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Pentecost, Yr B, St Mark's, 18.5.97, 11.6.2000 (Old Church, Smethwick,
Acts 2.1-21 (Pentecost)
Romans 8.22-27: Whole creation groans; Spirit helps us
John 15.26-27; 16.4b-15: Advocate, Spirit of truth: reveal mine to you (1379-45=1334)
Summary: Luke, the Missioner, shifts the giving of the Spirit from Easter to Pentecost.
Today, on the Feast of Pentecost, we are thanking God for his gift of the Holy Spirit.
When one reads the New Testament, the impression that one gets is that the Holy Spirit is to be found in the Church, in the Christian fellowship, and this is true as far as it goes, for it is the life of the Spirit that sets the Christian community apart from the society around it.
Furthermore, it is quite possible to read the New Testament in such a way as to convince oneself that we in the Church have got it made, so to speak. In more triumphalist times, it has been as if we were right and everyone else was wrong. If the Spirit of truth leads us into all truth, then it is possible to develop the outlook that thinks that we have a corner on the market. This is the kind of outlook that lay behind the Spanish Inquisition, not to mention periods of persecution, torture and burning at the stake much nearer to home.
It was to combat the tendency toward this blinkered outlook that theologians in the 20th century began to emphasize another model of the Holy Spirit, namely as God working his way in the whole world, and not just in the Church.
This is fully consonant with St Paul's vision of the final consummation of the whole of creation and mankind as we heard it in part in this morning's reading from the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans. It is Paul's vision that when we have been fully conformed to the image of God in Christ, then all mankind and the entire creation shall know God's shalom, his peace and good order. Clearly for St Paul the Spirit is not imparted in order that we Christians may be simply a happy little enclave.
And now we live in an avowedly pluralistic society in which we regularly rub shoulders with Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists, not to mention our other fellow children of Abraham, the Jews. If the 20th century saw the rise of the Ecumenical Movement toward Christian unity, then in this 21st century we are going to need a similar movement toward deeper understanding of, and cooperation with, those of other faiths.
For if the Spirit is to lead us into all truth, then we must begin by admitting that we do not know the whole truth and we do not have a monopoly on the truth. We need to abjure the outlook that says, "My mind is made up. Do not confuse me with the facts."
It is with this in mind that on this Feast of Pentecost I would like to help you to see why St Luke has chosen to place the giving of the Holy Spirit at this feast rather than at Easter Day as indicated by St Paul and St John.
In order to understand why Luke has done this, we first need to look at some aspects of the feast. The Jewish Feast of Pentecost celebrated the giving of Torah, the Law, on Mount Sinai, and according to Jewish tradition when God gave Torah his voice was heard in every land, but only Israel responded. So today, in Luke's account, representatives of every land hear the good news, each in his own language. At the season of Pentecost was read the story of Abraham leaving the security of his country, his relatives and his friends, and setting out for an unknown promised land with "all the souls he had begotten". So in Jewish tradition, Abraham himself was taken to be a proselyte, that is, a convert, and "all the souls he had begotten" were taken to be converts he had made. At the feast itself the book of Ruth was read, which tells of David's descent being from a Moabite, that is, a gentile. For these and other reasons Luke chose to place the empowering with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost rather than at Easter because he wanted, among other things to emphasize that the Spirit is a Spirit of mission, a Spirit which sends the Church out into the world to all people to spread and share the good news of what God has done in and through Jesus of Nazareth, that is, to be witnesses to the ends of the earth.
Today let us look at two more aspects of Luke's writing. When Jesus first comes to the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth and reads from Isaiah the passage about being sent to proclaim good news to the poor, not only does he read just one and one-half verses, carefully omitting "and the day of vengeance of our God", but he then rolls up the scroll so that, in effect, no one else can complete the passage.
Luke builds on this in the way that he uses the phrase "signs and wonders". You can find this phrase almost 40 times in what we call the Old Testament, and invariably it means God's punishing judgement against the enemies of the Israelites, most often the Egyptians. But Luke turns the phrase upside down, for throughout the book of Acts it is used to refer to God's mercy and grace for all people.
And the way Luke tells the story of expansion of the gospel might almost be summed up as "Nothing can stop the Holy Spirit, not even the church".
For example, take the story of when the apostles call for seven people, including Stephen and Philip, to handle the problems of food distribution in Jerusalem, that is, in effect, to be table waiters. The apostles say, "Choose seven good men whom we may appoint to this task. We for our part will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word" (Acts 6.3-4). But it is as though the Holy Spirit said, "I've got news for you guys", for it is these seven, not the apostles, who are then presented as the ones who preach the gospel beyond the confines of Jerusalem, starting with Stephen's speech and his martyrdom.
There is a very well-known split infinitive, courtesy of Gene Roddenberry, the original creator of the Star Trek television series, in which the continuing mission of the Starship Enterprise is "to boldly go where no one has gone before". Well, much as I personally try to avoid splitting infinitives, I won't do so this time, for the message that I want to share with you today is that the Holy Spirit enables us "to boldly go where no one has gone before".
We are empowered to go out with confidence to meet all our neighbours of whatever faith community they may be. We are free to share and rejoice without anxiety in the spiritual riches that we have known and that they have known.
So today, as we gather for the Eucharist, we celebrate and give thanks for the gift of the Holy Spirit, knowing that we have been empowered by God in our baptism, an empowering that we renew every time we receive Holy Communion. We have been empowered to go out, to go out in a strength not our own, to go out without fear, to go out in the power of the Spirit to share the good news that we know of God's unbreakable love in Christ that enables us to call God "Abba, Father". Not only are we freed and empowered to share this with all our neighbours, but we can equally share their stories of faith and grace that may lead us to a wider vision of God and his goals for all humanity.
If Abraham in faith and obedience to God's call could leave behind all the security of kith, kin and country, then we, in the faith of Christ, the seed of Abraham, can do likewise. Held by the Holy Spirit of God's self-giving love in Christ, we need have no fear for the adventure that lies before us. Let us boldly go where no one has gone before.