Pentecost

For most people up to 1965, Pentecost, or Whitsunday, was probably associated with gifts: new clothes, a Bank Holiday on Whitmonday, and trips, picnics, and ice-cream. The bank holiday was moved to the last Monday in May, and there it has stayed. While Pentecost is with Christmas and Easter one of the three major feasts of the Christian Year, its roots are older.

Fifty days after the Passover, the Jews celebrated Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, a week of weeks, the grain harvest in Ancient Israel, and the giving of the law to Moses on Mt Sinai, it was an important festival, and Jews would gather in Jerusalem to celebrate the Law, which defined them as Jews, and regulated how they lived their lives. They would offer their first fruits in the Temple, rather like our harvest festival, and read the Book of Ruth, whose story is centred around harvest time.

The disciples have gathered in the Upper Room, with the Blessed Virgin Mary, where Christ instituted the Eucharist, and washed his disciples’ feet. They have gathered together because Jesus told them to be together and to pray, for ‘you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses … to the end of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). They are filled with the Holy Spirit, tongues of fire rest upon them, and they speak in a variety of languages. People from all over the world, who have come to Jerusalem for the feast hear the mighty works of God, they hear a proclamation of who Jesus is, and what he has done. People think they are drunk, but it is nine o’ clock in the morning. The prophecy of Joel is fulfilled. God can and does do wonderful things. And he will still, if we let him. 

Jesus promised his disciples that he will send ‘the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.’ (Jn 15:26-27 ESV) He also promises that, ‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.’ (Jn 16:13-15 ESV) 

We know that Jesus speaks the truth, that his promises can be trusted, that he pours his Holy Spirit upon the Church on the day of Pentecost, and continues so to do until he comes in glory as our Saviour and our Judge. He wants us to tell people about Him, and how he came to show the world LOVE.

The Apostles have obeyed Jesus’ command, they have waited and prayed, and they are filled with the Holy Spirit, so that they can proclaim the good news of the Kingdom, so that they can make Jesus known, so that people can come to know him and be filled with his love. People are amazed and perplexed, they simply cannot understand what is going on, some people assume that the disciples are drunk. Just as once people called Jesus a drunkard and a glutton because he used to hang around with the wrong sort of people. 

Instead St Peter can show that what is happening has been prophesied by the prophet Joel, whom he quotes (Acts 2:16-21) to show that Christ, the Word made flesh is the fulfilment of Scripture, it finds its true meaning in and through Him. He can preach Christ crucified and risen, for our salvation: ‘This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses’ they have seen and can testify that Jesus is alive. “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36) Peter and the apostles can confess their faith in Christ and bear witness to him. It has an immediate effect: (Acts 2:37) ‘Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”’ To which Peter replies, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.’ (Acts 2:38-39) 

This is what the church is called to proclaim, so that people can come and have new life in Christ. You and I are to tell people about Jesus, so that they can repent and believe. Then, later in the Acts of the Apostles we see them all living a recognisable Christian life: ‘And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ (Acts 2:42) 

This is what we are called to be and to do as Christians, to a life where we are close to Christ, in Word and Sacrament, so that we may be strengthened to live the life of faith, and to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ so that the world may believe. It is just as true here and now as it was there and then: Jesus promises his spirit to transform and empower people to tell the Good News of the Kingdom. ‘And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgement, because the ruler of this world is judged.’ (Jn 16:8-11) Sin, that which separates us from God, and each other is tied in with not believing in Jesus, who he is, what he does. He is God, and he dies for love of us, to reconcile us, to heal our wounds. He is the true Balm of Gilead which heals sin-sick souls, and He gives himself here, under the outward forms of bread and wine, to heal us, to restore us, Righteousness: having been obedient to the will of the Father, dying and rising again, He returns from whence he came, so that He can send the Holy Spirit. Judgement: the ruler of this world has been judged, the world, the flesh and the devil can have no power over us as Christ has overcome them. They offer us death, whereas Christ has brought us life, eternal life in Heaven. God’s judgement on the world was to offer His Only Son to die, to heal its wounds, and reconcile its differences. God’s judgement is LOVE, and he calls us to live as people of love. To live out the same sacrificial redemptive love in the world, to transform it, into the world God wants it to be, where people are filled with love, and live lives of love, where they are generous and peaceful, loving and forgiving. Fed by Christ and fed with Christ we can be transformed more and more into His likeness, inviting others to share in His LOVE, so that they and all the world may know the love and sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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Easter VII [Acts 1:15-17, 20-26; 1 Jn 5:9-13; Jn 17:6-19]

On Thursday the Church celebrated the Ascension, when the Risen Christ returns to his Father’s side in Heaven. The Apostles haven’t been left or abandoned, instead Jesus tells them to wait ten days, until the feast of Pentecost. To wait and to pray for the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit. Jesus shows us that we are made for heaven, 

For all those of us who live after the moment of Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven, we too are called to wait, to wait for His Holy Spirit, and to wait for Him to come again as our Saviour and our Judge. But if we are honest, none of us likes waiting, let’s be honest! There’s an old joke that if you put three Scotsmen together for long enough they will form a bank, three Welshman, and they will form a male-voice choir, and three Englishmen will form a queue. While it may be a characteristic which has come to define us, as British people, we do it rather grudgingly, and with a sense of resigned reluctance. And yet, our vocations as Christians is JOY, the joy of the Lord is our strength. We wait in eager expectation, and filled with the joy of Easter, of the Risen Christ, who promises us His Holy Spirit. We wait that God might continue to be generous towards us, and all who believe in Him. 

God will give us a new heart and put his Spirit within us, just as he did on the day of Pentecost. So we in the Church are to wait to prepare to live as the people of God, filled with his love, and forgiveness, and proclaiming his Truth to the world. That’s what this time between the Ascension and Whitsun is for: to pray to God, for Him to be at work in us, and in people all around the world. Indeed there is now an initiative called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ which encourages people to pray in this time between the Ascension and Pentecost. To pray for the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, that people may come to know Christ, and that we may all be one — for the unity of Christians everywhere. If heaven is our home, which it is, as we are made for relationship with God, and each other, then we should prepare, here and now, for what awaits us. We should pray that, through the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, we are built up in LOVE.

This Sunday in the Gospel we are in the middle of Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, which is the summit of his teaching just before his arrest and Passion. Christ has made God’s name known to us, we know God in a different way, we pray to him as ‘Father’ and we are His, we are not our own, despite the Western Liberal infatuation with personal freedom, we are God’s, which affects both who we are, and what we do.We belong to God, and we do what He tells us to do, so that we may flourish, that we may have life and have it to the full.

We are to be one, as Jesus and His Father are one — one in mind, heart, and soul, filled with LOVE, sanctified with the truth which comes from the Holy Spirit. This is Christs’s will, it isn’t a pipe-dream, or an optional extra. We have to do it. If we really love Jesus then how can we be other than wishes us to be. The pain and division will not be healed in a moment, there is no magic wand to be waved, life is not like that. We have to start by praying, and working for unity, doing what we can to make Christ’s will for the Church a reality. 

Christ speaks to us, and teaches us so that our joy may be complete in him, filled with his love, and the Holy Spirit. The world’s reaction to this is a negative one: because what we are, what we stand for, and how we live as Christians is to be opposed to what the world around us stands for — selfishness, greed, which it makes into false gods, as though material wealth, or power, or status could save us — such things are transient and fleeting. The world seeks to offer us a short-cut, an easy road; whereas if we are following Christ, then we are walking the way of his Passion, we are walking the Way of the Cross, dying daily to sin, and letting God’s grace be at work in and through us. It is certainly not easy, it is difficult, most of us are unable to manage on our own, we need the grace of God. We need the Eucharist to strengthen us on our journey of faith, and we need the love and support of the Christian community to help us, even the first Christians, those who had been with Jesus, needed each other’s help and support, so they can continue what Jesus started.

We need to be together, to meet together to pray for our needs and those of the world, and to be nourished by the word of God, the Bible, and the Sacrament of Our Lord’s Body and Blood, not because they’re something nice to do on a Sunday morning: a sort of add-on, an optional extra that we can opt into and out of as we feel like, but because as Christians they are crucial to who and what we are, if we are to remain in the love of God then we have to live this way. Only then can we offer the world an alternative to the ways of selfishness and sin. It will certainly hate us for doing this, it will despise us, it will call us hypocrites when we fail to live up to the example of Jesus, but as Christians who live in the love of God we forgive each other our trespasses, so that we can live out that same radical love and forgiveness which sees Jesus die upon the Cross for love of us and all the world.

It is a message of such love, such forgiveness that the world cannot or does not want to understand it, we may not understand it, but we know that it can be experienced, in encounter with Jesus, and we are living testimony to its power to change lives. It turns our lives around and sets us free to live for God and to proclaim his saving truth in our words and actions, calling the world to repentance, to turn to Christ, and to be renewed in and through Him.

So as we wait with the Apostles for the gift of the Holy Spirit let us pray that God may be at work in us, building us up, and giving us strength to live his life and to proclaim his truth, to offer the world that which it most earnestly desires, a peace, a joy and a freedom which pass human understanding, and the gift of eternal life in Christ. And let us share these gifts with others, so that they may come to believe and give glory to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever…

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Pentecost 2017

The feast of Pentecost was well-known to Jews in Jesus’ time. Fifty days after the Passover, they celebrated God’s giving of the Law to Moses on Mt Sinai. It was an important feast as the Jews saw their whole life as tied up with the observance of God’s law. Jerusalem was full of people from all over the Mediterranean world who had come to celebrate this festival.

Although they are present in Jerusalem, the disciples have other things on their mind. Fifty days after our Lord’s death and resurrection, the disciples are carrying out Jesus’ instructions given just before his Ascension, to stay in Jerusalem and pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit. An amazing thing happens. Suddenly, men who were once afraid to leave a locked room get up and go out to tell people what God has done in his Son, Jesus Christ. They are inspired. They are on fire.  Filled with the love of God, they are able to go and share the Good News of the Kingdom.

At the Annunciation the angel Gabriel proclaims to Mary ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’ (Lk 1:35). Jesus Christ takes flesh in the womb of his mother by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are told that the Spirit hovers over him at his Baptism, like a dove. All His life and ministry is totally connected with God the Father in the power and union of the Holy Spirit. After Jesus’ Ascension God gives the Holy Spirit to the church. This is what we celebrate today!

In the Gospel passage we have heard today Jesus twice greets the apostles with the words ‘Peace be with you’. What he offers them is not simply an absence of noise or distraction but something far more wonderful. It is something we cannot fully understand though it is something which we can experience. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we have peace with God and each other. The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of love and peace. Jesus then gives the apostles a commission: ‘as the Father has sent me, so I send you’ (Jn 20:21). They are sent to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom in word and deed, laying down their lives in God’s service.

Jesus breathes on them, to empower them, that they may receive the Holy Spirit. Then Jesus tells them that whoever’s sins they forgive are forgiven. This is an extraordinary claim. But Jesus can make it because he is God. Through Him the church has become a place of healing, where we may be reconciled to God and to each other. Surely my brothers and sisters, this is is the most tremendous thing, a gift of a truly generous God.

The Jews in the Acts of the Apostles are amazed to hear the Good News in their own language, spoken by a rag-tag assortment of Galilean fisherman and other ordinary men. It is incredible. It is miraculous. And it points towards the present reality where there is not a country on this earth which has not heard the good news of Jesus Christ. But there is still work to do and it is wonderful to read that the Bible is currently being translated into 250 new languages.

Thus the work of proclamation is not finished. It is thanks to the preaching of the Good News started by the Apostles at Pentecost that we are Christians today, and that millions of people have come to know, love, and serve Jesus Christ. So, for those of us who are in Christ, who have entered the church through our Baptism, we have an important job to do. We need to tell people about Jesus.

The church is wonderful in its diversity, because we are all different, we don’t speak the same language, or have the same culture. We don’t look the same, we are not clones or robots. We are empowered through our having received the Holy Spirit at our Baptism, in our Confirmation, indeed through all the sacramental actions of the church; the outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual grace. This is how the Holy Spirit works, how it builds us up in love. Through the sacrament of our Lord’s Body and Blood, the Eucharist, we are nourished spiritually to keep doing what God wants us to do.

Paul’s words to the believers in Corinth give us a vision of how the Holy Spirit unifies the Church. When we pray ‘Thy Kingdom come’ in the Lord’s Prayer every day we are praying for the Church and the world to be filled with God’s love through the Holy Spirit. That we might be drawn ever closer together, so that we may truly be one. This is Christ’s prayer for the Church in the Garden of Gethsemane in John 17. That the church should be one, united in love and in faith. It is God’s will. We cannot ignore it. We have to do all that we can to work towards it, and it is this desire for unity in the church which has seen an initiative ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ started by The Most Rev’d Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, be taken up across the world, so that in the days from Ascension to Pentecost the church has prayed for the gift of the Holy Spirit to bring us closer together, in love and unity, to proclaim the good news, the people may come to know Jesus. It is the start of something great, where the church is renewed through the Holy Spirit, and it is something we can join in with. So let us pray:

Renew your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost.

Grant to your Church that, being of one mind and steadfast in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and following the lead of Blessed Peter, it may advance the reign of our Divine Saviour, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace. Amen.

Come Holy Spirit, in your power and might to renew the face of the earth.

Almighty God, your ascended Son has sent us into the world to preach the good news of your kingdom: inspire us with your Spirit and fill our hearts with the fire of your love, that all who hear your Word may be drawn to you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

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