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Readings: Pentecost

15 May 2015


Acts 2.1-21 or Ezekiel 37.1-14; Psalm 104.26-36, 37b (or 26 - end); Romans 8.22-27; John 15.26-27; 16.4b-15

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,
who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


PENTECOST was awaited impatiently as my sister, brother and I became conscious of the church's year, though not for exalted reasons. We loved hearing the exotic names of the national groups who had gathered in Jerusalem that day being annually mangled by the hapless parishioner whose turn it was to read the account in Acts 2.1-21. Now, I match the first century CE map against a modern atlas, and substitute for those names Syria, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Libya - places of warfare, displacement, torture, loss, grief, humiliation, refugee camps and economic ruin, where Christians of many nations and tribes have suffered in their tens of thousands.

In that sharpened light, it becomes clear that the struggle alluded to in all three of Sunday's readings, between the sufferings and uncertainties of their historical settings and the rich promise of the gift of the Spirit, has had to be taken seriously in every age that has read them since. They are always words for the present; and they offer no easy consolations.

The Spirit, Peter tells the noisy crowd in Jerusalem, will release the power of prophecy as one of their own prophets had foretold; but not before the frightening signs announcing Christ's return (Acts 2.17-18; Joel 2.28-32). In places where Ezekiel 37.1-14 is chosen as the first reading, the prophet is heard urging a people without hope to believe that, like dry bones returning to life, they will receive God's spirit, and flourish as a nation once again. Paul assures the Roman Christians that the Spirit will intercede for those who have put their faith in Christ and help them to pray; but they must face their weakness and the seeming insubstantiality of their hope (Romans 8.22-27). Jesus wants his followers to trust the Spirit who will be their advocate, but reminds them that the Spirit pleads on behalf of those who have first faced persecution by the world, before their accusers are themselves convicted (John 16.4b-11).


Then, as now, the option of renouncing Jesus, and returning to practices that assured identity with the majority, rather than living in conspicuous difference, must have been an ever-present possibility. The astonishing thing is that it was not widely chosen. Stephen, James the brother of John, Peter, and Paul (Acts 7.54-60; John 21.18-19; Acts 12.1-2; Acts 20.22-25) represent the many who faced torture and death. Their modern counterparts speak through people like the Iraqi Chaldean priest, who recently told a Radio 4 interviewer that,after kidnap and constant fear of execution, he was back in his church and determined to stay, though many had fled.  

Searching among all this testimony reveals one uniting feature: the hope of the resurrection as the guarantee that God always keeps promises. The Spirit comes, as Jesus assured the disciples it would. The Spirit stays, while we wait for the redemption that is God's unchanging will for the world.  In all of this, the world matters. It is not something to be suffered and endured but ultimately disregarded. On the contrary, it has central importance as the place where we keep on growing towards the unseen future for which we hope. It is the place where we learn to pray (Romans 8.26-27), and where we learn what it is like to live in God, by listening to the Spirit who is part of the constant, and constantly active and communicating, life of God (John 16. 12-15).

That realisation came upon Charles Wesley on the day of Pentecost in 1738. Three days later on 24 May, his brother John "went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street" and heard Luther's Preface to Romans. As the reader came to Luther's description of God's conversion of the heart through faith in Christ, Wesley felt his own heart "strangely warmed". A deep sense of salvation followed, and a longing to pray, even when joy was not always part of this. For Charles, the response to the power of God's love was invariably song. The final verse of "Spirit of faith, come down" makes a fitting addition to the prayers we make both for ourselves and for those keeping this feast in harsher conditions, and sometimes according to different calendars:


Inspire the living faith
(which whosoe'er receive,
the witness in themselves they have
and consciously believe),
the faith that conquers all,
and doth the mountain move,
and saves whoe'er on Jesus call,
and perfects them in love.


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