St John’s and St Stephen’s Church, Reading, 15th May 2016
Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-17, 25-27
Christmas, Easter and Pentecost are the three big Christian festivals. In them, the church has stamped onto the year, written in to the passage of time, three indelible marks of grace, of unconditional love to all humanity with, as Vincent powerfully reminded us last week, no strings attached. If Christmas is about this: God with us in the child of Mary, then Easter is God for us in the death and resurrection of that child, become a man, dying and rising to bring us of forgiveness, acceptance and new life; and Pentecost is God in us, the gift of the Spirit to transform and renew. Pentecost is the act of God actually touching and indwelling us. It’s the place where it becomes real; where faith moves from the head to the heart.
In our first reading today, we read of that first day of Pentecost in Acts 2, a vivid moment of high drama. In the OT, Pentecost was the Jewish festival of weeks, when the appearance pf the first fruits were celebrated. Let me read you a paragraph from an old book, ‘The Big Fisherman’ by Lloyd C. Douglas. It describes exactly the moment. I can remember reading this for the first time and feeling the hairs on my neck prickle up:
‘Peter drew himself up to his full height and glanced upward as if he had been struck. His auditors straightened and stared. Immediately above the Big Fisherman’s head, and touching it, was a shimmering crimson flame—in shape like the flame of a torch! All breathing in the spacious room was suspended.
Then the massive oaken door flew open and banged hard against the wall. There was the deafening roar of a mighty tempest that swept through the hall. The startled men and women held to their seats and clung to one another as the rushing wind lashed to and fro. It was as if the world had come to an end! Now tongues of flame stabbed through the storm, coming to rest—torch- like—upon the heads of all present! The glow of the fire possessed exhilarating properties. Some of the men shouted ecstatically. Some wept for joy. Strangers grasped the hands of strangers and gazed at one another in wonderment. Jairus put his arm round Joel, who was weeping. Mencius put both hands over his eyes and shook his head. Joseph of Arimathaea clutched Hassan’s arm.
Now the torch-like flames departed and the tempest roared out as suddenly as it had come. Every man was on his feet, all talking at once, loudly, as if the tempest still raged. Mencius, not one to be easily discomposed, was so utterly stampeded that he turned to Jairus and shouted—in Greek: ‘This is a most amazing thing, sir!’ And Jairus, who didn’t know a word of Greek, instantly replied, in that language, ‘Surely the Lord has visited us!’ Young Joel, listening intently, nodded his head; and when Jairus asked him if he had understood what they were saying he said he had, and added, in his own Aramaic, ‘It is true, sir! God Himself has been in this place!’
I guess it needed something really big and unforgettable to kick-start the movement that would, in time, transform the world. And it did just that! A couple of weeks ago, by coincidence I think, I preached on Acts 10/11, the ‘Gentile Pentecost’ when there was a similar kick-off to make it absolutely clear that the way of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit was for non-Jews as well as Jews. I don’t necessarily think that this kind of massive, dramatic moment happens often and I’m not thinking it’ll happen today but then who knows? Nevertheless, there will be people in this church this morning, myself included, who have had some kind of experience of the Spirit that has left a deep memory, an imprint on us of the reality of God.
But John’s gospel gives us another, much gentler description of the gift of the Spirit, and this by Jesus Himself. It was after the resurrection, when Jesus appeared to the disciples in the upper room: “Jesus said to them, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you’. When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (Jn 20:21,22). Of course, this too is a moment of drama: Jesus has just appeared after his death! But the moment of him bestowing his peace, and breathing on them the Spirit, is a quiet moment, unaccompanied by the shenanigans of the Pentecostal event in Acts. So it is that many of us will have a much gentler, quieter experience of the Spirit in our lives. In fact, we may not even recognise His presence in us. And you will notice I used the personal pronoun, ‘His’ and not the impersonal, ‘Its’. Because it is clear in the NT that the Spirit is a person, not a force. The Spirit is referred to in personal terms right through the NT. Think of Him like this: He is Jesus’ other self. He is Jesus within us, and in fact within the world.
There is so much that could be said about the Spirit but time is short! I want to focus now on what He does in our lives, and I will end with an offer to receive Him in a fresh way.
Firstly, it is the Spirit who makes Jesus real to us. He is a kind of internal witness, a warmth in our hearts, speaking to us about Jesus. We can find this in today’s gospel reading, again from John’s gospel: ‘The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all I have said to you’ (Jn 14:26).
Secondly, the Spirit is the one who gives gifts. These are all gifts – perhaps think of the word abilities – that enable us to build each other up and to make Jesus known in different ways. St Paul gives lists of different gifts or abilities, but I don’t see much of a gap between most of these and what we might call ‘natural’ talents or abilities. So for example, a person who is gifted in administration, or someone who is a natural encourager, will most likely find that they are exactly the gifts that are most useful both in the church, and in the world at large. They will probably be the ways that God will use to make His presence known to others and the gift of the Spirit kind of ‘lights them up’. The gap between the so-called ‘supernatural’ and ‘natural’ may not be that big. So Paul speaks of gifts of cheerfulness, compassion, leadership, generosity, exhortation, teaching, ministry, prophecy in Romans (Rom 12:6-8); and then perhaps more ‘supernatural’ gifts in 1 Corinthinans: utterance of wisdom and of knowledge, faith, healing, miracle working, prophecy, the discernment of spirits, tongues (1 Cor 12:4-11). And that list is by no means exhaustive! It’s very easy in a fantastic church like St John’s to see the gifts all around us being used: out in the garden with a hoe as much as a friendly chat in the café, to involvement in social justice and peace, to work overseas, to visiting the sick, to administration, to looking after the money as well as the sort of ‘up front’ stuff you see before you. Every person here has gifts of the Spirit: today might be a day to recognise and acknowledge that, and be affirmed.
Thirdly, it is the Spirit who brings fruit in our lives. If gifts are what we do, fruit is more about who we are, the way we are, and we all have the potential to grow the fruit of the Spirit, no matter who we are. There is a classical list of fruit in Galatians that I will read in a moment. Once again, the fruit are in much evidence among us and we can reflect on that and give thanks. And think too of where you need a ‘top up’. ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things’ (Gal 5:22,23).
We are physical beings. We live in our bodies, in fact we are our bodies. We are very used to this, of course! So our faith in Christ isn’t simply something locked up in our heads, it touches our physical selves as well. This is the power of what are called the sacraments. I’m speaking of baptism and holy communion. Sacraments are an outward sign of something happening on the inside and they can be remarkably powerful. Baptism is a physical act: the application of, or submersion in water to our bodies in the name of Father, Son and Spirit to signify washing and entry into the kingdom of God. The Holy Communion, which is given to us, is the physical receiving, the eating and drinking of the consecrated bread and wine. Here’s the thing: we get up, move, stand, put out our hands, eat and drink. By these simple things we do we receive Christ and we are reminded: it’s as simple as that. A free gift. No strings attached! I would like to suggest that these big, liturgical festivals like Pentecost, Easter and Christmas are like sacraments of time. Of course, we can remember God with us – Christmas, every day; and God for us – Easter, and God in us – Pentecost in the same way. But when we say, today is Christmas, today is Easter, today is Pentecost it can become a special moment, a time of grace. So today, we are doing something a bit different. We are going to offer prayer and anointing with oil as an opportunity to be open, to receive a fresh touch of the Spirit in your lives. It’s not exactly a sacrament but it is a sacramental act and it involves our bodies as well as our minds and souls. Christine will explain in a bit exactly how that will work but I would say: don’t be afraid, welcome the opportunity. What will happen? I don’t know. That’s between you and God. It may be a sense of peace, or of joy, or assurance of God’s love; there might be tears for some, I don’t know. There may not be much at all in that way but who knows where it might take us.
So, Pentecost. A dramatic birthday of the church; or a gentle breath of Jesus. The Spirit: the One who makes Jesus real to us, the One who gives gifts, the One who bears fruit in our lives. Let’s make sure we receive Him afresh today.