Sermon for The Day of Pentecost (Whit Sunday) High Mass and Procession Sunday 24 May 2015
Sermon preached by Father Michael Bowie
In the Acts of the Apostles and the gospel of John there are two quite different timescales and theologies of Pentecost. Luke, in Acts, continues his linear story, in the manner of ancient history-writing – Herodotus or the history books of the Old Testament. Having described a forty-day period from Easter to the Ascension, Luke comes to the fiftieth day, the Jewish feast of Pentecost. This was the so-called ‘feast of weeks’, 50 days after Passover, originally a harvest festival. Later it had become the celebration of Moses being given the law. Luke now recorded it as the day on which the Holy Spirit was given to the church. So the law of Moses is replaced by the gift of the Spirit: the linguistic and social confusion of Babel is set right and all understand each other anew – the tongues are real languages and the gift is understanding. As an unknown 6th century African author put it:
And so if anyone says to one of us: ‘You have received the Holy Spirit; why do you not speak in tongues?’, he should reply: ‘I do speak in every tongue. For I am in the body of Christ, the Church, which speaks in every tongue. For what did God signify by the presence of the Holy Spirit if it was not that his Church would speak in every tongue?’
So far, so straightforward in story-telling terms. It is this version which has determined the shape of our Eastertide. Luke’s calendar is a neat scheme, used by him to explain what was happening as a reinterpretation of the Jewish story.
By contrast, it is clear that St John (who was present, but wrote much later) experienced the resurrection, ascension and giving of the Spirit as all wrapped up, if not on Easter day very soon afterwards. By tying the gift of the Spirit to Easter, John emphasizes that the Spirit is the gift of the risen Jesus, and as such conveys the benefits of his death and resurrection. That is a quite different emphasis, which gives a clear theological interpretation of the gift of the Spirit as incorporating us into the resurrection life, rather than just forming a new institution, the Church.
Many of us, of course, grew up with a feast we called Whitsun on this day and a person of the Trinity we called the Holy Ghost, or more mysteriously the Paraclete. The Holy Ghost didn’t much impinge on the rest of life, Christian or otherwise. Indeed in the Evangelical tradition which I knew as a child, the active presence of the Spirit was said to have ceased with the apostolic age (a doctrine called ‘cessationism’), and the Holy Ghost, along with the Trinity, was treated as a doctrinal necessity – a piece of divine logic – rather than a living power. Those interested in such things knew that the Holy Ghost was invoked in baptism, confirmation and ordination but I think it’s fair to say that we didn’t expect anything much to happen as a result; that was simply a matter of order, the right form of words for those prayers; once the scriptures had been provided under the Holy Ghost’s guidance his work was largely done. This view was not peculiar to Low Church Anglicanism: in practice Roman Catholics largely ignored the Holy Spirit too.
Then, around fifty years ago nearly all the churches started to pick up something more like the NT picture of the Spirit: actively at work in us; the presence of God in the world. There had been a Holy Spirit revival in black Pentecostal churches on the west coast of the USA in the early 1900’s and some picked up on that: what are called ‘spiritual gifts’, speaking in tongues, signs and wonders and so on. This was in fact the most recent and powerful example of something that had repeatedly broken out before on the margins of Christianity.
From this revival came, in more mainstream churches, an interest in healing ministry. In English the name of the third person of the Trinity was deliberately changed to ‘Holy Spirit’, because ‘Holy Ghost’ seemed literally to suggest a spooky figure from the past. The role of the Spirit in the consecration of the bread and wine of the Eucharist, always central in the Eastern Orthodox churches, was rediscovered and made more evident in our new services. Catholic and Anglican theologians began to write about the Holy Spirit and the Trinity as live issues. For most Christians it became usual routinely to speak of the role of the Holy Spirit in church life in a way that indicated we expected that his input would cause something to happen. Not, most of us hoped, things like falling over in public or speaking odd languages, but an active guiding into all truth – one of the promises of today’s gospel.
Perhaps that’s the thing to notice first: Luke’s chronological version of the story in Acts tended to play to the idea that this gift of the Spirit had been a one-off, or at most a distinctive feature of the apostolic age, as the church began. But Jesus’ words as reported by John, which we heard in today’s gospel, indicate something more deep-seated and continuing in the life of every Christian.
The promise of Jesus in today’s gospel is not of a doctrine for our assent but the promise of a source of life, assurance, comfort and strength for the Christian believer. To understand this we need to know a little about that odd word ‘paraclete’, which is sometimes left (unsatisfactorily) untranslated in John.
It was a well-remembered promise of Jesus that his followers, when they found themselves on trial for their faith, would be prompted by the Holy Spirit with the right words for their defence. But it is only in John’s gospel that this Spirit is called the Paraclete, the ‘Advocate’.
[There is a court-room drama theme that pervades all of John. The talk of the judgement of this world is paralleled by the trial process of Jesus himself and so on. So this is an ‘advocate ‘ in the Scottish courtroom sense – what we call a barrister. But the παρÎ¬κλητος, or advocate, in the ancient world had a wider and less specialized role than that. He would appear in court for the accused, but he was not necessarily a trained lawyer; his role was not to present legal arguments or formulate a defence. His effectiveness depended on the respect in which he was generally held and his function was to persuade the judge that the accused was an honourable and deserving person whose word could be trusted and who was therefore not to be suspected of an offence.
In the context of John’s picture of the Christian life the metaphor is extended. The advocate’s role did not come to an end when he had pleaded the cause of the accused before the judge; he might then have to go back to his friend, explain the verdict of the court and help him to accept it. He was, in fact, a kind of go-between, representing the accused to the judge and the judge to the accused. In this sense the ‘Advocate’ was also, as most older English translations render the word paraclete, the ‘Comforter’. The Holy Spirit, Jesus tells us in John, is like that.]
The presence of the Spirit, defending us when challenged, guiding us when perplexed and revealing more and more of the truth of God, not only makes up for Jesus’ physical absence but enables others to see him as he really is, to see his ‘glory’. These are the true ‘gifts of the Spirit’, the motive force that brings and keeps us here, and, organically, slowly and imperceptibly, alters our lives as part of the body of Christ, if we persevere in membership.
The Spirit, and this feast, aren’t about signs and wonders for the few; the Church speaks in every tongue. The Spirit and this feast are about life, life with the quality of eternity, for everyone.