It’s exam time, so here’s a comprehension test. You’ve heard the readings this morning, you’ve got them printed out so you can look back, when was the Holy Spirit given to the disciples? Surely that’s easy, it’s today because today is Pentecost and that’s 50 days after Easter. That’s a quick A* if ever there was one. Ah, but all is not so simple. Yes, the Book of Acts, our first reading, does indeed give that timeline (Acts 2:1-11), but the gospel from John, does not. In John the Holy Spirit is given in the evening on that first Easter Day (John 20:19-23). The two stories do not seem to tie up. And John is awkward like that, he doesn’t put everything in the same order, he doesn’t even get the names of the disciples the same, but then he’s not fussed about there being 12. That said, the Acts reading doesn’t say it was the first time the Holy Spirit came on them, it’s just we’ve tended to assume that. The Holy Spirit has already inspired their choice of Matthias to replace Judas. Beware editorial headings in bibles. So Pentecost is a day that is not as straightforward as we might like it to be and that is because it is a day that disturbs and so it should.
I want to offer this morning three ways that we see the Holy Spirit and they come from our readings. The first I’ve just hinted at, disturbing. The second is that it directs and the third is that it distills. But I will begin with distilling.
If we take the timeline in Acts, the gift of the Holy Spirit comes at the end of a long period of head scratching, fifty days. The resurrection and what it means is not obvious to the disciples. It’s not obvious in John either. The disciples need to work out this crazy experience. They meet to pray, to tell the stories of what Jesus had done, and to break bread. This is a process of distillation as it all gets mulled over and sinks in and this process is itself a major way that we open ourselves to allow the Holy Spirit to work in and on us. Distillation is a process of the Holy Spirit.
Then on the day of the agricultural festival when the first wheat of the crop is offered, what we used to celebrate later in the year at Lammastide, what they called Pentecost, they are hit with the full force of the Holy Spirit. And this explodes with a newfound linguistic fluency. They don’t speak in a spiritual language. This is not heavenly tongues. They speak in an array of ordinary languages, a veritable collection of Google translate breaks out and is catalogued in every lesson reader’s worst nightmare with that list of places and peoples. People hear them in their first language. Not in a holy, special language, but God in the normal. This prefigures the breaking of dietary laws later on. The gospel is for all people and all cultures. That is still radical today because we have tended to make it Western and middle class, even middle aged and older. The gift of the Holy Spirit is a reminder that we must not restrict the gospel to one culture or set of assumptions. It refuses to be bound by whatever boxes we create for it and will break free. This is every control freak’s worst nightmare.
So the distillation of what it means quickly moves into disturbing us when it has sunk in and done its work. We are creatures of habit and like to know what to expect. But when that happens we can very quickly start to become blind to the bits which the cosy status quo has filtered out. The Magnificat, the song of Mary, which we sing in beautiful polyphony every day here, is still one of the most radical pieces of poetry in the Bible. The humble are exalted, the rich are thrown out and put to the back to the queue, and a young girl is allowed to sing the song. Social conventions disturbed and turned on their head.
That disturbing is part of the wind that blows through history and through the church. Change and advancement is often brought through conflict and challenge. Without it we don’t move. Things which today seem self evident, like the ending of slavery, were hard won. Well, I say self evident, but the Queen’s Speech this week included provisions against modern forms of slavery and exploitation. And there is an active slave market in Africa, which we have seen with the 200 school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. The battles of equality have to be renewed for each generation and fans of hip-hop, rap and pop music will know that there are attitudes which are as sexist as any previous generation has been. So we still need disturbing and the Spirit still has work to do. The church is no exception in any of this. Power always needs confronting with justice and the view from the side aisles, which are often the much richer places to view from. The angles are more interesting and we see things very differently.
Distilled and disturbed, we look for direction. And it is John who gives it to us. The point of receiving the Holy Spirit is to be sent. As the Father has sent the Son, so the Son sends the disciples, and that is us, dear reader. The Son was sent to proclaim the good news of God’s grace and a new start. We are sent with the same message to reconcile and unite. It is in John that the Son comes that we may have life in abundance, to love and be loved, to serve, to be set free and to join in a banquet of grace and truth. The purpose of God comes among us and calls us to follow him.
It has become popular to refer to Pentecost as the church’s birthday. I’m not so convinced by this, because the disciples were clearly shaping and gathering themselves before hand – they were distilling so that they were ready to be disturbed. The church was born with the resurrection at Easter and it was Spirit-fuelled too. But on the Day of Pentecost, to jump back to Acts, the disciples find courage; they are directed. Shattered, frightened men and women found the strength and boldness they needed to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ risen and glorified, even to risk and face death for this otherwise crazy faith. The Spirit gives direction to faith, to being living witnesses; it gives us a mission which is derived from the purpose of God.
Distilled, disturbed and directed, the Holy Spirit which we celebrate today is the lifeblood of everything we do and aim to be.
Come wind and fire,
breathe in us;
kindle a flame to ignite us to action
that we may be filled
with your life and love
and direct us in your service. Amen.
Pentecost sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 8th June 2014