Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 15th May 2016, Pentecost
Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 15th May 2016, Pentecost
“In the days to come I will pour out my Spirit on human kind…” (Acts 2:17)
Today we celebrate the great feast of day of Pentecost, which is described in the New Testament as the coming of the Holy Spirit by fire, wind, and word. The word Pentecost means ‘fifty’, and we’ve heard the account in Acts where the author, Luke, describes how the Spirit descended on 120 believers in Jerusalem on the fiftieth day after Jesus' resurrection.
Something incredibly dramatic happened to these timid and rather fearful disciples. We’re told that the Spirit empowered them to testify to God's great deeds. Emboldened by this experience, the apostle Peter preaches to a bewildered crowd of Jewish skeptics, and drew three thousand converts in one day. Pentecost marks the birthday of the Church. And by any stretch of the imagination, it's a fabulous birth story, full of fascinating details: tongues of fire, rushing winds, accusations of drunkenness, mass baptism. It's easy to get lost in the spectacle.
The gospel, the good news of God’s limitless love, spread from Jerusalem, and very soon reached Ethiopia, Spain, Rome, Syria, India, modern day Turkey, France… and it kept growing until it reach this green and pleasant land. We are now over 2000 years on and a question that naturally arises is what might Pentecost mean for us today. Its often referred to as the ‘so what’ question. Its all very well hearing about this dramatic Pentecost account of the early church, but how might the Holy Spirit today deepen, enrich, inspire, and empower us on our daily pilgrimage? And what difference might the Spirit make to our communities?
This week I read an account of someone who had a Pentecost type experience.
The story is not the disciples whom we have heard about this morning and it wasn’t in an Upper Room — or any kind of room for that matter. It was in a broom cupboard in a homeless shelter in California. Her name was “Breezy" — a street name she was given because of the speed with which she moved from man to man working as a prostitute on the streets and the back alleys.
Twenty three years of prostitution and drugs had left their mark on Breezy. Her face was scarred, her body battered, and her spirit dead.
The broom cupboard was her own personal tomb. Breezy huddled within its cramped walls for three days and three nights. She had arrived, exhausted and beaten, to the homeless shelter. The problem was, however, that it was full. So she crept into the cupboard where, as time passed, she was forgotten by the stressed out shelter staff. Breezy had given birth three days earlier. Her tiny daughter was born — shuddering and jaundiced from drugs. She was taken away by the hospital emergency staff to be given medical attention and placed for adoption. Breezy staggered off into the night — to the shelter and the broom cupboard.
On the third day she woke. She was hungry and devastated by the memory of the baby she had birthed and lost. In the cramped darkness of the cupboard Breezy sobbed in shame and horror. She was broken and helpless, and for the first time in many years, she began to pray. In between her sobs she asked for forgiveness from God — and from her baby.
And something happened. Maybe it was something like a stone being rolled away. Maybe it was like a dense darkness being pierced by a brilliant light. Maybe it was a Pentecostal experience — a breaking through of energy and fire into a dead soul.
But something happened. And it was so powerful that Breezy crept out of the broom cupboard determined to find her way home to Chicago and to live a different life.
And that’s what she did.
She sought counselling and healing and entered a program of recovery. It was a long and painful process which involved letting go, forever, of 23 years of violence, drugs and prostitution. It was a Spirit-led journey that slowly worked within her a remarkable transformation.
There had to be some sort of funeral for Breezy. A funeral for the woman she had been and the only woman she knew. So the staff and residents of the recovery programme gathered in their small garden. Standing in a circle, they dug a hole, placed a stone within it and bade farewell to Breezy — prostitute, addict and convicted felon. Breezy was buried.
And in that simple and symbolic ritual, Brenda was born. Claiming her birth name, she came into the dawn of a new life. It was to be a life of the Spirit. It was to be a life led by God where Brenda would become a healer of those who are broken and battered, just as she had once been.
Our epistle from Romans tells us we are all children of God and we have all been given the gift of the Spirit. We may all call God Abba, an intimate Aramaic term for Father. But perhaps we first have to know what it is to be broken before we can become truly conscious of the power of the healing Spirit of God.
One way or another, we are all a little dead. Life does that to us as we falter and become weary on the journey. It may come about through heartache, the darkness of grief, a debilitating illness, a broken relationship, addiction of some kind (be that work, alcohol, food, or whatever).
Few of us will have experienced the drama and devastation of Brenda’s life. But we are all broken to some degree and in need of God’s healing Spirit. And we need to hear about it as a contemporary Pentecostal story, the power and energy of the Spirit to bring new life, new hope, new possibilities.
We also need to hear about Pentecost so that we might be affirmed and encouraged in our own struggles to be faithful children of God — gifted with the Holy Spirit.
The Dominican priest, Timothy Radcliffe OP, has said that the Holy Spirit is the nudge that makes us leave the safety of our ecclesial nests. At Pentecost, when the Spirit came upon the followers of Jesus, it was to create a new humanity. It was to create a community, the church, which was not to be a mutual admiration society or a club. The Church was to exist to live and promote the justice and compassion of the Gospel.
Brenda didn’t simply have a Pentecostal experience. She went on to live a Resurrection life dedicated to her sisters on the streets who were prostituting, addicted and soul dead. Brenda’s healing presence is all the more powerful because she knows from dreadful experience all about tombs and dying. She was dead. And now she is alive. She was lost and now she is found. And no one, ever again, can deprive her of the inner dignity and joy of knowing who she is. She is the precious daughter of God - the One who declared to the gathering of fearful disciples:
“Whoever believes in me will perform the same works as I do, and even greater works” (John 14:12).
And so, on many nights, on the dark streets of Chicago when most of us are sleeping, the voice of Brenda can be heard echoing the words of Jesus, and declaring to her sisters: “Come, there is life, there is hope outside this darkness — come.”
And they do. As we must too.
Edwina Gateley, Back From the Dead: A Contemporary Pentecost Story