Sermon for High Mass – Day of Pentecost Sunday 4 June 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie on the Day of Pentecost
‘Receive the Holy Spirit’. Many of you heard Bishop James say these words when he ordained Philip Sanneh to the priesthood two weeks ago. And we’ve just heard where they come from: John’s account of Pentecost, which telescopes today’s feast into the evening of the Resurrection.
The two different chronologies in Acts and John, both of which we’ve just heard, are instructive. Luke and Acts, which aim at linear history – ‘setting things down in order’ as Luke says to Theophilus at the beginning of his Gospel – a chronicler’s view, in the manner of an ancient historian like Herodotus. John begins not with chronicle but with theology, with meaning – ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’. That is his programme, and we find it here again. So our reading of John seeks meaning, not timelines. The question is what is received, what is the sacramental effect, of this gift which Jesus breathes on his disciples, gifted still, we believe, in ordination, and also in baptism and confirmation? Two gifts are mentioned: peace, which prefaces the gift, and forgiveness, which follows from it.
Both those gifts are topical this morning. They are given by Jesus in order that we may grow to be integrated individuals who can respond as he did to particular events, such as those last night distressingly close by.
Our age is subject to a growing cult of anxiety and forced busy-ness. We congratulate ourselves on always having too much to do; at work we feel the need to appear busier than anyone else lest we or our job look redundant; some are required to work inhuman hours to be considered worthy of promotion. Those retired from work triumphantly proclaim that they are now busier than before. We play at it too in the newly managerial Church; you’ll have seen the ironic slogan: ‘Christ is coming: look busy’.
If we’re honest about our busy-ness, some of it is not virtuous. It can be denial, avoidance or keeping up with others. Worse, it may signal inner emptiness, being uncomfortable with our own company, or God’s. A displacement activity.
In John’s Pentecost the first gift is not tongues of fire or the reversal of Babel, as in Acts, but ‘peace‘. Competitive humblebragging about how busy we are is often accompanied by an expressed wish for ‘peace and quiet’, rest. That is within our reach, thanks to the gift of the Spirit. But it requires application, and understanding, of the gift.
Rest, ‘peace and quiet’ is popularly idealised as sitting in the lotus position in a darkened room, or wishfully conceived of as lying on a beach in the sun. Christ’s gift of peace is more robust and engaging than that. ‘Peace’, rest, like most good things in life, is an attitude of mind, a habit formed by the accumulation of good choices; it is being truly ‘at home’ as who we are, where we are; the opposite of alienation. It is possible to do a lot of work and be comfortable and at home with that, serene about it. Peace is a perspective on the world and a way of life, connected to ‘the sabbath rest of the people of God’ (Heb. 4.9).
Seneca, the second-century Roman philosopher, noticed that most of his friends and acquaintances lacked this sort of peace. He wrote a famous book on anger and how to deal with it. He especially noticed that his richest friends were the angriest of all. This was not sour grapes – he was one of the richest men in the empire, a billionaire in modern terms. He came to believe that the reason so many people were agitated was that they had an unreasonable expectation about how smoothly their day would go. Those who were rich didn’t understand their wealth: they thought that their money would buy them an easier life in every detail; when it didn’t, they were the angriest of all. Realistic expectations and self-awareness were, he thought, the key.
Seneca suggests that the more aware we are of the frailties in us, in others, and in life, the less fights we will have. This in turn will lead to fewer occasions when we will need to ask or give forgiveness, the necessity of which he also taught. In this he is surely not far from the Kingdom of God. Forgiveness, you notice, is the gift bestowed by Jesus with the Spirit.
My father would have said that, ‘with acceptance comes peace’, a maxim he learned from Buddhist coverts in China. To find and experience peace we almost always do have to confront the things we are trying to avoid or deny, not angrily but with acceptance, as God accepts us (‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive…’). Those difficult things so often hinge on painful memories, or events where we were destructive towards others or destructively treated by them. Unless we forgive ourselves or them, our busy-ness will ensure sufficient clamour and activity to silence and mask ugly memories. But being busy not dealing with things does not bring peace.
Allowing Jesus to breathe the Spirit into us now, rather than looking for it in yet more activity, might be a process of exercising forgiveness and allowing it in ourselves (‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive…’). Then, like the risen Christ, with old wounds exposed, we can rejoice that the Spirit has breathed into us the greatest gift of all, the peace of God which is beyond all understanding.
Austin Farrer, with characteristic economy, wrote the following Pentecost sermon which puts this more theologically:
Pentecost is not the feast of the Holy Ghost; it is the feast of his descent upon us. The Son of God came down and was made man in the womb of Mary. The Holy Ghost came down and was made human in the souls of Christians. When Jesus was ripe for birth, he left Mary’s womb, to grow up and be himself. He outgrew first her womb and then her lap, first her protection, last her person and her mind. But as the Holy Ghost grows in us it is not he but we who grow. He does not grow up and leave us behind, we grow up into him. He becomes the spring and substance of our mind and heart. He is the never failing fountain of which Jesus spoke to the Samaritaness. We break up the stony rubbish of our life again and again, to find and release the well of living water.