Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Sermon at Parish Mass, Pentecost 2015

Acts 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’

Romans 8:22-27

and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit,* since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit* is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ* from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through* his Spirit that dwells in you.

12 So then, brothers and sisters,* we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba!* Father!’ 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness* with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

John 15.26-27; 16.4b-15

‘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. 23Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

25 ‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate,* the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

The day of Pentecost - what a launch party ! What a beginning for the Jesus movement expanding into the world! And all without a PR company or an advertising campaign, or any presence on social media. Only God could do something like that.

And what a transformation! The disciples were in the same upper room in which Jesus had celebrated the last supper just before his death. That was a private, safe room where the Master and his disciples could gather undisturbed by the police who were hunting for him. The same room where the disciples had met after the death of Jesus with the doors locked because they were afraid. And they’re the same disciples.

Yet today the Holy Spirit blasts into that room in wind and fire. The disciples begin to praise God in every language under heaven, proclaiming his mighty works. Thousands see and believe. Suddenly everything is public and out in the open. The little secret church in that closed room has been launched into the world. And the Church has never gone back into that little room, and the world has never been the same again.

The Spirit gives the church everything the church needs to carry on the mission of Jesus in the world. What is that mission? It is the mission to bring the world into the embrace of God’s love. It is the mission to reach out to a humanity thathas been estranged from that love.

Jesus describes the Spirit as the Advocate, the one who comes alongside and defends us. This is an image from the courtroom, but it shows us that the Holy Spirit is God on our side,  taking our part, replacing the spirit of the world, Satan the accuser who divides and casts out. God’s Spirit comes to us to assure us that we are loved, that we are embraced by God who is love. The life of the Spirit, which is unity and inclusion and drawing all together in love, is given to us in place of the spirit which has been running the world up to now, the spirit of accusation and violence and casting out.

The Orthodox icon for the feast of Pentecost tries to convey something of this change. It’s a marvel of inverted perspective. The upper room has become an open space with no walls or horizon, it just goes on without limit into golden light. The disciples and Mary are sitting in arc which is part of an expanding circle like ripples on a pond. This is the new life in the Holy Spirit, ever enlarging. Down below, in a small cramped dark space, is a little figure representing the world, run according to the old way of accusation and violence. The world is robed like a king, but he looks on without comprehension. He doesn’t see the glorious new universe, the Kingdom of God in the Holy Spirit, which is unfolding in front of him.

This is the change, the new life, that the Spirit brings. And what were the disciples doing when the Holy Spirit descended on them? They were praying, and had been for nine days. Preparing themselves for this great gift. The Spirit is not an invader taking over, but a guest transforming us with our consent. So we have to be willing and prepared.

Prayer prepares us to receive and nurture the gift of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. But that is no great challenge. Prayer is very simple. It is simply attention to God in our hearts. In these days when life is so complicated and so full and busy we need this simplicity more than ever. All the different methods of prayer are intended to lead us towards this goal: wakeful attention to God in the heart. So do whatever helps you most. That may be set forms of prayer, the daily office of psalms and readings, the Rosary, the Jesus prayer, meditative reading of scripture, silent meditation.

We also need to nurture the Spirit by constant conversion of life, repentance, turning around to follow the will of God, and by faithful and frequent participation in the Eucharist, for that is our spiritual nourishment as much as ordinary food is nourishment for our bodies.

The Spirit within us is the first fruits of redemption and the promise of its completion. Which, says St Paul, is the redemption of our bodies. Our bodies are temples of the Spirit now, and are to be fully glorified in our own resurrection.

This is why we worship with our bodies as well as our minds. We physically come to church and gather together. You can’t have a church without that! There is no such thing as a “virtual church” - the church absolutely needs bodies! It is a physical gathering. With our bodies we make the sign of the cross, we bow and bend the knee, we raise our hands in prayer, we see the lights and the images and vestments, we sing with our lungs, we breathe the incense.

Most fundamentally of all, our bodies are washed with water in baptism, our mouths receive the Holy Eucharist in which Jesus feeds us with himself. Our bodies are absolutely central to the way in which we are being saved and made holy. This is why the Church from the beginning has treated the bodies of Christians with honour in life and death, and venerated the tombs and relics of the saints. Bodies in which the Holy Spirit dwells are made holy.

Christianity does not believe that we are spirits trapped in matter but bodies and souls made spiritually alive by the Spirit of God. The Ascension, in which bodily human nature is taken into God, is the other side of the same coin. At Pentecost we see the fruits of the Lord’s Ascension coming back to us, the Spirit given to us to transform us into God. And while we wait for the fulness of our redemption the Spirit prays within us and supports us in our weakness.

The Holy Spirit comes to us to assure us that we are loved. And the Spirit dwells in us so that we might love God and one another with the same love with which he loves us. The Church is not to remain in a little safe upper room.  God sends us, who have been caught by his love, to widen the circle of that love, to embrace the whole world.

And the Holy Spirit gives us too the gifts that are needed to continue this mission. Gifts of ministry and discipleship and administration. Gifts of wisdom, understanding, patience, love. Some gifts are more obvious, some are quieter and more hidden. But every one of us has different gifts and we all need each other. The gifts the Holy Spirit distributes are to work together to build up the Church and to extend God’s Kingdom. And all of these are nurtured and grown by prayer, by the Eucharist, and by the path of conversion of life.

So let us today give thanks for the gifts God has given us, and pray that we may use those gifts, together, to build up one another and to carry on the mission that God has given to us.

The whole world is invited to enter the new universe that began in the upper room, the new way of life filled with light and love, the Kingdom of God in the Holy Spirit. And God has given us the Spirit of his love that we may bring others into that love too.


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