A sermon preached by the Reverend Canon Ian Woodward, Vicar of the Close
Acts 2: 1-21, John 20:19-23
The news of the murders of members of the public and their killers on London Bridge last night challenges our priorities and seemingly relegates the present pre-occupations we have with the forthcoming election; and yet it is precisely because those of us who wish harm do not value our democratic institutions that we must persevere to protect our freedoms and the most vulnerable in our society.
I imagine that we don’t need to be reminded that we have just four days to go to the general election – for some it can’t come soon enough. For others it will be a relief from the electioneering and dubious or welcome manifesto promises and the relentless media coverage. For some Friday morning will bring new hope; for others great disappointment. What is clear for all of us is that there will be change and there will be challenges in so many aspects of our common life.
In a sense a general election is a little bit like that part in a confirmation service in which the bishop – as invariably our Bishop Nicholas says to those who have just been confirmed in their faith that ‘now the work and challenge of living out our Christian faith really begins’.
On Friday morning the new government has to get down to work. At Pentecost, like Jesus’ followers, the mission of making God’s love known really began and still begins today. We are leaving behind the whole panoply of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter and we joyfully set out on our journey of faith.
But going back to Thursday and Friday for a moment, what might be on our election wish list? Some universal favourites would no doubt be better funding for the NHS and education and social services especially for the elderly – more contentious might be increased personal taxes or corporation tax or defence budgets whilst preserving the security and protecting the most vulnerable in our society. Speaking personally I would like to see an increase in the overseas aid budget – I think we could do better than 0.7% of GDP – yet relatively miserly 0.7% puts us in the top division of donors. I think we shouldn’t give down to a limit but increase our support to those in need. Some see this as ‘soft power’ – I see it as generosity as part of our Christian response and indeed duty.
In their Eastertide letter to the parishes and chaplaincies of the Church of England Archbishops Justin of Canterbury and John Sentamu of York invited us to celebrate and renew our love of God and love of neighbour and our trust in God and in each other. It might be seen as a manifesto for the CofE. The archbishops said our first obligation as Christians is to pray for those standing for office and for those who are elected, given their responsibilities and the complexity of the issues they face. And the second obligation is to set aside apathy and cynicism and to participate and to encourage others to do the same. Throughout their letter – which many of you will have seen as we distributed it some weeks ago, expresses the need to cope with the challenge of change and for courage and confidence and stability and generosity. Stability as an ancient Benedictine virtue and generosity as our principle of our faith. Generosity not only of our resources but of our time and energy too.
What general elections do is to challenge our values as a society – the televised political debates with the party leaders have demonstrated this albeit very noisily.
So a question might be ‘how do we and those who seek to represent us set these values and put them into action?’ What is it that motivates people to seek to change the status quo? Because politics and especially party politics is very much about promising that there will be changes. Changes to our values, changes to our common life and changes to our relationships as we live in community nationally and internationally.
I was speaking yesterday on a very shaky telephone line to a remarkably brave bishop in South Sudan who said ‘we are longing for change – for an end to tribal fighting and the killings and mayhem that continues in our country, which denies and makes a mockery of our Christian faith. We want to live in peace’ he said. And he is doing his best – remaining with the people in his diocese in spite of the risks, witnessing to his faith. He embodies the Holy Spirit at work within him.
So on this feast of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, we are primarily concerned with the ‘Holy Spirit’ what it is and what it does. Our readings today are a clue yet they are somewhat confusing. They are very different in length and they very differently describe the coming of the Holy Spirit into the lives of the disciples.
For Luke in the book of Acts, the coming of the Holy Spirit is a very public and dramatic event. For John it is intimate and very personal almost discreet. But does this difference matter? I think it reflects how very differently the Holy Spirit works within each of us, if, we are open to the Holy Spirit in our lives - if we wish to be ‘fully alive’.
So what is the Holy Spirit – at one level that’s easily answered – it’s the third part of the Holy Trinity that we celebrate next Sunday – Trinity Sunday. We hold the concept of ‘three in one and one in three’ as a fundamental tenet and belief that is absolutely central to our faith.
It could be argued that God’s spirit was there at the beginning of creation when, in the second verse of Genesis we learn that ‘a wind from God moved over the face of the waters’ and this concept of a tangible but invisible presence – a wind – holds true today. Theologians call it ‘pneumatology.’
Today’s account from Luke in the Book of Acts is wonderfully descriptive and colourful – we can imagine it as paintings – you may be familiar them. El Greco’s 16th century painting of Pentecost is full of people looking upwards wondering where this sensation, so vividly described by Luke is coming from. On the other hand Giotto’s 14th century view is much more like John’s account. Just the 12 apostles in one colonnaded room not looking up but animatedly looking at each other and experiencing something that is both corporately but also deeply and personally life changing.
And I think a question arises in comparing these paintings about the nature of the Holy Spirit: is it exclusively a church owned, church centred experience; indeed is it the property of the church’ or is it a personal gift to each one of us from God. Church history is full of the theological arguments about the split between the Churches in Rome and Byzantium over the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The Eastern Church holds that spirit proceeds ‘from the Father’ whilst the western church unilaterally adopted the belief that it was ‘from the Father and the Son’. Such was this disagreement in the 11th century that the Christian Church became divided. Now all this may seem trivial a thousand years on but as the theologian Colin Gunton says ‘The important question underlying these disputes concerns whether the world and human beings are the product of an intrinsically personal God, or whether some impersonal and unknowable substrate underlies the three persons – the Trinity.’ I think this takes us back in part, to John’s version or Luke’s account of Pentecost. Is the Holy Spirit a corporate phenomenon or a personal one or is it both? We may well be able to pick up on this again in our summer sermon series based on the Reformation – as we mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church.
As we know the Reformation debates reveal deep differences between the churches and we could say that whereas Rome tended to locate the Spirit’s action within the institutional church, the Reformation, if not intentionally, came to attribute it to the individual.
Whilst the Holy Spirit touched and changed many, many people that first Pentecost, and holds us together as Churches; at its heart, the action of the Holy Spirit at work in each one of us is fundamentally a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
As you vote on Thursday you will be making a personal preference for a candidate whom you hope will, through his or her values, be making a positive difference to the lives of the people in this country.
In and through our own prayers we are in that one-to-one relationship with our living and loving God and through them we are able to reach out to the Church and the world in making his love known. In this way we can indeed wish a very happy birthday to the Church. Amen