Wednesday, 30 May 2012

A sermon for Pentecost

Acts 2: 1-12; John 13: 12-31,  27th May 2012,

St Matthew’s, Oxford

The celebration of Pentecost – provides us with an opportunity of thinking about the Holy Spirit.   And the best book on that subject is for me John V. Taylor’s ‘The Go-Between God’.   Even the title says such a lot.   By the ‘Go-Between God’ Taylor means and I quote from the Introduction ‘The Holy Spirit is he who makes one aware of the other, who gives one to the other’.   By this he means, for example, that the Holy Spirit is he who makes God the Son aware of God the Father and vice versa but also that the Holy Spirit is he who makes human beings aware of God and it is this essential feature of the Holy Spirit that I want to talk about today. 

Pentecost is the time in the church year when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit – so a bit like Christmas – when we celebrate the coming of the coming of Jesus – God the Son – into the world.   Of course we now understand that just as God the Son pre-existed before his incarnation so we believe that God the Holy Spirit was always present even at the Creation.   Still it is at Pentecost that we remember the gift of the Holy Spirit to the first disciples, and in particular the way that Luke describes the first manifestation of this gift on a specific occasion 50  - pente - days after the resurrection. 

Some things to note about Luke’s account:  Firstly that it seems to differ from John’s account.   In John’s gospel Jesus certainly promises that the Holy Spirit will come to the disciples after he has left them.   He tells them many things about this Comforter - as the Spirit is described in the translation of that bit of John’s gospel we heard just now – a section of Jesus’ farewell speech to his disciples.   In John’s gospel Jesus breaths the Holy Spirit on them on Easter Sunday night.  In Luke’s account the risen Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit to them but the Holy Spirit arrives only after Jesus has ascended into Heaven.

However it is notable that in both accounts the Spirit is given to the disciples when they are all together in one room and this seems to me important.   The Sprit is not given to individuals individually but to the group collectively.  It/he/she is given when people gather together for some special purpose in one place not when they are going about their every-day business on their own.

These two accounts of the disciples’ first experience of the Holy Spirit underline for me the fact that our experience of God is always collective.   If I had been born in a Moslem country I would now be a Moslem and my experience of God would be as a Moslem – there seems no getting away from this.   My experience of God is not an act of will on my part.   It is a gift.

Note , too, that in both Luke’s and John’s accounts of ‘Pentecost’ the Spirit is given to the disciples to empower them to do things they would not otherwise be able to do.   In John’s account – when Jesus breaths the Holy Spirit into the disciples he says to them that ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven, if you retain the sins of any they are retained’   In Luke’s account, when the Holy Spirit the disciples are empowered to speak in other languages and to preach the gospel.

But surely the most striking thing about Luke’s account of the advent of the Holy Spirit, and indeed Luke’s description of the actions of the Holy Spirit later in Acts, is I think that the disciples experience its presence in a way most of us Christians – at least in this county - do not do so today.   The Spirit enables them to do things like preach the gospel in foreign tongues, to prophecy, to heal people, etc.   But the spirit is also ‘experienced’, felt as a living presence.   Luke underlines this point in the reading we heard just now by talking about a sound like a rushing wind and the appearance of ‘tongues as of fire’.  Note that Luke doesn’t say that the Sprit was actually wind or fire but that this is what it/he/she felt like to the disciples.

Now I confess I have never experienced the Holy Spirit in that way.   My experience of God and his Holy Spirit seems to me much less dramatic, more muted.   I have on occasion felt the presence of God while I have been praying: but this has been more of a warm feeling than a burning fire.   I have heard God at times but more in a voice which sounded suspiciously like my own rather than a rushing wind.

I have experienced that gift of the Holy Spirit – healing – on at least two occasions that I can think of in a way that made me, still makes me feel profoundly grateful.   But I have never spoken in tongues – that form of ecstatic speech which some people – even some people amongst the congregation of St Matthew’s– are able to express their praise of God.  

Now – when I said that Luke’s account of the advent and subsequent action of the Holy Spirit, is somewhat alien to my experience, it seems impossible to deny that in some churches – particularly those that describe themselves as Pentecostal, after the day we are celebrating today, the experience of the Holy Spirit is much more akin to that of the first disciples, according to Luke’s account, than to mine.

My temptation in the face of the ‘Pentecostals’ experience is either to deny its authenticity or to feel jealous.   But it is surely wrong to question its validity.  As Taylor says, ‘The whole weight of New Testament evidence endorses the central affirmation of the Pentecostalists that the gift of the Holy Spirit transforms and intensifies the quality of human life and that this is a fact of experience in the lives of [some] Christians.   The longing of thousands of Christians to recover what they feel instinctively their faith promises them is what underlies the whole movement.’

I am convinced of this longing that Taylor talks of.   I think many people long to experience God in their lives in the way that seems to have been the experience of the early Christians.   And indeed we can see that this experience – or something like it – seems given to some Christians today. 

But it’s not given to all of us.  Taylor points out that while Luke may place a lot of emphasis upon the direct communications which the apostles received from the Holy Spirit and on the gifts of healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues, in the Epistles as a whole this emphasis is not so pronounced, and although there are plenty of references to gifts of healing, prophecy and so on, life in the Holy Spirit is associated mainly with a new relation to God expressed in the words ‘sonship’ and ’liberty’ and in a new degree of love, of life-for others.

So perhaps those of us who do not experience the Holy Spirit as a rushing wind or as tongues of fire, or who do not have gifts of the Spirit such as the gift of speaking in ‘tongues’ or of prophecy or who have never experienced healing can feel reassured by, for example, Paul’s admonishment to the Corinthians that they should view the possession of gifts of tongues, of healing, etc as less important than a life in the Spirit where faith, hope and in particular love abound.   However that’s as maybe, it doesn’t lessen my longing, at least, for a more intense experience of God that does not seem given to me.   In other words I am jealous of the Pentecostalists.

What is going on here?   It is somehow our fault when we do not experience the Holy Spirit as others have or do.   No, I do not think it is a matter of fault as we might be tempted to think.   The Holy Spirit is not something we can command.   Jesus tells Nicodemus, ‘The Sprit blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes.’

And if Taylor is right and ‘The Holy Spirit is he who makes us aware of God’ then we are surely made aware of God to different degrees and in different ways depending on our character but also our circumstances.   As I said at the beginning of this sermon, the Holy Spirit comes to groups not to individuals.  ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them.’   Perhaps then it is the character and circumstances of the group to which we belong (our church) that determines how we experience God.  I was not brought up in a Pentecostal church I cannot now experience God as the Pentecostalists do.  For me, and perhaps for you, I must discover and then experience God in other ways.

We need to remind ourselves that God has primarily made his presence known in the person of Jesus and that it is  he who comes to us not we to him.   It is in the end up to God how he makes us aware of himself.   But he promises – as Jesus did – to his disciples as recorded in John’s gospel ‘I will not leave you desolate, I will come to you.’   And as the risen Jesus tells his disciples in the last words of Matthew’s gospel.  "I will be with you always, even till the end of time....."