The Gospel for this Sunday is unusually brief, because for once our attention must be elsewhere, firmly focussed on the reading from Acts. This recounts the powerful experience Christ’s disciples underwent on Shavuot, a Jewish festival that occurs in late spring and commemorates God’s gift of the Ten Commandments.
The Christian festival which arose from that remarkable first-century Shavout is celebrated fifty days after Easter, hence the name ‘Pentecost’. Nowadays it is widely referred to as ‘the Birthday of the Church’. This is not quite right, however. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus founds the Church when he gives Simon the new name of ‘Peter’. Peter, he declares, is ‘the rock on which I will build my Church’. To understand the Day of Pentecost properly, therefore, we have to see it, not as the beginning, but as the development of the Church that Christ had founded in the course of his ministry. Pentecost is a point of transformation. A faithful group of believers was so powerfully inspired by the Holy Spirit, that they became something ‘mystical’, the Body of Christ on earth.
Unhappily, this has often been the reality. Christians have been so divided, so at odds with each other, that the Body of Christ seems fractured with dispute, recrimination, persecution and even slaughter. At many points, both past and present, the glorious commission given to the Apostles has been hidden behind a screen of intolerance, bigotry and narrow mindedness. And yet, the great mystery is, it is to this often fractured Church that God continues to entrust the Gospel. Pentecost, accordingly, should be embraced as an annual opportunity for real spiritual renewal. The image of wind invites us to spread our sails to a Holy Spirit that will blow us out of our spiritual doldrums, and the Pentecostal fire is an invitation to burn away the idols of our past.
The familiarity of this expression can hinder us in appreciating what an extraordinary status this bestows on the Church. It makes it sacred, and thus an institution like no other. When baptized Christians celebrate Pentecost they are claiming an astonishing privilege – to continue God’s incarnation in the world, and be the embodiment and enduring presence of Christ for human kind. By the same token, of course, this sacred status brings an awesome responsibility. When Christians exercise their privilege well, they can indeed be Christ in the world as a focus of hope and veneration. When they exercise it badly, then Jesus Christ becomes an object of the world’s contempt, or loathing or indifference.
How is this renewal to be accomplished? There is guidance in the reading from Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians. It begins by telling us, ‘No one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit’. What this means is that, however much we may disagree with other Christians, their sincerity and faithfulness to the Lordship of Christ is evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit within them. Certainly, there are important differences, but then, Paul says, that is what we should expect. He writes: ‘There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.’ The lesson he is driving home is not to seek uniformity in belief, or practice or opinion, but to search for and acknowledge the spiritual unity that underlies these differences. Just as a sports team or an orchestra must prize a variety of gifts while being bound by a single underlying spirit, so the Church at Pentecost must rejoice in the single Spirit manifested in all its astonishing variety.
In the very brief Gospel from John, Jesus quotes the prophet Ezekiel ‘Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water’. The celebration of Pentecost is threefold. First it means recognizing that all those who are able to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ are led to do so by the Holy Spirit. Second, it means having a mind sufficiently open to see the living water that has flowed from their lives. Third, it means praying sincerely that such water will continue to flow. When churches are allowed to resume their proper work and worship, this Pentecostal prayer will matter even more.
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Christ Church Morningisde
6a Morningside Road
Edinburgh EH10 4DD
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07718 278 145
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