Sermon for Pentecost 2020

Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:24-34, 35b; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23

In the revue “Beyond the Fringe”, the ‘End of the World’ sketch features, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett seated, huddled, on the top of a mountain.

Jon:  How will it be, this end of which you have spoken, Brother Enim?

Omnes: Yes, how will it be?

Peter:  Well, it will be, as ’twere a mighty rending in the sky, you see, and the mountains shall sink, you see, and the valleys shall rise, you see, and great shall be the tumult thereof.

Jon:  Will the veil of the temple be rent in twain?

Peter:  The veil of the temple will be rent in twain about two minutes before we see the sign of the manifest flying beast-head in the sky.

Alan:  And will there be a mighty wind, Brother Enim?

Peter:  Certainly there will be a mighty wind, if the word of God is anything to go by.

Dudley:  And will this wind be so mighty as to lay low the mountains of the earth?

Peter:  No – it will not be quite as mighty as that – that is why we have come up on the mountain, you stupid nit – to be safe from it. Up here on the mountain we shall be safe – safe as houses.

Alan:  And what will happen to the houses?

Peter:  Well, naturally, the houses will be swept away and the tents of the ungodly with them, and they will all be consuméd by the power of the heavens and on earth – and serve them right!

All very dramatic, much like the account of the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 – a mighty wind, tongues of fire and all the other imagery that is conjured up when someone says the word ‘Pentecost’. But hang on a minute that’s not how the Holy Spirit is usually described in Scripture. The more usual description is much more like that in our Gospel reading from John 20, where the day of Pentecost has no tongues of fire or a bewildering, amazing, perplexing cacophony of voices, but the peace of one voice.

It’s the evening of Easter Sunday and the disciples are in a room, with the doors firmly locked. As accomplices in the work of the executed criminal, Jesus, they’re afraid they’ll be arrested. The authorities would surely want to nip this subversive group in the bud before it gets out of control. Fear and anxiety that’s their mood.

All of a sudden, Jesus is there in their midst. “Shalom, Peace with you”, the normal Jewish greeting but … Jesus had promised that he would bring a special kind of peace, to his disciples. A peace they couldn’t get anywhere else, a peace that no one and nothing could take away from them. The Peace of God is about being in tune with God, even if that means a state which is far from peaceful or quiet or harmonious.

The Spirit invites us to be reconciled to God through Christ, demanding that we no longer hold on to the values and idols of the world. Don’t expect everything to be perfect, don’t expect that everything will go well, don’t expect that there will be no challenge or stress.

The Blessing in the 1982 Liturgy captures it perfectly:

The Peace of God which passes all understanding, keep you hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Back in that Upper Room, there’s no doubt: it’s the crucified Jesus himself, risen from the dead. Their fear changes to indescribable joy. He gives them their mission: “As the Father sent me, so am I sending you.” Then he breathes on them. In the creation story, God breathed over the waters. He also breathed on to the clay of the ground and formed the first human being. Today he breathes on his disciples and gives them a new life, giving them the life of his Spirit, saying: “Receive the Holy Spirit.

The book of Acts also describes the disciples of Jesus being gathered together in one place on the day of Pentecost. It’s important to recognise that the Church received the gift of God’s Spirit collectively. Nowhere in Acts is the Holy Spirit described as coming upon an individual, not even the apostle Paul. Peter, Stephen, and Paul are described as being filled with the Holy Spirit when they speak at times of crisis, as is Jesus in the gospel narrative.

But, as Paul emphasises to the Corinthians, the Spirit is bestowed on the Church corporately. Paul urges the Corinthians to cease their petty rivalries, and to recognise that the “manifestation of the Spirit” is always given “for the common good”. Individuals receive gifts from the Spirit, yet each gift is for the body as a whole. This implies that if a gift can’t be shared, and shared for the good of others, it’s not from the Spirit. It also implies that any attempt to rank individuals according to their possession of “better” gifts would be at odds with each gift’s common purpose for the good of all.

The disciples experience the Holy Spirit as a powerful, living presence. But it’s not a power that keeps them out of struggle and conflict. Rather, it gives them peace in the midst of these tribulations. As the Spirit inspires them to preach to all nations, the persecution will intensify. The primary function of the Spirit is to continue the very presence of Jesus who, as the Word made flesh, must return to the Father.

So what does this mean for us at a time when we’re unable to gather for worship, celebrate the Eucharist together and be nourished by Word and Sacrament as we’re accustomed to and when any experience of our collective identity as God’s Church is mediated via the Internet?

In our society, with its highly individualistic culture, it’s tempting to become accustomed to thinking of ourselves as having a private relationship with God which doesn’t necessarily involve interaction with other people. Lockdown only increases that temptation, but only with other people are we members of the Body of Christ. The other Christians are integral to our relationship with God. It’s as parts of that Body that we’re nourished by Word and Sacrament, that we receive God’s Spirit.

When the Body’s dispersed as it is at the moment, it’s not dismembered, and it certainly doesn’t cease to exist. We’ve received God’s Spirit in our Baptism, and we continue to exercise the gifts we’ve received, conscious that we’re doing so as members of a Body which is unable to gather, but is nonetheless still Christ’s Church.

It is precisely because we’re the Body of Christ, who’ve received God’s Spirit through our Baptism and renewed in the Eucharist, and have received the Holy Spirit given by God to the Church, that we’re able to sustain ourselves through this period of isolation, and can look forward to the day when we can once again gather to worship God together, and be renewed in the Spirit for the work to which God has called us. And yes there certainly will be a mighty wind, if the word of God is anything to go by!!


Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter 2020

Sermon John 17.1-11

Greetings from Big Barns on this the seventh Sunday of Easter 2020.

I hope you are continuing to keep well in body, mind and spirit. The season of Easter is almost over and next Sunday we arrive at Pentecost. What a very strange Easter season it has been. Many of us have found that occupying our time during lockdown can be challenging, and yet it has also been a time when we have been able to catch up with a few jobs that have needed doing for a while, or perhaps we have found time to do a bit more of the things we love.

My model railway, which has been packed away since our move up here over two years ago has finally been unpacked and I have started reconstruction. Bill and Ben (our two dalmatians) have never had so many walks each day and I am racing through another re-read of my all-time favourite series of books – Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ – set in a fantasy world that has many parallels with our own and certainly makes you think about our institutions and patterns of behaviour in many new ways.

It was the American satirist and commentator, PJ O’Rourke that said “Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it”. I’m not sure that comic tales of fantasy would make me look particularly good if I suddenly shuffled off this mortal plain, so I might mention I am also reading In the Eye of the Storm by Bishop Gene Robinson (though I’m not certain that will make me look any better)!

Tomorrow (25th May) is the day that the church remembers the Venerable Bede and if anyone died reading something that made them look good, it was him. He was dictating a commentary on John’s Gospel! It’s a tradition in some places to read the passage Bede was dictating and finish at the exact point that he died!

However, I’m not sure that it is just a case of looking good when we die, but actually, it’s more important that how we live looks (and is) good. How we face death comes from how we live life and we know that Bede’s death was the ending of a life well-lived.

How we live and how we die are connected.

Last Thursday was Ascension Day and some of us joined in our interesting first attempt at a Service of the Word using the Zoom platform. We had hymns, prayers and a reflection all associated with the Ascension of Jesus. Nowadays, when there aren’t many of us who assume heaven to be up in the clouds, the use of the word ascension or ascend can distract us, but in the cosmology of two thousand years ago heaven was definitely ‘up’ and earth was ‘down’ and so we need to accept that world view.

But more important than the direction of travel of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, is the source and destination of each journey: Jesus’ ascension links earth and heaven. Jesus, who came from God’s presence to dwell on earth and share our human nature, now returns to God’s presence taking his human nature with him. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, sent by Jesus, comes from God’s presence to empower the holy people of God on earth, as happened at the creation when he moved over the face of the earth.

Ascension was a time of departure as well as arrival and departures involve last words. In today’s scripture readings we are held, liturgically, between the departure of Jesus to his Father and the arrival of the Holy Spirit which we celebrate next Sunday.

In Acts, Jesus had gathered his apostles for one last conversation and their last words to him were a question. I wonder, if they had known this was the final moment, would they have ended things this way or said something else. But they asked Jesus if this was when he would restore the kingdom to Israel?

Just as the disciples try to narrow the saving work of God to one nation, Jesus blows it all open by responding with words that in effect say, “Never mind that. Get on with being my witnesses all over the world. Not only where you are relatively comfortable – Jerusalem (although that was not a safe place, they were so afraid of the religious leaders that they locked themselves in) and Judea (familiar territory), but also Samaria (despised territory avoided by faithful Jews) and to the ends of the earth (way beyond anywhere any of them had previously gone)”. Jesus did not send them back home to preach the gospel and the Acts of the Apostles suggests they never did go home, at least permanently. The ascension is disruptive of comfortable life.

Since Ascension Day always falls on a Thursday it is too easily overlooked. So, on this Sunday after the Ascension, here is an important question: What would the Christian gospel look like without the ascension of Jesus?

In my opinion, without the ascension of Christ we would be without our hope of heaven. Why? Isn’t the resurrection enough? It is vital of course, but on its own, it is not enough. There are fifty days of Easter and the fortieth is Ascension Day. Easter isn’t over with the resurrection. The resurrection was evidence that death is conquered, that God has destroyed its power to have the last word. But to what end? That we should hang around on earth for ever?

Without the ascension, the resurrection is the conquering of death, but leaves us here on earth. The ascension of Jesus Christ, fully divine, to his place with God the Father, is also the ascension of one who was fully human, who took his humanity – our humanity – into heaven and opened the door for all humanity to follow. The world-changing significance of the ascension of Jesus Christ is that there is a human in heaven, previously inhabited only by the heavenly hosts. In the words of the Te Deum, the ancient song of the church, ‘He has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers’. As the creed affirms, our hope is in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. The ascension, an integral part of the fifty days of Easter, assures us that, in Christ, there is a place in heaven for us. In the ascension, Jesus Christ opened heaven to all believers.

So, are we ready for heaven? Ready to leave the earth? That takes us back to where we started in this sermon. It is not just that we should look good because of what we are reading when we die, but that our lives should be good, all the time, so that whenever death comes we are found to be living well in the joyful knowledge that by his ascension Jesus Christ has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.

St Benedict told his monks to keep their death before their eyes. Are there any things you and I need to put right quickly so that we are ready to die whenever that time comes? I ask that question in the glorious assurance that the Ascension has opened the gate of heaven to us and that, as the gospel reminded us, eternal life is to know God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent, and that begins on earth.

This Ascension-tide we are challenged to consider whether our lives are in such order that, were we to die today, we would leave with partings well made, with a book that we would feel good about being seen to have been reading, and with people able to say the world is a better place for our having lived in it. You and I are called to live as we would wish to be found at death.

For the disciples, their parting conversation with Jesus was a question that propelled them into mission. In the light of the ascension they were sent to be his witnesses. That is, in fact, a parting well made. After all, it is the parting we make each week – ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.’

Blessing to you and all those you love.

Fr Simon