Ascension and Pentecost
Reading: Luke 24:44-53
Last Sunday, a number of us from St David’s – and a fair number from elsewhere – cosily gathered in the Victoria room to watch the film ‘Pride’ – the award-winning comedy-drama that centres around the unlikely pairing and solidarity between striking miners in Onllwyn and a group of gay supporters from London. As the credits rolled, laughs were shared, eyes were dried, and applause was given for the ending held together the tension between the harsh reality of the characters’ lives and a message of hope, of what can be achieved when we love and support one another. It is a wonderful, bitter-sweet ending, to a great film. Which was a relief because endings can often make or break films and novels. ‘A good ending can transform a mediocre film,’ critic Mark Kermode often says, ‘A bad one can sink an otherwise good film’. And I think that’s an accurate statement. The wonder of a convincing last minute twist, the satisfaction of all the plot-lines coming together, or the agony of a tragic conclusion can enhance our viewing or reading pleasure, can drive home the message all the more, whereas getting to the end of a story only to find out that it was all a dream – that Bobby Ewing is in fact, still alive – is beyond frustrating!
Well today, we come to the end of the gospel of Luke, the end of the story of Jesus’ time on Earth. We join the disciples mid-way through an encounter with the risen Jesus in a room in Jerusalem. Jesus has just asked ‘what’s for dinner’ and has munched on some fish, showing that it really is him in the flesh, and then in our reading, he interprets scripture, gives instruction for what’s to happen next and then leads the disciples out to the village of Bethany where he blesses them and withdraws from them as Jesus returns to heaven and the disciples to the temple in Jerusalem. So, what do you think? A good ending to the new good news? Does it bring things to a neat conclusion…is it unresolved or unexpected…are you left satisfied, disappointed, curious?
Well, in film theory and literary criticism, there are a number of established groups or types of ending and here, in Luke’s gospel, I think we can identify four of them. The first is called the tie-back ending. This type of ending ties the conclusion of the story back to clues planted throughout the story – think Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes…only in Luke’s story, the clues don’t hint at the character who brings death but to the messiah who brings life:
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you,” Jesus says, reminding them of the clues that were there all along, “that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
In Luke’s account, Jesus’ ministry truly begins after his baptism and time in the wilderness when he goes to a synagogue in Nazareth and reads these words from the book of Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
In a scene of high drama, the carpenter’s son rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the synagogue attendant and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
In the Jewish scriptures, in Jesus’ teaching and preaching, in his healing and forgiveness of sins, the clues were there, so he tells his disciples. The promises were to be fulfilled, the messiah was to die and rise again. Perhaps this tie-back ending might remind us that Jesus’ story is part of a larger one. Perhaps it might remind us that the story of God’s love for the cosmos is woven throughout the Jewish scriptures, in the tales of bushes burning and seas separating; of a shepherd-boy defeating Goliath and an orphan-girl becoming a Queen; tales of exile and despair, redemption and hope. Perhaps then, it might persuade us to retrace our steps, reflect on the clues, revisit the stories of God’s people, in the belief that what was made manifest in the Christ can be glimpsed throughout the scriptures; that the tale of God’s love began before Jesus walked the Earth, before a word of scripture was written, before creation itself. So Luke’s tie-back ending informs us.
Of course, it could well be that you prefer an explicit ending. This is an ending that wraps things up and answers the questions that have been raised. And it is perfectly possible to see such an ending in Luke. For Jesus came and taught, lived and died, was resurrected and is now returning to heaven, a bit like Christmas backwards! More than this though, the central identity of the main character is finally revealed; the question of just who is this Jesus is offered. Ever since Jesus appeared on the scene, people have asked ‘who is this man?’, a question that Jesus kept implicitly raising in his words, deeds and debates with the religious. A question that he directly asked his followers at the midpoint of the story when, after feeding great crowds with 5 loaves and 2 fish, he asked his friends, ‘But who do you say I am?’. Leader and friend, teacher and prophet, healer and messiah…yes, Jesus was all these things but in just four words in the last sentence of his gospel, Luke suggests that this man was so much more, for the last sentence begins “And they worshipped him.”
A few years and a few chapters earlier, when Jesus was in the wilderness after his baptism, Luke tells us that the devil, whatever we may interpret that to mean, tempted Jesus, saying ‘worship me and the world is yours’ to which Jesus replied, using words from the book of Deuteronomy, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him’.
In his story, both Luke and Jesus make it clear that God alone may be worshipped…and as Luke’s story comes to an end, having encountered the risen Christ and after he had returned to heaven, we read that the disciples worshipped him.
Perhaps then, we might view Luke’s ending as an explicit ending – that he closes the gospel with the disciples’ recognizing Jesus as no mere mortal, but rather as God, worthy of worship. Perhaps the questions of Christ’s identity are answered, the whispers given voice that this preacher from Nazareth, the one born in a stable and who died on a cross, was the very incarnation of God. Perhaps we might view the story as complete, the loose ends tied, the nature of God revealed.
Or perhaps, you’re someone who is not so keen on neat resolutions. Perhaps you’re someone who likes last minute twists – you know the type – he was a ghost, he was on Earth all along, Rosebud was actually the…well, I won’t give any spoilers. But if you do like twist endings, Luke won’t disappoint because the main character, the guy whom everything revolved around disappears! And what’s more, we’ve just learnt that this guy is God! With our twenty first century vision, it might be easy to forget just how shocking this was for the first Christians. But back then, you would be mocked, ostracized, killed for uttering such a belief. You’d always read that God alone was to be worshipped and now you’re worshipping your friend from Nazareth. You’d thought that God was a transcendent being who couldn’t be seen directly…and now you think you’ve partied with God at a wedding. You’d been told that God was all-knowing, all-powerful, almighty…and know you think you’ve seen him play with children, touch lepers, break bread with tax collectors and prostitutes. For those first disciples, to begin to see Jesus as God meant to change their understanding of Jesus, to widen their imagination about God, to revise their perception of themselves. So many questions were raised. For if God had taken on human flesh, wouldn’t that make God our brother? And if God took the form of one who served others, doesn’t that turn notions of power upside down? And if a human had ascended into heaven, did our humanity ascend with him? But perhaps the most pressing, most immediate question of all was ‘what happens now?’. Now Jesus has returned to heaven, now their leader was out of sight, what were the disciples to do?
Well, such thinking takes us to our final ending – the unresolved ending. In unresolved endings, the main conflicts are left unanswered and the reader is left to ponder the outcome. And Luke sets us up perfectly for this for the story ends on a cliffhanger. Jesus is God. Jesus is gone. But something amazing is coming…
“And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised,” Jesus says before he goes, “so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
And thus, the sequel is set up. The story of Jesus’ tangible ministry on Earth is complete…the dawn of a new era is beginning. For something is coming that will again change the way we speak about and understand both the nature of God and the mission of the church. So you’ll have to read the next book, says Luke; you’ll have to come here next week, say I, to find out more. You see, whether you view Luke’s ending as tie-back or explicit, twist or unresolved, we know that the account of the church, the tale of Christ’s grace, the epic of God’s love is one whose storyline continued for those first disciples, continues today for us and will do so tomorrow for those yet to hear of it. For God is love; Christ is risen; the spirit is with us. And so we are called to be God’s storytellers and songwriters, artists and biographers today. “You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus told his disciples, tells us today. You are witnesses of transformation and forgiveness. You are witnesses of peace and justice. You are witnesses of God’s love for all of creation. So let’s say it; show it; share it with the world.
Like that told by the film Pride, our story is one that holds together the reality of the hardships with which many of us live, with a message of hope of what can be achieved when we love and support one another. For ours is a story of a broken world and a healing God; of a suffering man and a risen messiah; of a church built of tears and laughter. And when we get to the end of the story, as the credits roll, I believe laughs will be shared, eyes will be dried and praise will be given as we finally meet the director, the script-writer and lead actor face-to-face; when God will be all in all and a new story will begin. Amen.
Reading: Acts 2:1-21
“Hold your breath. Make a wish. Count to three.” Remember when we heard those words together? 7 weeks ago today, we gathered round the empty tomb with Mary, Peter and John, peering inside, fearful, excited, unsure…as we watched Jesus’ friends begin to wish, hope, believe that he was alive. And in the 50 days since…more or less…we’ve walked alongside the disciples on the road to Emmaus as they listened to a stranger, we’ve gathered with them in a locked room as Thomas recognized his friend, we’ve encountered the risen Jesus time and time again, and then last week, we said goodbye to him on a hillside near Bethany. A lot has happened in the last 50 days. I do hope you haven’t been holding your breath this whole time!
Well today, we may take a deep gulp of air as we encounter the noise and fire and crowds of Pentecost, the day when the spirit was poured out on the early Christians and it’s a festival that has had a long held and multi-faceted connection with breathing. Some say that Christ’s last breath on the cross grew into the rushing wind at Pentecost whilst others remark that this day saw the birth of the church and, like all new-born babies, the first thing the church needed to do was to breathe. Some point to the fact that one word used for spirit in the Bible is the same word for breath whilst others look to the gospel of John and the alternative Pentecost reading when Jesus simply breathes on his disciples and says ‘receive the Holy Spirit’.
And whether literal or metaphorical, whether from the last breath of a dying man or the first of a newborn people, it is clear that, for the early Christians, the day of Pentecost was much more than a breath of fresh air – for it was the coming of Christ’s promised advocate; it was the coming of a holy hurricane; the coming of God’s life-giving breath. And so, this morning, as we mark the day that many view as the birth of the church, I’d like us to spend a few minutes considering how the actions of the holy spirit might relate to our own breathing in…and breathing out.
Firstly, breathing is such a natural part of who we are, so constant, so necessary to our survival, that it can often go unnoticed. Unless we’re in the pool, the doctor’s surgery or yoga class, we can go for days, weeks, perhaps even months without thinking about our breathing. It is simply what we do – at work and play, when happy or sad, awake or asleep…taking around 26 000 breaths per day but rarely thinking about the act. We may, of course, glimpse our breath on a crisp, autumn morn or hear its whisper in the gentle sigh of a friend but it is often only when we hear news of mines collapsing or avalanches falling that we are reminded of the precious, necessary act of breathing.
Perhaps then, this is like the work of the holy spirit. For, in the book of Genesis, in the making of man and woman, we are told in chapter 2, verse 7 – ‘ the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.’ God’s breath brought Adam, has brought us, to life. Perhaps then, God’s spirit is within each of us. Perhaps God is closer to us than our breath, that God’s spirit sustains our very being. We may not always be aware of it, we may often only catch glimpses or hear whispers of it, and yet perhaps the holy spirit creates, sustains and recreates each of us in quiet, unseen ways that are so natural to us, so necessary to our living, that the work of the spirit, like our breathing, largely goes unnoticed. Perhaps, then, we might pause and reflect now and then, stopping simply to breathe, to be still in the present moment, and be thankful for the spirit’s sustenance, for the very fact that we are.
Of course, breathing isn’t always so quiet and peaceful. Having spent numerous nights in hostel dorms and festival campsites, I am a great believer that extreme snoring is a justifiable cause for ending a friendship! How one, normally quiet individual, normally affable friend, can disturb the peace, can rob you of your sleep and make such a cacophony simply by breathing is beyond me! The simple act of breathing can be disruptive, alarming and very, very loud. Which is exactly what we are told about the outpouring of the spirit at Pentecost. The sound of a rushing, violent wind, the disturbing sight of tongues of fire, the discordant clamour of different languages. This was no gentle, unnoticed visit. And so it’s unsurprising that the ancient Celtic symbol for the holy spirit is not a peaceful, cooing dove but a loud, honking wildgoose! A creature that cannot be tamed or hushed. That goes where it will, when it will, disturbing who it will. Such is the nature of the holy spirit. It cannot be summoned, contained or ordered so be careful what you wish for when you ask the holy spirit to come.
A week tomorrow, we hold our annual general meeting to debate issues, make decisions, confirm elders. The letters ‘AGM’ might not fill many of us with joy or excitement and yet we believe that our decisions in that meeting are pervaded and guided by the holy spirit – which is why, for example, we have no postal vote. We think and debate, pray and decide as one body, listening to God’s spirit. A spirit of love, grace and peace, of course…but a spirit that can also swoop in to upset order, ring in change, turn the world upside down. So spare a thought for the poor chairman! For the holy spirit, like our breathing, can be quiet and unnoticed or loud and disruptive – we must make the space for both in our lives.
Our breathing also helps us get rid of things that are harmful to us. When working to their best, our wonderful human bodies help us to survive and thrive by ridding us of carbon dioxide, dust and other pollutants by exhaling. Without such a process, these waste materials can irritate, debilitate or even kill us – so the expelling of them through our breathing helps us live to the fullest, to live at all. Perhaps the same can be said of the holy spirit. You see, the Bible does not speak with a single voice about the role or nature of the holy spirit. It…he, or perhaps she…is elusive, hard to pin down, difficult to explain without committing all kinds of heresies. It could be that you are someone who has experienced very tangible encounters with her. Perhaps you have ‘felt healing in the fingertips’ or ‘spoke with the tongue of angels’. Or perhaps you’re someone who hasn’t had such an encounter – who can’t remember a time when God felt physically close in that way. If so, this doesn’t mean that you’re not a real Christian or that you haven’t encountered the holy spirit – for our journey with God is unique to each of us. But, as with our breathing, perhaps God’s spirit has helped us to survive and thrive by getting rid things that are harmful for us. It could be that something heavy has long laid on your shoulders – guilt, fear, anger even – but one day, perhaps after prayer, perhaps not – you felt your load be lifted, you felt able to breathe again. Or perhaps you have held a long time grudge against someone. Perhaps someone close to you – maybe in your family, maybe in your church – has said or done something terrible and you find it hard to forgive them, to let go of that hurt or resentment. If so, try speaking to God once again. Try asking for the spirit to come – to release you of your burden, to help you forgive, to breathe out that which can harm us.
Fourthly and finally, breathing gives us energy. To walk and run, speak and sing, to live and love, we need to breathe. When we run faster, sing louder, love more generously, we need to breathe more deeply and often. The same might be said of the Holy Spirit. For though she can come silently or suddenly, sometimes, we have to be intentional, deliberate about our openness and invitation to her. As an athlete trains to increase lung capacity or a singer focuses on when to breathe, we might need to be more attentive to our intake of the spirit. Perhaps we might consider how and when we breathe her in. Perhaps, in our work and worship, in our homes and at next week’s AGM, as we look for God’s activity in the world, as we consider new and fresh ways that we might speak and show God’s love in this community, we might thoughtfully and prayerfully welcome the spirit back into our hearts and minds, our conversations and actions, so we may run God’s way fully, sing God’s song joyfully, breathe God’s breath deeply
So – quiet and unnoticed, loud and disruptive, the one who helps us inhale energy and exhale things that may harm – the holy spirit comes in many guises to bless us in diverse ways.
Seven weeks ago, we held our breath, made a wish and counted to three. Today, perhaps the words of a different song may stand as a Birthday hymn. “If I could make a wish, I think I’d pass. Can’t think of anything I need. Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe and to love you’. This Pentecost, may we welcome the holy spirit anew, inviting her to come quietly and calmly, suddenly and scandalously – with the coo of a dove or the honk of wildgeese. May we breathe deeply and joyfully as she encourages our creativity, guides our path, releases us from our burdens. May we celebrate the church’s Birthday not by blowing out candles but breathing in God, ready to breathe out and share God with the world. Amen.