Sermon for Sunday after Ascension Day, 1 June 2014
by The Very Reverend June Osborne DL
Acts 1 v 6-14
John 17 v 1-11
The Apostles Speaking in Tongues Lit by Their Own Lamps
Next Sunday is the Day of Pentecost and after Evensong we will be opening a new art installation by the British sculpture Nicholas Pope called ‘The Apostles Speaking in Tongues’ in which he portrays symbolically the events of the Feast of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the first disciples.
Actually the work is already here at the East End of the Cathedral and if you want to see it in all its glory the lamps will be lit on Sundays at 12 noon so stay around for a cup of coffee in the North Transept and then go and see what you make of our Pentecostal experience. If you have to fly away then visit it again when the lamps are lit, as they will be each day, Monday to Saturday through to the beginning of August between 7 & 8 in the morning, 11 & 12noon and then between 3 & 4pm in the afternoon.
What you’ll see are 33 terracotta figures, 12 of which are very particular representations of the first apostles, as we heard them described in our reading: Peter and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew (with his large paunch), James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. Which of course makes 11 because there was Judas Iscariot who, although he wasn’t there on the Day of Pentecost, Nick Pope has included on the margins of the group. Meanwhile, our gospel reading reminded us that Jesus prayed for these disciples, as he goes on praying for us. As this religious community we come to call a church forms itself Jesus recognises that they will struggle to know and glorify God in their world and they will need protecting by God’s Spirit.
Philip begins the church in Africa, both the James’ were martyred but not before one preached the gospel in Spain. Thomas, tradition has it, headed to India; Bartholomew to Armenia; Simon to Persia; Peter stays around the Mediterranean and has a turbulent relationship with the new kid on the block Paul. John lives long but is exiled on the island of Patmos.
What does ‘The Apostles Speaking in Tongues’ help us to see of the faith they took to the ends of the known world? In particular how does it help our imagination grapple with the question which informed Jesus’ prayers – what understanding will the Church have of its place in the world? A world which has always been both hostile to and captivated by its message. A world which has always been multicultural and multi-faith, with a multiplicity of tongues and yet these apostles claimed that in Jesus all things held together in a single unity of God’s redeeming love.
Three things about Nicholas Pope’s work.
Firstly, it has atmospheric presence. You may decide you don’t like it or it doesn’t help you pray but it is powerful.
The New Testament doesn’t say that the work of God in Christ passed to the Church in a single, uncompromising moment. Like those of us who are gathered here this morning the disciples travelled at different speeds in their awareness of what God was up to. Some described the Spirit arriving quietly and privately as they sensed the implications of the resurrection. Others told of a special day of confidence and courage in the public realm during a Jewish Festival. Yet all of them knew God was inhabiting their world and empowering them to do more than they believed was possible. Kindling the fire of God’s love will make its impact, convey his presence and we are witnesses to that powerful Spirit.
Secondly, although the work is made up of simple, hollow vessels it conveys with great force the particularity of individual disciples. Why does James the Great look like an exploding can of worms, or Thomas look as if he’s facing several different directions at once? You see what you make of them.
I think there’s something here which is immensely important to the way Christianity has understood the call of faith. In its truest form the Christian message has always done justice to particularity. God is not an abstract entity or a philosophical principle. He is not offering us a more perfect and ideal world once we have done with the messiness and inadequacy of material life here and now. God is not interested in achieving goals but he is a lover of persons, as they are, in their own peculiarities, in their glories and in their naughtiness.
How we describe him reflects that: as Creator who takes pleasure in what he brings into being, as Redeemer who gets involved in the human project in order to save it, and as Sustaining Spirit who goes on working with us to bring in God’s kingdom in this world. The Church imitates all the different forms of that divine love not in the abstract but in the particular and personal. It’s why the Church of England in this country goes on rooting itself in the parish, in the soil of the land, in the communities it serves, in an ever widening range of encounters. It sustains responsible attention to the world and seeks its welfare.
The God we see face to face in Jesus Christ offers us religious experience which can only be understood in the particularity of his love for you – whatever tongue you speak, whatever culture formed you, whatever conditions you face.
And thirdly, I think ‘The Apostles Speaking in Tongues Lit by Their Own Lamps’ is a testimony to the fact that true faith is more about passionate engagement than it is about doctrine.
The story which has captured our attention and horrified us this week is that of the Sudanese woman, Dr Meriam Ibrahim, who has gave birth in prison and faced a potentially barbaric punishment for her marriage to a Christian and her continuing pursuit of the Christian faith in which she was reared.
It was perfectly possible to understand what was driving the events in Sudan and the understanding of faith which informed that court decision. We meet it as much in some Christian attitudes to religious life as we do in the Muslim world. It’s an approach which, from whatever religious background, wishes to use the law of the land to enforce unchangeable beliefs and behaviours. It’s suspicious of any alternative, non-religious wisdom and feels under threat from multiculturalism. It believes the law should publicly witness to objective moral truths, and in this case should punish apostasy. It addresses culture and does not listen to it. And it does this because it believes that all sorts of social ills will follow from the abandonment of the propositions of faith.
Whereas the Church born at Pentecost stands over and against such an approach. It believes that history is the gift and medium of the Holy Spirit. The processes of history, cultural change, and not least our own experience all contribute to the development of our knowledge and the enactment of what is true. We value our given traditions and scriptures, but they don’t deliver a completeness of truth and understanding which stands outside what is happening to us. We learn from new experiences. We have to keep working at what scripture and tradition mean and we never have an entirely sufficient grasp on it to say we have perfectly captured all belief and practice.
And as a result of that passionate engagement with how the world works our faith is patient and tolerant, it is provisional by instinct. It knows that there is no complete holiness in this life but only a serious regard to what the Spirit says to us within a changing environment.
When Jesus prayed for his disciples it was not so they could stand outside the world but so that they could be distinctively Christian within it. It’s why we listen to culture; why we rejoice in the encounters which happen each year within the Salisbury International Arts Festival. It’s why we welcome a sculptor, who himself has had to fathom the meaning of his life through some challenging life experiences, to help us see the narrative of Pentecost differently and for our own time.
It is why we offer you ‘The Apostles Speaking in Tongues Lit by their Own Lamps’.