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God, who as at this time didst teach the hearts…
For the Epistle
Acts 2:1-11
John 14:15-31b

Unlike the stable for incarnation, the cross for redemption and the empty tomb for resurrection, the setting of the Church’s birthday truly matches its significance. The followers of Jesus (it is not clear, cf Acts 12; 13; 14; 15 whether the Apostles alone were inspired) were suddenly struck by a massive spiritual force which drove them out of the upper room into the Temple precincts on one of the three most important days of the Jewish calendar, the feast of the First Fruits, to harvest the first fruits of the Christian mission. This was the first public declaration of the significance of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

There are three aspects that stand out. First, Jesus had told his followers to await the Holy Spirit and they were in no doubt what had happened when it happened. Secondly, they were filled with amazing courage; Jesus had sent them out to preach in villages where they knew some of the people but now they were in Jerusalem preaching to a large and cosmopolitan festival audience. Thirdly, in a remarkable reversal of the Babel story in which humanity had been ‘punished’ for hubris (Genesis 11), the message of salvation overcame the divisions of language. Naturally it is this last factor which commands most attention because of the comprehensive list of tongues which underlines the point but that is secondary to the massive injection of power which they received to ‘kick start’ the church. The first half of Acts in particular is a startling testimony to the power of the Spirit.

The audience was so international because the weather made this the easiest of the three major Jewish festivals to attend (during his travels Paul was anxious to attend this Feast, cf Acts 20:16); and although the majority were Diaspora Jews, Gentiles were almost certainly present. In the Gospel the other Judas asks why Jesus has not manifested himself to the world and Jesus replies that that will be the mission of his followers. He says that the Holy Ghost will teach them all things and help them to recall all the things that he said. That promise under-writes the theological authenticity of the New Testament such that what it says to us about the life of Jesus and his relationship with The Father and The Spirit is quite independent of any discussion about historicity. In a little over half a century a revolutionary theology of the Trinity, of Word and Sacrament, of incarnation, redemption and resurrection, of charity and the meaning of the holy and prayerful life in private and public, was constructed by the most unlikely collection of authors who transformed old genres for new purposes. At the same time, the missionary audacity of Peter, Paul, Stephen, Philip and the rest was beyond human explanation. How else but in the power of the Spirit could so much have been accomplished?

Sadly, as she (I like to think of associated female qualities with the ‘Third Person’) is equal in the Trinity, this is the one day on which the Spirit is seriously considered instead of being an after-thought in the Doxology. Acts is the book of the Spirit and The Church is her cure; we are the earthly manifestation of the presence of the Spirit, an outward sign of the invisible life force of salvation. Both the Collect and Gospel use the word “comfort” to describe the gift of the Spirit in the sense of “aid and comfort” which is an active assistance precisely opposite to the contemporary, passive meaning of the word.

Perhaps the Spirit suffers most from the language of ‘person’ in Trinitarian jargon where an active presence willed by the Father and Son would be a better idea. If talking of God makes more sense as a verb than as a noun then that applies strongly to the Spirit who is constantly active through the Church in history: the Father is outside time, The Son has returned to the Father but the Spirit is here, with us now, inhabiting our history and our sense of ourselves.

The Collect is courting danger when it associates the Spirit with “right judgment in all things”. Too often Christians, and particularly those in authority, invoke the Spirit to under-write their pronouncements. In the 16th Century spiritual and temporal leaders far too often claimed God’s sanction for doubtful conduct. We call upon the Spirit, and we have sacramental means of giving added significance to the way we call, and we use our best endeavours to do God’s will in the power of the Spirit but it is dangerous to associate specific decisions with the Spirit; in this sense the Spirit informs our conscience and judgment but does not issue decrees on matters great nor small. We pray in the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ to the Father but it is not our power.

Our problem, if it is a problem, is our quest as pilgrims to penetrate further the sacred mysteries; and a key element in that quest is depiction. We know enough to know how inadequate are our efforts when we look at images of Jesus and even more so of the Father; but the spirit is so far beyond our reach as to make our efforts almost ridiculous. When that first great proclamation of salvation was made to the world there would have been doves waiting to be sold and sacrificed and a fire burning to receive them. I like to think that there was a wild dove looking down on Peter as he spoke.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Draw the Holy Spirit
  2. Relate the Jewish First Fruits to the Christian first fruits of the life of Jesus
  3. How significant is gender assignment to the Holy Spirit?
  4. What is the connection between the prompting of the Holy Spirit and our decisions and behaviour?
  5. Is the Church the sacrament of Jesus or the Holy Spirit?

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