Sermon preached on the Day Of Pentecost (8 June 2014) by the very Reverend David Ison, Dean
Are you a tidy person? Do you like the world to be ordered and in its place? If I unexpectedly came round to where you live, would you be happy to show me straight in, or would you first have to kick the dirty washing under the sofa and close the kitchen door on the pile of plates in the sink?
As people we’re infinitely variable. But there is that part of us, which is stronger in some people than others, which wants to control our world by putting it into boxes, locking things away, putting things in their place. We can feel threatened by things which feel out of place, strange or new, or which cross what we think should be firm boundaries.
If that’s a strong part of your life, especially in church, then you may feel that Pentecost Sunday today isn’t really your thing. Today we celebrate the birthday of the Church, which begins with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit of God on the disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago.
This was an event involving fire, wind, speaking many languages all at once, accusations of drunkenness, and thousands of people unexpectedly becoming followers of the dead and resurrected Jesus. It was messy and unpredictable – the kind of thing which we don’t really imagine happening in the kind of church we experience in this Matins service.
Take a look at this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, the history of the emerging church. There is Peter preaching a sermon to a group of non-Jews for the first time, crossing boundaries in a way he hadn’t imagined possible. He tells them about Jesus who was filled with the Holy Spirit and power; and as he speaks, the Holy Spirit fills his hearers too. And he and those with him were astounded, that God could be so untidy, that the Holy Spirit could be as ‘out of the box’ as that.
Unlike the Holy Spirit, the gospel writers were more tidily inclined. There are various accounts of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, with the implication that he might just turn up any time; but in Luke’s gospel there’s a rough time window of 40 days followed by the Ascension, which means a definite end to meeting Jesus in person here on earth.
And John's gospel has Jesus speaking of going away, back to Father in heaven, and sending another Comforter the Holy Spirit. But although these perspectives sound a bit like tidying up, they are revolutionary, because the Holy Spirit comes with power, and unexpectedly, to start the church and to keep it growing.
Peter tells his hearers that Jesus was anointed by, empowered by, the Holy Spirit. And so we as the Church are empowered by the Spirit to be alive, to be unexpected, to be an ongoing presence of and witness to Jesus in the world. The Holy Spirit is on the side of the lively and untidy.
Jesus talks about the coming of the Spirit as the Paraclete, sometimes translated as Advocate or Comforter. But this doesn’t mean that God comes to us as a Comfortable Spirit to make us feel warm and cosy. The Greek word paraklete means ‘one who stands alongside’. It’s a word taken from the law courts: the advocate stands alongside the accused and supports their case.
A few days ago the Church commemorated Archbishop Janani Luwum of Uganda, who was killed by the regime of Idi Amin in 1977 because he stood up against dictatorship as a Christian leader. I well remember the shock and sadness of staff at my theological college on the day he died, where he had studied some years before. His statue is one of the 20th Century Martyrs at the west front of Westminster Abbey. Janani Luwum was killed as a representative of the Holy Spirit, the advocate, who speaks up against injustice and evil.
And so should we be advocates for all God’s people, empowered by the Holy Spirit, ready to face death for the truth.
Jesus in John's gospel explicitly says that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth. There is no time limit to this; there is nothing in Scripture to suggest that God has stopped working in power in the world, to upset the world's unjust and oppressive way of doing things, including when those ways get taken into the Church.
Some Christians are tidy-minded and don’t want God to be unpredictable, even going as far as denying that the Holy Spirit is still at work in bringing us to confront the uncomfortable truth.
But Jesus is still at work in world, through the Holy Spirit and faith: Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit for ministry, and so are all of us who follow Jesus and give ourselves and our lives to him. His Spirit is our Spirit, his life is our life, and our lives are therefore open to the unpredictable and untidy world of the Holy Spirit.
Janani Luwum is remembered because he died standing up against unjust power, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the advocate. And what of Uganda now? And what of us? Are we open to the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, to cross the tidy lines, to challenge the prejudices of ourselves and others, to give our lives for our faith standing as advocates alongside others?
Come Holy Spirit, we pray. Let us be ready for untidiness, uncomfortable advocacy, the living presence of Jesus in his Spirit, and the call to follow the living Christ through death into eternal life.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, who gave to your servant Janani Luwum and his Companions boldness in the Holy Spirit to confess the Name of our Saviour Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, and courage to die for this faith:
Grant that we may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the power of your Holy Spirit; and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.