Sunday, 19 May 2013

Pentecost: The Spirit of Truth

Pentecost 2013

I will ask the Father, says Jesus, and he will give you an Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, who will teach you everything.

When I was a child back in the 1960’s my parents used to take me and my brother to the science museum in London as a special treat from time to time. It was a glimpse into the future, with lots of buttons to press and levers to pull. There was one exhibit though, which to me was the real star of the show, completely amazing. What was it? It was an automatic door, a door that opened all by itself when you walked towards it, a door, in other words, that you could find in just about every supermarket in the country today – how the world has changed! I’ve also seen the advent of  colour television, home freezers, personal computers, mobile phones, the internet…things that would have seemed like science fiction when I was young are now just taken for granted. And I’m not that ancient…

It isn’t just technology that has changed though. There have been huge shifts in social attitudes too, an opening up of society to voices that might once have gone unheard. There is a far greater awareness and acceptance of diversity than there was when I was a child, at least officially, and that enriches us all.
But change, even for the better, can feel quite exhausting, and a more diverse society can make it seem as if we are surrounded by a welter of different opinions, coming at us from every angle, online and offline, pulling us in different directions, ” come here, go there, do this, do that”. How do we figure out what we should think, believe, do, with all these conflicting ideas
around us?

You might be wondering what all this has to do with the Feast of Pentecost, this celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit which we mark today. Well, Jesus describes the Spirit as the Spirit of Truth in today’s Gospel reading, the one who will teach us everything. If we are looking for a voice to cut through the noisy turmoil of our world and give us the guidance we long for, it sounds as if this is the one we want.

As it happens, the world in which the Christian Church was born, the first Century Roman Empire was every bit as confusing and diverse as ours is – we might think life was simpler then, but we’d be wrong. Roman roads had connected cultures from one end of the known world to the other and brought together people of many different outlooks. In any Roman city you would find people of every race and language, worshipping in temples to gods from many different faiths, debating every philosophy under the sun in the market places. The result was that it was pretty much a free-for-all, with far fewer shared cultural and moral norms than we have today. The Roman authorities were happy to tolerate all this, provide people also sacrificed to the Emperor the symbol of unity and ultimate authority. The Christians got into trouble because they refused to do that.

So if we think it was any easier for the first followers of Jesus to hear the still, small voice of God , if we think their society was any less noisy and confused, we should think again. And yet somehow they did. The picture the Acts of the Apostles gives us in our second reading is of a group of people who were filled with confidence and conviction, with a faith that was deeply rooted and utterly real.

I don’t think their confidence springs from the dramatic nature of their experience of God– the rushing wind and dancing flames. These are really just metaphors, symbols that point to the depth of the impact the Spirit of God had on them. However mysterious and extraordinary this story makes it all sound, the thing that made the difference was the transformation that happened in their real lives, a transformation that transformed those around them too. This story is not about wind and flames, but about a community of people learning to listen for the voice of God, and being so inspired by what they heard that nothing could ever be the same afterwards. Despite the impression we might get from what we have heard – out of context – this morning, it wasn’t an experience that came totally out of the blue, either.  There were things this community of believers were doing which helped them to tune into this voice which they might otherwise have not had the courage to heed, which is good news for us, because they are things which could help us too.

The first thing we find when we look at this story in its context is that these people were waiting. Jesus had told them to wait for power from on high, so they did.
What did they expect would happen? Who knows? They certainly didn’t know. But the fact that they were waiting implies that they were aware that they didn’t already have the answers they needed. When we are flummoxed by life, it is always tempting to rush in to action, scattering any old ideas or initiatives around in the hope that doing something will be better than doing nothing. The sad fact is, though, that it rarely is. The ideas we already have up our sleeve aren’t usually the ones we need the most. If they were we would have already solved our dilemmas. It is the things we haven’t thought of that really help us when we are stumped. If we are serious about hearing God’s voice, we need to have the humility and the trust to be silent and to listen for it, to give him space to get a word in edgeways. These disciples were waiting, and into that waiting came something new that swept them out into a future they could never have imagined.

Their waiting wasn’t simply passive though. While they waited they were also praying. That means, almost certainly, that they were joining in with the regular liturgical prayers of the Jewish faith, rather than just praying their own prayers. They would have been reciting the Psalms, hearing the scriptures, pondering the stories of their faith, reflecting on them to help them see their own situations better. In this, they were following the pattern of Jesus. He wasn’t uncritical of his tradition – he challenged it and reinterpreted it and as a result it became richer and more powerful. But before he did that he had to know it for himself. His followers, as they waited, did the same, praying the ancient words which would help them keep their ears open to the new words God was saying to them now.  That’s why we still do the same thing today, why I stand here and go on about ancient Rome and first century Israel, in the hopes that as we reflect on these old stories we will see the challenges we face today more clearly.

They were waiting. They were praying. But the third thing they were doing – and perhaps the most important -  was that they were gathering. When the Spirit came upon them they were all together in one place, we are told, and this was obviously a regular thing. Their awareness of God was not some private mystical experience. It came as they gathered together; gathering was an intrinsic part of it, and I think it still is. People often say that they don’t think they need to come to church to be a Christian and in a sense they are right. Of course you can hold Christian beliefs and pray on your own – sometimes you may have to do so. But these early Christians would have thought it was an odd thing to do, and that you would have a poorer, weaker faith as a result, and I’m inclined to agree. For a start, when we don’t come together it is easy to miss out on the wisdom we have to share as we learn together, but there’s another reason why I think it matters that our faith is lived out in community, and not in splendid isolation.  Coming together with others forces us to get real with our faith. Christian communities aren’t, let’s be truthful, places where everyone is always good and kind and considerate and wise. They can also be places where we are challenged, irritated, bored, fed up, exhausted... And perhaps sometimes we will be the ones doing the challenging and the irritating too. That’s life, life as it really is. Whatever other opportunities a church community provides, my experience is that it always gives you lots of practice at forgiveness – both giving and receiving it. It teaches you what it means to love – not as a pious sentiment, but in the nitty gritty practice of being there for others who needs you, and letting them be there for you too. The Spirit of God which fell upon those early Christian communities wasn’t a distraction from all the challenges of getting on with others, but an integral part of that process, helping people learn to see each other for what they really were, the precious children of God, however wounded and fallible. It is in the struggle to love, not despite it, that the Spirit of God, the Spirit of love, comes to dwell with us.

“Come Holy Spirit” we often pray and sing at Pentecost. But what is it we think will happen as a result? How will the Spirit come to us? What will the Spirit do, what difference will it make? Depending on the way we answer that, we may find we get either less or more than we expect; less, if we are hoping for some sort of spiritual high, a mystical roller coaster ride in the heavenly places, but more, much more, if what we are seeking is to learn to love more deeply and let ourselves be loved more deeply too. Rushing wind and flames of fire are all very well, but it is love that endures when the wind dies down and the fire goes out, love which sustains us, love which brings the greatest and most important changes to the world.

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