Sermon preached on the Day of Pentecost (4 June 2017) by The Reverend Rosemary Morton, Minor Canon and Succentor

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Sermon preached on the Day of Pentecost (4 June 2017) by The Reverend Rosemary Morton, Minor Canon and Succentor

On the day of Pentecost The Reverend Rosemary Morton looks at the power of the Holy Spirit and says "the purpose of the Holy Spirit is not merely to make us feel better but to shake us up and urge us to action. The arrival of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost is not subtle or fragile or polite, but forceful like the rush of a violent wind."


The festival of Pentecost calls us to hear again that well-known passage telling us of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the apostles. 

This pouring out of the Holy Spirit is both the sign and the instrument of the launch of the Church’s mission to speak the gospel message throughout the world.

The life of the early Church seems to have been fairly fluid and entirely dependent on the leading of the Holy Spirit, although this does lead to tensions within the communities, a tension between freedom in the Spirit and structure and order that the Church still holds.

The apostle Paul addresses many of these tensions in his writings to these new communities, and indeed he goes on to develop an elaborate theology of the Holy Spirit as one who helps us in our weakness, sends spiritual gifts to equip the Church for ministry, reshapes the believing community, and empowers gifts such as speaking in tongues and interpreting the meaning of such speech, or speaking prophecy, and Paul’s theology of the Holy Spirit continues to inform much of the Church’s thinking on Baptism and Confirmation and the gifts of the Spirit. But all of this comes much later than the day of Pentecost.

Throughout the bible, the Holy Spirit is referred to in a variety of ways. In the Old Testament we hear much of the Spirit of ‘wisdom and understanding’, of ‘counsel and might’, of ‘knowledge and fear of the Lord’. But our passage from Acts gives us a particular snapshot image. The Holy Spirit is poured out by God to empower the Church to advance Christ’smission to the ends of the earth. The Holy Spirit enables the disciples to preach God’s word, and to be understood even in languages they do not know.

One of the problems with the British education system is our disinclination to teach and learn foreign languages. Partly, I suspect, this is because English is so widely spoken across the world. But also we leave it far too late, usually not introducing compulsory languages until the age of eleven, and the older we get, the harder it is to learn a new language.

Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire, but most Roman daily affairs were conducted in Greek. Hebrew was the official religious language of the Jewish faith, but many Jews in Israel would have spoken Aramaic. Jerusalem at that time was a key cultural centre in the world, much like London is today, and multiple languages would have been spoken there. Being surrounded by people speaking a variety of languages, despite my inability speak any myself, is one of the many things I love about living in London. But as Galileans, the apostles would have been unlikely to speak any languages other than their native one.

The power of the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples empowers them to become witnesses to Jesus. The ‘tongues’ in which they speak are not those of ecstatic prophecy but are those of clear and meaningful communication. The gathered crowd were able to hear the apostles speaking in their own native language, rather than in a second or third common language, and it is probable that this is what caught the attention of the people in the crowd.

Throughout the rest of the book of Acts, and the remainder of the New Testament writings, we hear that the apostles engage in proclamation and mission that goes out to people of all nations, that accommodates different cultural practices. Rather than demanding that converts come to them, they bring the good news of Jesus to meet everyone where they are. One of the key questions for the Church in this day and age is how do we proclaim the gospel message in ways that are understood and meaningful?

We once again celebrate Pentecost in the shadow of events that highlight the ugly and angry fears and divisions and hatred of our world. Day by day the litany of place names grows. A quick browse of the headlines tells us of Manila, Kabul, Manchester, Mosul and of course London Bridge.

The violence of last night, and in all these other places, demonstrates the absolute worst of our humanity. And yet, still there is hope - as people offered places of safety and went out of their way to help people get home, we saw the best in others, because we know that fear and mistrust and hatred won’t make it better. 

If nothing else, the Holy Spirit should give us hope that in the end truth and justice and love will overcome even the worst that humanity can do. The men from Galilee received the Holy Spirit and found and voice and power they never knew could be theirs, and it changed the world.

The Holy Spirit is as much an agitator as an advocate, as much provocateur as comforter. Through the Spirit we are comforted and encouraged, but also strengthened, prompted and provoked to action. In a world where we witness the growing gap between rich and poor, increasing poverty, spread of preventable disease, growing divisions between and within nations, and growing intolerance of the opinions and ideas of others, it can be tempting to wonder whether the Holy Spirit is truly at work. But it is, and it is at work in the Church and in our lives. The purpose of the Holy Spirit is not merely to make us feel better but to shake us up and urge us to action. The arrival of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost is not subtle or fragile or polite, but forceful like the rush of a violent wind. 

Even so, our hearts and minds must be open to the prompting of the Spirit - God is speaking. So, come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people, and kindle in us the fire of your love.