20 May 2018 – Pentecost – 8.00am – Holy Communion – Revd Sally Bedborough
For the past few weeks there has been much talk of weddings, music, food, and who will be at one particular party. We have reason to celebrate this happy occasion. All well and good when there is a reason for a party, but if circumstances are not so good, would we make our excuses and hunker down to avoid any celebrations? This is exactly the circumstances in which God decides to throw a party.
We see that clearly from our bible readings this morning.
In the passage from Ezekiel the prophet is taken, in a vision, to the scene of Israel’s most horrific memory: to the field where the rag-tag remains of its security forces made their last stand against the supremacy of the Babylonian military machine.
Historically we know that every single fighting man was slaughtered, while the noble families of Jerusalem were carted off into an exile that lasted nearly a hundred years. For the exiled community, for Ezekiel’s community, it seemed that the very end of the world had come. Everything they had ever believed in, all they had ever worked for, now lay buried with those skeletons in a land far away. But then, in the middle of their despair, in that land far away, the Spirit of God came to visit. “Mortal,’ she said, “can these bones live?”—can life and hope return to this exiled community?
If the day of Pentecost means anything, it means this. It is the day when the Spirit comes to interrupt and call into question the inevitability of our despair.
If we turn to the reading from Acts, when the Spirit came to the early church, things weren’t actually as calm and cheerfully hopeful as chapter 1 of Acts seems to suggest, you know. Most scholars agree that the sequence of events you find there—
Jesus’ promise of the Spirit before he ascends into heaven,
the peaceful and patient waiting in Jerusalem,
the choosing of a new apostle—was constructed well after the fact, and reflects an idealisation of the early community by Luke, whose own church community was experiencing a great deal of doubt and turmoil. Indeed, it is widely acknowledged that Luke crafted both the Ascension and Pentecost story in order to address the theological and pastoral problems of his church: namely, their experience of God’s absence during a time of mutual hostility between the richer and the poorer members of the community. The ascension story is told in order to assure the church that Jesus continues to be with us in the Spirit, even though he has gone in the body. And the Pentecost story is told to assure the community that even though things look bad—when there are divisions going on, and people seem unable even to speak a common language—the seeming inevitability of breakdown is actually far from inevitable.
When the Spirit comes, says Luke to his church, the factions are united under the call of God to a new mission and responsibility. Young and old, women and men, rich and poor, are joined together in a common vision; they are purged by fire and given a new breath to sustain them in a unified mission. “We are the body of Christ; his Spirit is with us” says the liturgy. And that is exactly what Luke was trying to tell his fractured community.
In our gospel reading, Jesus promises the Spirit of Truth. There is much talk of truth in the gospels and Jesus is the man of truth. He claims to be the Way, the Truth and the Life. Here, in our gospel reading he paves the way for his departure from this earth, but he promises that truth will remain through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Now, for more recent years we have seen a shift in perceptions of truth. We entered a period now known as the Postmodern period and one distinction of this time is that a universal truth isn’t recognised. Instead of an attitude that seeks one common truth, there prevails an attitude that tolerates and accepts whatever is true for each individual. This may sound generous and gracious, and it can be; however, there are times when the truth of one individual or group conflicts with the truth of another individual or group.
In this past week I’ve attended a large gathering of Chaplains. It is the time of our annual conference when this year, some 63 people gathered in Derbyshire for a three day meeting. We were from different denominations, different faiths, some were more spiritual than religious. We had four main speakers two of whom were psychologists. One speaker in particular used language that rubbed some people up the wrong way. He talked about our shadow side (the things we’re not proud of in our characters or actions) and he encouraged us to explore our shadow and from there to find some awareness of how we relate to ourselves and to others. Following his talk, in conversation with one Christian person, it emerged that she didn’t agree. The speaker had also talked about the barriers we put up to exploration of our shadow side. He named potential barriers to our exploration of this shadow side in Christ’s teaching as being the call to perfectionism, and the call to division.
He emphasised that these weren’t necessarily what Jesus meant in his teaching about being perfect even as your father is perfect; nor what he meant by the seemingly divisive message of belief in Jesus being the only way to be right with God….but he noticed that the church sometimes uses these two shadows in ways that make it hard to explore our own shadows…Christ’s teaching is boiled down and reduced to a minimum formula: we would rather accept the forgiveness of God in Christ and then act in ways that may appear to be superior; or divisive.
So the person I was discussing these things with, initially had a problem with those insights and was unhappy. But in talking these issues over, we came eventually to the conclusion that he – the speaker, and she – the conservative Christian, were possibly saying the same thing, but they were using different language.
Where he spoke of a shadow side, she spoke of sin
Where he spoke of exploration, she spoke of repentance
Where he spoke of befriending our shadow, she spoke of forgiveness.
Sometimes words can trip us up and yet if we burrow through their meanings, we may find ourselves on the same wavelength after all.
However, some truth is not so easily brought together with other truth. Take for instance the truth that separates one group from another; that even encourages the destruction of the other.
Our times are difficult enough in terms of religious and spiritual understanding, but a reliance on the Spirit of Truth can lead us to make peace with those who seemingly have a different point of view. We may need to pierce the misunderstandings and different uses of words and phrases. We might even need to adopt a different language ourselves as we speak of the truths of the gospel. May the Holy Spirit lead us and teach us to hear and to speak in ways of peace, love and acceptance….always with the understanding that some truth is not able to be included in an accepting approach. We cannot assimilate evil; it must be named.
This day of Pentecost, when we recall the despair of those cultures written about in the books of Ezekiel and of Acts, may we turn with hope to this gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth to lead us and to guide us. We bring to this day the despair we may feel as we sit here this morning: where there is a lack of hope for our own culture as it faces tough issues about the place of religion in the marketplace and as it seeks to hold together the differing approaches to truth. And as we consider whatever is our own personal despair over the issues going on in our lives today. May the day of Pentecost bring us renewed hope.
We conclude with the words of the Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
the Courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.