Year A: Acts 2.1-21; 1 Corinthians 12.3b-13; John 20.19-23
It is good training for a deacon to find that the sermon you have carefully prepared has been in some ways superseded by the shock of a news event. There have been too many such shocks in recent weeks, and we probably have to face the fact that there will be more. For those whose lives were suddenly, brutally disrupted yesterday evening on London Bridge and Borough Market, the after effects will last a lifetime, and our prayers this morning must be with the bereaved, the injured and the traumatised. And with those who helped – the emergency services, the medical teams who worked through the night, and countless women and men who did extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances to help their fellow humans.
It is the thing which consistently comes to the fore after an attack like this. The goodness that it generates. In Manchester, in Westminster, in Paris, New York, Brussels. It’s as if it is somehow hard wired into people, that when they are in the presence of evil they find it within themselves to respond with good. It gives the truth to Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words:
Goodness is stronger than evil
Love is stronger than hate
Light is stronger than darkness
Life is stronger than death
Victory is ours through Him who loved us.
The Christian faith has a word for the hard wiring: the work of the Holy Spirit. And that’s an appropriate thing for us to reflect on today, the day of Pentecost.
The other striking thing about the Holy Spirit is its ability to help humans overcome what divides them. And that, too, offers us a sign of hope on a day like today.
As most of you will know, we have new neighbours at St Matthew’s, in the shape of the Indonesian Embassy. They have been moving in gradually over the last few weeks. The fitting-out of their building was slightly delayed, as a result of which we were asked by an Anglo-Indonesian Christian Fellowship Group that meets monthly in the Embassy if they could hold their meetings in our conference centre until their new faith centre was ready. We agreed, and once a month our conference centre has been filling up with a joyous gathering of about 60 people and vast quantities of delicious Indonesian food.
On one occasion I was asked to give a talk on the Bible reading of the day. They explained that they alternated between Indonesian and English speakers. It didn’t occur to me that the rest of the meeting, including the singing, would be in Indonesian. It turned out that Indonesian itself is not one but a bewildering number of different languages, reflecting the complexity of the number of islands that make up the country. I felt embarrassed that I didn’t have a single word of Indonesian – but it turned out that I did have one. I suddenly noticed that the word they were using for the Holy Spirit was the same word as the Hebrew one – ruach. In Hebrew the word spirit is also the word for breath. In the first chapter of Genesis it is what moves across the face of the waters at the beginning of the act of creation. Without it there would be nothing. In the second chapter of Genesis it is what God breathes into the first human to give life. Without it we would be nothing. And it is what Jesus breathes into the disciples as he leaves them finally after the Resurrection, bringing new life to them for ever – receive the ruach, receive the Holy Spirit. There I was at sea, albeit in an ocean of goodwill and chicken, clinging to the word ruach like one drowning. To the thing which unites us in diversity. The Holy Spirit.
I love the reading from Acts that we heard today. All those people we never hear of anywhere else: Parthians, Medes, Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia. The whole of the known world assembled in one place, suddenly discovering that the Gospel is for all of them, irrespective of their difference. It is a wonderful scene. Undoing all the misunderstanding between humankind caused by the pride of the tower of Babel, when humans thought they could do it alone without God. The ruach that set creation in motion returning to the disciples individually, enabling them to communicate to the whole world in its own language. Notice that, as a result, the people didn’t all begin to speak the same language, a sort of first century Esperanto. They kept their differences but they all understood one another. That’s a powerful notion too. They kept their differences, but they were all one. Unity in diversity.
That’s quite encouraging for us in an Election week. We keep being told that we live in an increasingly polarised society. Sometimes it feels true in the church too.
The week before last, St Mellitus, the theological college I attended in London, marked its tenth anniversary. Its history was written up for the occasion in a booklet by our very own Jonathan Aitken. He recalled how part of the vision that inspired the founders of the College was that the different traditions of the Church of England stood a better chance of staying together if they had studied and worshipped together than if they had studied and worshipped in separate silos. The resulting mix gave rise to some fairly comic, and sometimes frustrating, collisions of tradition but by and large it did what it said on the tin. And what was on the tin was the phrase ‘generous orthodoxy’ – the acknowledgement that there is often more than one way of thinking about theological concepts, and more than one way of worshipping God, but that there is more that unites us than divides us.
We follow a similar vision here at local level when we at St Matthew’s take part in worship and study jointly with St Stephen’s Rochester Row, and sometimes with St James the Less Pimlico – and indeed with St Saviour’s and St Gabriel’s as we did the other night when we gathered on Ascension Day. For all our differences there is more that unites us than divides us, in a world that aches for the Gospel of love we are here to proclaim.
On re-reading the passage from Acts this week, it struck me that one of the things it reminds us is that diversity is part of God’s good creation. In Jesus’s farewell discourse in the Fourth Gospel, he prays that his disciples may be ‘one’ – united in love, with the Father and with each other, but not ‘all the same’. They would each remain themselves with all their differences and maddening complexity. There is difference, and it is good.
The best example of this that I came across theologically at the College was a book about the Resurrection written by two theologians, Marcus Borg and Tom Wright, called: ‘The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions’. Tom Wright, the former Bishop of Durham, is a conservative. Borg, an American academic, is a liberal. They committed to exchanging their thoughts, each writing a chapter and sending it to the other, then commenting to the other on what they had read. ‘Yes, I understand what you are saying, but we can also look at it this way.’ What surprised both of them was that, by the time they had finished, they had become close friends. And they published the book together, saying to the theological world: ‘There are different ways of understanding this faith; we don’t agree about them, but we can live together in mutual respect; read them both, and see what you think.’
How we each hear and receive the Scriptures will never be entirely the same, because we all bring our own context and experience to our reading. The Parthians and the Medes each heard the beauty of the Gospel in their own language, but it was the same eternal truth. God is unchanging. God is also spacious. For God is love, and love is spacious. We each hear the truth of that love in our own language, which won't necessarily be the same as the language of the person standing next to us. And that should be, for all of us, and for all our communities in this country and elsewhere, a sign of hope. Our ability to live together doesn’t, fortunately, depend only on us. We can be inspired by the breath of God that moved on the waters and brought life into being. And we can go out to live in that hope, in the name of the God who is diversity in unity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Meanwhile today, in amongst the shock and the sorrow that London once again faces this morning, let us celebrate that life-giving Spirit and her power, which Patriarch Ignatius of Sweden described in this beautiful way:
‘Without the Holy Spirit: God is far away, Christ stays in the past, the Gospel is a dead letter, the Church is simply an organisation, authority simply a matter of domination, mission a matter of propaganda, liturgy no more than an evocation, Christian living a slave morality. But with the Holy Spirit: the cosmos is resurrected and groans with the birth-pangs of the Kingdom, the risen Christ is there, the Gospel is the power of life, the Church shows forth the life of the Trinity, authority is a liberating service, mission is a Pentecost, the liturgy is both memorial and anticipation, human action is of God.’