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Pentecost (Whit Sunday)

16 May 2024

Acts 2.1-21; Psalm 104.26-36; Romans 8.22-27; John 15.26-27, 16.4b-15

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JOHN 16.4-15 is a harder Pentecost Gospel, I think, than those set by the lectionary for years A and C (A, John 20.19-23; C, John 14.8-17). It is a moment of anxiety, sorrow. The disciples are (as we sometimes are) terrified of the unknown, and — understandably — are reluctant to let Jesus go. He exposes the negative thoughts underpinning their silence: “None of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’” (v.5).

They probably respect him too much to argue with him. But he perceives the thinking that they dare not speak. What he offers them they do not understand and, therefore, do not want. Plainly, they would rather not let him go.

This air of reluctance compounds my annual difficulty: I find it hard to put my thoughts on Pentecost into words (oh, the irony!). But another preacher is available to help — not that he can take my place in the pulpit: he has been dead for almost 400 years. In the centuries that lie between us, preaching fashions have changed. In place of his two-hour-long addresses, I usually have 12 minutes. But his sermons contain a depth of detail that is imaginative and intuitive rather than a boring compilation of facts and cross-references; so I make the most of them. I hope he would approve.

On Whit Sunday, 12 May 1611, Lancelot Andrewes preached before the King at Windsor. The start of his Pentecost sermon captures the festival with perfect simplicity: this is the day when the “promise of the sending” turns into the “sending of the promise”.

Andrewes spends his entire sermon on v.7, interpreting the exchange that Jesus insists on in this sentence. Something that is familiar (our Lord in his earthly being) must give way to something that is unfamiliar (the indwelling Spirit). Andrewes knows that trying to keep things as they are does not prevent change. Earthly existence is nothing but change. It is fear rather than love which drives their sorrow. Jam tomorrow (the Holy Spirit) is an insufficient inducement for giving up jam today (Jesus).

Jesus persuades the disciples that it is better for them that he go away, so that the Paraclete can come. Yet, this is not a matter in which he could have been dissuaded from fulfilling the divine plan. We have all been in situations in which we need to convince someone that initial pain will give way to something better. It can be a hard sell, especially to those who — like children — live perpetually in the present than calculating rationally. Andrewes imagines the disciples’ response: “The Comforter will not come? Be it so; let Him not come. We desire no other Comforter [than you, Jesus]”. Then he suggests another step in their attempts at persuasion:
“Why may not Christ send for Him, as well as send Him? Or, if He go, come againe with Him? . . . Are they like two buckets; one cannot go downe, unlesse the other go up?”

Christ’s work was truly finished on the cross, as he himself confirmed (John 19.30). But salvation is the Holy Trinity’s business, not Christ’s alone. Andrewes uses another striking image, this time a will, to make his point. Christ is the Word, the written substance of the document. But the Spirit is the seal. Paul confirms this, referring to “the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4.30).

Trust is at stake here, as much as obedience. Jesus is making his disciples a promise. Every promise calls on the faith of those to whom it is made: do they trust the one doing the promising? If someone owes me money and promises to leave now, fetch it, and return to pay me, how confident am I that I will see her, and my money, again?

If the disciples had held on to the Jesus that they knew, rejecting the Spirit that they had yet to recognise, would Jesus persist on earth like a creature out of time? That must not — could not — be. They did trust, and accept, what they could not yet understand, so that we, their successors, would understand, and so find our eternal Advocate.

Never again, from the moment of that first Pentecost, will Christians be without their Lord. True, he is not before our eyes. But only because (Andrewes again) he is now in our hearts.

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