Sunday 24 May 2015

The Living Church

Address given in Templederry, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 24th May 2015, Pentecost, Year B

We’re moving into Summer and Spring is almost if not quite behind us!
We all love the sense of unfolding new life and development at this time of year, don’t we? . And it is right for us to rejoice in the changing of the seasons. It is the creative power of the Spirit of God at work: as today’s Psalm 104 puts it, When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth. May the glory of the Lord endure for ever; may the Lord rejoice in his works.”

This Sunday is Pentecost – what we used to call Whitsunday. For Christians it ranks alongside Christmas and Easter as one of the great festivals. It celebrates the day when the Holy Spirit filled Jesus’s followers, empowering them to begin the great task of making disciples of all nations. The first Pentecost was the spring-time of the Church, the day when the first green sprouts burst into the light of day, the day the Church was born – the birthday of the Church.

The Lectionary readings are of course all about the Spirit. Let’s have a closer look at two of them.

In the 3rd reading, Jesus told his disciples that he would send them the Holy Spirit from the Father.
For what we know as the Holy Spirit, the 3rd person of the Trinity, John uses the Greek word ‘ParaklÄ“tos’ in today’s Gospel (John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15), translated as ‘advocate’ or ‘helper’. On the night he was betrayed Jesus tells the disciples, ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.’ He goes on to say, ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth’.

These are very important words, I think – Jesus tells his first disciples that they do not know the whole truth, but must trust the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father to guide them. Surely the same applies to his disciples in every age, including ours. It is too easy to say as some fundamentalists do ‘we must hold to the faith once for all delivered to the Saints’, because all truth is provisional. Jesus teaches us our faith must be open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit – it must be a living faith, open to development.

In today’s 1st reading (Acts 2:1-21), Luke describes the events of that very first Pentecost.
7 weeks after Christ’s resurrection, 10 days after his ascension, something happened among his followers. Something that caught the attention of the crowd – citizens of Jerusalem and visitors from all over the Roman Empire, alike. Something that caused the crowd to stop and look and listen. What was it that happened?

It is this - the disciples suddenly experienced the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, in them and in their lives, just as Jesus had so recently promised them. The OT uses wind and fire as symbols of the presence of God. So it was natural for them to describe their extraordinary experience in terms of a rushing mighty wind and tongues of fire. And they were changed, changed utterly by it.

They began to speak in tongues – this is what first attracts the attention of the crowd – some people even thought they were drunk on new wine! Did they really speak in all manner of foreign languages? Or is Luke using this as a device to signify the Gospel message is universal? Or was it just the disciples’ obvious enthusiasm and joy, bubbling forth, that impressed the crowd?

Then Peter comes forward. Peter the simple fisherman from Galilee, who just seven weeks before had been afraid to admit he knew Jesus. Peter as spokesman for the others starts to speak confidently to the crowd, quoting from the prophet Joel. And Peter goes on to declare his faith in the risen Christ, with such eloquence that we are told he convinced 3000 people that day to believe and be baptised. What a change in Peter! And so Christ’s Church is born.

No doubt in principle we could explain what happened with, say, the science of psychology. But I think it’s enough to use the same words Luke did – ‘All of them - the disciples - were filled with the Holy Spirit’, and they were changed by it. And this sense of receiving and being changed by the Holy Spirit has marked out and empowered Christians in every generation ever since.

Notice this - the disciples were all together in one place when they received the Spirit.
The Spirit was a gift to the whole community who followed Jesus. I think that if Christians of different traditions were more often gathered together in one place, we would receive more of the Spirit.

I can be a Christian without going to Church, I sometimes hear people say. Well, yes – a taste for singing hymns and listening to sermons is perhaps optional. But nobody can be a Christian alone – for as Christians we are those to whom God has given his Spirit, and the Spirit is a community Spirit. We are not given it for our individual salvation; we are given it to empower us to be the Church, the community of believers, so that we may pass on the good news to others, not necessarily in words but in our lives.

I believe that the Holy Spirit has inspired people since time immemorial. Long before Jesus’s patient sowing of the seed with the disciples, the Spirit was no doubt planting seeds in the minds of the ancient prophets of Israel as they, like us, struggled to understand their relationship with God. And who can say that the Spirit has not also inspired what is good in other religions?

But for us as Christians let us rejoice in Christ’s Church as a living, developing organism, sprouting from the seed Jesus sowed, and constantly growing in new ways, guided by the Holy Spirit who Jesus sends from the Father.

So to conclude:
As we rejoice in the glorious growth and development in nature around us, let us also rejoice in the Church as a living, changing and developing organism, to use the Archbishop of Armagh’s words.

And let us pray that in this part of Christ’s Church, in the churches of our parish union, in the Church of Ireland, God’s Holy Spirit will guide us to change and develop according to God’s will:
God the Holy Spirit,
come in power and bring new life to the Church;
renew us in love and service,
and enable us to be faithful
to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen
(BCP p149)