Sermon for Pentecost 2017, by Martin Carr at St John the Baptist Church, Holland Road, Sunday 4 June

Sermon for Pentecost 2017, by Martin Carr at St John the Baptist Church, Holland Road, Sunday 4 June

In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Do you know who you are? I’ll ask that again – do you know who you are? I want you for a moment to consider that question, and then come up with three words, just three words, to answer it – don’t worry, I won’t be asking you to share them, but be honest with yourself – do you know who you are? Take a moment to think …

Now hopefully you have those three words to describe you – keep them in mind, and we’ll return to them later.

In the 1980 film epic The Empire Strikes Back, we follow the character Luke Skywalker, who, instructed in a dream by his former mentor Obi-Wan to journey to the Dagobah system, meets the elderly Jedi master Yoda and is instructed in the Jedi arts and its mysterious Force.

Receiving a premonition that his friends Han Solo and Princess Leia are in trouble, Luke cuts short his tutelage under Yoda and hastens to Cloud City to rescue them. The arc of tension builds to its denouement as Luke engages Darth Vader in lightsabre conflict over the city’s central air shaft. Vader’s skill surpasses Luke’s, and he severs his hand. Vader urges Luke to join him on the Dark Side of the Force. Luke resists – you killed my father, he accuses Vader. ‘No’ Vader replies, ‘I am your father’.

In these four words, among the most famous in the history of cinema, Luke’s true identity is disclosed. His destiny is now shaped by the knowledge of his true origins. Finally, Luke knows who he is.

Do you know who you are? I wonder what words you came up with in answer to my question. My name happens to be Martin – but does that really shape who I am? There are many Martins in the world, some may be more like me than others, but there is no real essence of Martin-ness which we all share. Some names do give clues to our identity – if I were meeting Edna, Tarquin or Mohammed for lunch, in all three cases their name gives me a clue to who they might be – their age, gender, social standing and ethnicity. When we meet someone for the first time we instantly become conscious of whether they are young or old, female or male, tall or short. But other aspects of their identity – their religion, sexuality, family background, may be more opaque until we get to know them a little better. Identity can hinge around small differences – two white, similarly-aged men from the north east of England, in so many ways the inheritors of a shared background, would nonetheless inhabit quite different identities depending on whether they supported the Newcastle or Sunderland football teams.

I could go on, but I hope I’ve said enough to make my point. Luke Skywalker’s identity is revealed as the son of Darth Vader – this knowledge makes sense of his past, and changes his future; our own identities too are shaped by parentage and genetics, in ways we may like or dislike, but also through choice – what sports do we play, what entertainment do we like, what clothes do we wear? And sometimes we are shaped by events outside our control – illness, bereavement, betrayal.

What can we learn about identity in what we have read from Scripture on this day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the Church in flames of fire? Those gathered are identified by nationality - Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia. Yet as they speak, in different languages and dialects, they are able to mutually understand each other.

The story of Pentecost deliberately mirrors the story of the Tower of Babel in the book of Genesis. In that story the people build a tower which will reach to heaven, but God confuses their languages and the construction fails because they can no longer understand each other to work together. But now, by the gift of the Spirit, diverse people can comprehend each other – what unites them is greater than what divides.

Pentecost then can be seen as a parable of identities in dialogue. And Peter marks this as the work of the Spirt, as foretold by the prophet Joel. Where there is the Spirit, there is no longer discord and confusion, but mutual understanding.

Paul works further with this theme in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth. Christianity was quite radical in the first century – it brought together people of various backgrounds who might not usually have been expected to hang out together – slaves and freemen, wealthy and working class, men and women. The church in Corinth was especially diverse, and this was the cause of some division there, but in the passage we heard today, Paul identifies their unity in diversity.

To my question – do you know who you are – Paul names a variety of gifts possessed in the community. Who are you? A healer. Who are you? A prophet. Who are you? An interpreter. Who are you? A worker of miracles. Yet the source of all these identities is the same – the one God and the one Spirit. And it is in baptism that the Spirit is given to all to make them, in Paul’s words, the body of Christ.

Do you know who you are? How many of you I wonder came up with the word Christian to describe yourself? Our identity as members of the body of Christ is the reason we have come together this morning. Through our worship we affirm and celebrate that shared identity. And empowered by that identity we go out into the world to use our gifts for the building up of God’s kingdom on earth.

In contemporary Britain we may no longer need, thankfully, to discuss our identity in terms of being slave or free, or indeed Jew and Gentile, but we are male and female, gay and straight, old and young, black and white, introverted and extroverted, carers, cared for, teachers, students, but all members of one body, Christ’s body.

I remember a sermon I heard when I was much younger in which the preacher suggested that on receiving the bread of the Eucharist, each of us could reply to the words ‘The Body of Christ’ with the affirmation ‘I am’ rather than simply ‘Amen’. In claiming our identity in Christ, we acknowledge not only who we are in relation to God, but our identity in relation to others. By the power of the Spirit, those gathered on that first Pentecost no longer primarily were considered as Medes, Parthians. Elamites etc, but could communicate with full understanding as members of the body of Christ.

In my work as a spiritual director, one of the things I want to help others discover is their identity – who they are, who God sees them as, and who they are called to be in the future, because our identities are constantly being moulded and changed by our prayer, our relationships, our experiences. And we must recognise the role of the Spirt in all this, not just to magic us into better people, or reveal our true self in a blinding flash – however much we might hope for that - but as that gentle presence of God with us, speaking peace and guiding us with love to a self-realisation where our desires and God’s purposes for us are more closely aligned.

So each of us has an identity – but identity is not only an individual concern. This coming Thursday we are being invited to take part in a process which will help shape the identity of the UK over the next few years. We must ask ourselves what sort of country we want to be, and indeed does our identity in Christ shape our thinking?

And what sort of Church do we want to be? For those who today make promises as members of the PCC to wisely and diligently govern our common life, where do you believe the Spirit is calling this community in the future? How do we mould our particular Christian family to be more Christlike?

As part of London’s capital Vision 2020, the diocese has produced a booklet for Pentecost, Right Where You Are, which can help each of us, whatever our situation, to respond to our calling as Christians in our daily lives. Copies are available today I believe, and I hope that might help you think about how your identity as part of Christ’s body might be lived out.

Do you know who you are? I began with Luke Skywalker discovering his identity as a Jedi knight, the son of Darth Vader, and I suppose in that fantasy world the Force is a metaphor for the Holy Spirit in the Christian faith – empowering and leading individuals and communities to come to a true knowledge of themselves and to use their gifts for the service of God and others. Who are you? What gifts has God given you? How does God desire you to use those gifts?

In John’s gospel as Jesus breathes the Spirt on the apostles, he leaves them two gifts – the first peace – the ability not to succumb to anxiety and fear but to observe a faithful trust in God which goes beyond and above worldly cares. And the second is forgiveness, because often we are not true to ourselves and God, and need to be brought back. So today receive the Spirit, let it enable you to discover who you are and will be, and receive the gift of peace which drives out fear and enables us, a diverse people, to live together within the love of Jesus Christ. Amen.