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Sunday 9 June 2019 Pentecost – Sung Eucharist
Acts 2:1-21 Romans 8:14-17 John 14:8-17, 25-27
It’s not my usual style to begin with a text, so consider today to be the exception that proves the rule. Two texts, in fact, both from the first reading: ‘When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place,’ and then a little further on, ‘Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.’ Togetherness and distinctiveness, unity and diversity, sameness and difference. That’s what I want to speak about today, and about how it’s in the nature of love to make the seemingly impossible a reality.
Just under a month ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury visited Pope Francis in Rome. He said the ‘most amazing thing happened’ when he ‘very cheekily’ asked the Pope if he might record a video message for Thy Kingdom Come, a novena of prayer held across the world among Christians of a variety of traditions between Ascension Day and the Feast of Pentecost, which we celebrate today. The Pope agreed and this is part of what he said:
‘Come Holy Spirit. This is the cry of all Christians on this day of Pentecost. Come Holy Spirit – the promise of the Father; the promise of Jesus, that the Holy Spirit might enlarge and widen our hearts. We all have a problem, and that is that our hearts tend to shrink, become smaller and close. We can’t solve this problem by ourselves. Only the Holy Spirit can solve it.’
The Acts of the Apostles presents us, as we heard, with an arresting picture of what happened on the day of Pentecost. The coming of the Spirit’s described as a ‘sound like the rush of a violent wind.’ The most sensible response to the prospect of a hurricane isn’t simply to batten down the hatches but to get right out of the way! A hurricane sweeps away everything in its path, it churns everything up and destroys. And this is what the Spirit’s like! No wonder we shrink, become smaller and close in on ourselves.
And yet the Spirit’s also life, the very breath of life which God breathes into us to make us living beings, beings animated not just by physical breath but by the very life of God. So our relationship with the Spirit’s ambiguous to say the least. We know that without the Spirit there’s no life, and yet being open to the Spirit leads ultimately to our being consumed, purged, combusted by the fire of the Spirit. Deep down, though, we know that what burns us up is none other than divine love itself. Our first two hymns today captured exactly this: ‘Come down, O Love divine…let it freely burn, till earthly passions turn to dust and ashes in its heat consuming.’ ‘O Thou who camest from above the pure celestial fire to impart, kindle a flame of sacred love on the mean altar of my heart. There let it for thy glory burn with inextinguishable blaze, and trembling to its source return in humble prayer and fervent praise.’ For that to become a reality requires us to die: to die to self, to self-centredness, to the sense that the world revolves around you or me above all else.
And this takes us to the heart of the matter. We experience our resistance to being transformed not primarily in relation to God in the first instance, but in relation to other people. It’s other people who threaten our autonomy, our belief that life should always be as I want it to be. It’s this that makes us close in on ourselves, narrow our perspective and seek to throw our weight around. And when this happens, we seek to bolster ourselves up, to defend ourselves, by associating invariably with like-minded people, with those who’re the same. Otherness, difference, is often threatening, in whatever guise it appears: a different sexual orientation, a different religion, a different culture, a different political view, a different vision of life. It’s this very threat that makes us aware that we have two options: close down, shrink and become as small as my own narrow perspective, or open up and expand to embrace that which is different and other. You see, the Pope’s spot on. The core spiritual issue presents itself as one of the human heart, and yet we can’t solve this on our own. Only the Spirit, the one who comes to us from beyond, can solve it. But the Spirit’s the very source of life and love. When we open our hearts, we ultimately open up to love, divine love, which consumes us, yes, but which also manifests itself, if we let it, in every human being, in those who’re different from us. Then we can receive and relate to others as gift, as a gift from God.
On the day of Pentecost, the apostles were gathered together in one place. Here’s an image of unity. And yet, when the Spirit came, it came as divided tongues of fire: an image of difference. The apostles all received the same Spirit but it was this same Spirit that enabled them to speak other languages. What a picture of diversity-in-unity! Theologically speaking, Christ’s the one in whom unity’s found, it’s in him that everything holds together, but it’s the Spirit who differentiates, who enables difference, who makes it possible for you to be wholly you and me to be wholly me, and not clones of anyone, not even of Jesus.
And this is in the nature of love itself. Love isn’t threatened by difference and otherness. As Teilhard de Chardin, the great French philosopher, scientist, theologian and Jesuit priest observed, ‘Love differentiates.’ It’s fear that seeks to control and make everything the same. That’s what we see in totalitarian regimes and it squeezes the very life out of everyone. At the end of today’s gospel reading we heard Jesus saying, ‘My peace I give to you… Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.’ Love, as is stated in the First Letter of John, casts out fear and it’s love that makes it possible for the other to be other without breaking the bond of love. It’s our vocation, the vocation of the whole creation, to be this love, but to be so, we have to be transformed by the fire of love, broken out of our narrow self-centredness, and enlarged.
Jesus is the very embodiment of love, and he reveals that love to be a communion of love, in which difference is held in unity. The relationship between Jesus and the one he calls Abba is so close that he says to Philip, ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,’ and ‘I am in the Father and the Father is in me,’ and yet they’re not identical. They’re one but different. Furthermore, the Spirit, who’s the fruit of the love between the Father and the Son, also abides in us. We’re drawn into this communion of love, to be part of it, to share in it to the full. So, although we focus on the Holy Spirit today, everything about today’s thoroughly Trinitarian. Divine love is shown to be a communion of love, in which distinct relationships are held in perfect unity. Each of the persons of the Trinity is utterly transparent to the others, nothing’s held back, nothing’s shrunk or closed in, but a total expansiveness and openness to the other. And the Spirit, the one who’s like a violent wind and who transforms us as the fire of love, dwells in us, enabling us to be wholly ourselves, different, and at the same time completely at one with God and everyone and everything else.
If our hearts are to be expanded and widened, as Pope Francis suggests, they have to be broken open to be capable of embracing everything, divine love most of all. It’s a ridiculous vision, isn’t it? It’s impossible. But we start small, in our day to day relationships with one another. There can be pain and turmoil sometimes, but often moments of delight and joy, too. We can’t do it on our own, though. We simply have to be open to the one who makes the seemingly impossible possible. Which is why today of all days we pray, ‘Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people, and kindle in us the fire of your love.’
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