Readings: Joel 2.21-end; Acts 2.14-21
Preacher: Canon Robert Titley
This week’s New Statesman, guest edited by the Archbishop of Canterbury, has caused some fluttering in the dovecots. In his editorial, a typically subtle piece – too subtle for much of the press – the most publicised remark was the one about the Government enacting policies that ‘none of us voted for’, though it omitted to mention the chief cause, the realities of coalition government, something which – in a sense – we did vote for. Less noted have been the uncomfortable points he makes about the Left failing to articulate its own alternative. So why did he do it? Some years ago, Rowan Williams wrote that the feast of Pentecost (which we celebrate today) has at its heart the story of the disciples filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking powerfully to the people of Jerusalem. Such moments, he said, occur at various points in the church’s life, with ‘people, all sorts of people, finding authority to talk of God and to God’. I guess the NS editorial was part of his expression of that authority, the authority not just of his office but the authority which belongs to every thoughtful Christian, to speak for God (who is, by the way, interested in far more than religion).
What is most striking has been the reaction, not to what he has said but to the fact that he has said it. Back in the 1980s, when church leaders were often filling the opposition vacuum in British politics, government ministers would growl about how bishops should ‘give up politics for Lent’. This time it’s been different, from David Cameron down. All say that the Archbishop has a perfect right to do what he has done: Norman Tebbitt said that it’s part of his job; on the radio today, Tim Montgomery, the Conservative blogger, said, ‘it’s absolutely right for the Archbishop of Canterbury to make comments, especially on behalf of the poor, in the public square, when Christians are commanded to love their neighbours.’
The prophets – like Joel today – would salute that. The modern distinctions between spiritual and political, sacred and secular, are unknown to them. Joel’s prophecies speak of the renewal of the whole earth, ranging from the end of drought and political oppression to what we would call the religious experience of ordinary people. All of that is contained in what he calls the pouring out of God’s Spirit. We hear the echo of Joel’s prophecy in the second reading, through the words of Peter on the day of the Jewish feast of Pentecost. The writer has just told how the Holy Spirit came upon the friends of Jesus like wind and fire, how it sent them tumbling out into the Jerusalem streets and gave them ability to speak to the polyglot crowd. Peter rebuts the claim some are making, that these exuberant people are filled with spirit of another kind: they are not drunk, he says, they are experiencing what Joel foretold, God pouring out his spirit on ‘all flesh’, the old dreaming dreams and the young speaking prophecies. Peter will go on to tell his audience that this is all to do with Jesus, whom they had crucified, but whom God raised from the dead.
Both these readings promise a wonderful gift, God giving away his own Spirit. The memory of Joel’s people and Peter’s audience will tell them what a gift that is, and that memory is in the books of what we now call the Old Testament. There we see: the Spirit of God is the energy that animated the creation at the dawn of time, that inspired the artist Bezalel to make the ark of the covenant, that gave Gideon (one of the so-called judges of Israel) the inner strength to lead his people against the invading Midianites, that gave Samson the outward strength to burst the ropes with which the enemies of his people had bound him, that came upon the prophet Isaiah so he could preach good news to those in poverty. And this gift, this inestimable gift (as the Prayer Book puts it) will be available – to whom? In these readings it is promised not just – or especially – to the great and the good, but to the downtrodden people who hear Joel and the motley crowd listening to Peter in the city street. And today, on our feast of Pentecost, it is promised to you, to me; to us.
Do you think you need it? Like Bezalel, that artist long ago in the early pages of the Bible, you may have gifts that need to be deepened, so that you might be inspired and not merely clever; like Gideon, you may need courage to offer leadership; or, like Samson, you may need the strength to break free from things that are shackling your life; like Isaiah you see the troubles of the world, but you are wondering what good news there can be in times like these. If any of these sounds like you, then you can say, ‘Yes, I need the gift of God’s Spirit.’
Yes, but do you deserve it? It doesn’t seem to depend on that, not if we go by the crowd in Jerusalem, whom Peter declares responsible for the death of Jesus. Like them, I may be quite capable of making bad choices, or I may have that weaker fault, of just going along with whatever others have chosen. Do I deserve the Spirit of God? Have you earned it? No – but God (thank God) deals not in wages but in gifts. The main thing that can get in the way of my receiving the Spirit is – me. If I say, ‘I don’t need this really, I’m doing fine,’ then that is that; whereas if I say, ‘I am not making the most of what life has given me’, or if I say, ‘I don’t think I’ve got it in me to do what’s being asked of me’, then I’m ready to receive. Then it’s a case of being open to God, perhaps in some time of quiet such as you can find in a service like this, or in this church during the many hours a week it is open; it’s a time to say to God, ‘You now me better than I know myself. I am willing to receive whatever you want to give to me.’
In the first reading, the prophet speaks of God’s generosity in terms of ‘pouring down abundant rain’. It is a poignant image just now, as once again we are talking about drought in Eastern England, in France, Germany – not to mention the yearly advance of the deserts as our planet warms up – and as China suffers fatal floods after long drought. The prophet then talks of God ‘pouring out’ the Spirit, in the passage Peter quotes. So the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles begins by speaking of the Spirit of God as wind and fire, and now likens the Spirit to rain. This puts a picture in my mind (rather at odds with the weather outside): crowds, all kinds of people, young an old, women and men, are standing on cracked earth under a copper sky; lips are chapped, throats dry; and water is nowhere in reach. And then it begins to rain; not the cloudburst that does harm and no good, but steady, sustained precipitation, as if some giant jug in the sky is being gently, firmly tipped; and the water begins to pour over them all, and they cup their hands and open their mouths to catch it, and skin is cooled and tongues can speak. That phrase ‘poured out’ speaks to me of something being given to me that I can’t get for myself, something arriving in my life that I haven’t made (nor ever could), and all I need to do is receive it.
Such is the God we meet here. And whenever I meet God, my emptiness is my greatest asset, and all you need is your neediness.
Authority to talk of God and to God: ‘Teaching the Truth’, in Living Tradition, edited by Jeffry John (DLT 1992), page 31.
The Holy Spirit and
Creation: Genesis 1.1
Bezalel: Exodus 31.1-3
Gideon: Judges 6.34
Samson: Judges 15.14
Isaiah: Isaiah 61.1