Sermon at Evensong on the Day of Pentecost 2019

'Time is how you spend your love.'

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon in Residence

Sunday, 9th June 2019 at 3.00 PM

At the beginning of her novel On Beauty, Zadie Smith quotes a line from a poem by her husband Nick Laird: “Time is how you spend your love.” This short sentence acts as a backdrop for a beautifully woven novel, in which issues of race, beauty, class and identity are woven together and examined in minute detail. On Beauty is a re-telling of E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, itself a story which reveals how complex past events and tragedies shape the future, but also how that future can offer redemption and hope. How we think of time itself, whether it is just one thing after another, if we’re simply swept along by time as actors on a stage, or whether perhaps there is no such as thing as “time”, no celestial clock ticking threateningly over our “to-do” lists, but rather a series of events and actions which have meaning and which contribute towards the unfolding of creation’s identity, is fundamental to how we understand the Christian story. The best description of time may be that when we are fulfilling our creaturely destiny, time is “how we spend our love.” In what we know as time, that is certainly true of God. Christ, taking the form of a slave, emptied himself of all but love, and went to the end for us: the Spirit now the advocate for those who live in Christ.

Today, we celebrate how the cosmos-shaking events of Holy Week and Easter have passed into the world through the fresh anointing of the Holy Spirit. This is the culmination of Eastertide, as Christ’s promise that he would not leave his followers comfortless, comes to fulfilment. From the Cross, Jesus has cried, “It is finished.” But Pentecost places within the Christian community the hope-filled truth that it is not over.  The Church is the not-over of God, anointed by the power of the Holy Spirit to proclaim that the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ have changed all time, and given it entirely new potential and new coordinates. As Mary and John stand either side of the Cross on the first Good Friday, that is the secret they keep until Pentecost – it is finished, but it is not over. Our English translation of the Gospels does not quite convey the richness of the scene. As Jesus breathes out his spirit, this is not merely a final collapse of his lungs, it is a handing-over of his spirit almost like a baton in a rally. He breathes this spirit into and between Mary and John, hands it over to them, constitutes a new community in which the events of his ministry and his death will have eternal meaning, and in which we are invited to discover that the best definition of time for Christians might just be how we spend the love of Christ.  

This afternoon’s readings remind us that at the heart of the Easter events is the issue of how we are drawn into this thoroughly new kind of life. In the book of Exodus, Moses communes with God “as with a friend” in the Tent of Meeting outside the Israelites camp. Throughout the long story of the Exodus period, God’s mighty acts are mediated through Moses, Aaron, Joshua, the prophets, signs and wonders. Writing hundreds of years later, St Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, encourages the early Christians to approach the Lord’s glory with boldness and “unveiled faces.” Paul is using a slightly shocking metaphor which would have been very powerful indeed for the first Christians, conscious of their Messiah’s Jewish identity. Reading Paul 2000 years later, we must remember his own later insights that God does not renege on the gifts he has given or the covenant he has promised. But nevertheless, we are encouraged to approach the Lord, in the power of the spirit in a different mode. Slightly earlier in the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul mixes together two rich images: he writes that Christ “leads us in a victory procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.” It is thus, that we can behold the Lord’s glory as if “in a mirror… being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”

This “victory procession” of which Paul writes is a corporate celebration of the Easter event. In the ancient world, military victories were celebrated with great processions of the spoils of war. This procession, the joyful movement of the followers of Jesus is possible because we are participants in Christ’s death and resurrection. Not passive observers, but through the Spirit, participants, making the events of our redemption present and visible, re-temporalising time; spreading the fragrance of that victory, which comes through knowing Christ. Time is how we the spend the love of Christ.

The events of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, have made God finally and perfectly known. Our time, our rhythm, entrusted to us at Pentecost is the pulse of Jesus’s ministry, his death and resurrection, proclaimed by us, given to be seen in and through us. In his 1942 lecture, The Music of Poetry, T. S. Eliot wrote, “A poem…may tend to realise itself first as a particular rhythm before it reaches expression in words.”  Eliot was concerned with how words work, and how poetry relays meaning. But a similar challenge may be posed to the Christian life. How we spend our time may reveal more about us than what we say. We might consider whether our actions, our work, our leisure, our commitments, show a people alive and alert with the fire of Pentecost? Which is to say, is the ministry of Christ – his reconciliation, his commitment to the sick and the outcast, his fiery love – visible in us and through us? Do we nurture our relationship with Christ sufficiently to allow ourselves to become a mirror in which others might see the glory of the Lord, and sense the power of the Spirit which has been handed over to us?

Sometimes, surely – thank God. Often, we will need to be renewed for this miracle to become visible and tangible to others. The promise of Pentecost is that in the power of the Holy Spirit, we may see the Lord face to face by claiming for ourselves the death and resurrection of Jesus. Let us claim it again, in all its refreshing power and reconciling energy, and pray that our lives – our “time” – rooted in the saving events of Christ’s life, might be how we spend the love of Christ which has been entrusted to us.