Sermon for Pentecost
Acts 2, 1 – 8, 14 – 18
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
17 “‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.”
John 7. 37 – 39
37 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.
The composer, Joseph Haydn, once explained that he had a particular morning routine, he described it thus…
“I get up early, and as soon as I have dressed I go down on my knees and pray to God and the Blessed Virgin that I may have another successful day. Then, when I’ve had some breakfast, I set down at the keyboard and begin my search. If I hit on an idea quickly, it goes ahead easily and without much trouble. But if I can’t get on, I know that I must have forfeited God’s grace by some fault of mine, and then I pray once more for grace.”
Haydn was a devout Roman Catholic who attributed his inspiration to God, he always wrote at the beginning of a manuscript, ‘In the name of the Lord’, and at the end of each composition, ‘Praise God’.
In his morning prayers Haydn sought inspiration; he is not the only composer to have attributed his music to divine inspiration, Sibelius wrote that, ‘Music is for me like a beautiful mosaic which God has put together. He takes all the pieces in his hand, throws them into the world, and we have to recreate the picture from the pieces.’
In fact many composers report an intuitive sense that the music they write may have been written down by them but does not actually originate with them, that the creative process is more about hearing the music than composing it. For instance Mahler once said, ‘I don’t choose what I compose. It chooses me.’
In Church we may talk about the bible as inspired, or prophecy as inspired, but we do not usually equate this with inspiration spoken of beyond the bounds of the Church. The bible has authority over the life of the Church and over the lives of individual Christians, but as the bible says, all good things come from God, and that includes music.
Sometimes we speak as if God is religious and thereby must only exist within Church, and inspiration out in the world must be something different. No wonder people find it hard to believe in God if they think the only place He can be experienced is in Church, especially as people do not always find Church a particularly inspiring place.
If we confine our understanding of God to Church and to religious experiences then we make God irrelevant to our daily lives. Haydn clearly did not think like that, he sought the inspiration of God for each and every day. Given that Haydn was born the son of a humble wheelwright in an obscure Austrian village, and ended his days famed throughout Europe, and respected by princes and Emperors, we might say his prayers were not in vain.
Today is Pentecost when the Church tells the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit, the job of the Holy Spirit is inspiration…or to break the word up, ‘in-spirit-ation’. Through the work of the Holy Spirit the eternal pours into this world. When we feel inspiration we are experiencing the touch of God.
When we perceive how to overcome a problem, a Pentecost moment has happened.
When we understand the feelings and emotions of another, a Pentecost moment has happened.
When we are inspired to express Christ-like love for another, a Pentecost moment has happened.
The Holy Spirit is at work in our world.
People are often puzzled by the idea of the Holy Spirit because they do not realise that they have experienced it. If we only expect the Spirit as a mighty rushing wind, or as flames of fire dancing above our heads, when we do receive the gift of God, the inspiration of the Spirit, we do not attribute it to God because it was not attended by either flame or wind.
Sometimes we make God impossible, something wholly beyond our experience or belief, when in fact God the Holy Spirit touches our daily lives.
I’m not even sure that we expect to experience the Holy Spirit in church, but that feeling of peace that you get in prayer, that is the touch of the Holy Spirit, that uplifting feeling you get in singing a hymn, that is the touch of the Holy Spirit, that sense that you have heard a truth in a sermon or a reading, that is the touch of the Holy Spirit – that aura of holiness that can be perceived about the Eucharist, that is the presence of the Holy Spirit making Christ known.
Those moments in your life when you feel most alive, when your soul sings for joy and that song resounds with all creation, in that moment you are in the Spirit – inspired by the presence of God, experiencing a particle of heaven come down.
Of course at times inspiration seems a distant dream, we can call upon the Holy Spirit, but we cannot command the Spirit. It is interesting that in the quote from Haydn he said that sometimes inspiration did not come, and at such times he prayed for grace.
The word grace is a translation of the biblical word charism, which is Greek for a gift. Actually I think the word ‘gift’ is a better translation than the word ‘grace’; we should speak of the gift of God, His good gifts to us.
I also find it interesting that Haydn found repentance allowed inspiration to return to him. It reminds me of Saint Peter’s words written in his first Epistle, ‘Repent and be baptised…in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’
The gift of God is received by those who turn to Him; quite simply you cannot receive a gift if your back is turned to the giver.
Repentance and Pentecost must be at the heart of our understanding of how churches grow because here is the origin and source of all church growth, the beginning, the moment of Genesis. The gathered disciples were the waiting body of Christ and the Holy Spirit was the breath that animated that body – made it alive. Inspiration is to breathe in, to breathe in the life of God and become fully alive. The starting point of growth for our churches is to turn to God and receive His inspiration. Like Haydn sat at his keyboard stuck for ideas our churches can seem to lack the energy and drive of inspiration, and so as Haydn did we also should daily turn to God and expect to receive the gift of His Spirit.
Church growth starts not out in our communities but in our hearts.
Once we have recognised the work of the Spirit in our lives and in our churches, when we have breathed in inspiration, then we can start to recognise the work of the Spirit out in the world and say to those around us, ‘that was the Holy Spirit’.
When we see love expressed for another, we can say ‘that was the inspiration of the Spirit.’ When we hear music that captures our hearts we can say, ‘that was the inspiration of the Spirit’. When we see a problem overcome by insight, then we can say ‘that was the inspiration of the Spirit’. What is the ‘Eureka’ moment in science but a breaking in of the transcendent, a moment of divine insight? And when we see the feelings and emotions of another understood, then we may say, ‘that was the Holy Spirit at work’. Then perhaps Pentecost will not seem merely a remote and strange event remembered in dusty old churches, it will be recognised as the stuff of life and the beginning of something new.