Pentecost 2021 with Rev Dr Phil Wall
Whether we gather in a beautiful but battered building or a magnificent yet messy home,
God’s Spirit surrounds us.
Whether we’re pneumatological know-it-alls or we might have to google that word later,
God’s Spirit confounds us.
Whether we come with faith and focus, distraction and doubts, or a very human combination of them all,
God’s Spirit grounds us.
And whether we glimpse the divine in silence and solitude, music and mayhem, in the natural world or the digital one,
God’s Spirit astounds us.
And so, with thanks and wonder, we invite God’s Spirit to move amongst us again today…
What with courier service, conference calls, WhatsApp groups and zoom worship, we’ve definitely been moved to think about, be, and do church in fresh ways over the last 14 months or so. For some this has been frustrating; for others it’s been freeing; for all of us, it’s been unsettling. But God sometimes works through unsettling, freeing, or frustrating ways to bring about much-needed change. Being comfortable was never really in the Jesus manifesto! And Luke’s description of that first Pentecost definitely falls into this camp. We all know the story – tongues of fire, rushing wind, many languages…but in case we’re a bit too comfortable with that story, let’s try to imagine what it might look like today…
“After 50 days of Lock Down many of them came together in one zoom. And suddenly from out of nowhere there was the sound of wind…someone must have unmuted themselves! And the wind filled the zoom where they were staring.! Next thing they were all Zoom-Bombed by the Holy Spirit and all of them who were together in that one Zoom were filled with divine power and they were all sent into breakout rooms where they talked about Jesus and the Kingdom of God. And they could be heard chatting in Cymraeg and English, French and Arabic, with friends from Kent and the Cayman Islands, North Wales, South Sudan and a thousand places in between. But people said “aren’t all these people old church Technophobes? How is it that we hear them on Zoom, chatting away like they had been doing it for ever?” And some left their screens and shared the news in cookbooks and Celtic crosses, doorstep visits and phone calls. And everyone was amazed and Peter stood up and shouted, “Our 40 minutes is nearly up, I will send you a new link and tell you all about Jesus…”
With thanks to Jason, the URC’s Training and Development officer, for the inspiration behind that.
I do genuinely think that aspects of our worship over the past year share some similarities with Luke’s account of Pentecost. Anyone watching the start or very end of our zoom services could certainly be forgiven for listening to our conversation and thinking that we’d put Baileys on our Cornflakes! The noise, the joy & confusion…the being equipped to spread God’s good news in new ways, reaching new people…perhaps we’re not so very different from those first disciples.
So thanks again to the newsletter and courier team, to those who oversee the conference calls, website, tech in here, recorded hymns, to our cameraman Robert – who has spent days learning the ins and outs of our new tech, to Bethan and Ben who almost single-handedly oversee the zoom services, and to everyone who has participated in these services and to all of you for the willingness, patience and grace to keep reading the scripts, clicking the links or picking up the telephones during this strange old time. The Spirit is willing, the flesh is sometimes weak, but together, we’re getting there!
And yet…and yet in here…in St David’s Uniting Church’s gorgeous but troubled sanctuary…the idea of a holy hullaballoo feels a world away. With our masks and distancing, our prohibition from communal singing or speaking, meeting together in this space speaks of a more still and staid encounter with God. The kind of encounter with God we might hope for here is far more in keeping with the gospel writer John’s description of fresh movement of the Spirit:
Today’s reading comes from the ‘Good As New’ Version of the gospel according to John. Chapter 20, verses 19-23:
On Sunday evening, when the friends of Jesus met, they locked the doors of the house, because they were afraid of the police. Jesus joined them and said, “Keep calm everybody!” Then Jesus showed them his hands and his sides. The friends went wild with joy when they realized their Leader was alive. Jesus had to say again, “Keep calm! The Loving God gave me a job to do, and now I’m going to give you something to do.”
They felt the breath of Jesus on them as he said, “Let God’s Spirit in! From now on it’s your job to free people from their guilt. Otherwise they will remain prisoners of their past mistakes.”
A locked room. An anxious group. A Spirit-giving Christ.
After a year in which a respiratory virus has turned the world upside down; in which the phrase ‘I can’t breathe’ took on new meaning across the globe; in which the first UK death by air pollution was recorded, the notion of God’s breath bringing life, Spirit, joy even…has perhaps never been more needed. And if we believe that God is still speaking and the Spirit is still moving, what might that mean for us today?
Well, firstly, let me suggest that a fresh movement of the Holy Spirit, the Breath of Life, might mean peace for the Church.
Scared disciples and a locked door couldn’t keep Jesus at bay in John’s account of things, and when Jesus spoke to the gathered group for the first time since rising, his first words were those of peace. And his second words were those of peace. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”… Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you!”…or ‘keep calm’ as John puts it.
It’s both justifiable and a delicious irony that it’s at moments of extreme terror or confusion that we hear words of peace in the Bible. There’s a nationwide famine and a suspicious political leader giving you food (Genesis 43:23) – peace be with you! An angel suddenly appears to a teenage girl and charges her with carrying God (Luke 1:28) – peace be with you! Your dead friend gets through a locked door to show you his wounds (John 20:21) – peace be with you! The context of these words of peace from God’s messengers tell us that God isn’t offering us a superficial, easy peace. Jesus’ friends had good reason to be scared. The state had executed their mate; their land was occupied; their religious leaders calling for a purge; and most of them would indeed die because of their beliefs. Again, comfort not always a God thing!
But deep, abiding peace is.
‘Peace be with you’, Jesus says to his scared friends. ‘Peace be with you’, he says again. And I wonder, as they heard these words, if the disciples remembered the similar words he spoke to them just three days earlier. I wonder if they recalled his chat over supper – his promise of the coming Spirit, of life beyond death, of a peace that the world does not and cannot give. And I wonder if we might embrace, breathe in, live out those words of Jesus today; whether we can lay down our burdens and worries and simply bathe in God’s peace. It doesn’t mean denying that we will face further loss. It doesn’t mean pretending that things can ever fully go back to how they used to be. Rather, it means believing Jesus’ promise that whatever we face in our church, in our homes, in our relationships and finances, in our very living and dying, we will not be alone; we will never be forgotten; we will always be held in God’s fierce love.
Pentecost, then, is a message of peace for the Church. It is also a call to justice for all people.
Right after the risen Jesus offers peace to his friends for the second time, he tells them:
‘The Loving God gave me a job to do, and now I’m going to give you something to do.”
They felt the breath of Jesus on them as he said, “Let God’s Spirit in!
The disciples were never meant to stay in that locked room…and just as oxygen gives us about 90% of the energy we need to move and speak, sing and simply live, the Spirt gives us the energy we need in order to be sent out with Jesus’ message. A message that says the mourning will be comforted; the meek will inherit the Earth. A message that speaks truth to power, hope to the despairing, welcome to the excluded. A message that says God risked vulnerability and took on fragile humanity, persecution and even death so to show us, once and for all, what had been said from the start. That creation is good. That we are all beloved children of God. That God breathed life into every single one of us so it’s about time that we treated each other as such.
And yet we still put our knees on the necks of those who are different. We still allow children to starve, refugees to drown, the homeless to freeze. We still reduce international aid whilst profiting from war.
In the last six years, the UK is said to have licensed £376 million pounds worth of arms to Israel and at least £6.3 billion pounds worth to Saudi Arabia. May God forgive us! For if we believe that the divine breath is in everyone – in you and in me, in our friends and neighbours, in the Palestinians and Israelis, those in Saudi and in Yemen, in every person we love and struggle to love, we know and are yet to know…then it’s about time we acted like it!
So breathing in God’ Spirit might give us peace, demands justice for all, and, finally, reminds us of our unity with creation. The notion of the shared breath of the cosmos might sound a little New Age-y and is something that’s more accepted in indigenous faiths. Native Americans, for example, have long since declared that everything is interconnected and interdependent, as Sherri Mitchell, a Native American attorney and sacred activist for environmental protection and human rights explains:
Our story begins with an understanding that we are related to all beings within creation…We recognize that connection in our prayers, and the understanding that the whole is shifted by every action of each individual. There is one life, one breath that we all breathe. Therefore, when we take any action out in the world, even when we pray for ourselves, we impact all life.
I thank God for the likes of Sherri Mitchell and Greta Thunberg and all those who are loudly reminding us what we have often overlooked in our own scriptures – that God’s breath, the Divine Spirit, can be found throughout nature too. The psalmist tells us that ‘God breathed the word and the stars popped out’ (Psalm 33:6 – The Message) whilst, in the very first book of the Bible, we’re told that God’s ‘breath of life’ is in ‘every living thing’ (Genesis 7:21-22). We can argue over the semantics and theology behind this if we really wanted but I think it doesn’t change the central message that God spoke the world into creation, breathed us all into existence, and charged us with taking care of our world.
All of which leaves me feeling…well…a little flat if I’m honest. For I don’t always see peace in the Church, justice in society, a shared sense of unity with creation. Jesus showed us a new way of living which the Spirit equipped us to embrace and we, too often, went our own ways. Well, today’s as good a day as any to return, to remember, to recommit…
‘Peace be with you’, Jesus said again. And the disciples felt the breath of Jesus as he said,
“Let God’s Spirit in! From now on it’s your job to free people from their guilt.
Otherwise they will remain prisoners of their past mistakes.”
The truth is we can choose to feel flat and guilty, judgmental and despairing…or we can let God’s Spirit in once again. For we don’t have to be prisoners of our past mistakes. We don’t have to be fearful about the future of the Church. We don’t have to put up with inequality in our society or the destruction of the world. We can begin again. Just as Jesus called us to a new way of being human, the Holy Spirit is calling us to a new way of being human today. A way of fresh starts and new beginnings; a way of freedom and forgiveness; a way of peace, justice and unity.
So let’s speak up, sing out, sign petitions, join marches, make better choices, hold each other to account, share joy, seek peace, forgive others, forgive ourselves, turn cheeks, open locked doors, open locked hearts, give thanks, follow Jesus, and love all. It’s no small task…but we can start again right now if we let God’s Spirit in. Just breathe. Amen.
Questions to consider:
I wonder what one thing you could start afresh today.
I wonder how, when, where you let God’s Spirit in.
I wonder how we can breathe in the Spirit more deeply this week.
Martin Luther King once said ‘To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing. Let’s breathe deeply now as John leads us in prayer…
Breathe on me breath of God,
fill me with life anew.
That I may love what thou dost love
and do what thou wouldst do.
Loving spirit of God, hardly any of us has escaped from having a new life in the last year or more. Our old life has been disrupted, for some more than others perhaps and in different ways. Is this something to do with you? The shattering of so many dreams and plans, the prohibiting of normal human contacts, new difficulties and obstacles put in the way of everything? We have forgotten, that you, Spirit of God, can be as destructive and unpredictable as the wind, sometimes at hurricane strength, not just the gentle cooling breeze of a summer evening.
So some of us have adapted and sought new ways of doing things, of getting around the barriers – yes, that’s you. Others have seen their old life almost destroyed, but not quite. Something is being rescued, they are going to return to normal soon, they think. Others seem to have been completely destroyed, their businesses or relationships already on the brink, now pushed over the edge. Some with problems of the mind find renewal in greater peace, new hobbies. The full stop has been a boon. Some have been writing poetry or learning Welsh. For others things have become more frantic, especially for those in our health services, doctors, nurses and carers. Some have been driven to the point of suicide and others past the point.
As we have forgotten that you are the dramatic and cathartic life-changer, so you are also the great teacher and guide. If we have the sensitivity and imagination we can apprehend you more clearly and on a larger scale than ever before. If we open our eyes and ears, or if, Spirit of God, you force them open, then we will be reminded what as your people we have forgotten, just as much as others, that with you, with God, death is never the end. We can even start thinking again about life after physical death, the death of our loved ones and our own death. We have almost forgotten that part of the Good News.
Breathe on me breath of God,
fill me with life anew.
That I may love what thou dost love
and do what thou wouldst do.
Yes, that’s what you want to do with us, Spirit of God. You want to fill us with your love. Because ‘it is our chief complaint, that our love is weak and faint’. We Christians see ourselves as all lovey-dovey and kind. But we aren’t really. Even within the house of God there are petty jealousies and rivalries; failures to understand or even try to understand one another. We think ourselves very inclusive, but we do not always include, not even here. We do not even understand what it is we are including, do not even try to understand. And we are not just here to include one another. We are called by you to embrace the whole world, not just geographically, but culturally and temperamentally. We do not know where to begin. But you will show us. And we have to be willing and ready. Willing to be baptized into the world with all its muck and mess, just where you are, Holy Spirit. So we pray for the whole world, the world on its outside and its inside, that this time of challenge may be turned into a time of resurrection not to the same old thing, but to something new and different, more humane, more kindly, filled with you Spirit God and with your peace and love. We pray for those who are facing death, their own death, or the death of loved ones. We pray that we all may know the One who loves, whose love is stronger than death, who loves us to all eternity and has promised never to leave us or forsake us. Amen.
Breathe deeply and shine brightly.
Listen hopefully and look carefully
For The Spirit is around us, among us, within us.
So may the Breath of God bring us blessing.
May we always know unconditional love in the gentle breeze of God’s presence.
And may we share a Spirit of peace, justice and unity into the life around us. Amen!
- Come holy Spirit come, inflame our souls with love
- Breathe on me breath of God, fill me with life anew.
- The Spirit lives in you and me, walk, walk, in the light.
- God’s Spirit is deep in my heart (Go tell everyone)