Sermon given at Evensong on the Day of Pentecost 2012

27 May 2012 at 15:00 pm

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Sacrist

The sociologist David Martin in his book 'On Secularization' explores whether religious presence in Europe is a private or public fact. He reminds us that historically, without the prior existence of Christianity, in successive mutations of Reform, Humanism, and Enlightenment, the 'West' and Europe are little more than geographical expressions, or congeries of economic convenience.

There is surely a proper debate around some of these premises, but on the day of Pentecost, we need to celebrate confidently and joyfully that the Christian shaping of Europe is a 'public' fact. I must say immediately, that this is not in any sense to exclude the wonderful contributions made by other faiths to the flourishing of Europe – importantly and famously for example in the Islamic legacy which permeates much of southern Spain, and in the all-too-few remaining echoes of the wonderful vibrance of the Jewish shtetls which once characterised much of Eastern Europe. But it does seem to me to be fairly undeniable, that the macro shape of Europe has been determined by artistic, juridical, and social traditions which broadly speaking have been shaped by Christian faith and history. But celebrating this, does not necessarily mean a return to the Christendom of the past. That’s impossible in any case, and it is at the very least problematic to imagine that an answer to the question of contemporary identity is about retreating to the safety and certainty of past socio-politcal realities which have their roots in very specific circumstances.

Why is this important? Firstly, because the privatisation of Christianity in much of the West, often colluded in by the Church (actively or passively) is the opposite of the dynamic of Pentecost. Christianity is not supposed to be a sect, or a private interest group; not a self-righteous gathering of the moral elite, nor a hermetically-sealed hand-wringing group of the superior – these are pale imitations of the Church, which need to be named as such. Rather, the Church is the community in which the love and power of the risen Christ made possible through his death and resurrection is celebrated as the fundamental reality. A community changed because of the power of the testimony which lives and breathes within it – the testimony of Christ’s dying and rising.

Monsignor Ronnie Knox famously said that Easter turns the death of Jesus from a wall into a window. But Pentecost is the movement when even the best metaphors of containment break down, as the richness of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus become known in a thoroughly un-restricted way to those who call upon his name and who wait upon him in prayer. Through Pentecost, the Resurrection of Christ becomes for the Christian simply the most public fact of all.

If we examine what is going on on the day of Pentecost, we see that it is perhaps principally about two things: revelation and identity, and within both of these gifts is an empowering of the early Church to reach out beyond its boundaries and securities in drastic and almost unimaginable ways. It is a gathering together, a confirmation of vocation, but which also has deeply within it a dynamic of dislocation. It is the opening up of God’s future for the world, as the Apostles know their own identity caught up in a movement of intense richness which is simply not their own. It is the passing of the full weight of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection into the world through the community which is beginning to recognise the scope of God’s saving acts in Christ, offering the world and its events, a fundamentally new identity and potential shape.

To understand this, we need to return to those two features of what happens as the Spirit is poured out. Revelation and identity. The writer of the Acts of the Apostles tells the story moments before the part of Peter’s speech we heard in tonight’s second lesson [Acts 2: 22-38]. The familiar story of flames on the apostles’ heads and their ability to speak new languages is enlivened in the light of another central biblical story, essential to the identity of the Jewish people. I refer to the story of the Burning Bush in the book Exodus. Both accounts involve fire, in Exodus, it’s the Burning Bush, in Acts, it’s the Apostles themselves. In both cases, the fire does not consume them, but rather enlivens them. In Exodus, Moses is told to remove his shoes, and yet at Pentecost, the place where the apostles are meeting becomes holy ground. The Jews understood the Burning Bush as the fundamental revelation of God’s identity, the moment when the Divine Name – so holy that it could not be uttered – was revealed. At Pentecost, the revelation of God’s identity was not given through a bush in the wilderness, but in a house in Jerusalem, to a people whose duty was not so much to seek as pilgrims for the promised land, as to go out from the Holy City, blazing with the identity of Christ himself and to call all people to participate in the richness of this life.

That is why the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has to be a public fact: because Pentecost provides the lens through which to view the whole sphere of our existence: it provides the coordinates for how we relate to other people, to the past and to the future, knowing that through our baptism we are part of the building project of the kingdom of God, rooted in the resurrection of Christ. The spirit of Pentecost offers us hope for humanity, as God’s identity through power of Christ’s resurrection lights up human flesh with such abundance that it does not consume it. When St Irenaeus of Lyons famously wrote that the glory of God is a human being fully alive in Christ, he reminds us that it is those who know their own human lives as laboratories of Christ’s Holy Spirit who will see God.

This, surely, is an eternally new way of looking at reality. It is revelation, it is our identity. Those who would dare to step within its constantly inviting life, perhaps glimpse the beginning of the fulfilment of Ezekiel’s prophecy from our first reading [Ezekiel 36: 22-28]: 'A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you; I will remove from your body the heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh.'

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