It’s a long story! A sermon for Pentecost 2016
Last week in the service at Wembley Downs, Matt asked who we would most like to have dinner with, if we had the opportunity to pick anyone we could, either alive or dead. I picked among others, Desmond Tutu, a voice for the black struggle for justice in South Africa. A voice for freedom, but also for compassion and forgiveness and inclusion. A voice of faith.
I have a little book written by him called, God is not a Christian. God is not a Christian, what a title, quite provocative for some, who see Christianity and Jesus having exclusive claims on God. Yet God is bigger, wider, deeper and much more universal than that.
In fact God is part of the story of life. Both the universe story and the story of us. When Tutu talks about God being present before Jesus , he looks to the scriptures, to Abraham and Moses, He talks about the Hebrews who knew God’s spirit in their land, and in the wind and fire and in the dawn of the world. Who heard the spirit in the harvest, in the valley of the dry bones, at the giving of the law on Mt Sinai, and in the prophets who spoke for the poor and dispossessed. Surely God was present and active in the world long before Christianity saw the light of day, he exclaims.
But in the 21st century we are asked to look even further back.
What about those who lived centuries before, or before even the dawn of humans. Or even the dawn of animals and birds or even the dawn of the universe.
We in the West sometimes forget, with our focus on God as father and Jesus as son, that the spirit, God’s spirit, the Holy Spirit if you like, is the oldest expression of the creator at work in creation. It is the spirit which enlivens and empowers life at every level.
I confess my undying love for science, for biology and am often amazed and dazzled by the intricate complicated creatures we are. From the DNA molecule, which guides everything from our ability to breathe and think to what hair colour we have, or whether we have earlobes that hang loose or are attached, to the process by which our cells know how to differentiate to become skin or heart or brain tissue. We are a marvel of life.
But we also come from a long line of marvels. We did not just appear one day, even if that is how the bible would have us believe. We are the product of millions of years of evolution. From our most recent ancestors, the Neanderthals, who lived the same time as us, to Homo erectus, and even further back to the Australopicine species, which predate the Homo species by a few million years, we find evidence of those who have gone before. They were bipedal like us, but with different features, adapted to the world in which they lived. I have held models of the skulls of our ancestors in my hands, ones that have been found in Africa and Asia, and have wondered about their thoughts and feelings. We have found signs of culture and painting, of respect for the dead and some rituals. God’s spirit residing in this world just as in ours, working for life.
But we can go further back, for we are derived from a common ancestor which we shared with the Chimps and with the Bonobo, some 7 million years ago, or with the Gorilla some 8 or 9 million years ago. These species have evolved separate from us, but we have an ancient link.
And if we go further back, we come to a time when there are no humans, the age of the early primates and mammals. An age of life but not as we know it. And further back still, to a time of vertebrates and amebas, and single cell organisms and further back to a planet just birthing life, and further back to a universe calling forth galaxies and stars, and further back. Back to a mystery, a big bang, a calling forth of creation some 14 billion years ago.
This is the greatest story, the wondrous story of life. Not just human life but all of life. And where is God, the spirit of life, the very breath of life in all of this? We find God right in the midst, an energizing creative impulse that has been present since the dawn of the world and the dawn of the universe. This spirit is not just a fly by nighter, here one day and gone the next, it is at the heart of who we are and who we are to be. It is found in all of life, from the earliest beginnings in the universe, in the galaxies and stars and planets, and from the smallest life forms to the complex creatures we have evolved into. God is not some external ruler but that “mysterious reality that permeates the universe and holds everything together in connectedness and relationship” (Michael Morwood). All of life shows the presence of Gods spirit, in which we live and move and have our being.
An incredible picture, don’t you think. One that should unite us, for both biologically and spiritually we are one. We are born from the same stars, born from the same divine life force, born with such commonality it is mind blowing. Yet we live as though we are not brother and sisters but enemies. We hoard our wealth, control our borders, and pollute our land and oceans and air as if we own it. We choose violence over peace and hatred over love, and inequality and exclusion over justice and compassion.
Even within the church, we allow our differences to separate, to divide, with our rules and doctrines, our set beliefs and our certainties, as though we know the mind of God.
How does that happen? It happens when we forget who we belong to, where we have come from and where we are going.
Somehow we forget the truth behind Pentecost.
Yet Pentecost sometimes bothers me. In light of the universality of God what does this moment really mean? What is the role of the ancient story of Pentecost in a world that can map the genome and send a Hubble telescope into the heavens?
The scriptural story makes it seem the faithful received a gift they did not formally have. While Luke in Acts tells the story dramatically, the spirit coming as a rushing wind and descending fire, appearing as tongues of flame 50 days after Easter, that told by John is more personal. The risen Christ bestows the Holy Spirit on his followers on the night of Easter and his spirit is a brooding presence in their hearts and minds. Both represent a watershed moment in the life of the early church. Both represent something about Jesus and his life and his call that this followers realised. Something dramatic. And they wanted to record it. It doesn’t mean that God s spirit was missing somehow prior to this event.
To understand the story then we need to explore its past. Pentecost’s roots are in Judaism, for it was very much a Jewish festival before it was a Christian festival. Occurring 50 days after Passover it links Israel’s much older agricultural cycle to her religious history. It celebrates both the completion of the harvest as well as the giving of the law to Moses on Mt Sinai. As Marcus Borg says it was about the creation of a new kind of community, the way of living together radically different from life in Egypt.
The readings from both Luke and John reflect this history, building on what has gone before, while announcing something altogether new. It was about the creation of a new community in Christ. A community anointed by God’s spirit and in continuity with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. A community that calls forth peace and justice and reconciliation in the world, here and now…
This reconciliation is seen in Acts. At the Tower of Babel in Genesis God scattered the pretentious human race across the earth confusing them by having them speak many languages rather than one. At Pentecost God reunites the scattered people into a new beloved community, one that is able to bridge differences and value diversity, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female.
The followers of Jesus thus became a community of reconciliation and renewal through the presence of the spirit. A spirit they saw fully realized in the life of Jesus. They began to share everything they had, former enemies became friends and people laid down their swords and picked up a cross. As the book of Acts goes on to say, there was no needy persons among them. The movement had started. A movement which would become the church.
So today we celebrate more than just an event in the past but a starting point to a future for us all.
Pentecost is not somehow about the spirit coming when it wasn’t already present. It has been present since the dawn of time. What we have at Pentecost is the realization of what that spirit looks like in flesh and blood, in heart and mind, in thought and action. Jesus brings us closer to the God already present in this world. He makes us aware that we are part of the story, the grand story, the most beautiful amazing story of life. And that we have a role to play in continuing the life giving affirming creative presence of God in the world. We! You and I! We too can bring life and light where there is death and despair. We too can see our common bonds rather than our differences which divide
As Greg Jenks believes, “Engagement with the spirit leads us to a much larger sense of God. It leads us to the character of Christ. It enmeshes us in a web of love from which all reality emerges, all life emerges”. This is where our future lies.
We may not be a Desmond Tutu, our dinner guest, who helped change the path of a nation and its people, but we can be that young person down the road who helps out every weekend at an retirement village, or that elderly lady who set up a charity to support a village in Africa, or that Dr. who volunteers in the Kimberley 3 times a year, or that couple who supports a refugee family on a temporary visa, or that retired man who writes business cases so that an aboriginal community can empower its members to grow and change. Or those women who write amnesty letters once a month. People like you and me. We have plenty of ways we can live out the Christ life, and it starts here and now today, in every relationship we have and every choice we make.
For who are we …?
We are, as the New Testament writers tell us, earthen vessels that hold a treasure, God’s work of art, temples of God’s spirit, the body of Christ, God’s sons and daughters.
We are people who have in us the spirit of the universe, we are a marvel of life.
We are to live with a belief and with a sense we are spirit people, sons and daughters of God each one of us. We are to embrace this spirit, this rushing wind, or whisper, this constant nudging from within and bear fruit in our own world, our own country
For as Desmond Tutu writes that we were made for goodness, we just have to get on with showing it.
As people of faith we have much to do, and many miles to go before we sleep.