Sermon for HIGH MASS and Procession – The Day of Pentecost (Whit Sunday) Sunday 8 June 2014
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Luke’s account of the first Pentecost is so graphic that, for all that it takes only a few verses – followed by Peter’s explanatory sermon setting the event against the background of Old Testament prophecy for the benefit of Jews who had come to Jerusalem for one of the great pilgrim festivals “from every nation under heaven” – it rather steals the show. It dominates the way we think about the being and work of the Spirit. And because it seems so far removed from our own experience, we might wonder sometimes whether the Spirit is at work in us at all.
Luke’s account came to shape the way in which the Church celebrates the resurrection, ascension and giving of the Holy Spirit as separate though related feasts. The other New Testament writers tend to see these all as part of one whole; as we see in today’s Gospel passage from St. John where Jesus breathes the Spirit on the disciples on the first Easter Day. But Luke’s approach recognises realistically that most of us have difficulty thinking about more than one thing at a time!
Pentecost means “Fifty Days.” It was the name given by those who translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek to the Feast of Shavuot or “Weeks.” This took place 50 days after Passover and was a harvest festival, a thanksgiving for the first crops of the year.
Later, as feasts tend to do, it would take on another meaning as a thanksgiving for the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, the instruction which would guide and shape the life of the people of God.
We can’t be sure how far this development had established itself in the time of the infant Church. What seems undeniable is the Luke sees the giving of the Spirit as both the foundation and the continuing source of the Church’s life.
Just as the overshadowing of Mary by the Spirit stands at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, so the coming of the Spirit upon those who have been, at the Lord’s command, waiting in prayer for that gift, sets the theme for the story of the early Church.
Pentecost marks the outpouring of the Spirit on the Church, but that does not mean the Spirit has been inactive until this point. Both Acts and the other readings point us to the Spirit’s activity in ways which can help us recognise that activity as it continues.
So in singing Psalm 104 we were reminded both of the work of the Spirit in creation and in sustaining that creation in being:
“You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth.” Ps.104.31
So we are reminded of our dependence on God for our continuing existence as his creatures. We are reminded too that creation is neither an accident nor our private possession, something to be exploited for our own ends, but a gift of God. We are to be both thankful for it and careful of it.
The Spirit, as Peter says in his sermon, was present too in the ministry of the prophets. They were given words from God to speak to the people: words to point to their unfaithfulness to their calling and to recall them to that calling; words of warning about the consequences of their infidelity and yet of hope for their restoration by God’s act.
The other major occasion on which we hear the prophet Joel read is Ash Wednesday when the Church calls us to repentance as we begin the fast of Lent.
Peter’s sermon in Acts gives Joel a more positive and hopeful stance:
“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.”
The Spirit was present too in that human wisdom which is a gift of God. So we pray in the Collect of this feast, that the Spirit may give us “a right judgement in all things.” And in the Sacrament of Confirmation, the Bishop prays over the candidates in the words of Isaiah for the sevenfold gift of the Spirit:
“Let your Holy Spirit rest upon them: the Spirit of wisdom and understanding; the Spirit of counsel and inward strength; the Spirit of knowledge and true godliness; and let their delight be in the fear of the Lord.”
Jesus is for John, the Word and Wisdom of God. He is the one who speaks to us the ultimate word of God because he is God. In those parting words to the disciples at the Last Supper, which we have been hearing on recent Sundays, Jesus had promised them that he would send them another “Comforter,” the Spirit who would remind them of all that he had said to them, who would lead them into all truth, who would enable them to know his presence. On Easter Day he returns to that Upper Room to breathe on them that Spirit for their mission, which is his, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you;” to speak God’s word of “Peace” to a world alienated from God by sin; to people alienated from each other.
For Luke, Pentecost is the empowerment and inauguration of that same mission to all the world, represented by those devout Jews “from every nation under heaven.” That mission is to proclaim the risen Lord; or as Paul puts is to say, “Jesus is Lord.” The Spirit is given for that purpose. It is not for our own personal self-improvement programme, but “for the common good;” for the common task in which all Christians have a part to play. That’s something we need to remember in an individualist culture in which religion can be reduced to just another consumer item which exists for our benefit. Paul speaks of different gifts allocated by the Spirit to different people, but always within the context of the “one body:” “In the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body.” Peter acts as the spokesman on Pentecost, but the Spirit is given to all.
Nor should we think that the Spirit has been given to other people but not to us: “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit.” Our duty is to discern, with the guidance of the same Spirit who often works through other people who see what we sometimes cannot, what that gift is. Some of those gifts may seem rather ordinary and unspectacular but they are no less important for that.
The Spirit is at work in the continuing life of the Church: as it both hears the Word of God and seeks to proclaim it to others; as it seeks to translate the Gospel into not just the languages of “every nation under heaven” but into their cultures and philosophies. The Spirit gives us a vision far greater than anything we can dream of ourselves.
“In the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body.”
Paul reminds us the Spirit is present in the sacramental life of the Church, in its worship and prayer:
– In baptism and confirmation which I have already mentioned;
– Then those words from the Gospel: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them,” are in the Prayer Book Ordinal said by the bishop to those being ordained to the ministerial priesthood; to a ministry of reconciliation and peace;
– In this service we have already prayed in the Collect for Purity that the Spirit will inspire our worship. Shortly, we will “In the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ,” offer our prayers to the Father. Remember that St. Paul says in another place, that even though we do not know how to pray as we ought, the Spirit aids us in our weakness, the Spirit prays within us.
– At the altar, we will pray for the outpouring of the Spirit on both gifts and people so that we fed with the Body and Blood of Christ we may be sent out “in the power of the Spirit to live and work to [God’s] praise and glory.”