Pentecost : Acts 2:1-21 & John 20:19-23
That first Pentecost must have been a very strange experience for all who experienced it. This Pentecost is also very strange for us, as we experience it. Experience, you see, sits at the very heart of Pentecost. And the experience we are talking about is that of the very presence of the Holy Spirit; the Spirit that breathed life into the church. Pentecost isn’t the result of theological thinking, human reasoning, doctrine and dogma, but is the action of an activist God who has charged his church to keep building the Kingdom of God, ‘here on earth as in heaven.’
So, the question for us simply becomes this: are we open to the living presence amongst us of the Activist God? The God who wants to shape not only our language but our behaviour - in fact, our entire orientation to the world? The health warning is this: if we want to keep our faith secure, quiet, passive and domesticated, Pentecost is not for us. If we believe in preserving the status quo at all costs, then again, Pentecost is not for us. If we prefer to stay quiet and render our faith a purely private matter, then again, Pentecost is simply not for us. And, whilst I am at it, if we believe that because we are not all gathered in one place at the same time, like those first Christians, then the Holy Spirit is not alive and desirous of working among us and through us, then Pentecost is not for us.
Pentecost is a day in the liturgical calendar, a great feast of the church, but it is so much more than this: it is God’s invitation to continually and literally be continuously inspired by the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit; the Spirit who is ‘alive and active,’ and whose role is to make sure that we too remain ‘alive and active.’
An amusing anecdote. This week, as a response to Mark’s Little Acorns YouTube, one of the children was discovered by their mum drawing a collection of Holy doves. He drew a dove in a tree with a koala, a dove with a fire engine, a dove with a policeman arresting a baddy, a dove with a car mechanic. Why did he do this? The answer is fairly obvious: The Holy Spirit is everywhere, that is if we are open to God breathing His Spirit into us, both individually and collectively, as the Body of Christ.
But again, the health warning: to be open to the Holy Spirit means being open to the active and activist God, the God who wants us, his people, to be ever more lavish and hospitable, the God who wants to take us out of our every comfort zone; the God who wants us to learn to communicate His love for all in new ways, in diverse tongues; the God who wants us to become theologically bilingual; the God who wants us to speak in the vernacular as people, all sorts of people, will understand it, for you see Pentecost is the fulfilment of a very special prophecy, the Song of Simeon, where if you remember the earliest sage of the church makes the most astonishing of Spirit-filled declarations: ‘my eyes have seen the salvation that you have prepared in the sight of all people, alight to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.’ Our job as Spirit-filled Christians is to offer the Christ-light to all people, in the vernacular that they will understand.
Two more health warnings: first to be inspired by the Holy Spirit also means to be a person who is demonstrably – for a Spirit-inspired faith will always be demonstrable – committed to the ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation. This is the up front and activist message of the short gospel reading set for today: ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them: if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ What a sobering thought: we, through our willingness to forgive or otherwise, have the power to either liberate others or to keep them imprisoned within the walls of their own failings.
My final health warning is this: if we are to be truly inspired by the Holy Spirit, the universal and activist Spirit, then we should, like Simon Peter on that first Pentecost, be prepared for some pretty difficult conversations for part of the role of the Spirit is to equip us to speak truth, Christian truth, to power. This is what it means to be prophetic, and as we know from Jesus’ own experience ‘a prophet is without honour in his own country.’
Pentecost is one of the great festivals of the Church but it is so much more than this. It is the invitation to be inspired by the indwelling of the Activist God, the God who desires nothing more than to reach out and speak to all people in all places, in tongues they can understand, offering the hand of forgiveness, reconciliation, liberation and friendship.
Pentecost is God’s invitation into a life of Holy Dishonour for the sake of the building of the kingdom here on earth as in heaven,
I think it is fair to say that nobody has the potential to wind us up quite like family can. Whether that is parents, siblings or children when we live together, we all learn just how to press each others buttons to get maximum effect. There are certain things that my family do that are always guaranteed to get me riled up.
Firstly, we have the teenaged, monosyllabic, shrugging grunt when something is unknown. Something that I am absolutely sure I did when I was that age but we will leave that there. The other is on the car journey and being asked those 5 words, 5 little words that are asked over and over without thought and can destroy any enjoyment that a car journey (remember them?) can have.
ARE WE NEARLY THERE YET?
Sometimes it gets asked through eagerness or boredom and in extreme cases can be asked before you have even left the street. And of course it all depends on that word “nearly”. If my family are heading back to Scotland and I get to within an hour of our destination then Yes, we are nearly there. But if we are going to the supermarket (not something that we have done as a family since the lockdown) we would only nearly be there in the last few hundred yards. It is all relative.
Nobody likes to wait, waiting in line at the checkouts of the supermarket is nobody’s idea of fun. Waiting for an important letter to arrive, for exam results, for someone to get out of the shower are all things that few of us actually enjoy. But there are times in our lives that the only thing that we can do is to wait. Waiting is an inevitable part of life, and that was never truer than now.
Take just now for instance. With us all still in the grip of lockdown, a lockdown that looks as though could be with us for a while and will then be slow in its easing we are facing the dawning of a new reality. And as we start to see what that reality will be, we are forced to wait, to wait and see what emerges. This won’t be rushed, this can’t be rushed, we have no choice but to just wait… to watch and to wait.
There is a wonderful passage from psalm 130.
My soul is waiting for the LORD.
I count on his word
My soul is longing for the LORD
More than the watchman for the daybreak.
Let the watchman count on daybreak
And Israel on the LORD (Psalm 130:5-7)
People have been watching and waiting for as long as there have been people.
In the Acts of the Apostles reading that we have just heard there are 3 distinct groups of people waiting, You have the remaining Apostles, you have the women from Galilee and you have Mary, with the brothers of Jesus. It tells us of people coming together, coming from different lives, all connected to Christ in different ways, with different histories but those three groups come together to become one community, this will become the church.It is only when they come together that the picture of Jesus becomes more complete. It is only when they are together that there are witnesses to the whole of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
The Apostles who were there from the time of Jesus' baptism until his crucifixion. You have the women of Galilee who were the first to learn of His resurrection in the empty tomb – something that was not witnessed by the Apostles and then you have Mary, Mary who was there from the beginning and at the end. They come together in prayer as they wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Just as we come together in prayer to bear witness and take part in the works of the Holy Spirit, just because we are in lockdown does not mean that the Holy Spirit is in lockdown, He is working harder than ever!
God came to them then and He comes to us now. The exact word used in the passage is the word “dynamis” from which we get the word Dynamite or dynamic, that in itself tells us something of the nature of God. It bursts forth from the most unexpected places at the most unexpected times.
Jesus had a clear roadmap that He gave His disciples, first Jerusalem, then Judea, then Samaria (a neighbouring country that was not well liked at all) then the rest of the world.
Just like for those original disciples, the world has now changed for us. We find ourselves in a new reality but we are called to make sure that as we emerge from this lockdown, God’s voice is heard, His Kingdom proclaimed.
The adventure of the Holy Spirit has come before and it comes now. We are nearly there, let us keep going!
Ascension Day: Luke 24:44-end
Somehow or other over the last forty to fifty years, Ascension Day seems to have been cut adrift from the other major feast days in the Church of England. When I was at primary school, we all got marched to church on Ascension Day for a special service and then had the afternoon off as extra holiday. Nowadays in the Church of England, Ascension is, overall, marked quite soberly and with restraint. In other churches and especially the Orthodox Church, Ascension Day remains a major feast and festival, not just theoretically, but in practice. So, I am really pleased that today’s prayers have been written by a young member of the Greek Orthodox Church, locked down with her grandparents here in Winslow; thank you Zoe.
So why should we take Ascension Day seriously; what is the so what or invitation behind the Ascension? Surely all Ascension, you might think, is the tiny bit of detail wedged between the Resurrection and Pentecost? Well, it may well be that not much bible footage – in fact just three verses – is given to the Ascension, but that does not mean that it is not hugely significant. In fact, maybe it is so significant that to add extra words, to pan out the story, would be to diminish its significance? Just a thought?
The Ascension invites us and beckons us to do two things, or to look in two directions:
First, it invites us to look backwards at story of Jesus’ life, or the incarnation, afresh, from the perspective of a little distance. It invites us to see his life through the lens of Eulogy. This means looking at his life with a sense of praise and thanksgiving, remembering all that he did and achieved on our behalf.
But, a word of caution: please don’t, when you are Eulogising over Jesus’ life, fall into the trap of recollecting the facts of his life – then he did this, then he did that. Remember the why or the purpose of his life, the value and ethos of his life, and then take that into your hearts, so that you are strengthened to live better, more purposeful lives in the nitty gritty of the here and now and on into your unknown and unknowable futures.
Secondly, the Ascension allows to look forward in a spirit of anticipation to Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the church. Pentecost is the moment when the church is breathed into being and given a common language spoken in diverse tongues. It is also the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise that he will not leave us orphaned.
Ascension Day invites us to pause and stand stock still, providing us with the opportunity to look back at the life of Jesus, through the lens of Eulogy, in a spirit of praise and thanksgiving, truly remembering all that he achieved through his earthly life, and to look forward to Pentecost in a spirit of hopeful expectation. Through the Ascension, the past and the future are brought into the present.
Today, let us take our part in recapturing the essence of Ascension Day,
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