Sunday 20th May 2018

Pentecost Sunday evensong

Ezekiel 36:22-28

1 Corinthians 12:1-13

The Rev’d Jenny Wilson


In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

This morning we heard read from the Book telling the story of the Acts of the Apostles about the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. Our cathedral is dressed in liturgical red, for today is the day we mark the coming of Jesus’ spirit. The Acts account of the Spirit’s coming is a story we know well and it is the story we associate with the arrival of Jesus’ spirit. It is Luke’s story. The writer of the Gospel of Luke also wrote the Book of Acts and this is his account. The writer of the gospel of John tells the story a little differently. In John’s story the day for the Spirit’s arrival is the first day of the week:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ (John 20:19-23)

John’s account gives us some key insights about the nature of the Holy Spirit. It is Jesus who breathes this spirit upon the frightened disciples. And this Jesus is the one who was crucified. Jesus shows the disciples his hands and his side, the marks of the nails in his hands and the mark of the spear in his side. This Jesus who speaks peace, brings peace to the disciples who thought him dead, who thought the hope and life they had found in being his followers gone, this Jesus is the crucified and risen Jesus. And that is very important. This Jesus, when he was nailed to the cross looked at those who nailed him there with love and he prayed, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” When the resurrection has come in all its mystery and the crucified Jesus stands with his disciples, when he comes and speaks his words of peace and he breathes his spirit on creation, it is the spirit of the one who dying forgave, dying forgives. The spirit of Christ is the spirit of forgiveness.

And, if there is any doubt about this, Jesus says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

The heart of spirit of Christ is forgiveness.

Which is interesting, as the essence of the Holy Spirit, according to the story we heard read this morning, seems to be about communication, the breaking down of barriers that exist between the people gathering in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost who are from many different nations and speak many different languages. The writer says:

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? (Acts 2:4-7)

The Holy Spirit nurtures communication, where once communication was impossible.

This evening our first reading comes from chapter 36 of the book of the prophet Ezekiel. This evening’s passage immediately precedes the story of the Dry Bones being brought to life by God’s spirit, a passage we also heard this morning. Ezekiel says the following:

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:25-28)

The spirit Ezekiel describes is a spirit that will cleanse the people from their worship of idols and help them live well as the people of God. Their love will be of God, not idols; their heart will be of flesh, not stone. This is another way of speaking of a spirit of forgiveness. The cleansing that God speaks of through his prophet Ezekiel is forgiveness. The relationship of the people, damaged through their love of things other than God, is restored by this spirit of forgiveness.

Our second reading tonight was taken from the First Letter of Paul to the people of Corinth. Paul is writing to a people divided.

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,*(he writes at the beginning of his letter) by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. (1Corinthians 1:10)

This theme of unity is addressed in chapter twelve when Paul writes of the gifts of the spirit. Another of the key aspects of Jesus’ spirit is to nurture unity.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good…. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. (1Corinthians 12:4-7, 12)

The different gifts of the spirit, wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, and so on are given to different members of the body of Christ, all for the common good, all to help bring unity and flourishing to that body.

From our different readings we are given windows into the different aspects of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ spirit is the spirit of peace and forgiveness, the spirit of restoration of relationship with God and with one another, the spirit that gives gifts that help to nurture the unity and thriving of the body of Christ.

I do not think, though, that these different aspects are disconnected, in fact I think that they are deeply interwoven. The Holy Spirit is Jesus’ spirit, and Jesus’ most profound action in his death and resurrection was the healing of the sins of the world, of the brokenness of the relationship with God and God’s people and between God’s people. Forgiveness is the key. The key to restored relationships, the key to the communication we saw when the disciples spoke and those of many different nations and languages understood, the key to unity, the key to thriving. Our relationships are damaged by our sins and restored by the forgiveness of those sins. Our relationships with God and one another are healed by the Holy Spirit.

What can often be difficult for us to know is the great wonder of these things. We speak the words “Holy Spirit” regularly in our prayers and in our creeds and this extraordinary fiery presence can seem almost commonplace. Jesus’ power through this spirit to transform us, to transform creation can be numbed for us by the familiarity of what we may think of as religious things. What words can reach us of the wonder and newness of the spirit? What story can break through and touch our hearts?

Last evening many, perhaps most of us watched the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle and we marvelled at the beauty of the protagonists and the congregation and the liturgy that interwove the cultures of the bride and groom. The couple were married by the Archbishop of Canterbury and it was this Archbishop who invited Bishop Michael Curry from the Episcopal church of the USA to preach the wedding sermon. Bishop Michael Curry could not have been unaware that this marriage took place on the eve of the coming of the Holy Spirit, the eve of Pentecost. He said this.

Jesus of Nazareth taught us that the way of love is
the way to a real relationship with the God who created all of us,
and the way to true relationship with each other as children of that one God, as brothers and sisters in God’s human family…I’m talking about power. Real power — power to change the world. … we must discover love, the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world a new world.

Such is the power of Jesus’ spirit, this spirit of forgiveness, this spirit of communication, this spirit of power, power to change the world.