Sermon for Eucharist
27 May 2007 at :00 am
Acts 2: 1-21; Romans 8: 14-17; John 14: 8-17, 25-27
The first few chapters of the Bible tell stories that explain why various things are as they are. The stories of the creation are followed by stories about the power of evil to destroy and divide. Genesis 11 tells a story explaining why humanity has been divided by language. The story goes like this. Human beings learnt to make bricks and mortar and to pile bricks one on top of the other and planned to make a name for themselves by building "a city and a tower with its top in the heavens". The Lord wasn't at all sure that this was a good idea. Not only would their tower reach the heavens and therefore challenge the supremacy of God but, as Genesis puts it, "nothing that they proposed to do would now be impossible for them". So the Lord came down and confused the language there so that they would not understand each other's speech. We know this as the story of the tower of Babel. It is a sad and sorry tale.
Today on the feast of Pentecost, when the Church first experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, we hear what in effect reverses that story. According to the account of St Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, although Jerusalem is full of people from all over the world come to celebrate the Jewish feast, all of whom speak different languages, now each of them understands in their own language what the apostles are saying. The apostles' gift of tongues overcomes the division between peoples and holds out hope that people of different nationalities and ethnicities coming to mutual understanding. Language that could divide and destroy has become, through the power of the Holy Spirit, an instrument that unites and reconciles.
The Acts of the Apostles tells of the remarkable growth of the early Church from these amazing beginnings. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Jesus' closest followers, who have been divided and terrified by his crucifixion and frankly unsure how to respond to the evidence of his resurrection, are now confident, indeed bold, risking everything and apparently unafraid, as they go out to preach to all who will listen. This day, the Acts tells us, 3,000 are baptised. Together these new Christians devote themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. They live in peace, in unity and reconciliation, giving up everything in commitment to Christ within the life of the Church.
Our world is in desperate need of the gift of peace, of unity and reconciliation, which the Holy Spirit brings. This Pentecost, there are signs of hope. We give thanks that the long years of conflict in Northern Ireland have come to an end. And we pray for the new government in Northern Ireland borne of the collaboration between the DUP and Sinn Fein to be secure and successful. May the fruits of the Spirit, in love, joy and peace, flourish afresh in a newly confident, democratic Northern Ireland! This advance, however, highlights the many disastrous conflicts throughout the world, especially in the Middle East and in Africa, which bring desperate poverty in their wake, as well as loss of education and of all prospects for development. Our thoughts go to the people of Gaza and the whole of Israel/Palestine, still to Iraq, and in Africa to Zimbabwe, the Sudan, Congo and Uganda. Our prayer this Pentecost must be for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that will bring peace and reconciliation in these lands.
These conflicts can seem remote from us, though our prayer and our generous giving can and will make a difference. There are other conflicts closer to home, in our own beloved Church and in the Anglican Communion, which make it so hard for the world to hear the message of peace and reconciliation and to trust the power of the Holy Spirit. A Church divided by its own language difficulties is not best placed to speak to the world of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In this light, the Archbishop of Canterbury is surely right to prize very highly the gift and goal of unity and to do all possible to keep Anglicans and Episcopalians throughout the world together in the Anglican Communion. Abandoning that goal would be a sorry tale.
This feast of Pentecost should raise our sights from particular conflicts, disputes and animosities. It offers us a vision of reconciled humanity. Our goal and efforts must therefore be to draw all people together into one language of mutual understanding and respect. Westminster Abbey has a particularly privileged and significant role here: bringing together people of all Christian denominations and of all faiths, as well as some with little or no understanding of or trust in religious faith itself, in dialogue and friendship. A world desperate for peace and reconciliation needs a clear sign that religion is not the problem but the solution. There is much here for us to do.
For God's will is not to divide people by language, but to enable, by the power of the Holy Spirit, all people to hear his word of peace and grow in unity and reconciliation, in mutual understanding and respect. May the fervent joy of this Pentecost inspire us to greater collaboration with this wonderful mission of God!