Sermon for Pentecost 4.06.17
What a motley collection we are. As I look around this church I see people of every age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, national origin, ability and disability, and I thank God for the variety we represent. Heaven will be like this. Church is one of the places where people who are unlike each other can meet in solidarity. I often think Sunday morning is the one time in the week when students meet toddlers, retired people mix with young parents, overburdened professionals have a coffee with people who have too much time on their hands.
We don’t have to agree about politics, in this of all weeks. I hope we will all vote this Thursday according to our conscience, but the decisions we make should be respected by one another. We don’t have to agree about theology. We come from many different religious backgrounds – Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Lutheran, Methodist and many more, as well as cradle Anglicans, and we continue to value the richness of our own Christian traditions. And of course many of us have had no religious upbringing at all and come to faith with no particular interest in a denominational identity.
We may be convinced Christians or people who hang on to Christianity by the very tips of our fingers. We may be lifelong believers or brand-new disciples. At the end of this service, those who were baptized, confirmed or received into communion in the past few months will be asked to share the light of the Easter candle with the rest of us. It is the new members who bring energy and hope to some of us who may feel a bit tired and jaded after decades of church life.
Would we want it any other way? Can you imagine anything more boring than a church full of people with the same education, accent, skin colour, haircut and opinions?
The Christian Church has always been shockingly diverse. The challenge from the very beginning has been to open the doors wider and wider. The first Jewish Christians, as we heard in the reading from Acts, spoke in many different languages as the Spirit gave them power, but they were speaking to fellow Jews from all across the Roman Empire, or at least people who were seeking to follow the Jewish way. That’s who the proselytes were in the reading from Acts – people of Gentile origin who were impressed by Jewish monotheism and morality.
But in no time at all, Paul was charging around the eastern Mediterranean planting churches in all sorts of random places – port cities full of prostitutes and sailors, like Corinth; shrine cities that depended on selling pagan artifacts, like Ephesus; Athens, where the intellectuals despised new religious movements; Rome, the very centre of the macho cult of the Emperor. The people Paul collected into the Christian fold were from all sorts of backgrounds in terms of wealth, religion and education, and shockingly he treated women and slaves as equal colleagues in mission and ministry.
The first big bust-up in the Christian Church was about whether uncircumcised Gentiles who ate non-kosher food could be proper Christians without converting to Judaism as a first step. Paul won that round, and the circle of inclusion became much bigger. In fact it exploded, and before long the Gentile Christians outnumbered the Jewish ones.
After our recent parish trip to Ravenna, I read Robert Graves’ novel Count Belisarius, which gives a fascinating picture of life in 6th century Constantinople, with forays into Italy and North Africa. In all these places, Christianity had become established, though in many different forms, and believers spent a lot of time calling each other heretics over fine points of doctrine about the nature of Christ. The Coptic Christians in Egypt, who today are suffering terrible persecution for their faith, were one of those early groups that refused to join the majority view in these matters, and they remain doctrinally set apart. But in time, most of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire, the Goths, Vandals, Huns, Arabs, Greeks and Celts were all united, more or less, into a Christian culture that spanned several continents.
As the horizons of the Old World began to expand in the age of exploration, Christian missionaries spread the gospel throughout Africa, Asia and the Americas. In China, where Christianity had first been preached by Syrian missionaries in the 7th century, the faith is growing today at such a rate that there will be 247 million Christians by 2030, outnumbering the Christian population of the United States. More Chinese than American Christians. Just think what an extraordinary statistic that is.
It’s often said that the most typical Anglican today is a 30-year-old woman living in Africa. In a few years, the most typical Christian worldwide may well be a student in China.
Europe is becoming an odd outlier in this global upsurge of faith. Yes, church attendance is increasing steadily in London, but throughout the rest of Britain it is still in steep decline, and the same is true in many other European nations. Increasingly we will see missionaries from the rest of the Christian world coming here to remind us that we too have received the Spirit of Christ, but we seem to have forgotten how to be consciously aware of the dynamic love of God.
The feast of Pentecost is particularly important, I believe, for those of us in the postmodern, post-Christian West who seem to have lost heart and faith. The story of Pentecost is the story of a tremendous re-energising of a pathetic little group of despondent people who thought their whole project was a failure. Their leader had been executed. There were confusing accounts of his re-appearance after his death – what should they make of them? In any case, he was now gone for good from their sight. They clung on to faith, perhaps by their fingertips. They gathered in that same upper room where Jesus had memorably shared his Last Supper with them.
It was the feast of Pentecost, in Hebrew Shavuot, the commemoration of God’s giving of the gift of the Torah to the people of Israel, through the intercession of Moses. This Law made them a people and gave them the confidence that God accepted and loved them and would always be faithful to them. The Law was seen, not as a burden of any kind, but as the sweetest and most gracious of gifts.
So this little band of Jewish followers of Jesus got together, with Jesus’ mother and other women and men, and prayed as instructed for the gift that Jesus had promised to send them through his intercession with the Father. I wonder what they thought would happen?
What happened was a new creation. It was the birth of the Church, the transformation of the broken-hearted disciples into the broken and risen Body of Christ. God’s breath blew on them, just as the Spirit had breathed over the waters of chaos in Genesis. It came as a mighty wind, fanning their faith into flames, bringing them alive with the good news they had to share.
Perhaps you noticed that the gospel of John, which we also read at Pentecost, tells a rather different Pentecost story. In this one, the Spirit of God is breathed onto the disciples by the risen Christ on the very day of resurrection, Easter Sunday. Rather than a rushing wind and tongues of fire, they receive a quiet breath, giving them the power to forgive sins in God’s name.
That was the power that Jesus used again and again in his ministry, shocking the religious authorities who wanted to keep it all to themselves within the sacrificial Temple system. But it is ours, not to keep to ourselves but to share. That is why we began our service this morning by anointing one another with the oil of chrism, the sign of forgiveness and new life in the power of the Spirit.
Don’t worry about there being two completely different Pentecost stories. The Church never has. It is part of the glorious mystery of the Christian faith that you can’t pin anything down with dates and calculators. What we know, from both these accounts, is that the Spirit of God comes to us through the gift of the risen Christ, and that it empowers us to proclaim the forgiveness of sins and the wildly all-inclusive love and welcome of God. Whether it happened on Easter Sunday or forty days later at Shavuot makes no difference.
The circle just goes on getting bigger and bigger. However hard we try to stretch our imagination and our welcome, we cannot keep up with God’s infinite, gracious love. We have been given the power to preach and absolve, but we have not been given the power to limit God’s action. The Spirit is always ahead of us, leading us into new truth, new places of encounter, new discoveries.
I’d like to end by quoting the last verse of my favourite hymn by the 17th century poet John Mason. Whenever I sing it, I feel a bit like Job, struck dumb by the voice of God in the whirlwind, falling silent before the immense mystery of the Spirit’s power. Here it is:
How great a being, Lord, is thine,
Which doth all beings keep!
Thy knowledge is the only line
To sound so vast a deep.
Thou art a sea without a shore,
A sun without a sphere;
Thy time is now and evermore,
Thy place is everywhere.