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Sermon for Pentecost

Listen to or read a sermon written by Revd Stephen for the Feast of Pentecost, Sunday 31 May 2020

We all enjoy receiving gifts. We may not say it, but we do – we all enjoy receiving gifts. Birthdays and Christmas are obvious moments when gifts make us feel special – even if they do become more predictable and more practical as we get older.

Of course, gifts that come at unexpected times always make us feel especially warm inside. Ordinary days are transformed by the simple gesture of someone presenting us with a gift – suddenly we feel loved and accepted, affirmed and appreciated.

In today’s gospel reading we find ourselves on the day of the resurrection – the first Easter day. The disciples are still bewildered, confused and uncertain about the news which they had been told by the women who had found Jesus’ tomb empty, some twelve hours earlier.

The disciples are gathered together behind locked doors – filled with fear. And then … the risen Jesus appears in their midst.

At first, his appearance adds to their fear and increases their confusion.

But then we hear Jesus saying to them – ‘I want to give you something – a parting gift to help you remember me.’

Unlike our common practice of negotiating what sort of gift the recipient would like to receive, Jesus simply says ‘Here it is … my parting gift for you.’

There is no moment when he says: ‘I would like to give you something, so what would you like?’

Nor does he create a game-show style line-up of glittering ‘prizes’ from which you can choose whatever you like.

Nor does he say: ‘If you don’t like it, you can return it; if it doesn’t fit, you can exchange it. I’ve enclosed a gift receipt and I really won’t be offended if you take it back and change it for something you would like better.’

No … Jesus stood in their midst, breathed on them and said:
Receive the Holy Spirit.

Jesus’ present is the Holy Spirit – presented as a special gift to a unique group of people;
a group of people who are now more blessed because they have received that gift;
a group of people who are now enabled and empowered to share the gift of the Holy Spirit with others.

Jesus breathed on them … the very breath of Christ … that which was and is the life of Christ, is also the life of the Holy Spirit.

The breath of Christ becomes the wind of the Spirit … the energy and warmth of the very being of Christ is also the fire of the Spirit. God, the Redeemer Christ, ‘gifts’ the Church with the saving breath of life.

This breath of Christ is, of course, the same breath that moved over the waters of chaos and brought order to creation.

It is the same breath that moved over a valley filled with dried and scorched bones, in order that life might be restored to a whole people before the eyes of Ezekiel.

This is the same breath that transforms a group of fear-filled disciples into dynamic, energy-filled servants – those dynamic and energy-filled servants we call the Church.

For the disciples this gift is a breath of fresh air.

The room was heavy with the mood of staleness – stifling the ability to breathe normally. Fear takes away our breath – those disciples, in their fear, and in that sealed and stuffy room, must have been gasping for breath.

They feared for their own lives;
they feared the worst (His body had probably been stolen!);
they feared the best (What if he really was alive?);
they feared for the future (Without the presence of their Rabbi … Master … Messiah!);
they feared for their own relationships (Already suspicious of one another).

They really did need that breath of fresh air!!!!

Sadly, that experience of profound and life-sapping suffocation can so easily enter into the life of the Church, and into the life of the individual Christian.

How often does a Church group or committee find itself overwhelmed with a sense of fear – fear that is akin to that felt by the first disciples on the evening of the day of resurrection itself?

How often do we allow ourselves to become overwhelmed by fear of what might happen – without remembering that Jesus himself is always there, alongside us; without remembering that Jesus breathed on us, and that the Holy Spirit is not only with us, but inside us too?

Of course, scripture offers us two accounts of the moment when humanity was given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, arrives with a sound like the rush of a violent wind.

Throughout scripture, the Holy Spirit is likened to the power of wind – blowing where it will – sometimes gently, and at other times with tremendous force.

Whether we view the Spirit as the breath of God, or whether we view the Spirit as a life-changing hurricane accompanied by tongues of fire, we need to accept this greatest of all possible gifts.

We need to open our hearts and our minds as we search for the Spirit working within us.

We must be prepared to let the Spirit take us both deep within ourselves and far beyond –
just as breath moves in and out of our bodies,
and just as wind travels freely throughout the world.

The Spirit … like breath and wind … is a force to be reckoned with.

In the book of Acts we see that the Spirit cares about how we communicate with one another. St Paul tells us that the Spirit works within us as a catalyst – freeing us to exercise our God-given talents.

For many people, the imagery of ‘wind’ does not simply represent something stronger than breath; rather, it represents something very dangerous. And that is what we find in the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The Holy Spirit is often found where things are stirred up, shaken around and unsettled. Sometimes even with the force of a hurricane!!

But … the Spirit is not only disruptive. Yes, the ‘wind’ version of the Spirit does shake us out of our complacency, but … after the hurricane comes the lull – the breath that lives deep within each of us.

That breath of Jesus says to us: ‘In the mist of all that is swirling around within us … be still!’

The gift of the Spirit can also be felt when we feel overwhelmed or overcome by what is happening all around us,
when life conspires to disconnect us from our core truth,
and keeps us focused on what matters least in our lives,
rather than on what matters the most.

This is the time when we need to re-connect with those first disciples.

The gift of the Spirit replaced fear with joy;
timidity with boldness;
hesitation with courage;
a sense of being lost with a sense of purpose.

The disciples moved out from behind their locked doors with precisely that joy, boldness, courage and purpose filling their hearts and their lives.

Jesus’ gift to his disciples is a gift that means action! Not the action of rushing off to the customer services desk to request a refund or an exchange – no, the action of going out into the world as Christ’s chosen representative.

We are empowered to breathe new life into a stale world that yearns to breathe the fresh air that was gifted to us by Christ himself.

The accounts of Pentecost are the accounts of an action that occurred two thousand years ago.

But … the accounts of Pentecost are also accounts that fill us with hope for the twenty-first century …
the hope of new action;
the hope of new life.

And it is through us … the Church …
whose very life is dependent on that breath of Christ,
and whose very life itself is a gift,
that God’s breath of fresh air will stir and renew this broken and troubled world. Amen.