Sermon for Evensong on Whit Sunday, 4th June 2017

 

Acts 2:14-38; Luke 24:44-53

 
‘These men are not drunk’… St Peter is answering a multiethnic crowd of Jews in Jerusalem, who have just heard the disciples – all from one district, Galilee – speaking, in such a way that each listener heard in his own language: it was like the amazing simultaneous translation service that you get if you go to watch a debate at the European Parliament. You put on some headphones, and select which language you want to listen in. The translators are very good.

But we are told by the author of the Acts of the Apostles – generally reckoned to be St Luke, who also wrote St Luke’s Gospel (both of tonight’s lessons are by St Luke) – by St Luke the doctor, that long before simultaneous translation and microphones, the disciples’ words were suddenly heard in a variety of languages, after the sound of a rushing wind and tongues of fire had come among them.

I’ve never really understood why some of the Jewish audience thought that the disciples were drunk. I know that, as a typically hopeless Englishman, that speaks French and German only to ‘O’ level, I’ve always found that my linguistic ability, such as it is, does improve with a modicum of alcohol: but it doesn’t give me miraculous powers as a sort of one-man simultaneous translation facility.

I suppose that the rude remark about their looking drunk might have been caused if the disciples were not only speaking intelligibly in several languages at once, but were showing signs of ecstatic giddiness. Perhaps they were waving their arms around or writhing on the floor.

As you know, the established Church has, since the 18th century, been suspicious of religious ‘enthusiasm’ – a word which has rather changed in meaning since 300 years ago. It meant then the sort of noisy, ecstatic worship – people ‘speaking in tongues’ and waving their arms about – that we often call ‘Pentecostal’. Be that as it may.

But for us who aren’t ‘enthusiasts’, what is Pentecost – or rather, what is this Holy Spirit, whose coming at Pentecost we celebrate today? ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’: the Holy Ghost? When Jesus met the woman of Samaria getting water from the well in John 4, he told her, ‘God is spirit, and those that worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.’ The Authorised Version says, ‘God is a spirit ..’

This isn’t a spooky tale of ghouls and ghosties. The history of Jesus, Jesus Christ, isn’t on the Harry Potter level. We are, when we talk about the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost, talking about God. As we say in the Nicene Creed, (the creed we say at Communion), ‘… I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord and giver of life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spake by the Prophets.’

The Holy Spirit is God, one of the ‘three persons’ of God the Holy Trinity. The coming like a rushing wind, in tongues of fire, was a revelation, God declaring His presence, His concern for his creation. Jesus might not be physically present among us any more, but his Holy Spirit, the Comforter or Advocate which Jesus promised he would get the Father to send after he had gone. (See John 14-16).

A big controversy in the early church was all about whether the Spirit had come just from God the Father, (which is what the Eastern Orthodox churches believe today), or from the Father and the Son together, as our version of the Nicene Creed says. The great liberal theologian, John Macquarrie, has suggested that a better way of putting it would be that the Spirit had come from the Father ‘through the Son’, but that, either way, he said, it wasn’t fundamental to our belief, de fide, an article of faith. [Macquarrie, John, 1966, (1977), Principles of Christian Theology, London, SCM Press, p. 330]

The Pentecost story is celebrated as effectively being the Church’s beginning, the Church’s birthday. 12 apostles became 120 after the Ascension. And then, after this extraordinary miracle – simultaneous translation into many languages for an audience from many countries, coming from the mouths of a group of country bumpkins from Galilee – after Peter had told them that it was a sign, a revelation, of God at work among them, that God had come among the human race to show His love for us – after this, 3,000 people came forward to be baptised. After that, Christianity ‘went viral’ as we would say today.

Until last night, I had intended that I should link our celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit with our need for the Advocate, the Spirit of truth, the Comforter, on Thursday in the General Election. We seem faced by so much ‘fake news’, but yet the issues facing our country are so daunting. What are the marks of the Spirit, and can they help us?

It is surely something which I must speak about, and I will. But last night there was another terrorist incident, near to us, on and around London Bridge. More people hurt and killed – and again a suggestion that this was inspired by Islam, that it was an attack on us and our Christian culture.

These are truly testing times. Just as last week I said that attack in Manchester was not a contradiction against the need for our worldwide ‘wave of prayer’, Thy Kingdom Come, so today I say that we should learn from the earliest church as they faced indifference and persecution. The signs of the Spirit are not super power, in a fierce, military sense: instead the signs of it in those earliest times began with a dove, a peaceful dove, coming down and settling on Jesus as he was being baptised.

St Paul – who was writing decades earlier than St Luke – in his letter to the Galatians, identified the signs that the Spirit was present in a believer, chief of which is not some fierce strength, or some power to retaliate, but the warmth of love. Paul wrote, ‘… the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith..’ Not fear. Not anger. Not prejudice.

When you look again at the circumstances of that first Christian Pentecost, you see that the Holy Spirit didn’t just come to an elite group, or to individuals in seclusion. The Jerusalem where it happened was full to bursting with a polyglot, multiethnic, multicultural society.

They spoke many languages. They were rich and poor – indeed the Spirit would come, according to the prophecy of Joel quoted by St Peter, to everyone, to ‘all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams:
And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy…’

In fact, in the original Greek, the word is δούλος, slave, in both its masculine and feminine forms. Somehow the Authorised Version’s ‘servants’ and ‘handmaidens’ are too nice, too comfortable: ‘ …on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit’. On my male and female slaves, the lowest of the low. It was a tough life then.

So the church, on which the tongues of fire fell with a rushing wind, is for everyone. Again as St Paul said in his Letter to the Galatians, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3:28).

Look what happens if we don’t listen to what the Spirit is saying here. This is an account from one of the newspapers after the bombing in Manchester ten days ago.
‘Naveed Yasin, a trauma and orthopaedic surgeon – who had spent the previous two days in demanding surgery, was driving back to the Salford Royal Hospital to continue to help blast victims when a van driver pulled up beside him and hurled abuse, …
The surgeon was stuck in traffic when he saw a van veering towards him, horn blaring. The white, middle-aged driver then lowered his window and yelled obscenities at Yasin.
The van driver said: “You brown, Paki bastard. Go back to your country, you terrorist. We don’t want you people here. F*** off!”

 

The incident shocked the surgeon, who was born and brought up in Keighley, West Yorkshire and lives in Manchester with his wife and two daughters, especially after two such gruelling days at work.

 

He told the Sunday Times: “I can’t take away the hatred he had for me because of my skin colour … and the prejudices he had associated with this. Manchester is better than this. We Mancunians will rebuild, we will rebuild the fallen buildings, the broken lives and the social cohesion we once had.”’ (The Guardian, 28th May 2017 – accessed at http://tinyurl.com/yamxnfyo).

 

We must be ‘better than this’, indeed. So when the election comes on Thursday, we must vote – because otherwise we will have no stake in the result. In the EU referendum, 20% of the electorate did not vote. You might argue that, in not voting at all, they did not vote to leave the EU – which would mean that only 36% of the electorate voted to leave, which is not a majority.

 

But we don’t know which way these non-voters would have voted, and so it is said that ‘the people have spoken’, although the people who did vote, voted 52-48% only. The non-voters could have made a huge difference. If they had voted to leave, the majority would have been beyond question – and the same principle applies, possibly even more emphatically, if it was confirmed that the non-voters indeed had wanted to remain. So it’s vital that everyone should turn out and vote.

 

But the other thing which is vital to consider is what the Holy Spirit is saying to us in the churches in relation to the various parties’ policies. Is there a message of division, of individualism, devil-take-the-hindmost; of nationalism, of exclusion? How should we react to terror attacks? Should we support tightly controlled immigration and put up barriers against refugees? Or should that dove be more like it? We are all children of God.

Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost,

taught by thee, we covet most

of thy gifts at Pentecost,

holy, heavenly love.

[Christopher Wordsworth, 1807-1885]

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