Church of Ireland Theological Institute,
Sunday 15 May 2016,
The Day of Pentecost (Whit Sunday),
11.30 a.m., The Eucharist
Readings: Acts 2: 1-21 or Genesis 11: 1-9; Psalm 104: 26-36, 37b; Romans 8: 14-17 or Acts 2: 1-21; John 14: 8-17, [25-27].
In the name of + the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
On the way up the stairs here [in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute] from the chapel to the Brown Room and my study on the staff corridor, there is a large cartoon on which the acclaimed Irish stained-glass artist Evie Hone (1894-1955) worked out her ideas for her Pentecost window in Tara, commissioned as ‘The descent of the Holy Spirit.’
This East Window brings together images of Pentecost and Saint Patrick on the Hill of Tara. It was commissioned for Saint Patrick’s Church on the Hill of Tara in 1936 to mark the 1,500th anniversary of Saint Patrick’s arrival and his mission to Ireland.
The church is now closed and is used as a tourism information centre. But this remains one of Evie Hone’s best-known works, so we have a treasured and valuable part of that heritage here half-way up the stairs to those upper rooms.
This morning, as we read the story of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles, we are told how the disciples gather together in an upper room, still full of fear and hiding even though its ten days after the Ascension. Suddenly, a sound comes from heaven like a rushing wind, filling the entire house. Tongues of fire appear, one on each Apostle, and all are filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2: 1-4).
When the people in Jerusalem hear the sound, they come together and hear the Apostles speaking in their own languages (Acts 2: 5-6). Some even think the Apostles are drunk (Acts 2: 7-13). But, the story goes on later, Peter hears these remarks, stands up and speaks about the Biblical prophecies about the coming of the Holy Spirit, about Christ, his death and his resurrection (Acts 2: 38-39).
We are here marking the end of another academic year. But Pentecost, the gift of the Holy Spirit, marks the beginning, the birthday, of the Church. And this is a gift that does not cease to be effective after the Day of Pentecost. Even if the lectern and pulpit colours are going to change from red to green, this is not a stop-go, go-stop experience for the Church. The gift of the Holy Spirit remains with the Church – and keeps the Church going for all times.
When we think of that first Pentecost, I imagine we think only of the 12 – including Matthias, who we remembered last night at Evening Prayer [14 May 2016] and who had been chosen to replace Judas (Acts 1: 26).
But Pentecost was an experience for more than the 12. There too, in that upper room – and it must have been some big room – were the Virgin Mary, the women who had stayed with Christ throughout his passion and death, the women who went to the tomb on Easter morning, the immediate family of Jesus ... and many, many more (see Acts 1: 12-14). The author of the Acts of the Apostles suggest a total of 120 (see Acts 1: 15).
If the 12, who are brought up to number with Matthias immediately before Pentecost, – if the 12 represent the old Israel, then the 120 ask us to stretch our imagination, to realise that the beginning of God’s new kingdom is at least 10 times bigger than our imagination allows us to start with. And the number keeps on multiplying from 12 to 120, and from 120 to 3,000 – then initially at least 250 times bigger than we first imagine.
And it just gets bigger and bigger in numbers and in blessings after that, so that not only are people from the north, south, east and west invited into the Kingdom of God (see verses 9-11), but eventually the promise is extended to all humanity.
We are promised that the Holy Spirit is to be poured out on Jews and Gentiles, irrespective of ethnicity, language or religion; on young and old alike, irrespective of age; on male and female, irrespective of gender or marital status; indeed on all flesh, irrespective of any of our prejudices, challenging all our hidden prejudices.
The Holy Spirit is not an exclusive gift for the 12, for the inner circle, for the believers, or even for the Church.
See how many times the words all and every are used in those few paragraphs in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2: 1-21):
● they are all together (verse 1);
● the tongues of fire rest on each or every one of them (verse 3);
● all of them are filled with the Holy Spirit (verse 4);
● the people in Jerusalem are from every nation (verse 5);
● each or everyone hears in his or her own language (verse 6);
● so that all are amazed and perplexed (verse 12);
● Peter addresses all (verse 14);
● he promises that God will pour out his Spirit on all (verse 17);
● this promise is for all without regard to gender, age or social background (verses 17-21);
● and the promise of God’s salvation is for everyone (verse 21).
God’s generosity at Pentecost is lavish, risky and abundant in its generosity.
The language is the language of overflowing and over-abundant generosity. The Holy Spirit is not measured out in tiny drops, like some prescribed medicine poured out gently and carefully, drop by drop. It’s not even like a gentle measure used for pouring out a glass of wine.
The Holy Spirit gushes out and spills out all over the place, in a way that is beyond the control of the 12, like champagne fizzing out after the cork has been popped at a party, sparkling all over the room, champagne that can never be put back into the bottle to be poured out once again in polite and controlled measures.
The gift of the Holy Spirit marks the beginning, the birthday, of the Church, so perhaps champagne is the right image to use as we are celebrating the birthday of the Church. But this is a gift that does not cease to be effective after the Day of Pentecost.
The gift of the Holy Spirit remains with the Church – for all times. The gift of the Holy Spirit is for all who are baptised, who are invited to continue daily to hear the word, to join in fellowship, to break the bread, to pray – just as we are doing at this Eucharist this morning (Acts 2: 42-47).
At Pentecost, we see the fulfilment of the promise of the Holy Spirit given by the Risen Christ. Because of that gift at Pentecost, the Church is brought together in diversity and sustained in unity through the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. In the Orthodox Church, they speak of the Church as the realised or lived Pentecost.
This is the Holy Spirit who is to guide the Church in our missionary endeavours – not just throughout the world, but in our dioceses and parishes, in the places each of us here this morning is called to minister in.
This is the Holy Spirit who nurtures the Body of Christ, the Church, in truth and in love.
And yet, most people probably think of the Holy Spirit as some invisible appendix of God the Father and God the Son, something for Pentecost. Perhaps, we think of the gifts given at Confirmation. But we do not talk easily about the Holy Spirit. We fear, perhaps, that someone might think we are too enthusiastic about Christianity, about religion.
Our thinking about the Holy Spirit is more difficult, is constricted, because of those images of the Holy Spirit in traditional Christian art as a dove in paintings and stained-glass windows that looks more like a homing pigeon; or tongues of fire dancing around meekly-bowed heads of people cowering and hiding in that upper room in Jerusalem, rather than a room that is bursting at the seams and ready to overflow.
We think, perhaps, that it is best to leave thinking about the Holy Spirit to this day, the Day of Pentecost, or to a once-a-year Confirmation service, and let the rest of us get on for the rest of the year with God simply being God the Father or God the Son.
In the Church Times in recent weeks, letters to the editor have expressed anguish about conversations in which the Holy Spirit has been referred to as “It.” I imagine anyone who uses “It” instead of a personal pronoun would have problems too if someone referred to the Holy Spirit as “she.”
But the reality is that for some people the Holy Spirit is “It” – something added on as an extra course, as an elective, as an after-thought after the Resurrection and the Ascension.
When my now-adult sons were children, they went through that phase of wearing wrist bands with the lettering “WWJD” – “What Would Jesus Do?” Did you ever see one asking “WWSD” – “What Would the Spirit Do?”
Yet, when it comes to the point in the Nicene Creed this morning where we say “We believe in the Holy Spirit,” do we really believe in the Holy Spirit as “the Lord, the giver of life,” for our Psalm this morning reminds us that this is the Spirit of creation that also renews the face of the earth (see Psalm 104: 31; cf verse 25)?
Do you really believe in the Holy Spirit as the way in which God “has spoken through the prophets”?
The gift of the Holy Spirit does not stop being effective the day after confirmation, the day after hearing someone speaking in tongues, the day after the Day of Pentecost, and certainly not the day after your ordination.
God never leaves us alone. This is Christ’s promise to the disciples, to the whole Church, in our Gospel reading this morning. We need have no fears, for the Resurrection breaks through all the barriers of time and space, of gender and race, of language and colour.
As a sign of this, Christ promises the gift of the Holy Spirit and says: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14: 27).
And he links the gift of the Holy Spirit too with the command to love: ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever’ (John 14: 15-16).
If you have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift at your Confirmation, the gift that we all receive as the Church at Pentecost, the gift that you will receive at your ordination as deacons and priests, how then do you let others know? How do I share that peace? How can I, how can you, how can the Church, be signs of the presence and reality of Christ’s love?
If the Holy Spirit is the Advocate and is living in me, then who am I an advocate for? Who do I speak up for when there is no-one else to speak up for them?
I have no doubts that the Holy Spirit works in so many ways that we cannot understand. And no doubts that the Holy Spirit works best and works most often in the quiet small ways, rather than in the big dramatic ways.
Sometimes, even when it seems foolish, sometimes, even when it seems extravagant, it is worth being led by the Holy Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit may be leading us to surprising places, and, surprisingly, leading others to be there too, counting them in when we thought they were counted out.
And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Community Eucharist in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, on the Day of Pentecost, 15 May 2016.
who on the day of Pentecost
sent your Holy Spirit to the apostles
with the wind from heaven and in tongues of flame,
filling them with joy and boldness to preach the gospel:
By the power of the same Spirit
strengthen us to witness to your truth
and to draw everyone to the fire of your love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Post Communion Prayer:
who fulfilled the promises of Easter
by sending us your Holy Spirit
and opening to every race and nation the way of life eternal:
Open our lips by your Spirit,
that every tongue may tell of your glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.