Pentecost Sermon 2016, Jane Bartlett
I want to begin with a story. Off the coast of Brazil there was a group of people on a raft. They had no water on board and under the hot sun they were all dying of thirst. Their mouths and throats were dry. They were dizzy and light headed, unable to think clearly. They were terrified. What they didn’t realise is that they were close to a mighty river that was gushing out into the sea with such power that its waters went out for a couple of miles. Right beneath their raft was beautiful fresh, life giving water in abundance…but they didn’t know it! They never even considered that the water could be anything other than salty.
This is a story that was told by Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello, and I think it’s a good way to start, and later end, our exploration of Pentecost.
The Spirit, which we celebrate this morning, is sometimes the forgotten person in the Trinity. God the Father and Jesus regularly get invited to this wonderful celebration we have in church every Sunday, but somehow the Spirit gets marginalised. She (and we can speak of the Spirit as ‘she’ if we want to use gendered language, because feminine words are used for Spirit in the Bible), she is all that bit too mysterious and unknowable, so we push this part of God to one side. David Ford, Professor of divinity at Cambridge University says that the Holy Spirit is the ‘most exciting, disturbing, and uncertain topic in Christian theology’, and that we are still working out its implications.
Spirit was there right from the beginning. If we go back to Genesis, Spirit is there hovering over the waters even before the world began. The Hebrew word for Spirit is ‘Ruach’, which can be translated as breath or wind. The word as it rolls around your mouth even feels a bit like breath…ruach…you might want to try it later.
In that amazing creation story God formed the first human out of the earth and breathed life into his nostrils. Just focus on your breath for a moment, in and out…in and out….there the Spirit is, keeping you alive, right here, right now.
This mysterious Spirit keeps popping up throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s the giant wind that divides the Red Sea in Exodus; it gives life to a valley of dried bones in Ezekiel. And now, in this reading we heard this morning in Acts, the Spirit becomes available to us in a powerful new way through the work of Christ. It’s as if at Pentecost, when the church was born, humanity has this sudden leap in our level of consciousness. We become awake to God in a new way.
Pentecost is a dramatic moment, with the disciples experiencing a mighty rushing wind, tongues of fire and the strange new gift of being able to speak different languages. It’s so mysterious Scripture uses these otherworldly manifestations to try and describe it.
But the Bible also gives us another version of Pentecost. There is the loud exuberant Pentecost, the one we read about in Acts. And there’s a quiet Pentecost, the beginning of which we heard in our Gospel reading this morning. The two are very different.
In today’s Gospel of John we heard Jesus say that he will give his disciples a ‘Helper’ – it’s a very gentle word isn’t it? Helper. A helper isn’t someone who seizes control, but someone who is alongside, assisting. If we were to read further in Chapter 20 Jesus appears to his disciples, breathes on them, and says ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’. It’s a tender, quiet encounter, no rushing wind or tongues of fire. We can almost imagine the disciples sinking back down into a soft mattress as Jesus whispers to them: ‘Peace be with you.’
I think it’s wonderful that the Bible offers us these two very different Pentecosts, because human experience is varied. Our encounter with the Spirit can be very stormy and disturbing like it is in Acts, and often too it is quiet like a soft breeze, as it is in John. In fact the Spirit can so subtle that we might not even be aware of it.
I want to suggest to you that those tingles you might get down your spine when you hear the choir sing beautifully, or the tears that come to your eyes during a moment of worship, or the energy that might burst forth during a rousing hymn (all of this on a good day at All Saints of course), all of these experiences are encounters with the Spirit. The Spirit is also there in the silence, during contemplative prayer and meditation, where stillness opens up an extraordinary sense of presence.
And the Spirit is not confined to within these Victorian church walls, lovely though they are. She blows everywhere and can’t be contained. She’s there when we are called to put our hand on the shoulder of someone who is crying. She’s there when we truly see the blossom on the tree in all its sacred glory, as Moses did when he saw the burning bush.
She’s there when we are feeling fired up to fight for the rights of asylum seekers. She’s there when we are inspired to write a poem. All of these things are the Spirit at work in us.
And this is where I want to return to our raft, out there at sea. Perhaps as a church community here at All Saints we might sometimes feel that we are in that vulnerable raft. We might be dizzy wondering how we are going to survive financially with all the overheads of this huge building. We might be confused about how to attract new people to join the community. We might be wondering if our new vicar is ever going to come. Is there land in sight?
But perhaps the answer to our situation is obvious, if only we had the eyes to see. The Spirit is so very close all the time and available to us. Sometimes we don’t realise that all we have to do is reach out, cup our hands and drink from the life giving water that is abundantly present all around. ‘Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again,’ says Jesus.
A church where Pentecost can be experienced, whether quiet or loud, will be a place that draws the thirsty towards it because it is life giving, for ourselves and for the world. Time and time again, it is the Spirit that has renewed Christian communities and brought about new awakenings. Jesus told us that the Spirit’s work is not complete. He told us that the Spirit will inspire us to do ‘greater things’ in the future and will guide us further into ‘all the Truth.’
So that must be our prayer this Pentecost.
Come Holy Spirit Come. Come Holy Spirit Come.