The Day of Pentecost
June 4 2017
Numbers 11.11f, 16f, 24-30; 1 Corinthians 12.4-13; Acts 2.1-21
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
As Luke tells it, the Christian community to which we belong began on the first day of Pentecost, 2,000 years ago. In this community, as in any community that has lasted so long, the great majority of its members have been dead for some time. The challenge of Pentecost – we may even say, the existential threat of Pentecost – is whether we are to be counted among that number.
Are we dead Christians, with a dead God inside of us? Are we the tomb in which a dead Christ lies? Or are we alive and risen, like Christ, and on fire with God’s spirit?
Tom Wright, prolific New Testament scholar and former Bishop of Durham, is no more a Scot than I am. But commenting on today’s readings, he tells us of “a place in the Scottish Highlands where the broad and tranquil River Dee is funnelled in a swirling and seething foam through a gap in solid rock, narrow enough for a foolish teenager to jump across.” He adds, “Don’t ask me how I know that.”
Tom uses this funnelling of the River Dee as an image of what the Holy Spirit does to us, and for us. All the waters of life are to come rushing and churning into those who believe in Jesus – and, equally important, out of us. “All the new life of God’s new creation is to be focused on, and channelled through, each believer.”
The image of the Spirit in Tom’s anecdote, please note, isn’t the heedless teenager soaring through the air but the water swirling, seething, churning, and threatening to dash us against the rock. We would like to soar, and so we shall, but not before the Spirit has her way with us.
As the US preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says, “We don’t keep the Spirit of life in the back room because she is shy but because she is dangerous.”
At the core of our human predicament is the inconvenient truth that we don’t have the choice simply to be human. We can either be less than human – and we’re good at that – or by the grace of God we can be more.
On Tuesday last week, I read a parable by the San Francisco writer, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit.
“Once upon a time,” she writes, “a child was born into wealth and wanted for nothing, but he was possessed by bottomless, endless, grating, grasping wanting, and wanted more … So for seven decades, he fed his appetites and exercised his license to lie, cheat, steal, and stiff working people of their wages, made messes, left them behind, grabbed more baubles, and left them in ruin… But his appetite was endless, and he wanted more, and he gambled to become the most powerful man in the world, and won, careless of what he wished for.”
Somewhere below the surface he skates on, adds Solnit, he must know that “he has stepped off a cliff, pronounced himself king of the air, and is in freefall.”
It is a mistake to read this parable as merely about the current US president. The parable is told about us. This is how we all are, when left to our own devices.
But the Spirit of God doesn’t leave us to our own devices.
Around us, if we are fortunate, are people who are generous but hold us to account. Around us are people who refuse to tolerate meanness and falsehood. Around us are people who demand that we listen, respect and respond. Around us are people who show us our faults.
In families at their best, in friendships at their best, in congregations at their best, we get the feedback we need to make and keep us honest.
In and through and with all of this is the guarding and guiding of the Holy Spirit, who shows us our face in the mirror; who tells us that we can be more than we are and better than we are; who, quietly but insistently, helps and encourages us to do that.
It is, of course, painful.
In night-time conversation with the cautious Nicodemus, Jesus tells him that he must be born again. Paul’s image for the renewal of creation is of a whole world groaning in child-birth.
Obviously, I have never given birth.
But three times I have been in a delivery ward, watching my three sons struggle to be born, and holding my first wife’s hand as she practised her breathing exercises – only this time for real – and tried very hard not to scream.
In 1 Kings 19, Elijah stands on Mount Horeb while God passes by.
“Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”
But I want to say that the Spirit of God is in all of this.
If the Spirit can coo as gently as a dove, she is also as unseen as the wind, and just as strong (CH4 600). The Spirit of God is in the wind and the earthquake and fire; only after we have lived through the earthquake, wind and fire comes the still small voice of calm.
In the passage we read from 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks of the many gifts given to the small Christian communities, the house churches in Corinth and elsewhere, that he helped to create and nurture.
Elsewhere in his letters to the Corinthians, he speaks of the diversity in these communities; and he also takes them to task, writing bluntly of their faults and failures.
As then, so now. In our own small congregation are many gifts – more than we sometimes recognize. These gifts are individual, but they are given to individuals for the sake of the whole. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
Our congregation also is diverse, from Arab Christian to Messianic Jew, with foreign interlopers like myself. We come from different traditions, with different histories and experiences. We are not always of one mind.
There are those, for example, who love Israel; there are those who are passionately opposed to what Israel is doing to the Palestinian people. Interestingly, sometimes these people are the same people.
As in Corinth, we too have our faults, our failures, and our eccentricities.
But it is given to us to be a congregation of God’s people, to love one another despite our faults, to help one another overcome our faults, to be made over by the Spirit in the image and likeness of God. The elders we shall ordain this morning, like the elders we already possess, are here to help us to live up to that calling.
But it is God’s calling to each and all of us. In this time and place, we are called, with all the gifts the Spirit gives us, and the faults that are all our own work, to be the body of Christ: his hands, his feet, his eyes and ears and tongue. Together we are Christ’s church, and shortly we shall recommit ourselves to being that.
As the sun set on Tuesday night, 50 days after Passover, our Jewish neighbours began to celebrate Shavuot. Today, 50 days after Easter, Christ’s Passover, we celebrate the Christian Shavuot.
Shavuot is the festival of the wheat harvest. Paul tells us that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But this harvest is a long time coming.
Shavuot is a pilgrimage festival, where Jews go up to Jerusalem. Pentecost starts the church on a longer and more profound pilgrimage – not to Jerusalem or Santiago da Compostella, not to Iona or Lindisfarne – but to the kingdom of God. Grace, says the greatest of the medieval theologians, Thomas Aquinas, is the beginning of glory in us.
The Holy Spirt is to be trusted, says Barbara Brown Taylor, not to be understood. Trusting the Spirit, as I have been suggesting, isn’t always fun. But trust her, and in the end she will take us where we need to go.
We sing a love that sets all people free (CH4 622)
O breath of life, come sweeping through us (CH4 595)
O day of joy and wonder! Christ’s promise now fulfilled! (CH4 582)
She sits like a bird, brooding on the waters (CH4 593)
Spirit divine, attend our prayers (CH4 583)
All my hope on God is founded (CH4 192i)
Karoline Lewis, “Spirit Work”, Working Preacher, June 4 2017
Herbert McCabe, Law, Love, and Language (London and Sydney: Sheed and Ward, 19768)
Sebastian Moore, God is a New Language (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1967)
Tom Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays, Years A, B and C. Biblical Meditations on the Christian Year (London: SPCK, 2012)
Rebecca Solnit, “The Loneliness of Donald Trump”, LitHub, May 30 2017