Sermon for Pentecost 2018
at St George’s Church, Dunsborough
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
In the Name of the living God, + Creator, Redeemer and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The older I get, the simpler I feel Christianity is. It could all be condensed into Jesus saying in the sermon on the Mount: ‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:16)
Do good works. Allow them to speak about God. That’s Christianity in a nut-shell.
There’s a mystery about some people who are credited with being wonderful Christians, but they aren’t. I’m thinking of great souls like Mohandas Gandhi and Florence Nightingale. Gandhi’s reputation was made by his non-violent resistance to the British in India. But Gandhi was not a Christian. He lived in a Jain community, and his personal spirituality combined bits of Christianity with Jainism and Buddhism,
Florence Nightingale pioneered a scientific approach to nursing, first in practical ways in her Field Hospital in the Crimea, and later in policy-making in health. She said she was inspired by St John’s Gospel, but it’s clear she didn’t read the part about Jesus dying and rising or Jesus being the Son of God. She didn’t even like the church, so if she was a Christian, she was a strange one.
Yet the behaviour of Gandhi and Nightingale speaks loudly. I guess the light shining through them, if it’s not the light of Christ, is divine light. The goodness of God shines through their good works. God speaks through them.
It’s clear to me that if I am to do good works, I need help. And Jesus promised to send me help, in the person of Holy Spirit. The Spirit shows me the way, motivates me, and helps me put into action the good work; and the Spirit may testify to the world about my good works, as she testifies to those of Gandhi and the Lady with the Lamp.
Holy Spirit is given to all Christians, and the story is told in our readings this morning. But there seem to be two time-lines for the giving of the Spirit. You can roughly say there’s a Luke time-line and a John time-line.
Most scholars believe that Luke wrote both the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. Luke’s time-line takes us from the Jewish Passover to the Jewish Feast of Shavuot. Passover is celebrated after the first full moon after the spring equinox, or late March to mid-April. Shavuot is 50 days later: so, Shavuot was often called ‘the Fiftieth Day’ or ‘he hemera pentecoste’ in Greek, making Luke’s timeline the Resurrection, then 50 days, then the giving of the Spirit.
John’s Holy Spirit is in much more of a hurry. In St John’s Gospel, Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to the Eleven on the very day of the Resurrection.
Luke portrays a day of high drama: there are devout Jews visiting Jerusalem from all over the known world. Holy Spirit sweeps in, a cyclone and bush-fire, and all 120 disciples burst into life: they all become powerful preachers, they speak a multitude of languages, and Peter alone converts three thousand people.
Luke makes us think of the cyclonic wind that stirred over chaos at creation. The giving of Holy Spirit is a new creation, and the new creation is people, the community of Christians, the church.
Luke also takes us back to the legend of the Tower of Babel, when God confused the tower-builders by dividing one language into mutually incomprehensible tongues. At Pentecost, God reverses this confusion so that ‘we hear them speaking in our own language about God’s deeds of power’ (Acts 2:11) and unity is restored. Luke portrays the church’s potential, acting in unity, to reach every language group in the world.
Luke has Peter renew Old Testament predictions about the drama of the last days, the portents, the signs, the blood and fire and smoky mist.
Luke also tells a joke. People are complaining that the disciples’ behaviour is so bizarre that they must be drunk. ‘We can’t be drunk,’ says Peter, ‘It’s only 9 o’clock in the morning and the pubs aren’t open.’
Luke paints a memorable picture of that Day of Pentecost, the historical day in the life of the Christian community when Holy Spirit was first given to God’s people, and we became a people in mission, telling the story of Jesus and his Resurrection to the whole world.
Luke invites us to celebrate that first Pentecost.
I exaggerate; but Luke is Pentecost PAST, and John is Pentecost PRESENT. Luke is INSPIRATION, John gives PRACTICAL ADVICE.
John has everything happening on the one Day – all on the first Easter Day, the appearance to Mary Magdalene in the morning, and in the evening, the appearance to the Eleven then the giving of Holy Spirit.
John’s description is simple: ‘He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive Holy Spirit.’.’ (John 20:22)
I’m wearing my red priestly stole today, and I am reminded that Archbishop Sambell spoke these words over me at the solemn moment he ordained me priest, ‘Receive the Holy Ghost for the office of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained.’
It’s an awesome responsibility. In addition to the formal words I say in Absolution, the words I say, the way I behave, the attitudes I communicate can facilitate a person’s connection with God. On the other hand, the solemn warning is that my words and attitudes can also obstruct a person from getting close to God.
Melusi, you will also remember that moment in your ordination, and the responsibility God has given us as priests.
I was ordained just after coming out of hospital. I was worried about the moment in the service after the Bishop would lay hands upon my head followed by the hands of all the priests. Archbishop Sambell said he had a solution. He would lay his hands on my head, and he had to do that firmly for the ritual, but then when the weight of all the priests’ hands came on top of his he would lift, and my neck and spine wouldn’t have to bear the weight.
On the day, the Archbishop laid his hands on my head, firmly, as he had said, and then I felt the weight of the priests’ hands start to bear down. The archbishop lifted. He held their weight for a second, then they came bearing down again, twice as heavy.
I needed help to stand. But I sure knew I was ordained!
But the giving of Holy Spirit broader than my ordination. We, as the Christian community, are a priestly people. As a community we have priests like Melusi and me and Lucy, and as a community we are a priest. Our mission as a people who have received Holy Spirit is to talk, act and believe in such a way that others are drawn closer to God. And we can stuff it up. ‘Whose sins ye do retain, they are retained.’
Luke emphasises the gracious and amazing action of God: John emphasises the effect this action has on people now. For John, Jesus is risen now, so our lives are changed now.
Holy Spirit, John says in the Gospel reading we’ve just heard, is a Paraclete (as opposed to parakeet!) In the Ancient Greek law-courts, you didn’t have an Advocate. You pleaded your own case. But you could bring to court a Paraclete, a person of moral authority who had two main roles. One was to be a kind of character witness. Having a Paraclete indicated to the judge that you are a worthy person. The more weight the Paraclete had in the community, the more effective his presence. His second task was to be an encourager.
Now that Jesus is risen, we have a task. This is Pentecost present. Our task now is to take the Gospel to people. God provides the Paraclete we need, the Paraclete of Jesus. When we speak, the Paraclete assures the listeners that we are worth listening to.
We speak the Gospel when we believe that Jesus is the Risen One and trust in Jesus to help us live victoriously. The Spirit may bear witness to the world of our good works.
‘You’ll know they are Christians by their love.’ ‘See how those Christians love one another.’ These familiar quotes were originally spoken by non-Christians in North Africa, but they are divinely inspired, the Paraclete at work.
I think of Agnes in a parish I served as a deacon who had painful arthritis in her wrist. She allowed surgeons to perform multiple experimental procedures, all of which were agonising. Yet every Sunday at Church, she was full of joyful smiles. Every time I visited her at home, despite the pain, she was overflowing with thanksgiving. Her task was to trust; the Paraclete’s task was to allow people to see the result of her trust in the way she lived.
I had the privilege of being Executive Director of YouthCARE WA for four years. YouthCARE employs the chaplains and oversees the Scripture teaching in Government schools. The chaplains are a good example of the Paraclete speaking to the world when Christians act faithfully. Chaplains’ mission is to be a ‘sensitive Christian presence in Government schools’. They are forbidden to ‘proselytise’, though the Education Department doesn’t know how to define ‘proselytise’. Their day-to-day task is to build up the students and the school community. Their continuing employment is precisely because the world sees their impact and likes it. The Paraclete speaks for them.
Of course, we see the work of the Paraclete in great preachers like St Augustine who filled the Roman stadium in Pula in North Africa. It held 26,000 people. They obviously liked what they heard, especially his sermon about Psalm 42. ‘Think of the deer,’ said Bishop Augustine, ‘when they cross a stream, they cross single-file. Each deer lays its head on the back of the deer in front. The leading deer changes places frequently. In these ways, they bear each other’s burdens. They fulfil the command of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ If we behave like deer, bearing each other’s burdens, the Paraclete both cheers us on and commends us to the world. People loved hearing Augustine preach. The Paraclete invited them back again and again.
Or John Bunyan, the tinker from Bedfordshire who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, and yesterday would have protested the royal wedding just as he protested the return of King Charles II. When Bunyan preached in London even on just one day’s notice, thousands came. Holy Spirit invited them also.
But our task, the mission of most of us, is not to be stadium preachers. Our mission is inviting the world to share the joy we know in Christ. Our tasks are to let our lives speak by our trust in Christ, letting our light shine both in the church and in the community. Not so dramatic as Augustine, or as Luke, perhaps, but this is Pentecost present, the Paraclete of Jesus encouraging us and speaking up for us, authenticity being our watchword.