When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting (v1-2).
I Corinthians 12:3b-13
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (v7).
When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit (v22).
Thank you for the kind invitation extended to me to participate in this conference. To be asked to preach at this Votive Mass to the Holy Spirit is an honour.
I bring you the greetings and prayers of the people – clergy, laity and bishops – in the Diocese of Perth. I am aware that some of you would be expecting an Australian accent from a preacher from that part of the world. I am sorry I cannot oblige. To find out where the accent originates you will need to do some research, not hopefully during the sermon.
I commend you for the desire you have to move outside of ecclesiastical party politics. There must be an alternative narrative to the words and actions that devalue the worth and dignity of those who are different. None of us leave such battlefields unscathed and we have no right to speak of reconciling grace to a broken church and to a fractured and hurting world. Your desire to cross boundaries is a powerful example to our Communion and our world so fragmented by the consequences of division, conflict, war, violence and terror.
We need to be mindful that the barbaric acts we witness on our television screens begin with the small acts of violence we perpetrate on each other through thought, words and action.
I would like to begin with a Prayer of Lenore Parker, a much loved Aboriginal Elder from the Eastern States of Australia:
God of holy dreaming, Great Creator Spirit,
from the dawn of creation you have given your children
the good things of Mother Earth.
You spoke and the gum tree grew
In the vast desert and dense forest,
and in cities at the water’s edge,
creation sings your praise.
Your presence endures
as the rock at the heart of our Land.
When Jesus hung on the tree
you heard the cries of all your people
and became one with your wounded ones:
the convicts, the hunted, and the dispossessed.
The sunrise of your Son coloured the earth anew,
and bathed it in glorious hope.
In Jesus we have been reconciled to you,
to each other and to your whole creation.
Lead us on, Great Spirit,
as we gather from the four corners of the earth;
enable us to walk together in trust
from the hurt and shame of the past
into the full day which has dawned in Jesus Christ. Amen.
A Prayer Book for Australia, Broughton Books, Victoria, 1999
During the Australian General Synod debate on A Prayer Book for Australia 1998 concerns were expressed about this prayer being included as it suggested that God dreamed. It acknowledged that the God revealed in Jesus Christ and his saving power was present in Australia before the missionaries from England arrived?
If God speaks, thinks and communicates through dreams could not the metaphor of Holy dreaming, that which represents in Aboriginal culture the deepest yearnings of the Spirit, be included in the formal prayer of the Australian Church?
The narrative of salvation history does provide a historical particularity to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ – in his birth, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension – yet the paradox is that this Divine Word was present in the very heart of God even before the world was created. The Church was called into being before the foundation of the world: “he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Ephesians 1:4).
To speak of the future be it of the church or the world requires us to acknowledge the mystery of our beginnings. Our genesis is within the swirling, creative, redeeming, sanctifying energy of the Holy and Blessed Trinity. Our beginning was not of our making and our future destiny is held in the power of the Holy Spirit who seeks to make us all that we are called to be in Christ. To speak of an Anglican future apart from God’s work of renewing the face of the whole of creation is to be myopic in our dreaming.
We cannot contemplate our future without being mindful that we humans are complex particles of dust. We hold the mystery of the universe in our being:
You yourself are even another little world and have within you the sun and the moon and also the stars.” These words come from a homily of one of the great pioneers of early Christian theology, Origen. The vision of the human person as a microcosm (a word meaning miniature world) is one of the most universal of religious insights.
Martin Smith, A Season for the Spirit,
Cowley Publications, Massachusetts, 1991, p27
We are frail dust, but we are dust that dreams of eternity. The Psalms speak of the heavens being made by the word of the Lord and the numberless stars by the breath of his mouth (Psalm 33:6). The value and worth of the human person is questioned. When I consider the work of your fingers the moon and the stars that you have set in order what are we mere mortals that you care for us? (Psalm 8:4-5). We are living, breathing, loving, hating, sinning flesh being saved from seeing ourselves and our future through the limited lens of our small world. We are a minute yet vital part of an ever expanding universe. To think of an Anglican future is to place ourselves in the hands of a God who is “making the heavens and the earth”.
I am fascinated by the eternal dimensions of our multifaceted universes that our constantly beings opened up for us by explorations into space.
The latest explorations of Mars, the smallest planet in our solar system fills me with fascination and awe.
In 2003 NASA sent two Rovers to Mars named ‘Spirit’ and ‘Opportunity’. In 2009 ‘Spirit’ became stuck in soft soil on Mars and was redeployed as a stationary platform to detect and locate wobbles on the planet. Contact with ‘Spirit’ was lost and even though several attempts were made to re-establish contact ‘Spirit’ was deemed to have ‘died’ and an asteroid No 37452 was named in its honour. NASA was comforted in that ‘Spirit’ had performed its task 25 times over the expected duration.
In November 2011 another Rover named ‘Curiosity’ was launched, landing on Mars on 6 August 2012. So ‘Opportunity’ and ‘Curiosity’ remain travelling on the surface, digging, analysing and sending back information to assist earthlings to ascertain if there was life on Mars. If it is habitable how best can we harness the resources on Mars in order to use them to enhance our lifestyle on earth? What can this planet named after the Roman God of war tell us about ourselves, our beginnings and our endings!
The fact that ‘Opportunity’ and ‘Curiosity’ continue and that ‘Spirit’ floundered in soft sand may offer us a religious metaphor well worth pursuing.
Is it possible that in our sophisticated, technological world that confines ‘opportunity’ and ‘curiosity’ to the realm of the material that we have lost our divine vocation, the possibility to be transformed by the spirit of wonder? In our Churches have we become so market driven that opportunity and curiosity have been translated into being opportunistic, crass and gimmickry in our evangelistic endeavour?
Bishop Jonathan Holland in his historical review on the Diocese of Brisbane, traditionally a strong Anglican Catholic Diocese, makes the observation that the changes that have come upon Australian society and the world have had a bearing on the Anglican Catholic nature of the Diocese. There is opportunity in a society thirsting for meaning to fire the human spirit to engage in curiosity.
Questions will abound as the imagination is set free. Instead the spirit of the Church seems to be immersed in the soft sands of fear building walls that desire security. The spirit can become bogged down in the soft sands of compromise in an environment that expects nothing from its adherents and asks nothing from them.
Whereas Anglo-Catholicism had something distinctive about its theology and liturgical practice, and drew its life from thoughts about the Incarnation, liberal-catholicism seemed to have no strong theological theme around which it was shaped. It had more to do with gentle scepticism about some biblical truths, a readiness to embrace theological ambiguity and a desire to be tolerant of other opinions. ‘Gentle scepticism’, ‘theological ambiguity’ and ‘toleration’ hardly inspire young men and women to pledge their lives sacrificially to Christ and his cause. In comparison, evangelicalism has passion and urgency: a world to win and hearts and minds to convert, before it is too late and destiny is fixed – salvation in heaven or suffering in hell.
Jonathan Holland, Anglicans trams & paw paws: The story of the Diocese of Brisbane 1945-1980,
CopyRight Publishing Company Pty Ltd, Brisbane, 2013, p259
Far be it from me, an Australian with an Oriental background to suggest to anyone on this festival day set aside to celebrate the Catholic witness within the Church of England that the soft sands of gentle scepticism, theological ambiguity and bland tolerance may make those within the Anglican Catholic tradition stationary objects whose sole purpose is to discern the ‘wobbles’ in the Church and world we inhabit.
There is an interesting exchange of correspondence between George Bell and Canon Carnegie recorded by Dr Muriel Heppel in her book Story of Friendship (Langmans Press, 2001). The matter concerns the famous Fr Nikolai from Serbia. Carnegie observes that “one has to be a little careful in one’s dealings with these orientals. They are all of them I find a little apt to get above themselves”.
So I must proceed with caution?
Thankfully the Holy Spirit who is present for all eternity, who broods over all creation then and now, here and in all the evolving worlds and universes, refuses to be stuck in the soft sands of Mars or the craters we create in the Church. The spirit of God journeys in and through curiosity and opportunity to offer us new challenges and provides us with the strength we need to respond to the context of our own time and place.
Our Scripture readings for this Votive Mass give us ample opportunity to go beyond being curious to being filled with the Spirit who transforms.
The Fulfilment of Promise
Luke’s account of Pentecost describes the disciples’ gathered in one place waiting for what was promised – “power from on high”. The crucifixion had destroyed them. Disillusioned and distraught they are gripped by fear. The resurrection, the encounters with the Risen Christ, is beyond any of their experience. Shocked, amazed, bewildered, most of them filled with incredulity, others unsure and doubting, they remain bereft of any ideas of how to communicate anything of what they had witnessed.
The trembling disciples wait with no clear indication of how the promises will be fulfilled. Like the wind over the waters of Genesis, like the spirit that overshadowed the barren Zechariah and Elizabeth and the Holy Spirit hovering in the empty womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, there is an uneasy expectancy. The Holy Spirit comes upon this startled human community, reshaping them, strengthening them to proclaim the truth and power of the one whom they had encountered – Jesus Christ, crucified and risen – as the Saviour of the world.
No stuck in soft sand Spirit is this roving power. The elemental primal forces of wind and fire cause confusion, and a sceptical criticism. They are drunk. The intoxication with the Holy Spirit pushes the fences and boundaries of language, race, colour, creed and allows for a powerful apologetic – an evangelistic challenge that provokes the question from the crowd “What must we do to be saved?” The Holy Spirit as it fell upon the disciples with fire created a holy curiosity in those who were around them. People searching for a God to be feared and loved. The opportunity comes through contempt, ridicule and accusations. The Apostle Peter is given the power to respond.
Humble waiting for the promise to be fulfilled and daring to live the resurrection life is what the Spirit offers and they become the bearers of the spirit of life so beautifully portrayed by Esther de Wall:
FLAME, dancing spirit,
come sweep us off our feet
and dance us through our days,
surprise us with your rhythms,
dare us to try new steps;
explore new patterns and new partnerships
release us from old routines
to swing in abandoned joy and fearful adventure
and in the intervals,
rest us in your still centre.
Esther de Wall, Lost in Wonder
In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth he describes what the community of the Church is called to be and become as it receives the gifts of the Spirit.
The primary gift given to the Church is that of confessing that Jesus is Lord. This is in direct confrontation with the confession demanded by the Roman Empire that Caesar is Lord. For a whole community of women and men to suggest such an alternative was high treason – it was an act of defiance against the Emperor:
What does it mean to confess “Jesus is Lord”? Marianne M Thompson offers a thoughtful definition: “To confess that Jesus is Lord is not to confess that in him we have found a way to God, but that in him God has embodied a way to us.”
Kenneth E Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes,
IVP Academic, Illinois, 2011, p334
The gifts that God chose to give those baptised is not to be confused with natural talents or human attributes that we are born with or achieve through hard work.
The gifts are given by God to be received, honoured, treasured and used in the power of the Spirit for the common good. No single gift is better than the other. No purpose is served by false modesty or by arrogant self-promotion. The spirit cannot afford to get stuck in the soft sand of the cult of possessions, pandering to the gods of consumerism. Churches that claim the gift for themselves and for their self-promotion become so preoccupied that they cannot act as communities that defy the powers of the empire, the powers that exploit human dignity and ravaging the earth.
By the time Paul was writing, Christian congregations had sprung up in a wide variety of places around the eastern Mediterranean. Those communities needed each other. As the church grew and spread, in a very few years there were Greek, Latin, Jewish, Syrian and Coptic expressions of the church, each with their own language and culture. The strong tendency then and now was and is for each tradition to become self-sufficient and say to the rest of the Christian world, “We do not need you! We have our own language, liturgy, history, theology, tradition and culture. All we need we find within ourselves.” For at least sixteen hundred years Christians have been talking this way to each other forgetting that the mystery of the nature of the church is beyond any of our definitions of it.
If 1 Corinthians was written to “all those in every place on whom is called the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2), then all of us together are “the body of Christ” and “the holy temple.” That single body was created by God, and when it is healthy the various parts work together harmoniously. Any disruption of that harmony is a sign of illness. God’s Spirit is not promised uniquely to us in our divergent organizational structures, but in our faithfulness to the one body of Christ. The sin condemned is not pride but self-sufficiency. The deepest problem is not, “I am better than you” but rather, “I don’t need you.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, “A self-sufficient human being is subhuman. . . . God has made us so that we will need each other.” No church is an island.
Kenneth E Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes,
IVP Academic, Illinois, 2011, p343-44
We Anglicans should know this truth more than most, for one of our Divines said it with absolute clarity:
God hath created nothing simply for itself, but each thing in all things, and every thing each part in other have such interest, that in the whole world nothing is found whereunto any thing that is created can say, “I need thee not.”
We live in a world where beheadings, and random acts of terror have become a part of the daily news cycle. The prevailing ideology that motivates these barbaric acts is determined by exclusive claims” we need no other reference than what we know to be the truth”, we can say to all other faiths and ideologies that “we need them not”. The programme of extermination that follows leaves us horrified. The way we seek to respond to this phenomenon is to trap ourselves in the same paradigm of violence. The gifts of the spirit to be used for the common good must help us write a different script. The provision of a narrative that strongly opposes actions that degrade the human person and offers a way forward for genuine grievances to be addressed is vital for the good of the whole world. An Anglican future cannot forget the wounded, rejected people who form a part of our fragile earth.
When we engage in ecclesiastical turf wars we lose sight of the truth that the ‘common’ good is not the petty world we inhabit, but we are God’s people to serve the common good of all creation. The Ecumenical agenda is not churches talking to churches about the church but rather the church listening to the spirit at work in the world and responding with the good news of offering abundant life in God for one and for all.
In the Johannine tradition the spirit comes through the person of the risen Christ who sends the disciples into the world. In order for them to fulfil the gospel task of forgiveness and reconciliation he inspires, breathes on them, so that they may have the power to be agents of abundant life. Adam, the earth creature, formed from the dirt of the earth is breathed into by God, making him a living being. In act of rebellion Adam and Eve act with defiance. The Orthodox tradition reminds us that God wanted to gift the earth creatures with the gift of eternal life and the moral capacity to choose good over evil. Free will required the relationship with God to mature. It required the strength to live with the consequences and responsibilities that came with the gifts that the trees in the garden of Eden signified. By grasping and grabbing these gifts, making them a right to be possessed they become shamed by their nakedness. They are vulnerable and exposed in the presence of the divine and of each other.
Now in this unique person, Jesus of Nazareth, the fullness of the divine had been embodied in the dust of the earth. Naked, exposed, vulnerable and victim to the defiance and hatred of humanity from the very beginning of time, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God is killed. He breathes his last with the words Father into your hands I commit my Spirit.
The breath Jesus breathes into his disciples is marked by the wounds of love, it is marked by the power of forgiveness that unbinds the grave clothes worn by the first earth creature and allows humanity to be and become a new creation. This is a radical new order where the breath of all creatures, friend and foe are deemed to be sacred.
The Hongi, the traditional Maori greeting, when noses touch each other in holy encounter reminds us that “the breath that you breathe and the breath that I breathe comes from the same source. The day we forget this truth we lose the sacredness of our humanity – we become less than the animals”.
Into this fragment of dust in which the universe resides as a microcosm the Spirit comes. It refuses to be captive to the soft sands of excuses and evasions and offers opportunities for new beginnings – a holy curiosity that allows for exploration. It issues us an invitation to be born from above, birthed by redeeming love to be bearers of redeeming grace to the world aching for love.
We enter into a future that is not our own, it is more than Anglican, more than Christian, more than humanity can hope for or imagine. It is a future that is held in the awesome power of the Spirit. What curiosity will this Anglican futures movement create? What opportunities will this new movement offer for the gospel to be lived and proclaimed? How will abundant life be seen in those who belong to this movement and how will this abundant life be shared and discerned in other movements of the spirit?
‘Curiosity’ and ‘Opportunity’ will continue roving the red planet and we who are placed on this planet earth seek the Spirit to disturb, to comfort and to strengthen.
May God bless you with discomfort
at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger,
at injustice, oppression, and exploitation,
that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless you with tears,
to shed for those who suffer pain,
rejection, starvation, and war,
that you may reach out your hand to comfort them
and turn their pain to joy.
May God bless you with foolishness,
to believe that you can make a difference,
that you may do what others claim cannot be done.
And the blessing of the Holy and Life-Giving Trinity,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
be with you now and always. Amen.