Sunday, 8 June 2014

Pentecost Sermon

Sermon for Pentecost 
(without my ad-libs!)

On Message or On Fire?

The day of Pentecost is the 50th and last day of the Easter Season, it is a celebration both of resurrection and of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the world.

In Church tradition Easter Sunday has had a focus on the newly baptised and those new to faith, Pentecost takes us further in the journey of discipleship, traditionally being a focus for confirmations, testimony and a commissioning of those in particular ministries within the life of the church.

Today is a day when we might look again at where our resurrection faith has taken us – we are reminded of the commissioning power of God’s Spirit that calls all Christians to a ministry of proclamation and prophecy.  Like those early disciples we are given a voice to tell the story of Christ’s resurrection and to share the reality of God’s inclusive love.

What was going on for the disciples on that day of Pentecost? Pentecost was and still is a major festival for the Jewish people, taking place 50 days after Passover as a remembrance of the giving of the Torah 50 days after the Israelites escaped from Pharaoh and Egypt.

Jerusalem would have been buzzing – bigger crowds than were in Westminster this week for the State Opening of Parliament! Pilgrims from all over the world would attend the festival and the streets and public squares would be full of the rowdy chaos of human living.

Somewhere in that city a group of Christ’s followers were gathered in one place. Some of them had, over the last 50 days, witnessed the living Christ, risen from the dead; others would have heard the story, told again and again by their friends. Some of them had witnessed Christ’s ascension into glory and both marvelled at the sight and yet felt the pang of loss and the fresh anguish of bereavement and confusion.

What had Jesus meant when he had said “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”?

So on a day when the whole city was alive with a festival spirit, yet the danger from the religious and political elite was still very real, it is not surprising that this group of Jesus’ friends would get together to share their hopes and fears, to admit to their confusions and argue about what it all meant. There would have been safety in numbers but also the solidarity of those who have been through traumatic and confusing events.

I think there may well have been heated discussions about what to do next, if they were open about seeing Jesus risen and ascended what would the consequences be? Should they get their ‘story’ straight – agree a message, a common narrative and would that be a cautious story, only told to a few safe people – after all they were all in danger if they openly declared their association with Jesus. How could they make sense of all that had happened in the garden, in Emmaus, on the seashore and on the Mount of Olives?

Into this story of human confusion, without warning, suddenly came a sound from heaven like the rush of a violent wind, divided tongues as of fire rested on each of them and they were filled with the Holy Spirit.

Unbidden, unlooked for, God intervened, it was as though the Spirit could not be contained a moment longer – pouring into the world in a new way, a dramatic and challenging way – burning with love and passion – bringing both order and chaos, alive with new possibilities and freedom.

In that moment, all thoughts of safety, of getting their story straight, of being ‘on message’ were burnt up in the searing heat of God’s life-giving Spirit. No safe narrative or human agenda, no political manifesto or religious doctrine could contain the love of God as revealed in Christ!

The quiet, whispered concerns of a haunted group of men and women were transformed into the coherent, inclusive message of God’s love for all people.

The international crowd heard the shouting and singing of this rag-taggle band of believers, each in their own language and they could not resist. They were drawn to the spectacle and intrigue of the occasion. Peter , never one to hold back – and on this occasion empowered by the Spirit - began to preach.

He told the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He placed that story centrally in the history and prophetic tradition of the Israelite people and he urged the crowd to the salvation offered in Christ. On that day about three thousand were added to the number of believers.

A group of people, some who were not particularly articulate, were transformed and released. Their religion was not to be a whispered rumour to be shared with a select few – it was to become a living faith, a movement which would flow to the very ends of the earth and to change history. Time after time when the story of God’s love for all people seems threatened with silence, the Holy Spirit gives a voice to the voiceless and the new life of Christ bursts again from the tomb.

This week many of us have remembered the 70th anniversary of D-Day – the Second World War was a time when life was trampled and hope seemed small and fragile. Both world wars and conflicts since have lead to a deep questioning of the possibility of a God of love in a world of suffering and chaos. Those questions are real and valid and ones people of faith have to face up to – and to offer simplistic answers is not good enough. Yet even in the midst of such conflicts, God’s Spirit has continued to touch lives and offer transformation. The following is a diary extract of a Dutch Jewish young woman, who later went voluntarily into a concentration camp to help others. Her name was Etty Hillesum and she later died in the camp aged 29.

“Tuesday morning, half-past nine. something has happened to me, and I don’t know if it’s just a passing mood or something crucial. It is as if I had been pulled back abruptly to my roots, and had become a little more self-reliant and independent. Last night, cycling through cold, dark Lairessestraat – if only I could repeat everything I babbled out then! Something like this:

God take me by Your hand, I shall follow You dutifully, and not resist too much. I shall evade none of the tempests life has in store for me, I shall try to face it all as best I can. … I delight in warmth and security, but I shall not rebel if I have to suffer cold, should You so decree. I shall follow wherever Your hand leads me and shall try not to be afraid. I shall try to spread some of my warmth, of my genuine love for others, wherever I go. But we shouldn’t boast of our love for others. We cannot be sure that it really exists. I don’t want to be anything special, I only want to try to be true to that in me which seeks to fulfil its promise. I sometimes imagine that I long for the seclusion of a nunnery. But I know that I must seek You among people out in the world.”

There is something in Etty’s words of the same Spirit-prompted courage that drove the disciples from seclusion into the City square at Pentecost. She writes of babbling in prayer aloud in response to an abrupt act of God in her life which leads her to a declaration of obedience and to knowing that she must seek God among people out in the world.

We are called to that same, outward looking, generous obedience that enabled the followers of Jesus to risk everything in order to tell the story of God’s love. 

The other story dominating the news over the last few weeks has been that of elections. Politicians getting their story straight – working out the message that they think will best articulate their vision of how the country or Europe should be run and woe betide the candidate or member of a party who is not ‘on message’. Cynicism seems to be the order of the day when we consider our politicians, yet I’m not convinced that’s entirely fair. Having met a number of MP’s, without doubt some only seem to be able to sell a particular view of the world based on their party manifesto, the conversations with those have left me cold or frustrated and in one case blazingly angry. However, the majority of politicians I’ve had the privilege to meet have been genuine, hard-working women and men who want to make a difference locally and nationally. They will support their party because they believe in the broad direction of policies but they also burn with a passion for justice and the well-being of communities and from time to time that passion will take them ‘off-message’ – those individuals are on the whole more attractive because there is an integrity and a connectedness between their words and their beliefs.

So where does all this leave us? Are we ‘on message’ or ‘on fire’.
We have heard this morning of people who, despite danger and the possibility of dire consequences, have been prompted by God’s Spirit to a courageous proclamation and a world-changing love.

How do we live as disciples in the light of Pentecost? Often as we grow up in the church or join a church later in life we will learn a set of behaviour and a particular way of describing our faith. We become comfortable and safe in our discipleship because we know the rules, we understand what is acceptable and what is not acceptable – this may not be a bad thing – it leads to order in church and to respect for others and helps us to understand the ground upon which our faith is built.

There is a problem though, if we become too comfortable in our patterns of worship and discipleship. It was risk that brought the followers of Jesus together on the day of Pentecost – they looked for comfort and security in each other’s company. Yet God loved them too much to leave them there – they were filled with God’s Spirit and led to an outrageous, dangerous way of life that turned them into outcasts, prisoners, victims of persecution – yet also led to a world-wide family of faith that still today is prompted by the Spirit to proclamation and love in action.

My worry is that often in church we are like the disciples before the Spirit was poured out – we look for comfort and security, we look to be with those who are like ourselves – we can become a closed shop, a private club with rules of our own that we understand, we can turn inward and love each other but forget about the world that God loves. We end up ‘on message’ when for God’s sake and the world’s we need to forget our own security and be ‘on fire’.

We become the opposite of Pentecost, expecting people to conform, to understand our language – both spoken language and the language of our actions. If the Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost was a dance of passionate love to which all are invited, we sometimes seem more like the wall-flowers at a dance, sitting on the sidelines moaning that we don’t like the music.

What do you need to risk in order to join the dance? What do I need to set aside and let go of to live in that more dangerous, outrageous place of loving which God is calling me to? What do you need to decide is less important than the proclamation of God’s love in word and action – what rules and limits have we as a church and as disciples placed on the Spirit of God?

The Spirit will not be confined by our way of being church, will not be daunted by our fear – the Spirit is still moving and dancing within the world today, still prompting us to join in. If we live in fear and in a restricted form of discipleship that is lost in rules and is daunted by the world beyond these walls then the spirit will break out in other places, will pour out upon men and women, will cause them to prophesy and old and young will see visions and dream dreams. We may find that we are left behind, huddled together in safety against a world gone mad – but where is God? God is there in the world, calling us to join in, to speak out, to let go.

Where is our hope in this? I believe God continues to pour out the Holy Spirit into our lives, our church and the world today. As Peter said in his sermon – everyone who calls on the name of God shall be saved. We know this, yet we do not always live as those who are confident. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will refresh us and renew us today and give us the courage to live as Christ’s people in the world. Amen.