s032ag99 Somerton Park 23/5/99 Pentecost
"I send you". John 20.21.
Pentecost is the birthday of the Church and so the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Church are inextricably linked. There is no Church without the Holy Spirit, and no Holy Spirit without the Church. The Holy Spirit creates the Church - so often humanity spends its time destroying Church, despite pretensions of evangelistic outreach. It is the Holy Spirit which creates the Church, not humanity.
And fundamental to the Church is that we are sent. We read in today's gospel that Jesus sends us - we can't get out of it. We are sent as the Church and we are sent as individuals. Unfortunately Jesus is not very specific as to whom we are sent, or what we are to take, either in terms of the message to deliver or the gift we bring to others. I well remember early on in my ordained ministry hearing a charismatic leader say - just anoint - don't worry about what to say. I felt it was rather unsatisfactory. And sometimes I rather think Jesus lack of specifics is unsatisfactory too. I'm an engineer by temperament - I don't like being unspecific. It is not a word in the engineering vocabulary.
And the words of the Creed too properly acknowledge this "being sent" aspect of the Church, when we affirm: "We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church" in the Nicene Creed each Sunday. The outpouring of the gift of the Holy Spirit on the disciples made them into apostles - people who are sent. It is not that we believe in bishops, or that they are the true descendants of the first apostles - we don't "believe in" the episcopate. We believe in a Church which is first and foremost a sent Church.
So we don't exist simply for ourselves - we are always outward looking. Neither do we simply exist for the worship of God, important though this is. We don't exist in order that others might come and join us. We are sent to others.
And it is we who are sent, it is US who are important - not the message. We are not just useful to God as we faithfully deliver things. We are not God's couriers. We are the gift. We don't need to take anything - neither the Bible, nor the commandments, nor the cross, nor the sacrament, nor our faith.
Jesus didn't die for the Bible, for the commandments, for the cross, for the sacrament, or for faith - he died for us - for you and for me - and for those to whom we are sent. Therefore we don't "take" anything with us at all. We go because in going we will find ourselves with another for whom Christ died - we won't ever find ourselves in any company where this is not true. And Christ died for that other, whether they know or not, whether they accept or not. Jesus died and rose again for people, so anything that we might take as likely as not will distract from this central truth. So we are sent as human beings to be humane to other human beings, to enjoy the company of fellow human beings.
And we are sent already. I suppose for each of us here today we are sent primarily to our families, to those with whom we live and work and learn. As I said last Sunday, we are sent "to till ... and keep" the soil (Gen 2.15), to "be fruitful and multiply" (Gen 1.28). The Holy Spirit sends us into the community, for we find our wholeness through the contributions other people make to our lives and through the community we share.
How much of our existence do we depend on other people? How many of us grow our own food, carry our own water to our dwellings? Did we build the houses we live in, did we personally make the bricks for the walls? Someone else thought about sewerage disposal and collecting the garbage. Electricity, gas and lines of communication all come to my very door, and I complain when I have to dry the dishes ... (Well I don't really :-) The doctors we see, the medication we take, all are the result of other people. My father, being a watchmaker and jeweller, saw his ministry as bringing happiness to others as they bought gifts for one another.
We are sent then, not to take something to others - without which they would otherwise be lacking, but to have our own lives enriched.
The point is reinforced as we consider more fully that credal phrase: "We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church". When I was young I was taught that "catholic" meant "universal" - a fairly innocuous identification - and I suspect deliberately so - as I was brought up "Anglican" rather than high- or low- Church. But my dictionary defines "catholic" as "embracing all" - a rather more exciting and descriptive term. So the phrase in the creed becomes: We believe that we as individuals are brought together as one in the faith that Jesus died and rose for us and for all, and we are sent out to accept others as individuals for whom Jesus also died and rose again.
"Embracing all", again, means accepting and respecting other people's personal space - not trying to break down people's natural inclinations. "Embracing all" means accepting the contributions others will make to our lives and the corporate society we call "Church" - even when sometimes it eclipses our own contribution.
So the Church is everywhere where people come together, where the words from St Paul (1 Cor 12) are seen to be a reality. The Holy Spirit is everywhere where people come together "for the common good".
For the gift of the Spirit was not poured out on the hearers of those first apostles, enabling those hearers to understand the words of the apostles in their own languages. So if our "evangelism" is teaching outsiders the vocabulary of salvation, we have failed to perceive the direction of the grace of God. The gift of the Spirit was poured out on the first apostles so that THEY could speak the language of their hearers. The gift of Pentecost is for the CHURCH TO LEARN how to relate to others - not to enable others to live up to our expectations and speak our language.
The Holy Spirit came on the first disciples indeed miraculously, to enable those first disciples to speak the language of their hearers. How remarkable was this! God loved the "Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs" (Acts 2:9-11) that the Spirit enabled the disciples to speak each of their own languages. How special each of those hearers would have felt - that God had noted their presence in the crowd and made sure that one or other of the disciples was able to speak his or her own language! It is therefore no surprise to me that people were attracted to this group of people. And the Holy Spirit will continue to enable us to speak the language of the hearers, if we have a mind to listen and to learn.
It might seem a "big ask" for us to learn a different language. I personally would have great difficulty learning Russian, Arabic, or the Asian languages, because these use different letters to English. But perhaps we might start with those who speak English, yet are of a different era to us.
I was reflecting that otherwise very intelligent and highly articulate fathers need no prompting to speak the language of their new born babies. They are ready to "goo" and "gah", and use language such as "ups-a-daisies" and other such baby phrases. Few, if any, babies stay at this level of communication. Ever so slowly babies mature in their speech - and again they need little or no prompting to do this. But they start on this journey to mature language as parents speak to them in their baby language. I suppose this defies all educational theory and practice however. We don't chastise babies for not using the King's English from day one.
Behind all this is, of course, love. We love the child so we speak it's language. We make them feel special by doing this. Really I suspect it would take little time to pick up what teenagers are saying, if only we have a mind to spend that time with them.
Is not the Holy Spirit the special possession of the community of faith? Quite frankly I wouldn't believe in a God who limited blessings to a particular subset of humanity. That would be to unjustly deny good things to all, and to impose an unbearable task of sharing on that subset. Jesus could see God's blessing in the "lilies of the field" (Mat 6.28) in the "birds of the air" (6.26) and no doubt in those he visited and from whom he accepted hospitality, where he himself was sent.
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit sends us out; we can't "have" the Holy Spirit and stay where we are. The Holy Spirit cannot be enclosed or possessed by any group of individuals, for she is always on the move.
We are sent and it is in the respectful encounter with others that mutual upbuilding will happen. We are all gifts for one another - just as we are - and it is a joy not a trial. It all comes quite naturally when we love - and as we love. Amen.
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