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Whitsunday Parish Mass
SERMON FOR WHITSUNDAY 2020
It’s one of my favourite readings, that one from Acts, the Pentecost reading. There’s so much to enjoy in there: “Your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” for instance; that’s really important to hang onto, especially now. There’s the wonderful joke of the apostles being assumed to be drunk, but St Peter saying that they’re not filled with new wine, but with the Holy Spirit, though I smile at St Peter’s argument, because he says, “These are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning”; well, St Peter, it just shows that you don’t go along the Harrow Road very often. And then there’s the description of the coming of the Spirit, “the rush of a violent wind” and “divided tongues, as of fire”; when you see images, paintings or windows or whatever, depicting Pentecost (we’ve got one in the chancel here at St Mary Mags) you see the power of words and the difficulty of depicting something which is so full of movement. When they’re depicted, the apostles almost always look very static, standing still, each with a little flame on their head, which is fine, but doesn’t convey what the words do, that rushing, ecstatic life and power, breaking in on them. And then of course there’s the list of nationalities, which people with my sort of mentality adore. Lots of exoticism, ancient history, and it’s a list! Some of the place names are just great to roll around on your tongue, like Phrygia and Pamphylia. When I was at school we had a boy whose surname was Pamphilion, which sadly has nothing to do with Pamphylia in reality, but is a local Essex surname, which was originally Pamplin or something like that, I believe, but which got poshed-up at some point in the past precisely by reference to this passage. I just love all the place names.
And of course the place names are important, because they emphasize the diversity of the gathering, people from all over the world, well, Europe, Asia and Africa, and not just Jews, but converts as well, they are all able to hear the message of God. That’s tremendously important, because it’s the refutation of the story of the Tower of Babel. You remember the Tower of Babel, in the book of Genesis, the very ancient myth of the arrogant people building their tower up towards heaven to make a name for themselves, in the days when mankind had only one language and lived in one place. God sees what they’ve done and thinks, “Nothing that they now propose will be impossible for them,” and so he puts an end to their potential for arrogance by confusing their language, so that they don’t understand one another, and scattering them all over the globe. It’s a “just so” story, if you like, a parable offering an explanation of how things came to be the way they are, but the interesting thing is that it’s a story of humanity being punished; different languages (and by implication, cultures) are regarded as a curse, obviously a bad thing.
Now, on the day of Pentecost, that’s turned upside down. Now, in the book of Acts, in the light of Christ, human diversity is seen as no bad thing at all. We can accept that different cultures are a blessing, not a curse, and languages are a part of that. We don’t all have to live in the same way, and that doesn’t have to be a disaster. People who wanted us to stay in the EU often talked as though it was absurd to have different systems and approaches, but that was always a weak argument, because in reality uniformity is extremely unusual among humanity, and there is no reason to suppose that it is even desirable. Convenient for administrators, undoubtedly, but life-enhancing, probably not.
We are, as a human race, very diverse. But Jesus Christ somehow embodies all our humanity; we can describe him in a particular way, he was a young, Palestinian Jewish man who lived 2000 years ago, but those particulars are not the most important things; his humanity is shared with us all, that’s what’s most important. He opens the way to God for all of us; instead of God dealing with a particular group, defined by identity, now God’s kingdom is open to all who trust in him. The veil of the Temple is torn in two as the Gospel symbolically puts it; access to God is opened up to the whole of humanity in Jesus. We can come to God thanks to our simple shared humanity, and the diversity of mankind is no obstacle to that, in fact St Paul emphasizes the variety in our approaches to God. We are all different, and that’s not a problem. We can all confess that Jesus is Lord, and God will pour out his Holy Spirit on us all, “on all flesh” as St Peter quotes the book of Joel.
So today, as we thank God for the marvellous gift of the Holy Spirit, who transforms ordinary things so that we may encounter eternity, let’s thank him also for our God-given diversity, and pray that we may all be transformed by the life-giving Spirit, like the apostles, into the people he wants us to be, the messengers of his grace wherever we may happen to be. Because whatever the culture or language, the message of Jesus Christ is the most important thing in the world, and he’s given us the Holy Spirit so that, like the apostles, we can share that message of grace and love.
Father Henry Everett’s blog