Pentecost Sermon - Bishop Cherry
Pentecost Sunday – 31st May 2020
Today, Pentecost Sunday, is often called the birthday of the church; the day that the church was born; and we see from the account in the Acts of the Apostles that the coming of the Spirit transformed the disciples from a group of Jesus’ followers meeting together and constantly devoting themselves to prayer, to a group so overwhelmed by what had come over them that they began to speak in other languages - the languages, we’re told, of every nation under heaven. And Peter is inspired to address the whole crowd that had gathered to see what was going on.
There are a number of things worth noting about what happened. We’re not told whether or not the disciples were praying when the Spirit came, but we do know that they were gathered together in one place and that it was around 9 o’clock in the morning. The Spirit came upon them suddenly. This wasn’t a nice warm glow, but something incredibly powerful that sounded like a violent wind. The word for spirit in both Greek and Hebrew is the same word as ‘breath’. The Greek ‘pneuma’ and Hebrew, ‘ruach’ both have their roots in the verb to breathe or blow, which is why we sometimes refer to the Holy Spirit as the breath of God. Indeed, you’ll have noticed that the hymn we began our service with this morning has each of its verses begin with precisely that as a prayer; an invocation. ‘Breathe on me, breath of God’.
But when the Spirit came on the disciples, it wasn’t the gentle breath that we might imagine in the hymn, or indeed what we might pray for. It came with the sound more like the rush of a violent wind that filled the whole house: awe-inspiring, even frightening as we’ll know from our own experience of storms. This is the kind of wind that blows roofs off and brings ancient trees crashing down. The wind itself is invisible. All we can see and feel is its impact, as Jesus said when he was speaking with Nicodemus. ‘The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.’ So it is with the spirit. It’s both invisible and uncontrollable.
As well as the wind, there were flames; tongues of fire that rested on each of them signifying a cleansing and a purifying, as spoken about by the prophets. Malachi talks of the messenger of the covenant coming like a refiner’s fire to purify and refine the people of God. And the effect of this total experience is that the disciples find themselves able to communicate in other tongues, in ways that everyone drawn to the house can understand. ‘In our own language’, they remark with astonishment, ‘we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power’. Suddenly, the followers of Jesus were no longer focused in within themselves, bound in prayer and a shared experience of Jesus’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. They were empowered and equipped to turn out towards the world and to share with others the amazing things that God had done.
2,000 years later, and God is still pouring out the gift of his Spirit on his people. We continue to draw on his Spirit for comfort and strength, for courage and hope, for inspiration and guidance. At services such as confirmation and ordination, we invoke a special outpouring of God’s spirit on those offering themselves as candidates and we ask that God anoints and empowers them for service in his church and in the wider world. But praying for the gifts of the Spirit is our personal prayer too, as that hymn at the beginning amply demonstrates. What better prayer to make:
breathe on me breath of God, ‘til I am wholly thine; until this earthly part of me glows with thy fire divine.
Many of us will be able to testify to times when we’ve felt particularly close to God; when we’ve felt a deep sense of joy and praise, energy and vitality, not necessarily for any apparent reason but because God has chosen to impart his Spirit in a particular and intimate way. God equips and empowers us day by day, of course, but occasionally it can come over us, overwhelm us even, as a gift and a blessing, simply because God delights to do so. And I guess that’s part of the point. It’s beyond our own control. It’s not something that we can conjure up by our own efforts. Nor is it something we can manufacture, as if there’s some secret formula. It is a gift, and we’re invited simply to receive it.
I’ve been bishop here in Monmouth for four months now. It’s been a rather strange beginning to my time amongst you, as many have commented, and not very much like anything that I’d expected - not that I really knew what to expect. But the Spirit has been at work nonetheless and will continue to work, not just in me but across the parishes and people of those diocese. We don’t know how the Spirit will come at any given time, nor where the Spirit will lead us. That’s for us to discern, and we’ll do that as a diocese together, confident that he will lead us, as we’re willing to listen. We know that there are many things to be done and there’ll no doubt be different people and parishes with different ideas as to what that might look like, perhaps even hoping and looking for different things. We’ll need to plan, and do that together, always being open to discern what God wants us to do and where God wants us to go; and always mindful, as the saying warns us, that - ‘if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans’!
So, as we move forward from this Pentecost Sunday, please join me in praying for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on us and on this diocese that God has called those of us in Monmouth to serve. Let’s renew our commitment to be open and ready to listen, both to the Spirit of God and to one another as together we seek to discern and follow where God is leading us. And as the lockdown eases and we are, gradually, once again, able to meet with one another to pray and worship, to discuss and consult together, may we never cease praying that God will equip and empower us, as he did those first disciples, to proclaim in word and deed all that he has done, in forms and in languages that touch people’s hearts and draw them to God. For the message is not just for us, not just for those of us who go to church, but for the whole of God’s creation.