Incarnational Perception

Sunday 4th June 2017
Pentecost (Whit Sunday)
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
BCP Evensong
Joel 2.21-32
Acts 2.14-21

The score lies closed on the podium. The musicians with their varying instruments file onto the stage. And then the conductor walks on and opens the score, intent on revealing its secrets. The score is, itself, a work of inspiration but the job of the conductor is to bring his own gift of inspiration to reveal its hidden promise, bringing out individual instruments or co-ordinating ensemble. The realisation of music is, then, a two-stage process of inspiration, the text and its enactment.

Here, on the morning of Pentecost, Peter the conductor opens the Book of Joel and then interprets it for the audience from many nations, bringing out the meaning for individuals and for the whole assembly. But what he brings to his interpretation is the knowledge, unknown to Joel, of the death and Resurrection of Jesus and his power lies in the infusion of the Holy Spirit, promised in Joel and fulfilled on this day. As the conductor sets forth the meaning of his score, so Peter prophesies on the massive implications of his text. It is as if the conductor had studied his score for many hours but had not seen its full meaning for Peter only dimply perceived the meaning of the life of his Lord and Master. He did say that Jesus was the Messiah but this seems more like the statement of a man labouring with his text; but now the full structure and its meaning are evident to him.

And we, on this Pentecost are rather like music connoisseurs who have multiple recorded interpretations of the same piece from conductors down the years without fully grasping the music's meaning for ourselves. We have repeated the Creeds at least weekly, we have observed all the rubrics of the rituals, we have perhaps read the Bible for ourselves and we have listened to countless sermons and even, perhaps, read the occasional book on hermeneutics or theology; but how far have we really come?  What kind of experience are we undergoing on this renewal of Pentecost?

Our historical understanding of the Holy Spirit is complex but obscure, not helped by 1500 years of theology which has characterised The Spirit as a "person" which made reasonable sense to the framers of the Creeds but makes no sense to us today. The ancient Greek idea of a person was of a masked entity, representing certain aspects of character, quite the opposite of our idea of person as fundamentally an individual; the Greek word represented a commonality of qualities whereas our word emphasises differences. This accounts for the way in which we characterise the three "persons" of the Trinity either as entities, Father, Son and Spirit or by reference to what they do, as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. The purpose of Creator as pretty straightforward and in spite of theological controversy, Christians are pretty clear about the Redeemer although we might have problems trying to work out how the redemption takes place; but the theology of Grace has made the idea of a sanctifier horribly complex.

Peter, of course, hadn't read any theology of the Trinity and he is not very likely to have held forth on the meaning of Scripture in the synagogue but on this morning he was infused with incarnational perception: he knew that Jesus was God made man and he knew that the death and Resurrection were the twin rockets that would fire believers into an unimagined realm of salvation, unlike Joel who could only muse on the prospects of a Messiah figure who would  free his people from their earthly woes. There were some prophets of the later Old Testament period who had an inkling of salvation having something to do with life beyond earth but to Peter the implications are cosmic and unquestionable.

We, on the whole, are not very good with the cosmic; we have tended to reduce the Redemptive act of Jesus to wiping away our, let's face it, not very terrible individual sins; but what Peter knows is that all who hear and believe can be at one with the Jesus with whom he walked and whom he betrayed.

There has been a long and rather shameful Christian history of attempts to sort out who will be saved and one major conclusion is that the Spirit somehow 'decides' to inhabit people with Grace but not others. This is part of the quite understandable Reformation reaction of late Medieval Catholicism which was getting dangerously close to saying that we could earn salvation rather than enjoying it as God's gift; but, being who we are, having persuaded ourselves that we possess the gift, we are too anxious to treat ourselves as exclusive and think that other people are denied it.

What matters is not speculation about the 'intentions' of the Holy Spirit but our chronic struggle to leave ourselves open to what Karl Rahner calls God's self-communication with us which is not discriminatory nor divisive but cosmic. Peter no doubt thought that if people did not believe what he said they would be cutting themselves off from God but he did not have to face the problem of those who had never heard and those who would never hear the specific message of the Redemption wrought by Jesus.

For me it is inconceivable that the God of love should create billions of people and yet only "save" a fraction of them, considering the rest as some form of salvific collateral damage. But, you know, from our perspective it doesn't matter what happens to the rest. God will sort that out. All we have to concentrate on is our openness to the Holy Spirit so that we will be continually infused with Incarnational perception which does not only involve profound Trinitarian mysteries but also a deeper understanding of the life and teaching of God in Jesus.

So, when you go into the voting booth this Thursday, give the Holy Spirit a bit of time and space before you make your cross; yes, not your blob nor your tick but your cross.