl of soup, and the elderly for someone to chat to. It's where one group is working to help drug addicts and another to campaign for global justice. It's where you'll find people learning to pray, coming to faith, struggling with temptation, finding new purpose and a new power to carry it out. It's where people bring their own small faith and discover that when they get together with others to worship the true God, the whole becomes [far] greater than the sum of its parts. No church is like this all the time. But a remarkable number of churches are partly like [it] for quite a lot of the time. [1]

Every working day here I say the office of morning prayer downstairs in our main crypt chapel. And when I do so, I always very conscious of how deeply immersed I am in the history and tradition of this extraordinary church. From where I sit, I can see the remains of a Roman pavement dating back to the second century; I am aware that I am joining in the worship of a Christian community here that dates back one thousand five hundred years. I can see before me the remains of the eleventh and twelfth century churches that stood here, long before Sir Christopher Wren created his masterpiece here after the Great Fire of London, which was itself rebuilt after the destruction of World War II. And I never fail to be touched by a powerful sense, not only of the history of this place, but also of the fact that this is a place where prayer has been valid, over many, many centuries. A place where the Holy Spirit has dwelt, and continues to be at work. We can see the Spirit at work in the beauty of this wonderful building; in the power of glorious music, which lifts our hearts, and helps us to connect with the might and the majesty of the Living God.

And the Spirit of God continues to burn in the prayers and the hearts of the people of St Bride's today, just as it has throughout our history. Yes, we are all of us broken vessels, with our failings and weaknesses and limitations and mistakes. But we are still called to be Temples of God's Holy Spirit; channels of his grace, and vehicles of his love. We are called to be the Body of Christ.

At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended with terrifying power, rushing winds and burning flames. But the Spirit is also a spirit of peace and calm - and, as we can see from scripture, is no less powerful and every bit as life-giving when working in those hidden ways. I find it very telling that despite the high drama of that first Pentecost, today's Collect speaks, not of the extravagant and dramatic work of the Spirit, but rather of the Spirit's quieter and more reassuring qualities: those of right judgment and comfort - qualities that can both speak to, and transform, every single one of us. The words of that Collect again:

O God, who as at this time didst teach the hearts of thy faithful people
by sending to them the light of thy Holy Spirit;
grant us by the same spirit to have a right judgment in all things
and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort.

In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.

[1] Tom Wright, Simply Christian, pp. 104-5.

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