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The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Pentecost Sunday – Choral Eucharist 10am – 20May 2018
Acts 2.1-21 & John 15.26-27; 16,4b-15
I always smile when I see a Fire Exit sign in a church! It makes me think of the Day of Pentecost and the story we hear today detailing the strange events which happened to the disciples on that day. If our Health and Safety Officer, Steve Bielby, or one of his colleagues had been in the upper room with the disciples I wonder if the Church would have ever existed. The minute the ‘violent wind’ had raced through the room followed swiftly with the ‘tongues of fire’ resting on each disciple, the Health and Safety Officer would have calmly directed people out of the Fire Exits and the Day of Pentecost would have come to an early end. In the ‘Enquiry’ which would have followed the Officer would certainly have had something to say about the suspicion that the disciples had been drinking!
Of course this is silly because it seems fairly clear that Luke, who we think wrote this account of the Day of Pentecost, is using metaphors to try and explain dramatic and strange occurrences. He talks of hearing, ‘a sound like the blowing of a violent wind’, and then, ‘They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire …’ and about the allusion to the disciples being drunk, it is clearly a joke, he says, ‘some made fun of them and said ‘They have had too much wine’. So if we take all this into account we can dispense with any concerns about physical danger. Luke is using metaphors to describe a remarkable and unusual event. A Health and Safety Officer would not be perturbed by what happened. We can simply enjoy looking back at an important, mysterious and significant event in the emergence of the Church. Pentecost is really all about the breaking down of barriers and the growing in confidence of the disciples, to pursue the ministry of Jesus and to build communities from which the Church, from which this church community, grew. Pentecost is about remembering that the Church was born in profound joy and mutual love in which earthly differences between people, like status, race and language, are totally irrelevant.
That is all well and good but we make a massive error if we think that what happened on the Day of Pentecost was not dangerous in some ways, because it was! What happened on the Day of Pentecost was a matter of life and death, to be more precise perhaps I should say that it was a matter of death and new life!
Many of the disciples who were touched, inspired, filled with the Holy Spirit on this day died as a direct result of what happened – just as the secular and religious authorities of the day had been suspicious of Jesus and eventually killed him, so they were suspicious of his followers. In the years to come many of the disciples were arrested and martyred for their faith and work. But their deaths led to new life, new life for them and new life for the Church because their sacrifices somehow helped to establish the communities they created, their sacrifices were the foundations on which the church grew. Many early church buildings were actually built over the graves of martyred saints.
The danger about what was happening on the Day of Pentecost would not have been noticed by a Health and Safety Officer – it was all far too deep and profound. What happened on the day of Pentecost may have looked to a casual onlooker like a great party, everyone full of joy, everyone talking and getting on, everyone acting as if they had had a few drinks, but what was actually happening was the shifting of creation’s tectonic plates. God’s Spirit was no longer focussed in one person, Jesus, and directed at one nation, Israel, no, God’s Spirit was filling many people (potentially all people) and was being directed at every nation. It wasn’t an Earthquake it was a ‘Godquake’. The way God was present and active in the world was changing and changing radically.
So what does all this have to say to us as we remember and celebrate the Feast of Pentecost? Perhaps the most important thing is to be reminded that the Holy Spirit is dangerous! Ironically the Church (capital ‘C’) and churches, like ours, have a reputation for not being good with change. We have the reputation for being conservative, keeping old services and old hymns because they are familiar and safe, we don’t like changing our buildings or our services or our music or even our service times. I still bear the scars of changing service times in a previous parish! But this is in stark contrast to what happened on the day of Pentecost which was all about change – it was all about God changing the way God was working in the world, it was all about people being changed from being a collection of individuals into being a community, a body, the body of Christ.
So what makes a good celebration of Pentecost? When we leave should we be reeling drunkenly with joy, talking animatedly to anyone and everyone, ready to heal and to teach and to prophecy? Should we be luminescent, alight with God’s love, with God’s life? Of course we should – but the likelihood is that that is not going to happen because we are too reserved, too ‘buttoned up’. If there was a strong wind and flames dancing on people’s heads and everyone talking different languages I wouldn’t need a Health and Safety Officer to show me to the Fire Exit – I’d find it myself very quickly – I am English after all!
What makes a good celebration for Pentecost for us is that we should be reminded of the enormity of what we are part of – we are part of that great tectonic shift in the way God works and the way the world should be, we are in the business of being different, not just building our own little kingdoms but building God’s Kingdom. We should be reminded that the Holy Spirit is not about keeping things the same it is always about change, transformation, the transformation of ourselves and of others through our love of them and of the world, through our striving for peace and justice.
The Holy Spirit is dangerous. Some of our sisters and brothers around the world who have been filled with the Holy Spirit face real persecution and real, physical danger every day. This is not the case for us, the danger we face by being filled with the Holy Spirit is that our equilibrium will be disturbed. What we like, what we are used to, what makes us feel safe and comfortable, may change – the Holy Spirit isn’t interested in the establishment of our own little kingdoms, the Holy Spirit is only interested in filling us with energy and courage to help establish God’s Kingdom where there are no barriers, no named seats, no personal preferences, just one community of love where all are equal.
Let’s finish with a prayer – a prayer in which the Holy Spirit isn’t mentioned but a prayer clearly infused by the Holy Spirit. It is a prayer written by John Donne,
Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity: in the habitations of thy majesty and glory, world without end. Amen
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