Sunday 23 May 2021

The Church is a living, developing organism

 Address given on Pentecost Sunday 23rd May 2021 at St Mary's, Nenagh & Killodiernan church

We’re moving into Summer, Spring is almost behind us, and we have returned to our churches!

We all love the sense of unfolding new life and development at this time of year. 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. It is right for us to rejoice in it!

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 a Greek word translated as ‘advocate’ or ‘helper’ in today’s Gospel (John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15). 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.’

Jesus 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. Jesus tells his first disciples that they do not know the whole truth. They must trust the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father to guide them. The same applies to his disciples in every age, including ours. It is too easy to say ‘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?

The disciples suddenly experienced the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, in them and in their lives, as Jesus had so recently promised them. The Hebrew scriptures use 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 by it, changed utterly.

They began to speak in tongues, we are told. This is what first attracts the attention of the crowd – some people even thought they were drunk! Did they really speak in all manner of foreign languages? Or is Luke telling us that the Gospel message is universal, for people of all races and tongues? Or was it the disciples’ obvious enthusiasm and joy, bubbling forth, that impressed the crowd?

Then Peter comes forward, the simple fisherman from Galilee. Just seven weeks before he 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 the man! Thus Christ’s Church is born.

No doubt in principle we can understand what happened through, say, the science of psychology. But I prefer 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 that the disciples were all together in one place when they received the Spirit.

It 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, folk sometimes say. Well, yes – a taste for singing hymns and listening to sermons is perhaps optional. And for much of the last year, the pandemic has prevented us from gathering physically in our churches, and still prevents us from singing, though very many have continued to join together as a worshipping online.

The truth is that nobody can be a Christian alone, because 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, the body of Christ, so that we may pass on the good news to others, not necessarily by 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 planting seeds in the minds of the children of Israel and their ancient prophets, 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 as Christians, let us rejoice in Christ’s Church as a living, developing organism, sprouting from the seed Jesus sowed, constantly growing in new ways, and guided by the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus sends from the Father.

So to conclude:

As we rejoice in the glorious growth in nature around us, and as we rejoice to be able to gather together in our churches once again, let us also rejoice in the Church as a living, changing and developing organism.

And let us pray that in this small part of Christ’s Church, in the churches of our parish union, in the Diocese of Limerick & Killaloe in the Church of Ireland, God’s Holy Spirit will guide us to change and develop according to God’s will:

Almighty God, 
you sent your Holy Spirit,
to be the life and light of your Church:
open our hearts to the riches of your grace,
that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit
in love, joy, and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

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