Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 8 June 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Pentecost celebrates an occasion of memorable preaching, an occasion when everybody understood what was said.
‘Memorable’ is of course an ambiguous word. I sometimes wish I could forget a sermon I heard on this feast in 2000. It was preached, in fact, on the equivalent of last Sunday – because the preacher was concluding a series of Eastertide mission sermons but would not be present for Pentecost, he was determined to major on the Holy Spirit. (One suspected he also wished to avoid talking about the Ascension.)
The whole thing was pretty memorable, but not in a good way. A particular phrase stood out. This feast (the Ascension, you remember) was, he said, an opportunity to focus on the gifts of the Spirit. What, he rhetorically asked, was the greatest of these gifts? Why the gift of a sense of humour because – wait for it, this was the feast of the Ascension, remember – because the Holy Spirit’s greatest gift, of a sense of humour, keeps our feet firmly on the ground.
Now that statement was not only reductive, foolish and banal (as well as being, surely, a startling addition to St Paul’s catalogue of the Spirit’s gifts): it was also profoundly wrong at a number of levels.
Because Pentecost is about radical newness, revolution and transformation in those things which keep us apart and diminish us, things which so often result from failures in communication. Today we celebrate a rare feat of successful communication and shared understanding. It took imagination, daring and above all the risk of faith to realise that, not plodding along in a safe rut.
This event was radically new: it was not a moment for dreary suggestions that we ought to keep our feet on the ground; you know the sort of thing: ‘oh yes, we tried having a church once, but it didn’t really work’; ‘people didn’t like it’. This was about exciting dreams and possibility: as we heard from Joel and Acts just now it was about dreaming dreams and seeing visions – that’s really not down-to-earth stuff. This was a taster for what was to come, and is still happening: the wildfire expansion of the church and the spread of the good news; a radical departure from a more insular Jewish conception of who is right with God.
The Jewish feast of Pentecost was one of the days when many people made pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They came from all parts of the known world where Jewish colonists had settled. Their languages were many and diverse, but the Holy Spirit’s presence in the power of the apostles’ preaching overcame the barriers to understanding that day – clearly a wonderful and unforgettable moment. It is a dream not always realised since, but we should still be stirred. It is not an opportunity to have a belly laugh and keep our feet firmly on the ground! If anything the message is to dare to fly; to attempt things which involve risk and change, to jump up and down a bit – in a restrained non-charismatic way, obviously.
Change reveals one of the great divides of the human character. When change is mooted there are always those who will say ‘why?’, with a certain down-turn of the mouth, and those for whom it will always be ‘why not?’, with a sense of, possibly foolish, enthusiasm. We divide into haters of the new and those who can’t get enough of it. We are preservers or innovators, but not often both. But we need both, in an inevitable tension.
It’s a tension present from the beginning, from the first Pentecost. We hear, this morning, about the Christian faith getting going in a great burst of novelty: certainly no one who remembered this event as Luke does would thank us for saying we should keep our feet firmly on the ground. And yet, throughout the church’s life we have rightly valued faithfulness to tradition. Both components are essential to a balanced faith; all tradition was once new. The architectural exuberance of this building was profoundly shocking to Victorian sensibilities. Now it is venerable.
What we call fundamentalism in all religions (and other areas of human life, for fundamentalism is really a cast of mind, not a doctrinal position) arises from an impatience with, or refusal to acknowledge, the history that lies between our texts and us. In Christian terms (and in Muslim terms too) it arises when we try to pretend that our scriptures can be understood and acted upon undiluted by broader knowledge or reason, without any other information than the text before us, as if their time, place and context is undifferentiated from ours.
So tradition is essential – indeed, correctly understood, the Bible is precisely one part of our tradition. But this feast is a powerful reminder that the tradition has always developed and adapted itself: the trick has always been to make the process of renewal and adaptation itself into a living tradition (as this building demonstrates).
Jesus’ teaching about the Spirit is a frequent topic in John. For John, from whom we heard this morning, the gift of the Spirit is an assurance that the time of Jesus’ physical human presence was not an all-time high in the past, the like of which we can never see again. On the contrary, ‘the Spirit’ means that what Jesus was and did, then, is still true and available for his own now, as it has been in a continuum of growth and gradual revelation in the succeeding centuries. Perhaps today is a good time to reflect on our own journeys, which may be in need of either a little radical renewal, or some traditional nourishment.
Today we celebrate the Christian message swiftly breaking free of its original bounds, becoming universal in its scope (that’s the point of the many tongues, not charismatic gibberish but multi-linguistic understanding): a tradition broken open and renewed. The Spirit is the gift of God’s presence and the sign of our hope.
At Pentecost we often pray, and sing hymns about, being set on fire. We probably don’t mean it, because that would hurt. But still, please, reflect on the way in which the Spirit is at work in your lives (because the Spirit is at work in your lives) and pray to be changed and to be an agent of change, within the great tradition which informs our life in the faith, to this end: that many others can understand the message which too often gets stuck in here.