Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/c4Fioe56r3g.
Pentecost Sunday 24th May 2015
John 15:26-27, 16: 4b-15
Well here we are on Pentecost Sunday. Do you know that this Sunday marks the end of the Season of Easter, when we celebrate the great event of the resurrection and begin what is called the Ordinary of the rest of the year. Now it might seem terrible to call the rest of the year “Ordinary” as if we have finished with the “special” times but actually it doesn’t mean that it means that we are now into the “Organised” part of the year. There is another way of looking at it however, and that is that when we start the church year at advent we begin by anticipating the first coming and the second coming of Jesus, then we celebrate the Incarnation, the Epiphany, Lent, The Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension, all as a prelude to the real life of the church, our real business, which begins now, with Pentecost. The rest is the history, if you like, this is the real time action.
We have some very strange views on the Holy Spirit in our society today, and in our church. We tend to think of the Holy Spirit as the least important member of the Trinity, the one we don’t need to bother about, a sort of add on, “but wait, there’s more,” set of steak knives that we get when we take the Lord Jesus Christ. We think that the Holy Spirit might give us a fuller Christian life, we think we might have a second baptism of the Holy Spirit or an extra filling of the Holy Spirit as though we are doing fine without him but we might as well get everything we signed up for. This view seems to be supported by our church services, in contrast to the services we might experience at other more Pentecostal churches, and we might think this is true every time we say the creed and find the Holy Spirit tacked onto the end of it.
Let me say that I think this is a particularly post-enlightenment view of things. We have developed a kind of scientific understanding of life in which breath, the air that we breathe has become somehow divorced from life and so the Spirit, the breath of life, has become separated for the first time in history from the Holy Spirit. When the words were first said, when the words were first sung, when they were first written down, there was no such thing as a respirator, or an iron lung to get between the idea of life and breath- you either had breath and life with it, or you didn’t. The Ruach, God’s breath, God’s wind, God’s spirit that dances over the waters in creation and that God breathed into Adam in creation, is the same breath that animates all living beings in the Jewish world view. This can be plainly seen in the Psalm. Look at verse 29 and 30, “when you hide your face they are dismayed, when you take away their breath (ruach), they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit (ruach), they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” God’s spirit animates or disanimates, God breathes and we live, we breathe God’s breath.
Or what about Ezekiel’s amazing picture of the valley of dry bones? Just to put this in context the Israelites had gone into exile in Babylon and God is promising here, in this prophetic vision that he will reanimate the nation, and not just the people, but the place as well. In Jewish thought the bones represented the deepest place of being, and we still say it don’t we, “I feel it in my bones”. This is a communal word of prophecy- these are the bones of the whole people that are being animated here together by the breath of God. The prophet prophesies and the bones grow sinews and flesh and skin and then the breath of God, here the Ruach comes from the four winds of God and reanimates God’s community to be God’s people. God the wind, the breath the life, brings life into the very dead community of the exiled Israelites. And lucky God did really because out of that rejuvenated community sprang the shoot from the stump that was Jesse. Jesus Christ, at once the new Davidic human and the Holy Spirit given a body and made man.
Now in a sense that story of the dry bones is not so very different from the story of Pentecost, is it? Because on that day at the Feast of Tabernacles, recorded for us in the Acts of the Apostles there were people blown there from the four corners of the earth, and the wind or Spirit of God came down, this time like tongues of fire and animated the disciples so that they could speak to each in his or her own language. And here we have another connection with the breath of God. Language, spoken or sung, is borne on the breath. We can have no voice without the ruach, or in Greek pneuma, breath or Spirit- this gives us our word pneumonia and we all know what happens to our voice when we have no breath.
So here they are, together in a community and just as Jesus has promised the Holy Spirit is poured out on them in a particular way for that moment so that they can be made into a community, so that the vine, that he has been talking about, can get established and grow. This Holy Spirit, this breath of life, is absolutely essential to them as the new community formed as the branches of the vine, reaching out into the four corners of the world. Jesus is also the water of life in the same essential relationship. Both this outpouring at the beginning of the church and the continued, filling of the lives of each of us, is essential to our life together as a church, as a community. We do not have the Holy Spirit as a particular gift for ourselves as individuals. We have particular gifts as individuals for the community of believers.
And as a church everything we do is enabled and enlivened by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the breath with which we sing our hymns, the voice that we use to pray, the words and guestures by which we consecrate the eucharist and indeed the power by which the bread and wine is changed for us into spiritual food and drink. It is through the Holy Spirit that we greet each with peace, and through the Holy Spirit that we talk over a cup of coffee. It is in the Holy Spirit that we live and breathe and have our being as a community of believers.
Jesus promises that it is through the Holy Spirit or paraclete, the word we have translated in John’s gospel as “advocate” that we will understand sin and righteousness and judgement. Now it is really important to understand that in John’s gospel when he talks about sin and righteousness and judgement he is not talking about morals. Sin for John, and indeed often in the OT, is refusing to be in relationship with God, sin is refusing to breathe the same breath with God. What Jesus is promising is that the one who is the paraclete, the one, literally, “called alongside you”, will help you to tell the world about relationship with God. And we have been learning for weeks and weeks what relationship with God looks like, haven’t we? Relationship with God is being loved by God and loving in return, and then, loving others in the same way. So here in John and over at that great outpouring in Acts, where Peter quotes the prophet Joel, we are called to be prophetic voices, speaking with the breath of the Spirit about God’s love and God’s call for all people to be in relationship with God. We, all of us, sons and daughters, young and old are to prophetically call the world into a loving relationship with God and with each other.
This might have many different ways of being expressed. Some of us might be working at this one smile at a time, in the queue at the supermarket. Some of us might have a particular ministry talking to the people that God sends us day by day, or some of us might seek them out, perhaps hospital visiting or in some other caring role. Some of us might exercise a prophetic ministry as we sit behind a desk doing essential work for the government, or writing something that people will read. Some of us might exercise this as we prepare our children for school or when we stand in the line for the bus. Some of us might do it as we help others formally or informally in their relationships. Some of us might exercise more obviously prophetic roles as we speak out publically about matters of social justice but however we do it, we are connected into the vine that is our God and the branches that is the world wide church, our brothers and sisters, united by the life giving Holy Spirit that fills us, and animates us and allows us to sing the song of creation.
“May the glory of the Lord endure forever! May the Lord rejoice in his works!”