This sermon was preached at Saint Oswald’s Parkside by the Revd Canon Bill Goodes on Sunday, 23 May, 2021. (Pentecost B )
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
“…in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” Acts 2:11
The small group of us who joined to say Morning Prayer together on Tuesday morning was given two fascinating Bible readings. They contained parts of two different Farewell Speeches. The first of them was from Deuteronomy, and was part of Moses’ farewell to the people of Israel. In it he reminded them of how it had happened that they were about to enter the Promised Land. In actions that had a disturbingly modern context, this violent process of completely destroying the kingdoms of Og of Bashan and Sihon of the Amorites was set out. The status of the Children of Israel as God’s chosen nation was interpreted as justifying this destruction of those who viewed them as threat.
The second reading was another section of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse as recorded in John’s gospel, and concluded with the beginning of the great prayer in chapter 17, where Jesus prays that all who believe in him should be one.
These two readings give an insight into God’s great purpose in dealing with disobedient human-kind. God recognizes that humanity has departed from God’s purposes, and so this gracious God, who works slowly and patiently, sets in place the process by which all people will return to God and God’s ways. The process was very gradual, and had some elements which we might consider to be questionable, but the Plan proceeded!
In this morning’s reading from Acts, we see the next stage in the process being begun. As the early Jewish thinkers and story-tellers reflected on their alienations from one another and from God, you will remember that they told a story of people deciding to build a tower that would reach heaven. God, the story went, was worried by such presumption, and decided that people must be divided by speaking different languages. Because they couldn’t communicate with one another, the building of the tower could not proceed. This process of division symbolised by the Tower of Babel story, was sent in the opposite direction as the crowd in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost — people from all around the known world —heard, in their own languages, words of the mighty deeds of God.
Simon Peter then took the process even further. He picked up the words of the prophet Joel, who spoke of God pouring out the Spirit, not simply on the Jewish nation, even though that “nation” was dispersed to live in many different countries: Joel’s words were, “God declares, in the last days, I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh…even on slaves, both men and women”. God’s purpose is bringing everyone into relationship with God — and, in the Spirit, into relationship with one another.
Paul in the reading from Romans, makes it clear just how inclusive this vision is. We heard him speak of “the whole creation groaning in labour pains” while it waits for the redemption of our bodies, our adoption. He speaks of the hope for which we wait in patience, the hope that all of creation will be restored to its fulness in the Creator’s purpose.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus promises that the “Advocate” will come, the Spirit of Truth who proceeds from the Father, testifying to Jesus. When the Spirit comes, his followers are also to testify. This Spirit of Truth will guide Jesus’ followers into all truth, by speaking the truth that comes from God through Jesus.
Sometimes we are tempted to think that God’s purpose is all about me and my salvation. Certainly we are encouraged to hear God’s gracious word to each of us as God’s beloved child, but the Spirit is poured out “on all flesh”. In addition, it is the body of God’s people that Jesus is addressing when he says ”I still have many things to say to you”. It is that community of the people of God that is to be guided into all the truth. It is that “holy common people of God” that “has the first-fruits of the Spirit” and is groaning inwardly as together we wait for the fulfilment of our hope in the working-out of Gods’ purposes.
Now we don’t have to have experienced a great deal of life in this “holy common people of God” to have learned that living a common life can be distinctly uncomfortable. Each member of the community may have a clear vision of what the Spirit of Truth might be saying as she passes on a message about what Jesus was not able to say to his disciples before he ascended into heaven. However, when that person’s vision is compared with the vision that other members of the community have received, significant differences may well arise! It is only as these visions are shared, tested, and debated that the community reaches a common mind on what the Spirit of Truth is saying. And that can be a painfully slow process!
I think of the process by which the Church changed its attitude to divorced persons — from the position 60 years ago when people who married again after divorce were excluded from Communion. Now, of course, the situation is that people who have been divorced may under certain conditions, be married to another party, in a Church wedding. Many of you, too, will remember the slow process by which most of the Church reached the view that the Spirit of Truth would allow female persons to be deacons, priests and bishops. We are still going through the process of discerning the Spirit’s guidance on other significant matters.
For God has called us into community, and for a purpose — to testify to Jesus, as part of the plan for the pouring out of God’s Spirit on all flesh, and joining all people together into one.
The Corinthian Church was very much in tune with the gifts of the Spirit. The tongues with which the salvation of God was proclaimed in that Day of Pentecost, had become very significant to their members. Paul spent a long chapter of his First letter to the Corinthians reminding them that individual gifts like that of Speaking in tongues were not to be valued in the same way as those gifts which served to build up the community of the people of God. He stresses that all of the Spirit’s gifts are given “for the good of all” — and that they have a value as they make the community stronger in their commitment to God and to one another. He values especially these “building-up” gifts, but then goes on to show “a more excellent way”.
And that way is the way of love, and he devotes another whole chapter of his letter to setting out its nature, and its supreme value: “now, faith hope and love remain, but the greatest of these is love.
So, as we rejoice in the Coming of the Holy Spirit on his waiting apostles, let us commit ourselves once again to this greatest of the Spirit’s gifts, a love which knits his people together and sends them out to testify to Jesus, to Gods plan for the salvation of all people and the restoration of the Creation.
At the end of the service, we will try to symbolize this “sending out”, as we carry the light, kindled so dramatically at the Easter Vigil, into the world. The candles you were issued with as you came in, are the candles that we lit in our Easter celebration. That light was not to be grasped to ourselves, but taken into the world.