A Sermon for Pentecost - 31st May 2020
People saw what the disciples did at Pentecost and they were amazed and perplexed. Suddenly, they were out in the streets talking of God’s deeds of power. Suddenly, they were talking to people in many different languages. Suddenly, they were emboldened, assertive, confident in what they were doing. It’s no wonder the people asked, ‘what does all this mean?’
Pentecost is first of all a great breaking in. The Holy Spirit breaks into the room where the disciples were holed up in a mass of irrepressible energy – wind, and fire, and flame. Having broken in, it somehow enthuses and provokes the disciples. And through them, the Spirit breaks out into the open, spilling into the streets in the passionate disciples, their hearts now aflame with a fervent desire to talk of God. They are eager to tell their arresting story of the man Jesus, the one who was crucified, but who was startling raised from his death. The disciples’ astounding change from the reticent, confused group we find at the beginning of Acts to the vigorously active group we find at Pentecost is one of the most captivating stories that the Bible gives us. As the babbling, energised disciples take to the streets, so the story of our faith, the story of the church begins. The story breaks out from the private inner circle and erupts in the public square.
Many will tell of how the disciples were roused to become the first evangelists and that Pentecost is the ‘birthday of the Church’. They were the first who openly told of the good news of Christ. But there is more to this than the simple telling of a story. There is more to this than just relating their experiences. Peter stood before the people and quoted those incredible words from the prophet Joel, through whom God declares:
That I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days, I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
The electrifying message that the disciples bring is one that allows all people to dream their wildest dreams of how the world could be. It is one that allows all people to see the most amazing visions of what truly abundant life means. It is what I have talked about time after time in these weeks since Easter. It is the message of a radical reversal, a radical transformation, a radical inversion of the values of the world. Jesus is the embodiment of this divine paradigm shift. The Holy Spirit throws the doors and windows open, compelling the disciples to take this message and to go out into the world to prophesy.
Does the Holy Spirit still enable us to dream dreams of the impossible? Does the Holy Spirit still lead us towards a vision of how God would like our world to be? Does the Holy Spirit still stir up in us the desire to prophesy to those around us by bringing them the dreams and visions of the better world that God shows us in Jesus? Is the Holy Spirit firing the flames within us to change the world around us? Or are we stuck in our room like the disciples before the moment of Pentecost, struggling to work out where to go and where to turn?
A little like those disciples, we are currently more or less physically trapped in our own spaces – although most of us are thankfully now able to move around more freely. For better or for worse, there is a pent-up desperation to break free from the chains that the pandemic has put on us. But I want here to talk more symbolically about us as a church, as a parish. We are going to be different as a consequence of this pandemic. It is inevitable. Some of this is going to be out of our control – such as how we are going to be able to begin public worship again. Some of this, though, is very much within our control. This is in how we choose to respond to what has been happening, to what we have seen and experienced.
Speaking for myself, looking at what has unfolded in our country in the past few months has left me unspeakably angry. And angry about far more than just certain trips to Durham and Barnard Castle. This crisis has shone the brightest of possible lights on the inequalities of this country’s society, showing the true, stark, cruel profile of their reality. I am enraged at the injustices that are being shown. I am enraged at our society’s complicity in allowing them to happen. The virus that has been so grimly affecting all of us has exposed an even greater virus destroying our society from within. We love to say to one another that we’re all in this together. We love to say that it has brought out the best in us. But it is abundantly clear that we are not all in this together. The awful, heartrending reality is that Covid-19 is attacking those whom our society values the least. Those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds have disproportionately suffered illness and death. They are more likely to be in jobs which expose them to infection, jobs in which they have no option to shelter at home, and no choice to leave work because they need a livelihood. Immigrants who have been forced out of work and have no recourse to public funds, are being left destitute. They are often those people our own government has labelled as ‘unskilled workers’ – the vast army of people who keep our country going but who are excluded by our new immigration policies. Those who are poor, living in substandard, crowded housing, in the lowest paid jobs have suffered most from lockdown. The elderly have been talked of as if they are a disposable part of our society, and have been palmed off to care homes. Those who are already ill, through no fault of their own, are massively more likely to die from this disease. These are groups of people who are all looked at as insignificant by our society. Written off. Disposable. Much of this is out of sight and out of mind to us in Cheam. But you don’t have to look very far to find it. If the Holy Spirit is truly moving us this Pentecost, then we should all share in this sense of absolute outrage at this unjustifiable evil, the other virus that is destroying us.
As we all break out from our isolation in the weeks and months to come, I want us to learn to be prophets to our local community and beyond. If we are to go out there and talk about God’s mighty acts of power, its primary purpose should not be to bring more people into our church, to get more bums on pews. To do this is not to break out. It is just to get more people sitting in the same room. Our purpose should be to help people to see our visions and share their own. It should be to enable us to dream our dreams and listen to the dreams of others. Dreams and visions of a radical way of being that can completely, systemically change our world for the better. In God’s name yes. But more importantly in the name of those we have so callously discarded at the bottom of the pile. If we are going to be break out from this as a church – locally and nationally – we need to rediscover the cutting-edge voice of Christian activism. A voice which reaches out and seeks to transform. This is the true voice of the Holy Spirit.