Sermon for PENTECOST 2013
John 14:8-17, 25-27
‘They were all together in one place’
As some of you know, this past week I have been traveling a fair way in order to get to know our Diocese a little better in my capacity as Vicar General. I spent time with the clergy and key lay leaders in Central Archdeaconry, and also visited Oamaru. In between I went on a rather long detour, North over a fortunately warm and sunny Lindis Pass, and on past Aoraki, Tekapo, on into Canterbury on what I hoped wasn’t a wild goose chase.
Just before leaving the UK I was present at the formation of a new Christian community in the far south west of Wales, and I had received an email from them asking if I might make contact with a couple from Hororata who had visited the community on a recent visit to Wales. So I drove on into the night, to draw up at a small cottage, weary from travels to meet two complete strangers, with whom I had shared the scantest of email dialogues.
There was an almost instantaneous connection between us. We shared in a meal and long conversation – we prayed the Night Office of Compline and in the morning shared in breakfast before once more praying together. It was for a few brief hours, Life in common, Life together. What made this connection possible?
Several years ago, I went to the best bible study I have ever been to, given by the Biblical Scholar Margaret Barker. The theme was the Covenant, but what really stuck with me was a comment she made. She said, ‘there is something about a Christian – you can always recognise one – a certain light’. Well as the other night we shared in faith, we prayed together and she took my daughter Rose, then studying theology at university under her wing, and encouraged her in her studies. Again someone I had never before met, someone whom I have never met since – but a very natural and rapid affinity. And something I have found to be true wherever I have been – that when I meet a fellow Christian, connection is easily made, deep and not readily forgotten. A shared Life.
A few weeks ago I preached on what is the sign that we are Christian. As I said, Jesus says the Outward evidence is this Life together, this love for one another that transcends everything else. But what we may ask is it that Creates this common Life, and what is its essence?
Today is one of the Principal feasts of the Church year. The feast of Pentecost – the Celebration of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the gathered disciples of Jesus – sometimes celebrated, not unreasonably as the birthday of the church, and our gospel reading is flanked by two readings about people ‘together in one place’. In the reading from the Book of Acts, and from Genesis we hear of people and a common life – but with radically different foundations, and thus radically different outcomes.
Of course it is easy to see points of conversation between the two readings. In both we have a multiplicity of tongues. But in one case these cause radical division, in the other they are transcended to create a new unity. In one case people are separated by their diverse cultures (language is both the mother and the child of culture), in the other language and culture is transcended to create a new humanity.
In one a people try to come together to make a life for themselves, apart from God, in rivalry to God. ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves . . .’ What a universal theme this is – the human desire to build a monument to its own significance – to make a life, a name for itself. To be able to stand back and say ‘Look what we have done!’ Reading as I have this past couple of weeks of the rapid acceleration of Climate change – those words – ‘Look what we have done!’ I suspect will come to have the hollowest of rings.
But over and against that human effort to make a life for itself we hear of the Gift of New Life, poured out at Pentecost. A Life that does not lead to division, but a life that transcends divisions. A life we do not build for ourselves, but a deep and rich life that is the Gift of God. And we must say at the outset that this is a life that transcends All human boundaries. The announcement of the Gospel creates a new community drawn from all the different nationalities gathered that day in Jerusalem. Discovering that in all that united them in Christ, those things that divided them became of much less significance. They did not allow the diversity of their cultures to stand as a means for ignoring the command of Christ, to Love one another.
And here I have to say that in the long term in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa / New Zealand, we cannot rest content with a three tikanga structure, for the life of Christ transcends cultures. Very briefly, we see this fight going on in the early church, when Peter comes to Galatia, out of fear he allows his Jewish culture to triumph over the life in Christ and does not share in table fellowship with the Gentile Christians. The church if you like tries a two tikanga structure, and everyone loses.
For many years now, I have supported a missionary organisation, Operation Mobilisation. At the heart of the missionary work has been ships – at present the Logos Hope. Upon these ships, Christians from all over the world come together in community to share in the good news of Christ and take it all around the world. Of course these enterprises are not all sweetness and light, but those aboard are compelled by the love of Christ and his command to love one another for the glory of God. Christ before culture. Christ before whanau, Christ before family, Christ transcendent, Christ over all.
And herein is the key – this shared Life – this One life that is poured out at Pentecost.
We remember from last week, Jesus commands his disciples to wait – stay here in the city – and so we hear ‘they were all together in one place’ – Obedient to the command of Christ. For all their fear, for all that they could not have fully understood what was happening, for all the threat of persecution from their fellow Jews, their Love for Jesus kept them there. ‘Jesus has commanded us to stay here, so we stay here’. If you love me, you will keep my commandments. – If you love me? This is the essence. What is the question that Jesus asks Peter,? What is the only thing Jesus is interested in in that encounter on the shore? What is the One thing he keeps asking? Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you Love me? And each time when Peter responds ‘Yes’, Jesus issues a command. If you love me, you will keep my command. Why do we as Christians Love our enemies? Why do we forgive seventy times seven? Why do we obey Jesus? Because we Love him.
‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. Keep my commandments – stay here in the city – And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever – until you have been clothed with power from on high.
What made that instant connection with strangers possible? Why do we recognise Christians when we are in their company even though we may well come from culturally diverse backgrounds? What is the connection? The Holy Spirit – the fruit of a shared love of Jesus.
they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; The lives we try and make for ourselves, like the tower of Babel involve hard work, striving after . . . after what? Security. Looking around and thinking we are alone we seek security; let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’
Ultimately this always leads to division – for we are eternally securing ourselves against the other, the rich against the poor. the strong against the weak, we seek security in family only for that too to become a source of disappointment, all of it ultimately a securing ourselves against the Life of God in Christ – Yet the other night I met two complete strangers – people whom everything in my basic animal instincts teaches me to be on my guard against. ‘you do not know them. How can you trust them? They are not like you?’ All we had in common was a love for Jesus. And in that we found a deeper richer security than anything we could possibly have built for ourselves.
All together in one place – all of them, 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
From this completely diverse group of people, God creates his new humanity, founded on love for Christ, obedience to his commands and the grace and strengthening of the Holy Spirit. So that just a few verses we read . . . All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Do we know that fellowship in Christ? It is my prayer that a a church we will more and more discover the truth that He is our Life
At the end of Peter’s speech as we heard it today, he quotes from the prophet Joel “All who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. All who love Jesus will discover the Salvation Life – a Life that transcends all boundaries, as God in Christ, sending the Holy Spirit has as it were transcended his own.