Sermon for Pentecost 2011

He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Now many years ago I saw a play - a student production at the Newman Rooms in Oxford - and it was on the life of St Columba, whose feast we kept on Thursday. I have no clear memory of it except for one coup de theatre. At the moment when Columba stepped from the shores of Ireland, leaving behind the bloodshed and the occasions of his pride and sin, the four actors stooped, picked up a sheet by its corners and, in perfect unison, shook it so that it billowed up high and white – a sail upon the ocean, that seemed to bring with it the spark of sunlight on sea and a following wind.

It could, if you will, be a symbol of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the moving power who propels God’s people from life-destroying to life-giving. Not only the sail; the boat too, made with a craft which turns drowning into free passage. The skill of the mariners who know the currents, the faith that Columba and his companions lived and the people who had taught it to them and the land that nurtured them – all these also are in the Spirit and of the Spirit. The land to which Columba goes and Nechtan the King and the wild Picts and even the beast of Loch Ness to which peace comes – these too are held in life by this same Spirit and transformed in the one Spirit.

Last year on the Black Isle I saw some wonderful carved Pictish crosses which show the truth of this. Columba, under sail, becomes one exquisite link by whom Martin and Patrick are joined to Aidan and Boniface, in a great circling of the wind of the Spirit through the peoples of Western Europe, the results of which we can still distinguish today.

Columba’s sail, held at its four corners, might equally be a symbol of gathering and call to mind that cloth that came down from heaven in Peter’s dream, filled with all the beasts outside God’s law; the sign by which those first Jewish followers of the Way learnt to understand Joel’s prophecy more generously: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” When, with “the hand of the Lord upon them” – surely another symbol of the presence of the Spirit – a great number, not born Jews, became believers, Peter sends Barnabas, the son of consolation, of whom we are told he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. This good man rejoiced - and did as his name suggests and exhorted them.

With Columba there is an active preaching of the gospel – mission; with Barnabas the receptive recognition of God’s work. Both in the Spirit and both historically transformative acts. For with Barnabas, the church becomes the church of the nations and he it is, filled with the Holy Spirit, who thinks to bring in Paul as teacher for this fresh expression of church. The billowing sail could be Barnabas’ vocation also, as he and Paul then voyage to Cyprus. The Book of Acts opens up Scripture to the tang of salt air and the peoples of strange speech – not now places of exile from the Lord but places of gathering in.

We today find ourselves caught up into this dance of God’s providence – as the beneficiaries of those missions beyond borders – but also as our Kalendar this year reveals Columba and Barnabas beside us, praying for the increase of the Spirit in the world of 2011,yes and Ini Kopuria in Melanesia and Thomas Ken among the divisions which rent these islands in the seventeenth century and are not yet reconciled.

“All times belong to him and all ages” we heard said of the risen Christ over the Paschal Candle at the Vigil on the night of Resurrection and today we learn again the application of these words as they encompass our own lives and those who have taught us the faith and others who knew them, and many more here and in far distant centuries and other tongues who, together, have found ourselves scooped up by the one Spirit. The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost fulfils the days of Easter, not by completion but by throwing open the locked doors of our expectation. The Spirit is increase and abundance.  

So this day of Pentecost is about more than the gifts of the Spirit, although it is hard in a charismatic fellowship to recognise this, because they are so immediate. It is about more than the fruits of the Spirit, which could be understood as a prize-harvest of carefully nurtured lives. Pentecost, too, is more than the animation of the church, understood as a well-wrought vessel waiting for the right wind. Pentecost puts a charge in the apostles – and all who follow Jesus Christ – a charge which attracts us to every work of God in all the earth.

When the apostles burst forth from the house filled with the Spirit, the gathering-in which emanated from that day has not been an undoing of Babel but a sanctifying of it. The crowd did not begin to prophesy all in the same tongue but, through the people of God, the many tongues have become holy words. As the boat with the full sail braves the horizons, so God’s Spirit causes God’s people to give up any possessiveness towards truth, any self-defensive understanding. If Wolfhart Pannenberg is right in seeing that Christ Jesus, the man who had caused scandal by associating with prostitutes and tax gatherers, giving his life on the cross, broke open Jewish expectations of their God – that Christ willed an end to any finalised revelation, any control over holy things, then at Pentecost the power of Christ’s will is put by the Spirit of Christ in the people of Christ. Never again by law, but by the Spirit.

It’s not surprising that Luke, in writing of the day of Pentecost, takes places far afield and seems to make music of their names, “Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia” – as if John Masefield were writing this scripture. Where the Spirit is, there is freedom and abundance.  

So the question again this Pentecost, as we entrust our path to the Spirit’s free direction, is: - can we, with the right judgment the Spirit gives - that right judgment which St Barnabas, Levite though he was, showed in Antioch and St Columba, in sailing for Iona – that right judgment for which we have just prayed in today’s collect - can we discern the work of this one Spirit beyond our boundaries: among the many tongues of the earth today; among peoples of strange speech and habits of thought and practices? And judging right, can we rejoice?  

Or, as some on that day noted, “They are filled with new wine.”

Oswin Gartside CR