Happy Pentecost everyone. Thanks to artist Jan Richardson for this image which will be my meditative focus for today. It is already etched in my memory.
Pentecost Sunday 2014, St Martins Community Church
Readings: Acts 2:1-21, Romans 5:1-5
I have been part of many memorable Pentecost Sundays, with creative children’s talks bringing the dramatic story of Pentecost to life! One year particularly sticks in my mind when our quietly spoken, tree-hugging youth minister brought a leaf blower in to church. Who knew the Holy Spirit smelt so strongly of petrol! There was quite a kerfuffle when the started smoking, but luckily it didn’t blow up or we would have had the flames in church as well as the wind! After we’d all taken our fingers out of ears, this dear, gentle man quietly explained the gift of the Spirit and the love of Jesus who gave it.
The disciples were gathered together and the Holy Spirit was given to them, in a way previously not experienced by people on mass. It came like a rush of violent wind that in Victoria we might associate with footage from the Black Saturday bushfires. The Spirit entered into each one there and they began to speak in languages previously unknown to them. A large crowd gathered in response to the roar – it seems the wind was loud enough to be heard from several streets away, and it becomes evident that these languages that had been given were human languages from far and wide, so that everyone who came could hear about the gift that had just been given to the friends of Jesus in their native tongue, the intimate language of their mother’s voice. The crowd could tell the message they were hearing was about ‘deeds of power’ but they could not make out its meaning, and so Peter, standing with the eleven, proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ to them, and about 3,000 people believe and were baptized on that day.
The disciples had been waiting for the Holy Spirit to arrive, as Jesus had promised that it would. I’m not sure they were expecting tongues of fire, but tongues of language should not have surprised them. In John chapter 14, we have recorded some teaching on the Holy Spirit by Jesus before his death. He said, ‘if you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth … he will abide in you.’ (v. 15-17) The Spirit continues the teaching ministry of Jesus, and enables his disciples to both fulfill and pass on what they have been commanded: to love one another as Jesus has loved them.
Since the gospel message of Jesus is Love and the Holy Spirit’s role is to guide Jesus’ disciples deeper into that message, Saint Augustine concluded that the Holy Spirit is Love. Like all of us, Augustine had his favourite passages of Scripture, and his suggestion that the Holy Spirit should be synced with the Love of God is directly related to one of them, Romans 5:5: ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’ That is, God’s own Love, the Love that is so integral to God’s character the author of 1 John says God is Love, Divine Love is poured into our hearts when we receive the Holy Spirit.
This is really important, because often we fall into the trap of trying to fulfill Jesus command to love through our own strength, but we all know that human love can be fickle and unreliable. It’s not that I think divine and human love are a different type of love, by the way. I think love is love, and human love is cut from the same cloth as God’s love, but God’s love is perfect in a way ours is not. Ours is partial and evolves in quality and capacity over a lifetime, whereas the love that the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts is perfect at all times and in all ways. Therefore, regardless of how well we have been loved in life – by our parents, siblings, friends, Lovers and fellow Christians, the gift of the Holy Spirit brings a bigger capacity for love, to keep loving even in the face of fear, failure, rejection, betrayal.
I watched the movie Philomena over the weekend. An old Irish catholic woman searches for the son that had been taken from her in the harsh, misguided years of Irish Catholicism which had no comprehension of healthy sexuality and no mercy to unwed mothers. In the end, we discover the most bitter betrayal – the nuns lied to keep mother and son from meeting, refusing the last wish of a dying man so that they never get to meet in this life. But, girded by her simple, life-lived faith, Philomena offers forgiveness to an old nun twisted by misguided zeal. Her journalist and atheistic companion Martin cannot comprehend her actions and, to my mind is quite reasonable in his exasperation: whereas Philomena leaves with a declaration of ‘I forgive you’, Martin says, ‘I cannot forgive.’ Indeed, how does Philomena forgive the obvious hatefulness in the person of God who kept her from her son? How is such love possible? Only through the gift of God’s own love for us into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, descending like a raging fire to ignite a love which transcends all hate, grief, brokenness and bitterness.
St John of the Cross, the sixteenth century Spanish mystic wrote a poem about it, called the Living Flame of Love, and since he wrote a theological exposition on the poem, we are in no doubt that he is speaking about the Holy Spirit. I’ve put copies of the poem around for you to read and take home, I’m just going to read the first stanza:
1. O living flame of love
that tenderly wounds my soul
in its deepest center! Since
now you are not oppressive,
now consummate! if it be your will:
tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!
2. O sweet cautery,
O delightful wound!
O gentle hand! O delicate touch
that tastes of eternal life
and pays every debt!
In killing you changed death to life.
3. O lamps of fire!
in whose splendors
the deep caverns of feeling,
once obscure and blind,
now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely,
both warmth and light to their Beloved.
4. How gently and lovingly
you wake in my heart,
where in secret you dwell alone;
and in your sweet breathing,
filled with good and glory,
how tenderly you swell my heart with love.
The poem talks about the experience of receiving the Holy Spirit initially as a wound – being cut to the heart – but then the shock recedes and gives way to a sweet, delicate breathing or touch. A touch, that tastes of eternal life, and rights every wrong.
When I received the Holy Spirit at age 15, I experienced a warm, tingly glow enter into my body from the top of my head, and falling all the way down into my toes, like stepping into a hot shower. It was a moment that fundamentally re-oriented my life from that point onwards, but its not the experience itself that has shaped my life, it is the love of Jesus and walking in his way. There is no evidence that I can give you as proof on the inward encounter with the Holy Spirit, but there is, I trust, evidence of a life lived in, from and through the love of Jesus. The ‘proof’ of whether or not I have received the Holy Spirit, is in the quality of my love of God and neighbor.
Going back to the story of Pentecost, I think we can see the link between Love and the proclamation of the gospel message for ultimately, if there is no Love, there is no message. If our words about Jesus take on a harsh edge of judgment and condemnation – a role Jesus has reserved for himself – then they are not the gospel message. The only way we can hope to pass on the gift of the Holy Spirit, is to speak about Jesus in a way that can only be described as loving.
Another mystic writing about Love and the Holy Spirit, who died a few decades ago as opposed a few centuries ago, is the Anglo-American Thomas Merton. Merton drew my attention to the fact that when the message of the Word of God loses its Love, the Word becomes mere words, meaningless chatter. I like that as a description of the crowd gathered around listening to the Word of God on the first Pentecost. At first, what they heard were a lot of words, which didn’t make sense to them, even though they were heard in their native language, the language in which they would express love and affection to their families! It was only when they understood the meaning of the message, that the cacophony of words became one Word, the Word Made Flesh. The One sent from the One who is Love.
And so this is where I want to finish today, with this reflection on our speaking and living the Word which is Love. The natural consequence of being filled with the Holy Spirit is to start speaking about Jesus, in the same way that we speak about all the people in our lives whom we love. I met a woman on a plane recently who’d just become engaged, she couldn’t stop telling me about the wonders of her man and was literally glowing with the warmth of love as she did so – that’s the kind of speech that comes from the Word Made Flesh.
The warning is, with the busyness and mundane duties of life, we all know that this woman radiating with the thrill of her pending marriage will not speak about her husband in the same way in a couple of years time. But hopefully, if the relationship progresses the way it should, there is a different kind of tenderness to her speech, a gentle peacefulness that comes from love refined. And if you’ve been a Christian for a long time, maybe that’s the kind of love that will characterize your speech about Jesus – the deep tenderness for the One who has been with you through thick and thin.
In the chatter of the world, our speeches about Love and Jesus as likely to be quiet moments of connection, like the one I had with this woman on the plane, rather than grand speeches to crowds of thousands. And because our message is love they are more likely to be conversations rather than monologue proclamations, it is likely your actions will do the preaching for you. There is no need for many words, no amount of scholarship and logic is going to convert a determined atheist, we simply offer a testimony – in our loving speech and actions – to the One Word, the Word Made Flesh, the Word of Love.