24 May 2015

Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21     John 20:19-23

with Canon David Stranack

The environment, global warming and renewable energy are important topics for today and rightly so, but it can all leave us feeling rather worried and perhaps rather depressed.   There seems so little that we individually can do although even the small steps we can take are important.
But today I want to talk about a different sort of renewable energy.   It is non-toxic, environmentally friendly, costs us nothing and its power is truly inspirational.
Yes, I’m sure you’ve guessed it – God the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is renewable not only in the usual sense of that word but also in the sense that he has the power to renew all who welcome him into their lives.
The Holy Spirit is non-toxic in that he is life giving not life destroying.
He is environmentally friendly in that he offers the perfect way to care for this world by guiding people away from selfish actions and towards a more caring attitude towards people and towards God’s creation.
The Holy Spirit costs us nothing because it is God’s free gift to all who wish to receive him.
And his power is truly inspirational because he breathes new life, to inspire love, joy and hope into the hearts of believers.
The Greek word for Spirit is pneuma – Πνευμα – from which we derive the word pneumatic.   So the Greek word can also be translated as wind or breath as in the ‘breath of life’.    In the New Testament the word describes something that was happening deep within the disciples that would change them forever.
They were being filled with new life, new breath and an unseen power that was not of their own making.   God was giving himself as the Holy Spirit to be an unseen presence living deep within his people.
St Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, tells us that the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in the upper room like a rushing mighty wind and then what seemed like tongues of fire rested on each one of them.   They knew something amazing had happened to them.
The Holy Spirit had a remarkable effect that astonished the people in Jerusalem at that time where the city was crowded for the Jewish festival of Pentecost – so named from the Greek word for ‘fiftieth’.
The name was first given to the Jewish feast of Weeks, which fell on the 50th day after the Passover, when the first-fruits of the corn harvest were presented (Deut. 16. 9)  and then, in later times, they also commemorated the giving of the Law of Moses.
But for us as Christians we are reminded on this day that it is the Holy Spirit that is going to bring in the first fruits of a greater harvest.     In Christ’s parable of the sower the seed is the word of God.   As that seed is sown in the hearts and minds of men and women so by the power of the Holy Spirit it is possible to have a rich harvest.
Also, instead of celebrating the Law of Moses we are able to rejoice that by the Holy Spirit, the new law of love is to be proclaimed in the name of Jesus.
As the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles on this, the 50th day after the Resurrection (Acts 2. 1),  the name Pentecost was applied by the Church to the feast celebrating this event.
Luke tells us that the disciples were moved by the spirit as if tongues of flame were resting on each of them, so that they were fired into action and rushed out into the busy street of the city with great excitement and enthusiasm.   The crowd there which greeted them was made up of people from many countries and they were bewildered to hear them speaking in their own languages (Acts 2:9-11).
In recording the event, Luke felt that it was important that the countries should be listed and this actually tells us something very important about Pentecost.
In recent years, in many parts of the church, the Holy Spirit has been ‘rediscovered’ as the living power of God, present now to inspire worship, increase love and some are even given ‘supernatural’ gifts like the speaking in tongues.
In this tradition, speaking in tongues is experienced as an intensely personal welling up of worship, finding expression in a flow of language unknown to the speaker.   I am told that those who experience this feel that their faith is greatly affirmed and strengthened.
But there is another important aspect of language which comes out of the Pentecost story.     Some New Testament scholars have pointed out that Luke makes Pentecost the counterpart to the curse of Babel.
In that parable-story in Genesis 11, God confused the speech of humankind, so that people were scattered across the earth and could not build a magnificent city in opposition to God.
This story was to explain how the multitudes of nations were born and how often there is confusion and discord between them.
When mankind turns away from obedience to the ways of God communication breaks down and, as we well know, hostility can so easily follow.
But in Jerusalem on that day of Pentecost, a group had gathered from many nations, and they heard about ‘the wonders of God’ (Acts 2:11) in a single language which, as it were, repaired the damage done by the curse of Babel.   God was ready to let humankind rediscover its fundamental unity – but it is a unity that can only be found in and through Christ.
It is Christ who can bring the people of the world together through justice and forgiveness, compassion and love.     And one might say, having in mind our recent Christian Aid Week that that effort itself is one of the signs of how Christ brings the world together by a shared compassion and love of neighbour.
But there is still more to it than this – for the message itself which they heard was also the message that made sense of God and of his purposes.   Again and again after the resurrection, Jesus explained the meaning of the scriptures that were about himself.
Many of the descriptions of God in the Old Testament often showed him as a frightening, judgemental God who needed to be appeased – often as a God of revenge and punishment.
The disciples were able to show that the truth about God is,  as we see in the person of Jesus Christ.   He is a loving and merciful God who ‘came into the world, not to condemn the world but in order that the world may have life’
Jesus had promised to the disciples that (John 16.13,14) ‘…when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth;’      It is this spirit of Jesus that proclaims the real truth about God.
In Acts 1.8  Jesus had said to the disciples:   ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you;  and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
And St Matthew recalls:  28.18    Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always,  to the end of the age.’
So Pentecost is primarily about mission – the mission of the church and the Holy Spirit of God co-operating together to proclaim the good news of God.
We as the disciples of today are sent out as his apostles now.   We are called to proclaim our faith in Jesus by what we say about our faith when and if we have the opportunity, but at all times we are to proclaim our faith by the way we live our lives, by our attitude towards other people, by our concern for those in need, by our readiness to forgive and to ask for forgiveness, and by our love and respect for all people no matter who, no matter where.
These are to be the marks of a Christian.   These should be the visible signs that God’s Holy Spirit is alive in each one of us.
But we can only do these things if we draw on his power and strength from above and allow God as seen in Jesus Christ to be our true inspiration.   Our constant prayer should be that we might become more and more like Jesus in love and service.
That is our calling.    So may the Spirit of our wonderful God as seen in Jesus, be the motivation for our daily life and witness,    and may the Holy Spirit  of Jesus help us to live that life with enthusiasm, love and joy.   Amen

ANOTHER SERMON