Pentecost - 4th June, 2017

Pentecost - 4th June, 2017

Acts 2:1-21;  Psalm 104:25-35;  1 Corinthians 12:4-13;  John 20:19-23

Two weeks ago I was at Tintern—one of the great abbeys destroyed by order of king Henry VIII who used reformation as an excuse to confiscate church property.  Its shell still stands on a picturesque bend in the Wye Valley.

Magnificent—incredible! he enthused loudly, falling into step beside me.  I’ve never been in a church before—it’s fantastic.  Pity he picked a ruin for his first visit I thought.  You can feel it can’t you—the force he said.  I wondered if he was a budding Jedi knight, recognizing the jargon from Star Wars movies which have given rise to a newly-recognized Jedi religion.  As if reading my mind, another Jedi trick, he then tried the term power, perhaps looking for confirmation that he was on the right track in such strange, unfamiliar spiritual territory.  We used different words, but both sensed the presence of something special.  While the sheer size and beauty of the ruined abbey were enough to strike awe in any visitor, something peculiar about that place lent it a sense of holiness, rousing a response.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit hasn’t abandoned Tintern and can speak through some primal language, prompting strangers to talk about the things that matter. Soon, spontaneously sharing his frustrations and setbacks, dreams and defeats, he seemed to draw strength from our surroundings and what monks had built centuries ago, saying If they could do this surely I can achieve something.  They had a support community and God’s help too I pointed out.  Nodding, he started to walk on, then turned and said The force be with you! to which my automatic Anglican response was And also with you!  Maybe neither of us gained a convert but to me that chance meeting was like a mini-Pentecost—simple conversations can open doors to something greater, transforming us as we swap stories, listen and try to understand..

Pentecost is often called the birthday of the Church when Christ’s followers were suddenly fired up with such energy, enthusiasm and a common sense of purpose that they burst the bonds of silence and safety to broadcast Good News.  The roller coaster ride between losing their beloved leader and learning he’d risen to new life, had taught them that resurrection is God’s answer and ultimate response to death.  Perhaps the time they spent praying and waiting for the Holy Spirit helped them find the right words to describe their firsthand experience of God’s amazing grace, but something more dramatic obviously empowered them to speak out.  After whatever doubts they’d suffered when their hopes and community had been shattered, they emerged with an unshakable faith that even overturned oracles of doom, interpreting visions and dreams in terms of redemption not looming disaster.  Gone too were the secret revelations to a favoured few like the Transfiguration that was only witnessed by a small circle of close friends—at Pentecost all the disciples spoke openly about God’s love to anyone who’d listen, sharing the Good News in different  ways that speak to different people.  That’s how this traditional harvest festival became a harvest of souls and the birth of the church—with 3000 converts that day alone.

At this point in our parish life there are some interesting parallels as we too wait, anticipating the arrival of a new rector that may also release energy in ways that could surprise us.  I don’t expect we will experience a mighty, rushing wind nor tongues of fire hovering over our heads because those of us who’ve been baptized have already received the Holy Spirit.   But while we may not be treated to any pyrotechnics, nor sudden facility with foreign languages, our challenges and opportunities are like those faced at the birth of the church.  Having recently relived the death and resurrection of Christ, we too are going through a transition that will broaden our horizons as we embrace the future, we too have to find new ways to speak to people we don’t know to share the wonders of God’s work to seekers of various backgrounds, and we too are called to carry hope and love into a changing and sometimes scary world.  Fortunately, we too have received all the gifts of the Spirit we need to do this, so can enter the season of Pentecost feeling optimistic it will bear fruit if we continue to offer something that secular society cannot provide.  

Try this—place a hand near your mouth and breathe out.  Can you feel your breath?  As God breathed life into the first creatures and humans, God was present when you took your first breath.  And just as the Risen Christ breathed new life into the disciples, empowering them through the Holy Spirit to use the gifts they’d been given to spread goodness and Good News, so we too have been entrusted with that same mission.  Remember St Philip’s Day when we recognized all the ways we have been doing this?  God has given us all the gifts we need to build up this community—but like parts of the body that need each other to function, so it is with us.  Who and what you are and do, the dreams you dream and visions you have for our future, are vital if we are to remain healthy and able to tackle the job Christ gave us in spreading the hope and love the world needs so badly.  When the disciples discovered they could communicate with all kinds of people, they talked about God’s work of saving people from whatever oppressed them, offering new life through forgiveness and focussing on what folk hungered to hear.  We’re called to do the same, sharing stories to encourage others by explaining how God’s grace has helped in situations we’ve faced.

I believe that knowing and sharing our values and beliefs is crucial for the future of the church.  In Britain, churches that are thriving seem engaged in similar programmes and ministries to ours, plus regular Bible study to promote discussion, personal growth and incorporate newcomers.  But in S. Wales where chapels once filled the valleys with song and strong sense of community, many now stand silent or derelict—some becoming warehouses, others shops, the lucky ones libraries or cultural centres.  In the cities vacated churches are now popular pubs and clubs, perhaps trading on their unique interiors.  However, God moves in mysterious ways—so if ruins can offer visitors a gentle introduction to sacred space, who knows what the Holy Spirit is up to in these places.

Today we not only celebrate how the disciples were empowered to spread the Good News of God’s plan to redeem the world—but celebrate the same mission we inherit.  The Holy Spirit has always worked through believers like us to reach out and include others by sharing the faith in effective ways they can understand.  Instead of offering services in different languages, we focus on English, music, loving-kindness and much more.  Clare (our Curate who leaves us today), you have helped us enormously with this—bless you!  We hope you will go on to use your gifts to serve many others, while we continue our task of translating the love of Christ into terms that help and make sense to: children, students and young people; those trying to find time with their family while working hard to make ends meet; those trying to adjust to retirement, downsizing, or the loss of loved ones and friends; those trying to cope with health and mobility issues or searching to find purpose and meaning in life—folk trying to find a safe place to connect and enjoy talking with others who’ve been there so understand—and a place to call home that’s good for the soul in many other ways too.  Folks, we offer that already, but can always improve as we give glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine!