Sermon – Pentecost
This month, as I have had additional time on my hands due to lockdown, I have engaged a great deal more than I normally would on social media and I have been surprised by how many people have had birthdays in May, amongst them our own vicar Jane. Two of my friends also celebrated their 60th birthdays, and one of them their 70th.
For many of these people, celebrations I am sure have been very different this year but never the less people have found ways of sending birthday wishes and helping them to enjoy their special day. Celebrations are always a great part of birthdays, time for parties and I know those of us who’ve had birthdays during this time will have great celebrations together with family and friends afterwards.
You may ask, why am I talking about birthdays? Well, it might surprise you to know that today, Pentecost Sunday, is in fact the birthday of the Church. It’s a day that ranks with Christmas and Easter in its importance because the Church was born on that day when the followers of Jesus met in Jerusalem and the Holy Spirit descended upon them.
I recently came upon a question someone asked in their own church. The question was: ‘If we had to forego the celebration of Christmas, Good Friday, Easter or Pentecost, which one would seem the least crucial?’ I wonder how you’d answer that question. Would you say Pentecost?
I’m sure most of us would have a tough time, myself included, picturing a year with no Christmas, no Good Friday or Easter. Many Christians would probably say if they had to choose then they’d do without Pentecost, without realising that without Pentecost the other 3 wouldn’t be celebrated at all.
There could not have been a Good Friday without the advent of Christ’s coming which we celebrate at Christmas. Good Friday would have been a meaningless martyrdom without the victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ which we celebrate at Easter. But it is Pentecost that enables the gift of faith by which you and I can know that the birth, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ are for us! Jesus was not finished when He rose from the dead and ascended to be glorified. He came back to give the greatest gift of all – the gift of His own Spirit to live in us, to enable us to do His works on earth.
On that day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came from God like tongues of fire on the apostles and those present and the fire rested on each one of them, they were filled with God’s spirit and empowered for the wonderful and great work of God….the sharing of the story of Jesus Christ and the promise of salvation.
What a birthday party that must have been! What a celebration they had! It was exciting. The people there were rejoicing! It was a wild and reckless time as they were filled with the Spirit of God. Onlookers thought they were drunk with new wine – but it wasn’t wine that made them so happy. It was the joy they felt at the birth pangs of God’s Church.
Well, I don’t know about your experiences of receiving the Holy Spirit, but I do know that when I have been filled with the Spirit of God it creates a warm and happy feeling inside me and my heart is overwhelmingly filled with love and hunger for God.
This has happened to me twice very powerfully in my life when I was filled so much with God’s Spirit that the effect was overwhelming. Those of you who know me and have heard me preach before will know of my first experience, a time when through a dream in difficult circumstances the power of God’s love surrounded and held me so tightly in its grasp that my life was changed forever. It led me in many ways to where I am in my ministry today and gave me a new sense of purpose – to reveal Christ’s love to others. When you’ve experienced God’s love that profoundly, there’s no going back.
My second powerful encounter very few of you will know of, one which today’s Gospel reading in John reminds me of. This happened 3 years ago (almost to the day) in the Holy Land, in what is believed by some to be the original Upper Room in Jerusalem. It is now part of the site of the Syrian Orthodox church. Because the church is built on top of the site you have to go down via a narrow stone staircase into the room, which is cool and dimly lit, with just a stone table.
As we stood in front of that table as a group and worshipped and prayed together, I have to say it was one of the most humbling experiences of my life, and it was the first time I ever heard someone speak in tongues. The strange thing was that as she spoke there was such an overwhelming presence of the Holy Spirit that I experienced the love of God, the Presence of Christ amongst us, uniting us, and I had an understanding of what she was saying – that we were God’s children, that we belonged to Christ and He loved us all, whether we thought ourselves worthy or not. When the message was interpreted, this was exactly what had been said.
This was such an amazing experience for me.
So how much greater, then, must it have been for those people on that first day of Pentecost in the Christian Church. The coming of the Holy Spirit on these people had such a powerful effect on them that they were set free in a new way, inspired and changed because God came to dwell in their hearts. What an amazing encounter that must have been.
It is those events in the Upper Room, over 2000 years ago, which reveal to us a great deal about the way we experience the life of the Church today.
When Pope Francis visited there in 2014 he highlighted 3 major events which took place in that sacred space: He said “Here, where Jesus shared the Last Supper with the apostles; where after His resurrection, He appeared in their midst; where the Holy Spirit descended with power upon Mary and the disciples, here the Church was born, and she was born to go forth.”
The events in the Upper Room do indeed reveal a great deal about the way we are involved in the life of the Church. We experience that life through the sacraments, in serving others, in prayer, in the profession of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, in the outpouring of the gifts of the Spirit.
According to tradition, this is where the apostles stayed when they were in Jerusalem. It is where the Last Supper took place. It is where Jesus washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:1–20), which symbolizes the ministry of loving service. It is where the concept of a loving friendship with Jesus was introduced, as set forth in John’s Last Supper discourses (John 14—16), and gave the apostles a glimpse into the beautiful prayer life of Jesus. It is the place where the disciples gathered in fear after the death of Jesus and prayed, with Mary, for the coming of the Holy Spirit (John 20:19–23).
By tradition, this is the same room where Jesus appeared, both before and after the resurrection. It was here that the Risen One made visible his wounds to see and touch, and the room where the faith of Thomas emerged. It is where the Risen Lord breathed on them the Holy Spirit “on the evening of that first day of the week” (John 20:19). It is where tongues of fire appeared to them on Pentecost and “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4) the event which marks the birthday of the Church today (Acts 1:14). It is from there that the apostles went forth with boldness sharing the Good News. It is in this room from which, filled with the Holy Spirit, the apostles would ultimately leave to change the world—your world and mine. For as we hear in Psalm 104:30: “Send forth your spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.”
In this humble space, the most important room in all of Christendom, where Jesus set a remarkable precedent of faith and service, we were given a new understanding of God’s love and the revolutionary power of the Holy Spirit was unleashed.
As Pope Francis said: “How much love and goodness has flowed from the Upper Room! How much charity has gone forth from here, like a river from its source, beginning as a stream and then expanding and becoming a great torrent. All the saints drew from this source; and hence the great river of the Church’s holiness continues to flow: from the heart of Christ, from the Eucharist and from the Holy Spirit.”
But you don’t have to go to the Upper Room to realise the importance of the events that took place there because they continue to rest at the heart of our faith today. It is here the apostles retreated from the world to be with Jesus, here they listened to Him as He revealed to them the mysteries that they would one day pass on to 1000s of others. It was here, above all, they were equipped to do the work for which they had been called. And it is in this sense you don’t need to travel to the Holy Land to encounter Christ because, through the Holy Spirit, there is in each one of us an ‘upper room’, where we experience the living presence of God. Wherever we are, whenever we take the time to find and speak and listen to God, we can experience this life-giving, sacramental, and transformative presence.
Today, even in these difficult times, as we celebrate the birthday of the Church and ponder what happened in that Upper Room in Jerusalem, lets continue to let those events and the blessings and grace they brought continue to transform us through the life of the Church, creating for us a spiritual home where people are welcomed and nurtured.
I pray this Pentecost Sunday that you might experience a renewed sense of God’s presence in your life, and the graces he wants to pour out upon you that can be traced to the events that transpired in that holy place because those graces continue and are at the heart of our living faith today.