Pentecost, 23 May 2010                   Year C  

Gen 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8 - 27

At this time of the year, on this last Sunday of the College term, we cannot help but have in mind what lies ahead for those leavers who are to be made Deacon and for last year’s Deacons who will be ordained Priest. It is a looking forward, the expectation of something new - and there is a proper excitement for them and for us. ‘Send down the Holy Spirit on your servant...’ However, if we are not careful, we find we have fallen prey to that most human and most modern of sins: the endless desire for novelty. I’ve done my novitiate - it’s time for the new challenges and excitements of professed life. (Or more immediately for Fr Dennis - I’ve been a postulant, now it’s time to spread my wings in the novitiate.) And so it goes on for all of us: I’ve done this job long enough, it’s time for a change.

How does this look in relation to the gift of the Holy Spirit? Well, again, in terms of contemporary spirituality, it can sometimes seem as though learning the story of Jesus belongs to childhood (admittedly increasingly a childhood delayed into adulthood for many) and then there comes a point when we seek a new, more mature, more spiritual faith, a time when we can begin to transcend the limitations of human existence - and is this not the role of the Holy Spirit?

It doesn’t take much reflection to realise that this kind of picture is wholly at odds with the testimony of scripture. Not that scripture denies the newness that comes with the gift of the Spirit - not at all : it’s more a question of locating the utterly new aright.

Arguably, almost any passage from John’s farewell discourse would be appropriate for today’s Gospel; or the strange appearance of Jesus in the upper room after his resurrection when he breathes on his disciples - which is the Roman lectionary’s provision for today. The strength of our passage is the way it helps us remember that the sending of the Spirit is not some new departure but the continuing revelation of the one God, who is Father, Son and Spirit. It is the role of Jesus and the Spirit alike to show us the Father. It is the role of the Spirit to keep us in the love of Jesus, that, abiding in him, we may be held in the love of the Father. In this sense, nothing new but the hidden, gracious means by which the presence of the risen Christ is renewed in us day by day. No wonder St Paul is so flexible in his language, talking now of the Spirit of Christ, now of the Spirit of God. There are moments when the grace of the Spirit realises for us the presence and immediacy of Christ, startling and vivid but, at the same moment, the Spirit is always calling us to look beyond to the Father who waits for us. It is in this sense that the Spirit confirms us in our faith. It is the Spirit who continually energises our discipleship, who recalls us to the promises of our baptism and who can be present effortlessly in the divine and the created worlds simultaneously.

The second dimension to the gift of the Spirit is what we, taught by St Paul , think of as the harvest or the fruits of the Spirit. Here there can indeed be a transcending of the human but, paradoxically, only for those who are so in possession of themselves that they can freely make space within themselves, give up something of self, in order to make room for the Spirit. The love, joy and peace of the Spirit are not bigger and better versions of what we strive for ordinarily. Joyis not the strained grin of one determined to give outward expression to the conviction that being a disciple is a joyful thing. Rather it is being possessed by the joy of God, being caught up in the song of joy that burst forth at creation according to the book of Proverbs. Peace is not the calm that succeeds hostilities but participation in the peace at the heart of God, the peace which enables us to say daily, “your will not mine be done” no matter what horrors and difficulties lie before us. “If you love me you will keep my commandments,” says Jesus - and this is not a matter of raising our passionate loving to some new ecstasy, nor refining our practice of romantic love but of being able to discover the depth of God’s love, the love which is deep within us, because it made us.

Now we are almost ready to look into the third dimension of the gift of the Spirit. We can be confident that we have outperformed Messrs Clegg and Cameron: we are called into a coalition, a love-in infinitely more exciting and rewarding than theirs. Indeed, it is not to a coalition that we are called but to union, to perfect unity in the Spirit, with the Father and the Son and so with all creation. This we simply cannot imagine. We look at our fragmented world, at the factions and parties that make up our Church, at the seeming impossibility of achieving even modestly effective communication, even at the tongue-tied agonies we suffer when trying to open ourselves to one we love. No wonder then that Pentecost is represented as a new Babel : the confusion of tongues and languages giving way to understanding and communication and paving the way to union.

The American novelist Neal Stephenson, who has inspired me to much theological reflection in the past year, in a novel about computer viruses quotes George Steiner, “Our speech interposes itself between apprehension and truth like a dusty pane or warped mirror. The tongue of Eden was a flawless glass; a light of total understanding streamed through it. Thus Babel was a second Fall.” Stephenson quotes Steiner because he has been referring to the analysis of primitive language. He says, “Early linguists, as well as the Kabbalists, believed in a fictional language called the tongue of Eden , the language of Adam. It enabled all men to understand each other, to communicate without misunderstanding. It was the language of the Logos, the moment when God created the world by speaking a word.” So we could summarise this third dimension of the gift of the Spirit as “learning to speak the Word of God.” Or as St Paul has it, reaching that point where we can say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

Peter Allan CR