Sermon for the 9.30am Parish Eucharist at the Barn Church Kew on the feast of Pentecost 23 May 2021 preached by the Revd Sister Margaret Anne ASSP
Today the Church keeps the great feast of Pentecost. The name Pentecost was first given in the Old Testament to the Jewish Feast of Weeks, which fell on the 50th day after the Passover. On this day of Pentecost the first fruits of the corn harvest were presented, and in later times the giving of the Law of Moses was commemorated. The New Testament had its parallel timings between great events that came to be celebrated as feasts. It was 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus that the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles, as described in the second chapter of Acts that we have had for our second reading today. So the name Pentecost was applied by the early Church to the feast celebrating this remarkable event, marking the birth of the Christian Church. In the Greek Pentecost simply means fiftieth. In the Old Testament the Feast of Pentecost or Weeks had marked the end of the celebration of the spring harvest. In the New Testament, Pentecost marks a harvesting of souls, the birthing of the new Christian community.
Although the feast we celebrate today may not nowadays be so firmly fixed in the popular mind as Christmas and Easter, yet it ranks with them both as part of that central triad of great high feasts upon which the Christian faith hinges. In the canons of the Church of England it states:
“It is the duty of all who have been confirmed to receive Holy Communion regularly, and especially at the festivals of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun or Pentecost”.
In the Old Testament book of the prophet Joel the second chapter focuses on a promise made by God; that at some no doubt distant point in the future God will pour out the Spirit on “all flesh”. When that happens the signs of the event will be that people will prophesy, dream dreams and see visions. This prophecy is fulfilled in our reading today from the second chapter of Acts. It is the day of the Jewish feast of Pentecost, and the disciples are gathered together in Jerusalem in one place to pray. Suddenly a sound like a rushing wind fills the house and flames as of fire rest on each of them; they are filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in foreign languages, much to the amazement of the gathering crowds who hear them. The Jews who have returned to Jerusalem for the feast from many scattered and foreign places are astounded to hear these simple Galileans speaking in foreign languages. It is a highly significant moment. The tower of Babel of Genesis is reversed. Formerly at Babel communication had broken down in the diversifying of languages. Here – at Pentecost – the opposite happens. Those who before could not understand each other are now suddenly united in joyous mutual understanding. Former barriers to communication have fallen down. Harmony is restored. A palpable manifestation of the Spirit is at work. The event is startling, and it is Peter who realises what is happening. Peter claims that the prophecy of Joel has now been fulfilled. God at Pentecost has now begun the task of pouring out the Spirit on all flesh. Peter himself may have thought that it was literally the last days. Things always seem clearer with hindsight. The last times may well have been inaugurated, but from inauguration to completion is an ongoing process that takes time; from a human point of view, a very, very long time to unfold.
From a Christian perspective the Holy Spirit has manifold roles and activities. The very opening verses of the Bible, in the first chapter of Genesis, testify that the Spirit was at work at the beginning of creation – a “wind” from God – or the Spirit of God – “swept over the face of the waters”. In our reading today from the second chapter of Acts at Pentecost the Spirit breaks down barriers and unifies, bringing about new understanding between people. Above all, the gospels ( and indeed other parts of the Bible) teach us that as human beings we inhabit two worlds simultaneously: the ordinary every-day world of our human existence, and the Spirit-filled world of divine reality that is God. This divine reality can break into our every-day, time-bound consciousness at any moment, as it did for the disciples at Pentecost. Suddenly – in a moment – and through God’s activity at work within us and around us, all is changed. Just as the life of the imagination can be a bridge between our waking and our dreaming existence, between our conscious and our unconscious minds, so the Spirit also can act as a hinge for us between the material and non-material world. The Spirit can act upon us and open us to the divine reality, both when we are awake and when we are asleep. Often the Spirit uses a physical medium to open us up to the divine. This is of course how the sacraments work for us. The Spirit enlivens bread and wine, oil and water – in the eucharist, in anointing, in baptism.
It is the life and energy of the Spirit to transform us. From our reading of the New Testament we will be familiar with the gifts and fruits of the Spirit, and St Paul in his letters has lists of both. In his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12, he lists many spiritual gifts, such as wisdom, faith and healing. In his letter to the Galatians, chapter 5, he lists the fruits of the Spirit as “love, joy, peace” and so on. The gifts of the Spirit equip us for our Christian life and ministry; the fruits of the Spirit are those recognisable qualities that we grow into as we endeavour to lead more and more Christ-centred lives.
Christian art can help us in trying to understand the nature of the Spirit. Many of us will be familiar with artistic depictions of the Spirit as a dove. In paintings such as those of the Italian artist Fra Angelico the Spirit is painted as a dove appearing to Mary at the Annunciation of the conception of Jesus whom she will bear in her womb. She will give birth, the angel tells her, to the Son of God. There is a ceiling boss in stone in my Community’s chapel in Oxford of which I am particularly fond. It depicts the Trinity – God the Father holds the cross upon which Jesus hangs and a dove, representing the Spirit, rests on the cross-bar.
In our reading today from John’s gospel, the night before Jesus dies by crucifixion on Good Friday, Jesus in his Farewell Discourse to his disciples speaks many reassuring words of comfort to his followers, who will soon be bereft. He describes the Spirit as an “Advocate”, who will come to them and strengthen them. Another word for Advocate is Paraclete – literally meaning the one called alongside. It is a legal term. Jesus is saying that the Spirit is like a defence barrister, who speaks up on behalf of his client in a court of law, in order to defend the client from accusation, and to secure a verdict of innocence rather than guilt in the minds of the jury. The Spirit is totally there for us.
There are many ways in which we can use our imaginations to help us focus on what – or rather who – the Spirit is. Today’s great feast of Pentecost is especially a time when in our prayers we can ask the Spirit to fill us anew with the gifts and the fruits of the Spirit that St Paul so eloquently describes in his letters. The Creator, Jesus, the Spirit – these are the three faces of the one true God. Today let us particularly focus our hearts and minds on the outpouring of the Spirit in our lives – not just for our own sakes, but in order that others may also be drawn to this God of love who inspires our devotions and who calls us to ever deeper fellowship and communion. Let us be open to the enlivening power of the Spirit to transform us and enable us to be Christ-centred and expectant and ever alert to the needs of those around us, that God may be glorified.