The Sermon preached on the Day of Pentecost 2023

The Holy Spirit is the invitation to all people, in all their diversity, to share in the Power of all our powers.

The Reverend Mark Birch MVO Precentor

Sunday, 28th May 2023 at 10.30 AM

When the Veni Creator Spiritus, the ancient hymn to the Holy Spirit, was sung at the Coronation in English, Welsh, Gaelic and Irish, it wasn’t just an irenic gesture towards the four quarters of the United Kingdom (with regrets, of course, to the Cornish and, perhaps, the Manx)—it was an expression of hope that there can indeed be unity in diversity within this United Kingdom—not primarily through some grand political programme, but by the Spirit, the Holy Spirit that undid the curse of Babel; the Spirit that, at Pentecost, gave unity of understanding, even within a great diversity of language; the Spirit that makes us one: one with each other in all our difference and individuality; one in Christ.

The Tower of Babel, often among the readings set for today, was the supreme act of hubris; human beings building themselves up and up so they could look God in the eye and show him how powerful they had become. It is a story of God and humanity as rivals; seeing one another as a threat, and it ends in division and confusion, with humans unable to understand one another, let alone God.

So, it is surprising, perhaps, that the Holy Spirit did not simply reverse the confusion at Babel by suppressing that diversity of language. Those Parthians, Medes, Elamites and the rest didn’t all suddenly speak Latin, nor even English. Their own distinct languages became the medium for the new message that could unite them. The Holy Spirit at Pentecost is not, it seems, a project of uniformity—tempting though that has been for churches, and all manner of despots and tyrants down the centuries. The Holy Spirit does not coerce us all to be the same; it invites us to share in a life that is abundant, multi-form, and expansive.

Moreover, The Holy Spirit does not need to be coercive, because she is the Holy Spirit—she is not our rival; she has nothing to prove; she simply is, in the words of the hymn, the Creator Spirit. When Acts tells us of a violent rushing wind filling the house where the disciples were gathered, our minds are meant to wind back, beyond Babel, to the beginning of Genesis—to the wind from God that brooded over the waters of chaos; the breath of God, in Hebrew the ruach, that brought all things into existence.

The psalmist picks this up, saying to God,

When you hide your face, they are troubled;
   when you take away their breath, they die and return again to the dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created,
   and you renew the face of the earth.

Without the breath of God all would dissolve to dust, to nothing. Just as God creates out of nothing, so there is nothing without God. It's not that God fired-up creation in the beginning and now sits back to watch it either prosper or decay. It is the Spirit of God that underpins our existence; that creates and renews us, constantly, in an act of sustained loving regard. When we open ourselves to the Spirit, when we breathe it in, this is not an eccentric choice on our part, we are not inviting an invasion by some alien, rival power. Opening ourselves to the Spirit is aligning ourselves, our will, our power, with the font of our being; the ground of our willing; the Power of our power.

This power of creation, the power to bring being out of nothing at all, is a kind of power we are inclined to forget or ignore, because it is not coercive, it is not our rival—we are inclined to forget it because it just is.

It is the forgetfulness of this power that causes some to say they do not believe in God because of a lack of evidence. What they don’t believe in (quite rightly as it turns out) is a special power at work among all the other powers in the world—a power that occasionally intervenes to produce miracles; a power that we might coerce or cajole if we pray in the right way; a power that does us special favours if we do the right thing, and works against us when we don’t.

God is not a power among powers (not even a Higher Power), just as he is not a thing among things. God is not a force, an idea, a construct, a projection—although those are sometimes things people (among whom I must include myself) mistake for God. We endlessly construe of God as some kind of demiurge; a force that we must appease, which, deep down, we fear. It is hard to shake off the fear that God might suddenly flare out against us—an unpredictable fire; a simmering threat to us and the things we value.

The reading we heard from Acts could therefore read as a parable—a parable concerning this idea of God as unpredictably violent, as a capricious rival to be feared. This reading is the only place in scripture that uses the word bia-ias—it is the adjective used to describe the wind that filled the house, and its meaning is violent, mighty. Now if anything described as a ‘violent’ or ‘mighty wind’ were approaching your house, you might be wise to make your way into the cellar and work out where you filed the buildings and contents insurance. But Pentecost was the violent wind that did no violence—the mighty power that did not destroy. This was not a rival power of this world—not of this creation—it was the power of creation itself; the power of Being itself renewing all being. Those who were gathered in the house expected to be entombed in falling masonry. Instead, they received a fiery kiss of life.

Pentecost is a reminder of who it is we are dealing with here, in the New Testament—who it was that was revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Not a god among gods—not a rival being among beings—but the Creator God, by whose Word all things were made, and without whom not one thing came into being. If you need evidence for God, if you need proof in order to believe, then you can wait around, more or less sceptically, for a miracle, if you wish, but that is like straining to see a train that might be coming down the tracks, and failing to notice the one on the platform right in front of you. If we fail to realise that existence, the existence of anything, of everything, is the evidence, the miracle, the supreme gift, then we risk misinterpreting anything that might look like an answer to our prayer.

The gift of tongues, or the miraculous healing of someone we love is a cause for wonder and thanksgiving, but if it doesn’t point us to the miracle of existence, and of the Spirit who is renewing the face of the earth, not just where there is obvious healing and rejoicing, but equally in places where there is not, then we risk worshipping a capricious power among powers, and not the Creator God.

Those philosophical accounts of God creating out of nothing, as the ground of all being, the giver of existence, they can seem a bit abstruse and impersonal; but they are important for us to account for who we meet in the person of Jesus and what we mean by the person of the Holy Spirit—the Creator Spirit; elemental as earth, as wind, as fire, as water.

In the gospel reading, Jesus stood in the Temple, and said:

'Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, "Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water."'

The Holy Spirit is the violent wind, the mighty breath, that does no violence, but renews the face of the earth; she is the fire that purifies and energises, that consumes only what is dross; and she is the water of life, flowing from the Father, offered in the Son, and becoming, in Baptism, a river of life flowing within and through us.

The Creator Spirit is the transcendent ground of all existence; she is also the intimate, personal, sustained and sustaining regard of God for every creature; the breath that makes this dust live.

She is not the Spirit of coercion, nor of uniformity—not a rival power in the world, with a political programme of aggressive dominion. She is the invitation to all people, in all their diversity (not just of language), to share in the Power of all our powers, the deep well of our shared existence, and in the fiery love that creates, refines and renews.