Readings: Pentecost

30 May 2014

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Pentecost,  Whit Sunday

Numbers 11.24-30; Acts 2.1-21; 1 Corinthians 12.3b-1; John 20.19-23

God, who as at this time taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgement in all things and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through the merits of Christ Jesus our Saviour. Amen.

ARCHBISHOP Michael Ramsey once wrote: "The power of the Holy Spirit is mighty, but intimate and personal too. The effects of God's actions are seen in human behaviour: the actions themselves, in minds, hearts and consciences, are describable in symbols alone. . . What does fire tell us about the Holy Spirit? . . .

"The Holy Spirit keeps the light of Jesus glowing within us: that is how we may see as Christians should see. Fire also gives warmth; so the warmth and love of God can warm your heart to love him in response. . .

"Light, warmth, and burning too: the Holy Spirit will burn us. If we are to have vision and warmth of love, we must be exposed to the pain of burning . . . only by such burning can our hearts be exposed fully to his warmth, and our minds be exposed fully to his light. There is no seeing and no warming without burning" (Canterbury Pilgrim, SPCK, 1974).

In the concealment of a locked room in an unnamed house, Jesus appeared to his frightened disciples, repeated words of peace, and gently breathed on them, imparting the Holy Spirit. Little did they guess how that would work in practice, how they would be burned. At Pentecost, one minute they were praying together; the next, a violent wind and divided tongues as of fire disrupted things. They spoke in other languages.

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A bewildered crowd gathered, all talking at once. "Amazed and perplexed" is an understatement. I was once present when a friend spoke in tongues, and someone from another continent, recognising a rare tribal dialect spoken fluently, confirmed the translation given. Everyone was astounded that this happened to people we knew.

So, one message of Pentecost is that God does extraordinary things with and through ordinary people. The cast list in his story is very unexpected.

Put ourselves in the shoes of the people in the biblical stories, and we would be very surprised at ourselves. Moses was in the desert with a disgruntled crowd of people and God sending fire to destroy parts of their camp (Numbers 11.1) when Eldad and Medad, whoever they were, experienced the Spirit's resting on them.

They kept on prophesying, even though they were not in the group Moses had registered as elders, and, having been taken to the tent of meeting, prophesied but once. Paul's motley Corinthian readers received varieties of spiritual gifts of the Spirit and experience within the one body.

It is not just humans who respond to the vivifying power of the Spirit: creation joins in, too. The psalm appointed for Pentecost (104.26-37) describes physical creation's trembling and smoking at God's presence - an allusion that Peter picked up in his impromptu sermon. We cannot be so presumptuous as to assume that only humans respond to God's presence.

The Durham Cathedral confirmation group relished their exploration of the biblical story, and their growing understanding of its revelation of the First and Second Persons of the Trinity. Comprehending the Holy Spirit was harder, until we talked about how we see the signs of the Spirit bringing life in people, the Church, creation, and the world. Then, at dawn on Easter Day, we prayed that the Holy Spirit would rest on them with wisdom, counsel, knowledge, and true godliness, and it is happening already, differently for each.

As a child, I remember the dawning realisation that not all recordings of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto were the same. It seems obvious now. I discovered that musicians interpreted what the composer wrote. Similarly, this extraordinary cross-section of people whom we encounter at Pentecost played the music of their lives to God's glory as, in Archbishop Ramsey's words, the fire of God burned them.

In "As kingfishers catch fire" Gerard Manley Hopkins brilliantly described what happens when humans catch fire for God, and they make their music to God's glory, revealing Christ in their lives.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is -
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

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