Saturday, 18 June 2011

Pentecost - a new reality


Acts 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

John 20:19-23
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

When I was very little, and I mean five or six, I can clearly remember asking my parents where I came from. Maybe it was because they were well practised at fielding this one, having had to deal with two older sisters asking the same question, but I clearly remember Mum telling me, quick as a flash, that they found me under a gooseberry bush!

Now that’s not the kind of biological answer one might expect, but at five or six years old that was all I needed. I had come from somewhere and been given to them so that they would take care of me. Of course when I was a little older I asked the same question again and was this time told in more detail what actually had to happen in order for there to be a ‘me’.

Two different stories but actually conveying the same truth, that I was a gift. In the first instance they found me where I had been left for them; in the second they had a share in God’s work of creation, but either way, I was still a gift. The central truth was I was given into their care, and that was the same regardless of the mechanics or the philosophy of how I came to be.

And when we look at the two accounts of the gift of the Holy Spirit we find once again that there are two stories. The reading from the Gospel of John is, I think, the philosophical one, the gooseberry bush version, that the Holy Spirit was given as a gift, breathed out from the lips of the Son of God, whereas in the Acts reading we are told the mechanics, if you like the biological equivalent of how it happened that the Holy Spirit filled the apostles.

John tells us the philosophy, that the Holy Spirit is a gift from Jesus. Acts tells us how it happened, but the central truth remains the same: the Holy Spirit is a gift from the Father through the Son into the depths of our being. But why? Why do we need the Holy Spirit?

Turn your minds back to John’s Gospel, and this comes from John 16:5-7
Jesus said, ‘But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate [or Helper] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.’

The disciples had begun to realise that Jesus was going to die and return to his heavenly Father. They had grown so much in the three years they had spent with him that the thought of him leaving them was tearing them apart. How on earth would they continue to grow and learn and become better disciples if he wasn’t there to teach them?

And so he explained that it was better this way because if he went then he could send the Holy Spirit who would actually live inside them and direct them from within. In many ways this is a much more adult way of God treating them. When the Son was alongside them they could not avoid his voice, but when the Holy Spirit is dwelling within us, we actually have to learn to listen.

So the reason we need the Holy Spirit within us is because the Spirit is our connection with the Father. When we pray, our prayers are not just going out into the spiritual ether, they are being heard by the Spirit of God dwelling deep within us, and I think that this is the spiritual truth I most want to convey.

You see when we get to Pentecost each year what we find is that people get hung up on the practical story of how the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost. We get worried about the tongues of flame, the sound of a mighty roaring wind and we especially get hung up on the gift of tongues. And we do all this for what reason? Are we scared? Is it the lack of control that our inherent Britishness rails against? Or is it because we don’t believe it?

Or is it because we have seen on TV or maybe experienced services for ourselves where people have indeed seemed drunk on God and we either dismiss it as emotionalism or fear it because we don’t want to be changed like that? Dealing with the first one, yes it is possible for ministers to whip their churches into a frenzy, but don’t dismiss the giving of the Holy Spirit because of that.

Of the people I know who speak in tongues, whilst there may be occasion when using that gift will bring about ecstatic feelings, for the most part it is a prayer tool that they switch on or off at will. They are in complete control of when they speak in tongues, and to be honest they are quite ordinary Christians. They don’t glow like a ready-brek advert.

So don’t get hung up on the mechanics. Hang on instead to the ‘found-under-a-gooseberry-bush’ philosophy that the Holy Spirit was given to you all that you would be able to worship God from the depths of your being and find the presence of God in prayer. You see St. Paul makes it quite clear that no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.

It is the Holy Spirit who reveals that truth to you. It is then up to you how much more space you want to provide within yourself for the Spirit’s work to grow and develop. God respects your privacy and right of self-determination. If you want no more than for the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus as Lord, then the Father won’t push you. But if you wish to go deeper then let me reassure you that the infinite resources of God are already dwelling within you.

Elsewhere (1 Cor.6:19) St. Paul also makes the point that every one of us is a Temple to the Holy Spirit. By that he is referring back to the Old Testament reality that God descended on to the Temple built for him and resided in its inner court; the Holy of Holies. But later on in the Old Testament the divine presence left the Temple in judgement on it.

But now there is a new reality. That very same divine presence has descended and is now residing within you. You are all small temples housing the Holy Spirit, the divine presence, sitting deep within you creating a new space that is the Holy of Holies. That means that wherever you go in the world, God’s temple is in that place.

However, that brings with it responsibilities. The temple was a place of worship, and sacrifice and of meeting with God. It was also a place of teaching, where the Rabbis would sit in the Temple courts and explain the truths of God to the people. All of that is still true. You are a place of worship, of sacrifice, of meeting with God and learning about God. You are a temple, and you have a responsibility for what takes place within you.

So don’t get hung up on the mechanics of the presence of God within you, simply accept it. You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t been brought by the Holy Spirit. Now recognise you are a temple to the living God, and start exploring the temple courts and the Holy of Holies, and be excited by what you find there, because it is nothing less than the presence of the living God. Amen

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