Sermon: Pentecost Pictures
From Wellington Cathedral of St Paul
31 May 2009: am
- Psalm 104:25-32
- Acts 2:1-21
- Romans 8:22-27
- John 15:26,27; 16:4b-15
As we celebrate the feast of Pentecost today, what picture of Pentecost speaks most to your heart and mind? The Bible readings we have heard this morning are jam packed full of wonderful images describing God's Holy Spirit. Some of them may be very familiar to you, others perhaps you might like to take away and unpack in your reflection this week. You might like to come back to a picture or passage that grabs your attention today and chew on it, ask God to speak new life into it as you read and pray. For that after all is the job of the Holy Spirit, to speak God's words of truth into our lives and hearts in a way that helps us to live out our faith, and become more Christ-like in our character and lifestyle.
Luke's account of that first day of Pentecost in the 2nd chapter of Acts is worth coming back to, to let that experience of the coming of the Spirit to the disciples in power and newness and awesomeness wash over us afresh. The danger I find in hearing that reading is I get fascinated by hearing the reader grapple with all those names of the countries present on the day of Pentecost, and I get so caught up in supporting their sterling reading effort, that I lose the sense of awe and strangeness and newness of the Pentecost event. (I do by the way have a chocolate fish award for the reader of Acts 2 which I think is the most demanding reading of the year!)
But it is too a demanding reading for us all, as we are forced to reckon with the experience of those first disciples, and the amazing transformation that took them from being hidden behind locked doors to being out there boldly proclaiming God's deeds of power, specifically all that God did in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And we can wonder somewhat wistfully that hasn't been my experience and what would I be like if it were?
We may not have experienced the Spirit as 'a sound like the rush of a violent wind' but maybe with the weather we've been having lately, this is a rich image for Wellingtonians to dwell on! We can so easily domesticate God's Spirit into an innocuous zephyr or breeze if we overdo the idea of the Spirit as the helper or comforter, more like a hot water bottle or duvet than the jet-propulsion system who drives us out of bed and out into a wintry world! Sometimes we need that nudge of the Spirit to get us moving, or something even stronger than that. There is a famous portion of the Bayeux tapestry which announces 'King Harold comforts his troops' and he is shown comforting them with his lance precariously tilted at their backsides!
Sometimes we need to discern whether the wind storm we feel we are in is in fact because we are receiving a battering from all this world sends in our faces, or whether it is in fact God's Spirit seeking to propel us in a new direction, energising us with that exhilarating if slightly scary feeling we get from what we might call a 'bracing' walk on the beach!
Wind, Spirit, breath - we recall that in Hebrew the word 'ruach' means all three. Wind, Spirit, breath. I have a friend who struggles with asthma and who has found the image of the Spirit as breath a hugely helpful one in coping with breathing difficulties. Many people find it helpful in prayer to breathe out all that is not of God, and to breathe in the life of God. "Breathe on me, breath of God, fill me with life anew…"
I love that expansive picture of God's breath sustaining creation that we get in Psalm 104: 30, 31 "when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust they came from. When you send out your Spirit, they are created and you renew the face of the earth."
The Spirit's renewing work in creation must be a picture we treasure anew in this environmentally aware age, and in particular the partnership we are called to exercise with the Spirit, as illustrated in our Romans 8 reading. There we see powerful and poignant imagery of the Spirit as the midwife of the new creation, and we are called to be there alongside too, there in solidarity with the labour pains of the present world in all its suffering and conflict.
Sometimes they are the groans of our own bodies longing for their redemption, particularly in winter when the aches and pains are often harder to bear! Other times we are called to join in the groans of this world in situations where we can find no words to pray, and don't know what to pray, and our prayers are but inarticulate groans. Then we can know the Spirit prays in us and through us, and God the great searcher of hearts honours those prayers, those sighs too deep for words.
In such situations when we are facing hard times in our own lives, in the lives of others or in our society and world, it is entirely appropriate that we turn again to the image of the Spirit set out for us in John's Gospel, that of the Spirit as paraklete, literally the one called to stand alongside us.
Our NRSV Bible translates paraklete as Advocate, the one called alongside us to speak in our defence, and perhaps that is a helpful image to some, both in its judicial and advocacy senses. It should be noted that in the passage we heard today the Advocate also has a role as prosecutor, the Spirit 'will prove the world wrong' (John 16:8) in its attitudes to Jesus. So sometimes the Advocate will enable us like Peter to stand up and challenge the status quo or the received understandings around us. That is when we need the Spirit's strength and wisdom. That is when we need to hear the voice of the Spirit of truth, who will guide us into truth, the truth of the one who said 'I am the way, the truth and the life'. Our words of truth need to be Christ-shaped, helping us to walk in Christ's way.
Other translations of the word Paraklete are Counsellor, Helper, Comforter, Consoler. I've already mentioned our propensity to weaken those terms when in fact our Comforter is more literally our Strengthener. But sometimes we do need to know that more gentle ministry of God's Spirit and to exercise it for others in their time of need. Perhaps the picture of the Holy Spirit as the dove is helpful to us here as we think of the gentleness and sensitivity of the dove.
While we're thinking of the 'dove' image of the Holy Spirit, some people pronounce Paraklete as Paraklete and I always have the image of a flock of rainbow parakeets, which may be a particularly Australian image of the Holy Spirit! But on reflection I think that is a rather wonderful image of the Spirit poured out on all the rainbow people of God, giving an abundance of gifts and growing a great harvest of fruit. Yes I think that is an image I will ponder on more…!
One final image that is reflected all around us today in the colour red is that of the Spirit as fire. I think I'd call it a mixed metaphor, because in it there is both the warmth of the fire which attracts us and draws us in the cold of winter, but also the unpredictability and wildness of fire of which we were so starkly reminded just a few months ago in the bushfires of Victoria. There is also within that image the element of purifying, refining, and judgement. Fire is something that fascinates us, but also must be treated with respect.
The picture of the tongues of fire in Acts reminds us that one flame can become many, one candle flame can light many other candles, and bring light to darkness. God's Spirit is given to us not to hug to ourselves in some sort of spiritual self-gratification, but to share with others the warmth and light of God's love that we have experienced.
Well, what image of the Spirit resonates with you today? Wind, breath, midwife of the new creation, Advocate, Comforter, Dove, Rainbow Parakeet, fire, flame…? Take that image with you into this week and pray for God's Spirit to reveal more to you as you walk with the Spirit in daily life. I find it helpful in prayer to use those different names and images of the Spirit and sometimes to remind myself that the Holy Spirit is God's Spirit, and the Spirit of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is not some vague 'may the force be with you' sort of spirit, but the Spirit of Jesus dwelling within us now, Christ with us and in us to the end of the age.
And let us remember that the Spirit came not just to individuals on the day of Pentecost, but rather to the Church gathered - 'they were all together in one place.' (Acts 2:1) So may we listen out afresh today for the words of our Great Thanksgiving prayer: "Send your Holy Spirit that these gifts of bread and wine which we receive may be to us the body and blood of Christ, and that we, filled with the Spirit's grace and power, may be renewed for the service of your kingdom" (ANZPB p. 423) Notice that it is 'renewed for the service of your kingdom' not just your church - we are sent out from this place into God's world in the power of the Spirit together. We are the community of the Holy Spirit, then dispersed as flames of God's light and love out and about through the week in our city.
And as we go, may the wildness and the warmth of God be among us and between us now and always. Amen. (ANZPB p. 186)