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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Where It All Began: a Pentecost sermon in the church of my ordination.

It's good - very good - to be back here at St Andrew’s again. You’ll forgive me for being a little personal as I revisit this pulpit this morning where I first cut my teeth as a preacher. Forty-one years ago I was ordained deacon on this very spot, beneath the Norman Arch. I don’t know if anyone here today was in church that Sunday morning, 29 June, St Peter and St Paul’s Day 1975. Even if you were, there’s no reason why you should remember it though my memory is as vivid as if it were last week.

Last year I retired after twelve wonderful years at Durham Cathedral as Dean. Memory comes into things when you cross the threshold into retirement and look back on your working life. You try to identify themes, make connections, gather up fragments. My own working life in public ministry began here. So on this Day of Pentecost, let me try to think aloud about the significance of being in this place on this day and reflect, not on my own career but on the part remembering plays in our celebration of Whitsun and the gift of the Holy Spirit. After all, ordination is a sacrament of the Spirit and whatever the ministry we are each called to, we can only flourish as the Spirit equips and animates us in God’s service. 

In today’s gospel from St John, Jesus promises to send his disciples the Advocate, the Paraclete to be with them for ever, “the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be among you”. A little later on Jesus elaborates on one of the roles of the Paraclete. “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.” So discipleship means learning and it means remembering. Together they constitute our formation as Jesus’ followers and friends. We learn what Jesus has to teach us: truth, grace, faithfulness, love, peace, wisdom and all the other virtues of Christian life. As Benedict says in his Rule, the secret is to listen and discern. And each step in that journey lives on in our experience and our consciousness as we look back and remember what Jesus has taught us and how he has formed us and made us who we are: those same virtues of wisdom and peace, love and faithfulness, grace and truth and the other gifts of the Spirit.

The eucharist is of course the act of remembering that lies at the heart of Christian faith. “Do this in memory of me” says Jesus in the same upper room that St John was telling us about. The kind of memory he is talking about isn’t “aorist” memory, something past and finished with. Anamnesis is in the perfect tense, past acts with present consequences. It lives on in our contemporary experience where we meet and know the crucified and risen Jesus in the sacrament of the altar. Like the Jewish Passover that lies behind it, the story of God’s mighty acts in incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and Pentecost all belong to our present reality that transforms life now and gives us back our hope. So memory has a future tense as well. “We show forth the Lord’s death until he comes.”

By extension, all Christian memory is like this, the corporate memory of the church, our personal memories as God’s people. The Advocate, says Jesus, abides in our midst so that we can learn and can remember. For all of us, I guess, this church of St Andrew has been a focus of our learning and our memory. Some of you were baptised here, confirmed here, married here. Some of you will have said farewell here to loved ones at their funerals. Some of you learned faith here through Sunday school, adult learning or Christian outreach into the community. All of you have prayed here, heard the word of God here, shared in koinonia with your fellow Christians here, been fed and nourished here in this sacrament of the eucharist. Not many, I think, can say we were ordained here, but the principle is the same. This place, this “serious house on serious earth” to quote Philip Larkin, has played an essential part in the making of us all as Christian people. It is a kind of sacrament in its own right as all holy places are. “Surely the Lord was in this place and I knew it not” said Jacob at Bethel. But we do know it, or at least glimpse it. And if that eludes us, it’s safe to say that we are here because we feel after the sense of God’s presence on this day we are thankful for the gift of the Spirit. 

All this I began to learn in my first years of ordained ministry as a curate here. It’s not of course a matter of theory or book learning. It’s being a practitioner that teaches you, the experience of doing the work of God and the memory of it as you reflect on what it means and where God is to be found in it. Pentecost is one of those days when we look back as the church and recognise how experience has formed us and we have grown in the awareness of God, of one another and of the world. 

So I came to love this church and prize what it symbolised. I can’t exaggerate the influence St Andrew’s has subsequently had on my ministry and the style of liturgy, proclamation and spirituality I learned here. We are lucky if we can look back on our curacies so positively and so thankfully. But I needed to learn something else: that the church can never be the sole container of goodness, truth and beauty. We mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that this church, any church, the church is the only repository of the Spirit’s gifts. If Pentecost means anything, it is to prize open the church from the tiny, beleagured, inward-looking community it had been to a confident, outward-facing, global movement that looks for nothing less than the transformation of the whole creation. 

And this, I believe, is a dimension the church needs to recover today. It follows from our Pentecostal learning and remembering. Jesus goes on to speak about it later in St John. “When the Advocate comes, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.” To testify is to speak publicly about what we have learned and remembered. This means that in its words and actions, the church has a life-changing story to tell that is of global significance. In Acts, that first fiery rapture on Whit Sunday led to the expansion of Christianity from Jerusalem to Samaria and into the uttermost parts of the earth: it’s how Luke consciously shapes the narrative in Acts. 

And so must we shape our own story. In evangelism, in pastoral care, in apologetics, in social justice, yes and in liturgy and prayer most of all, we look outwards in imagination and in reality and see the creation as the theatre of God’s activity. It’s not that we take it there, more that we find it there already, so that by “testifying”, by bearing witness to what God is doing in human life, we interpret and articulate in ways that help us both to see and to recognise. As we do this, the story gets added to and enriched. There is yet more to learn and remember, yet more for which to be thankful, yet more that feeds our hope and prayer that God’s kingdom may come, and that we may one day know even as we are known. 

St Andrew’s Headington on the Day of Pentecost 2016. 
Acts 2.1-14, Romans 8. 14-17, John 14.8-17

A Large Room for Pentecost

This is my first Pentecost in retirement. Forty years ago next month, on Trinity Sunday, I was ordained priest in my college chapel here in Oxford. Balliol claims to have been founded one year before Merton in 1263, but we won’t let that get between us tonight.   Last year I retired after 12 wonderful years at Durham Cathedral as Dean. So this year it’s been necessary to learn how to inhabit a different human landscape with new rhythms, routines and opportunities. I’m having to redefine ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ and ask myself how best I can serve God in what they call the Third Age, and how to grow old gracefully. 

I’ve been haunted in this first year of superannuation by some words of the early 20th century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.  He is speaking about ageing.  He says in one of his Letters to a Young Poet that our life is a kind of room, but as we grow older we inhabit a smaller and smaller part of that room, pacing up and down in front of the window, tracing and retracing our steps.  Ageing, he says, means contracting gracefully into a smaller space, pulling in our horizons both literally (because of our increasing physical limitations) and metaphorically (because we no longer think new thoughts and dream new dreams).  It means accepting and making friends with our own mortality.  

This could mean the depressing prospect of diminishing into nothingness.  But Rilke goes on to say: "we must accept our experience as vastly as we possibly can; everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it." In other words, with the inevitable contraction of our physical and mental environment should come an emotional and spiritual expansion of horizons as when we were young.  ‘I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space’ says Hamlet.  “Old men should be explorers” said Haydn in the last phase of an amazingly fertile life as great music continued to pour out of him, forever fresh and new. 

Today is the Feast of Pentecost, Whit Sunday. We are celebrating how God comes amongst us as Holy Spirit, is to be found at the heart of life as Paraclete, Holy Wisdom, Advocate, Comforter and Friend. We usually focus on Luke’s dramatic fiery story we heard from the Acts of the Apostles. But I find St John in tonight’s gospel rather closer to my own rather quieter experience of the Spirit of Truth whom the world neither knows nor sees, but who abides in us and is within us as the One who shows us the Father. 

There’s no limit to the number of ways we could picture the Spirit, so here’s one inspired by Rilke. It’s that of a large room, of space.  For I want to see Pentecost as the celebration of God-given space in which we can grow and flourish, a room generous enough for each of us and all of us collectively to discover and live out our humanity.  

Let me explain. The origins of Pentecost lie in one of Israel’s agricultural festivals, the Feast of Weeks when the first ripe grain was offered fifty days after the Passover.  So in Old Testament times, the feast was linked to the gift of a land, space to inhabit and settle and fertilise, rich, beautiful, well-watered, productive.  The land flowing with milk and honey, the land of safety and plenty and rest is a familiar image of redemption.  What is interesting about the language of ‘salvation’ in Hebrew is that it is closely related to the idea of space.  To be confined, hemmed in, imprisoned, when possibilities are closed off, is a kind of death.  Its opposite is to have room to grow and flourish and be truly alive.  

Now "Lebensraum" has its sinister shadow: most of the invasion of history have been driven by land-hunger, the competitive struggle for territory to occupy.  Yet the idea of space to live in is suggestive.  It echoes our basic human needs for shelter, warmth, sustenance and companionship, what we call ‘home’.  And the gift of the Spirit in the New Testament enlarges this image.  The story of Whit Sunday is closely linked to the mission of the church.  At Pentecost the disciples are in Jerusalem where the risen Jesus has told them to wait.  But after the rush of wind and fire, they learn that they must take the gospel out of the city’s confines.  "Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria to the uttermost parts of the earth": those are the expanding circles of the gospel’s influence that are acted out in the mission of the early church.  The Book of Acts begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome, as if to say: there is a new geography of the Spirit here, a new way of mapping the world.  It is space for the gospel to occupy.  It is claimed by the risen Jesus in the power of his Spirit.  It is God’s.  

We could say that the Spirit’s activity is always the creation of space in which to grow.  Perhaps the paradigm is the very first story in the Bible.  In the opening verses of Genesis, the spirit or wind of God moves over the face of the waters: the Hebrew word suggests a bird hovering over her nest.  It is the beginning of a journey that will see the chaotic flood pushed back into a place from where it can no longer threaten to overwhelm the world.  With the waters’ boundaries set for ever, space is created for the dry land to appear, and an ordered, coherent universe can begin to teem with life.  In Genesis, where the Spirit of God is at work, chaos is driven back, and pattern, order, structure, life and consciousness have room to emerge.  The cosmos becomes a home.  

Our reading from St Paul sets out a vision of what this transformed life is like, animated by God’s Spirit. “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” he says; not slaves to fall back into fear but the emancipated, the free who are heirs of God himself, “more than conquerors through the One through him who loved us.”  In another of his letters Paul says: “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”. We mustn’t collapse that glory down just to what concerns us and people like us. Paul means the destiny of all humanity, of all creation in its birth-pangs waiting for the promised new day. And this means a new way of seeing and of being, turning from all that oppresses and confines us, diminishes life and imprisons possibilities. 

So Pentecost opens up a vision of the broad, generous spaces we might inhabit as the Spirit makes a home among us.  The traditional images of the Spirit all imply space: without it fire goes out, water stops flowing, wind ceases to blow.  But as the Spirit prompts and propels us into inhabiting our salvation, occupying the space God gives us to grow in, are there any limits to what we could become in his service?  A church poised for mission in the world, like the first Christians in the Book of Acts.  Each of us transformed and renewed from within, galvanised by new reasons for living.  Our society and our world freed from all that holds it in thrall to chaos and death, and embracing the release and hope it longs for.  Rilke was right: ‘we must accept our experience as vastly as we possibly can; everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it.’  Pentecost is the portal. This large, generous, wonderful room is our home.  

Merton College Oxford, Whit Sunday 2016
Acts 2.1-14, Romans 8.14-17, John 14.8-17