Sermon for Pentecost 2018, by Fr Neil Traynor, United Benefice of Holland Park

Sermon for Pentecost 2018, by Fr Neil Traynor, United Benefice of Holland Park
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God and the Word was with God.” So begins the Gospel according to St John. In the last week or so, it’s a text I’ve seen a lot of, not least because I’ve found multiple copies of it in a drawer in the vestry. There was a time, not so long ago, when every Sunday evening this would be the dismissal Gospel at the very end of the service. Now, we only use this form on a few days – and certainly not in Latin!
However, there is a little bit of me which is disappointed that this isn’t the Gospel for today. Not that the Gospel we’ve just heard isn’t good, but it would give an interesting reflection on the Pentecost story.
In fact, in some ways I’d also prefer an old testament reading to the 1 Corinthians reading, but I’ll come to that at the very end. To my mind, not the best choice of readings that the liturgical commission could have made.
One of the problems and joys of the Bible is that we can select readings to put forward any argument, or the opposite. That’s one of the reasons why the Church is such a diverse and vibrant body. There isn’t just one answer, black and white, but a whole variety of answers, all of which point to the truth, but are not necessarily ‘the’ truth. Problems come when we start insisting that there is only one truth, one way, one answer. It might feel nice, comfortable, secure. It will give a short term glow of warmth, but one which doesn’t last. Perfection is wonderful – but it won’t happen in this life, I’m reasonably sure.
Which brings me on to the question of Pentecost. It’s fashionable now to talk about it as the birthday of the Church. The moment the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples, and the promised one who is to come, the Advocate, as the Gospel has it, is with us.
That is, to my mind, a somewhat linear understanding. It can imply an interpretation that the Holy Spirit was only active in the world after Pentecost. As we all know, that simply can’t be true, and we’ve been saying the same thing since the Easter Vigil, when, with the prophecies from the Old Testament we see Salvation History laid out before us. This is not a series of unconnected incidents, but all of which, when taken together, give a picture of our salvation larger than the sum of its parts. It may, though, be the fault in part of my upbringing. Growing up around Manchester, Whit was a major public holiday – greater in many ways than Easter. The mills would close (though they’re all now long gone); children would not only get new clothes, but would receive a token from friends and neighbours; villages hold contests for brass bands – I wouldn’t advocate going to Diggle, Delph, Saddleworth or Dobcross next weekend unless you have a brass instrument to play and are prepared to drink a significant quantity of beer! And, the highlight of the year would be the Whit processions around each of the towns.
Led by brass bands (before they’ve had too much beer on the following Monday or Friday), accompanied by huge banners which put ours to shame in terms of size though not beauty, the scholars of the Sunday School would process through the towns. Statues would be carried, and all of the churches would do this together – Anglican, Roman Catholic, Congregational, Methodist, United Reformed, Baptist, Free Church, Moravian – all walking side by side.
For me, the meaning of Pentecost is not flames coming down, or a birthday party, or being given gifts by the Holy Spirit, or of the Holy Spirit suddenly appearing, but, and this is a very big but, of people who, for most of the time are very different, and whose worship is completely dissimilar to each others, coming together for a common purpose to witness to a common faith.
To my mind, that is also rather the point of the Pentecost narrative. Here we have people from all over the known world being able to hear and understand a common message. And it’s quite a list – let me remind you of it – Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.
It’s the Holy Spirit who brings people together from diverse nations, tribes and communities. It’s the Holy Spirit who enables each to understand what the other is saying. It’s the Holy Spirit who, if we believe Genesis 11 literally, removes the barrier of difference so that we are once more in the days before the tower of Babel, where the whole world spoke one language. For me, the true meaning of Pentecost lies in this – that the Holy Spirit enables each of us to talk to other people, from near or far, rich or poor, black or white, straight or gay, so that we can share our common stories, our different heritages and our individual experiences and be brought together in worship and praise of the one true God. And it enables us not just to talk to them but more important to listen to them. This common sharing, of listening and speaking is what will give us an insight into the other, and therefore lead to understanding.
This isn’t based on one way, the right way, the true way, my way; but on the myriad of different ways that there are, and always have been, to find and know God.
As I began with the opening of John’s Gospel, so I’d like to finish with something similar; one might say a fugue upon it. For in the beginning there was the word, and the word was God, and the word was with God. And the word, being spoken and living and vibrant was heard over the face of the earth, and each of God’s creatures heard the word of God in their own way and in their own understanding. And each knew a little of the truth of God. And each was a different truth of God. And at Pentecost, the Holy Spirt came that we might share, hear and understand all these different things of God; to share with each other and the world, and to know more of the myriad truths of God. At Pentecost, each heard the other speaking as in their own native language. Let’s try and understand the other, so that we, too, can know what they know of the truth of God. It might well be more important than what we think we know. Amen

Fr Neil Traynor