This is the post excerpt.
What a great story…suddenly…the rush of a violent wind…tongues of fire…people speaking every language…the gift of the Holy Spirit…
…it’s easy to get into discussion about the details…did the people outside the house hear the wind? Did every disciple speak every language…or each person a different one? What does the writer mean by ‘divided tongues as of fire’?
But to me the Pentecost story has always felt like someone is trying to find words to describe something so new that the words don’t exist. ’It was like…it was as though’ they say – using metaphors and symbols to try to grasp this new experience of the Spirit of God.
The church has been celebrating Pentecost since at least the first century…and has added other symbols and metaphors along the way. I’d like to explore some of those today.
Firstly the dove – so often used as a sign for the Holy Spirit. Why a dove? Apart from its link with God’s spirit, the dove appears in the bible in the story of Noah and the Ark. When the rain stopped and Noah wanted to know whether the waters were draining away, he sent out a dove. The important sign for Noah came when the dove didn’t return.
The dove, it seems, went on ahead of Noah. It showed that he should follow, into this new world. When the first Christians received the gift of the Holy Spirit, it led them out into the unknown. It led them from praying and worshipping together, in the comfort of companionship. It forced them out to share the good news of Jesus Christ all around the world. It led them to found new churches in new places.
Secondly – Whitsun clothes. My grandmothers, both born in the early years of the 20th century, used to tell stories of Whitsun – as Pentecost was often called. It was something celebrated by the whole community. There were often fairs and parties – but mainly they remembered it as the time when girls got new dresses – one for best and one for everyday. Lovely, they felt so smart, but always a bit big – to grow into. After all they had to last the year.
What a fantastic image for Pentecost, a time when we get our new clothes as Christians…when we are ‘clothed with the Holy Spirit’. New clothes that make us feel good, that give our faith a bit of confidence perhaps, but clothes that are always a bit big – to allow for growth.
And finally – all those different languages. I have to admit this part of the Pentecost story is a bit I struggle with. That gift of spontaneously speaking new languages isn’t one I’ve come across outside of those first disciples…and I’ve always found language learning very difficult. As a child I could memorise lists of vocabulary, but found it very embarrassing actually using them aloud.
Perhaps though, this too is useful as a metaphor, a symbol. Being able to speak a new language fits us to travel to a new country. It’s about going somewhere new, encountering new people. If we can speak the language, we can share our story with the people we meet.
The Holy Spirit as a dove…going ahead of us, leading us out from the church we know, to the rest of our world.
The Holy Spirit as new clothes, as something we grow into…as something that gives us the confidence to share our faith, and in sharing, to grow.
The Holy Spirit as something that gives us the words we need to share Christ’s story with everyone…in ways they can understand…even if they don’t speak ‘church’.
Pentecost 2020 seems a good time to rediscover these metaphors, these symbols for the Christian experience of the Holy Spirit.
Because in a way we are like Noah in the Ark, waiting for the floodwaters to recede. He was waiting to step out into a world that must have been different to what he’d left. He only knew that where the dove had gone, there was a new world waiting. For Noah, there was no way back to the world he’d known – he could only follow the dove onwards.
It is becoming clear that ‘after lockdown’ is not going to look like ‘before lockdown’. For some of us, this is directly linked to COVID 19 – for some it might be because during this time we’ve lost loved ones or received news that has changed our lives. Whatever the reason, there is no way back. That’s as true for the church as for other organisations – but as Christians we are led onwards by the Holy Spirit.
We’ve already had to find new ways of doing things, a new language if you like. This will be even truer as things open up, but with new constraints in place. We’re still called to share God’s love with our community, to share Jesus’ story with those who haven’t heard it…but we may need a new language in which to do this.
The good news is that this Pentecost, as always, we’re offered new clothing…the power and confidence offered by the Holy Spirit. And this new clothing doesn’t quite fit – it’s bigger than we are, to allow for our growth.
In many ways this strange time has already been a time of growth, as so many of us have found new ways to be involved in running our church. I think in the weeks and months to come we will need to build on that. As, led by the Holy Spirit, we leave the lives, and the church we knew and move into the new country ahead.
I wonder – if you clench your fist – what does it mean to you?
Apparently the ancient Assyrians used the same word for prayer as that for unclenching a fist.
Prayer has been on my mind this week. We’re in Ascensiontide – the 9 days between our celebration of Jesus ascending back to the Father, and the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In our reading we heard how the tiny, early church spent those days ‘devoting themselves to prayer’.
Because of this, since 2016, our Archbishops have invited us to make these days a special time of prayer. Their movement ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ has spread to other churches and around the world.
Later, I’ll suggest some ways we can be part of that wave of prayer. But first I’d like to spend a few minutes thinking about prayer itself – so, back to that clenched fist…
A few of us have started a discussion course looking at the Lord’s Prayer. In the first session we spent time thinking about why we pray. We thought that it’s to do with opening ourselves to God…and in this context I find that clenched fist quite helpful.
Unclenching a fist allows us to let go…
…I think though, that our clenched fists more often hold on to things we don’t want to admit to, places we’re scared to open up to God’s light and love.
If prayer is unclenching our fists, then it is perhaps the process of letting God into the very heart of who we are. And that’s not easy. We hold fast to what we know – even if we’re not proud of it.
We know our faults, our failures, but sometimes it’s easier to think ‘that’s just how it is with me.’ We feel safe with what we know – even if what we know isn’t life giving. We cling to it, because letting it go means accepting the possibility of a different and unknown future.
Because once we have unclenched our fists and let go, we sit with open, empty hands. Hands that are ready to receive.
Letting go, of even those last layers of selfishness, leaves us in some ways, empty. And once we’ve emptied out some of the anger, the wants that preoccupy us, the things we’re ashamed of, we’re left with space.
Many great Christians have recognised that space within themselves as a longing to encounter God…a space that’s in all of us, if only we can uncover it. If we can truly unclench our fists, they suggest, praying becomes letting God himself inhabit our lives.
This is one of the many mysteries of faith that is hard to put into words…and as is often the case, I find myself looking to poets to help. R.S. Thomas – a Welsh poet priest writes of the change in his prayer as he aged…
‘Hear my prayer, O Lord, hear my prayer.
As though you are deaf, mortals have kept up their shrill cry, explaining your silence by their unfitness.
It begins to appear this is not what prayer is about.
It is the annihilation of difference, the consciousness of myself in you, of you in me…’
For me, that journey from talking to God, to just opening up my life to let him in is not easy…I guess it’s a life’s work. But I have found that picture of a fist unclenching a really powerful one this week.
Those disciples, waiting, probably fearfully, in the upper room, knew only that they were waiting for a gift from God. It seems to me that in ‘devoting themselves to prayer’ there must have been some opening of hands, some letting go of what had been. So that, come Pentecost there was room in their lives for the overwhelming presence of God as Holy Spirit.
Over the coming week, Christians all around the world will be making a special effort to pray for God’s kingdom to come. We are invited to join them.
There are many resources online, a prayer journal, an interactive prayer adventure map for young people – check out the website; or download the ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ App.
But if, like me, you are wearying a little of sitting at a computer, there’s also chance to use our beautiful churchyard as a place of prayer. There are prayers at various points on the benches; a prayer trellis at the porch, where prayer requests can be left, and shared; a prayer garden of beautiful painted stones; there will be bags of prayer crafts for children left out each day…
…do make use of this ancient place of prayer – and encourage others to do so too.
Or maybe you would just like to find a comfortable chair in a quiet spot…clench your fists…then slowly unclench them…offering everything to God. Then sit with open hands and an open heart. You may just find that you are more relaxed, less anxious…but there is always the possibility, as those first disciples found, of being surprised by the presence of God.
In our young people’s group on Sunday we thought about what questions we’d like to ask Jesus. One brilliant suggestion was “Jesus, are the stories you told true?”
I have to say I don’t think they are literally true. Take today’s gospel…I don’t think this particular man and his sons ever existed…I think Jesus told stories because they’re good ways to teach us about ourselves and about God.
Today’s story, the prodigal son, is one of my favourites – every time I read it I learn something new. I suppose it’s about running away from God and coming home to God, but there’s lots more in there too.
What does this story say to us today? Well for our All Age service I asked three artists in the congregation to answer this in the form of pictures. For our virtual service we had the pictures on the screen – you may want to look at them as you read.
Marjorie chose to draw the prodigal son at his lowest point. He’s sitting, in rags, on a rock in a muddy field. He’s thinking about the pigs he’s looking after – and how the only thing he has to eat is their food.
Marjorie linked her picture with the Lord’s Prayer – where we’re taught to ask God for our daily bread. God wants us to be happy with that and not to ask for more.
She says this is the pivotal point in the story, because it’s the point where the son decides to go home. She says he realises he doesn’t even have daily bread, whereas his father’s servants have all they need.
Does this story teach us that what we want is not always something that will make us happy? Does it remind us what ‘give us this day our daily bread’ should really mean?
Lucy’s picture shows the son returning home. He looks awful: ragged, hungry, ashamed. But he’s desperate and he’s thinking about what he can possibly say to his father.
Far in the distance – a tiny figure is shown – running towards him. The father – full of joy because he didn’t know his son was alive.
For me this is a reminder of a wonderful truth that I hope and trust in. That even when we wander off and forget about God, he is always waiting and hoping with open arms for us to return. We don’t need the right words to say we’re sorry – it’s enough that we’ve recognised our mistake and turned back to him.
Olivia – from our junior church – has also shown this bit of the story. But her picture is very different, it shows father and son, side by side, holding hands – both are smiling. There’s no sign of the son’s wretchedness or embarrassment.
Olivia has focused on the Father and how he’s feeling. She says he’s grateful that his son has come back to him. He forgives his sins and they’re together again.
Has Olivia discovered an amazing truth that coming back to God doesn’t just make us happy – it makes God happy too? That is certainly something to ponder this week.
In both Lucy, and Olivia’s picture – tiny and distant, is the other son, the one who stayed all the time, helping his father. It seems he can’t bring himself to be happy…because this welcome doesn’t feel fair. I wonder if he thinks his brother should be punished – at least a little.
Is that a reminder that trusting God will welcome us back when we wander off – means accepting God will welcome other people back too? Even if they seem to have strayed much further than us. That welcome will happen, we can join in – or we can stay on the outside.
We never hear what happened to the elder son at the end of this story…but as someone who could sulk for England as a child, I like to think that in a day or so he realised he’d run away from the father, almost as much as his brother had, and came back to find his own welcome, and join the party.
We’ve always loved walking. When our children were young we discovered some walk books by Jack Keighley. Wonderful walks, clear instructions and beautiful hand-drawn maps. And the best bit…his little notes pointing out interesting things we’d otherwise have missed. These reached new heights one spring morning above Gunnerside when we read…”This old stone trough has a small resident population of water beetles, and a large seasonal population of tadpoles”…we looked in – and sure enough, there were the tadpoles!
We’ve done that walk so many times now, we don’t need the book, but last year we found one of his walks we’d never done and set off with excitement. We were soon struggling…fences, stiles, buildings weren’t where they should be…and we realised the books are 30 years old. We were in the same place…but the landscape had changed…
That’s true for Thomas and Philip in our gospel reading. On the night before he dies, Jesus tries to prepare the disciples for life without him: for a life of building his church without him physically present. He tells them not to worry about the future because he is going ahead of them – and they know the way.
But Thomas says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
They’ve just got used to following Jesus…are realising that he’s the messiah – the one sent by God. They’re beginning to graps his message – of love, forgiveness, putting the last first…
But however it happens, they expect a Messiah who wins, who defeats God’s enemies. Now Jesus says he’s going to be betrayed and killed – and he’s just letting it happen. The whole landscape of belief has changed…how can they possibly know the way?
I think that’s a feeling we recognise at the moment. We’re in our homes, we’re with immediate family, we only go to local shops. In some ways our lives are all too familiar, and yet the whole landscape has changed.
When this began, I thought about the inconvenience, I worried how long it might last, I wondered about summer holidays, our children’s travel plans…but I pictured eventually a return to the life we knew. That seemed ok – endure, and it will pass.
It’s becoming increasingly obvious though, that life after lockdown will not look like life before. And it’s unnerving, frightening even. We don’t know where we’re going – so how can we know the way?
Perhaps part of our problem – in the affluent West at least – is that we’ve generally forgotten about the precarious nature of life. We’ve persuaded ourselves that humans can control everything…that economies can keep growing. We talk of ‘beating’ diseases as if we believe one day we’ll ‘beat death’.
We know about inequalities, about climate change…we support food banks, we recycle…but we persuade ourselves that these problems can be tackled within life as it is…with minor changes… I think we’re used to knowing our destination.
COVID 19 has turned all that upside down. It’s revealed the scandalous inequalities in society, in a way I hope can’t be ignored. But it’s also shown that ‘good’ things at the heart of society – travel, holidays, shared sport, music, theatre, worship – will not necessarily always be there in the form we know. We do not know where we are going – so how can we know the way?
What does our faith have to say in such times? Well first, perhaps we can understand as never before how the disciples felt! But also that faith is not about easy answers, about knowing exactly where we’re going – but about trusting the one who walks alongside us.
Philip says to Jesus – “show us the Father and we will be satisfied”… show us some divine vision…show us our destination, show us how it ends, then we won’t mind the present difficulties…
But Jesus replies, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father…I am the way.”
So if we want to find our way – we’re told not to look for God reaching in to our world and sweeping our problems away – but a God who joins us in our problems, who loves, weeps, laughs, forgives, serves – even when this leads to death, the ultimate removal of life as we know it.
And a God who shows us that if we follow him to that death, for us perhaps the death of our way of life, we will see that somehow it leads to new life…even if we’re still discovering what that new life looks like.
Does that tell us that the Christian way through this is to live it the best way we can? Perhaps we have to face the loss, maybe even to let go of things we thought would last forever…to lament and grieve, but then to work out how to live as followers of Christ in the new world that emerges.
Jesus said “whoever has seen me has seen the Father…I am the way…no one comes to the Father except by me.”
As I read somewhere…”What we know of God in Jesus Christ, is that God has chosen not to be God without us.”
If Jesus is the way, then the way to God is a way that has to be found through living ordinary human lives. And if Jesus is the way – then we are now the way. We, the ordinary, anxious, bewildered humans who are his followers.
The good news is that, unlike those walk books of ours, Jesus doesn’t go out of date, because he’s a person, not a set of instructions. If we go back to his teaching, stories, examples of weeping, laughing, loving, caring, forgiving…and apply those to the new life that is emerging…we have hope that we will begin, together, to find our way.
Well here I am – preaching to a computer screen again. Worrying that when all this is finally over I might only recognise your voices and not your faces! Also wondering whether you’ll all be turning up to worship in your pyjamas, or running gear…or perhaps still eating your breakfast…I suspect we are a rather different congregation to the one that used to meet in Adel Parish church at 10am on Sunday mornings.
Today’s gospel reading is, I think, about identity, about who we are, who we should be – and how we work that out.
And I think that in many ways working out who we are has lately become even more challenging. So much of our identity comes from how we fit into the world around us but suddenly large parts of that has been taken away.
With social activities stopped, our appearance is less relevant…and we can’t get to hairdressers or salons. The cars we’re so proud of are sitting unused; we can’t take our usual holidays. Work, paid and voluntary, has stopped or, for some, changed almost out of recognition. Many have lost part of their role as grandparents. In some ways it’s quite hard to know who we are.
The gospel gives us the picture of Jesus as our shepherd, calling us if only we can recognise his voice…and then of Jesus as a gate, the right gate we need to find and enter. But as our lives have shrunk – and the outside world become more distant – I was reminded of a saying from Catherine of Siena, whose feast day was on Wednesday. If you shared in Ruth’s Compline you will have heard it.
Catherine said, “Be who God created you to be, and you will set the world on fire.”
I love this, because it suggests to me that God has put our true identity within us, that we are called to find it, rather than create it.
After all – we hear right at the beginning of the bible that God created us ‘in his own image’. Not what we look like…I suspect there’s only Iain F-W amongst our congregation who could actually land a film role as God…but I believe we are like God in the potential we have to create, to dream, to love, to forgive.
“Be who God created you to be, and you will set the world on fire.”
I think it’s a good picture for these times when our worlds have shrunk. When confined to homes – with just close family, or alone – it’s good to remember that our identity comes from the God who created us – not from the world. It’s already within us – the challenge is to find it.
Some of us suddenly have much more time on our hands…and have found it a gift. I have heard of hobbies resurrected…of creative talents rediscovered. Many gardens are better tended than they have been for years – and we are experiencing the joy of sitting in them, just revelling in nature.
I know an awful lot of tidying and cleaning jobs that have been put off for years are finally getting done. And for some of us it may be a reminder of the clutter we can do without, or rediscovery of the people and treasures that once enriched our lives.
When I asked some children in our first ‘on-line’ Junior church what is good about ‘lock-down’ they almost all said, ‘more family time’. Are we rediscovering our identity as mothers, fathers, sons and daughters?
For some though, life seems busier than ever. If you’re struggling with looking after young children whilst you try to work from home, life must be very difficult.
And many of us are bewildered by how busy we feel. Apart from being very slow to work out the new technologies, I shouldn’t have lots more to do – yet it seems impossible to do everything I feel I ought. And I’ve heard the same from others. One of our congregation remarked in an email…”not sure quite why everything seems busier than normal.” I feel a little overwhelmed at times – and talking to others – I’m not alone.
I wonder whether that’s to do with disorientation, the loss of identities we’d constructed for ourselves. Perhaps this strange time holds a challenge to begin to work out who we really are…who God created us to be.
And I do think the answer is found partly within ourselves if we can begin to recognise it. At the end of today’s reading Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
What is it that gives us true, abundant life? That surely is where we find our identity. And when we’ve discovered that – the life will overflow to those around us. “Be who God created you to be, and you will set the world on fire.”
So in all this strange, busy, inaction…I’m trying to spend some time reflecting. In place of the things I can’t do, trying out some of the things I can…and seeing which bring life.
I’m thinking about what I miss and why. Resolving to spend more time on those things once it’s possible again.
I’m thinking about the things I’m quite glad not to be doing and wondering whether I should carry on with them once I can.
Perhaps this time of being closed off from the world we knew is a time for looking inwards and searching for the people God created us to be. And just as the sheep recognise the shepherd – we can recognise that person, because when we are that person we feel properly alive – with the life Jesus brings.
There’s been much talk recently of empty roads and deserted streets as we do our bit and stay at home. But although there are fewer vehicles, the road past our house has a constant stream of people taking their daily exercise.
Many are couples or family groups and usually they’re chatting away. I wonder what fills their conversations? I guess the present situation looms large – whether it’s worry about family members or finances – or a new family project as we work out how to live this new kind of life.
Today’s gospel is the story of another walk, another couple deep in discussion about their strange new situation, ”talking with each other about all these things that had happened”. Their hopes for life with Jesus are in tatters, but they’ve heard odd rumours of new hope – so they’re doing what humans do…sharing their fears and trying to make sense of the situation.
Along comes a stranger whom they don’t recognise but we know as Jesus. He asks them what they’re so earnestly discussing – and with beautiful irony Luke lets the disciples tell Jesus his own story…well at least their misunderstanding of it!
They tell him how they knew he was a special man and hoped he was sent by God to save everyone – but how they must’ve got it wrong since he was handed over and crucified. Then they tell him about claims of resurrection – which they can’t make sense of, which they’re not ready to believe…the hope they can’t quite let in.
Jesus listens…then he takes their ideas, the things they’ve grasped about him, the things they can’t get their heads round…he takes their partial understanding and puts it back together with his death in the middle. He shows that anxiety, fear, betrayal, brutality, even death, are part of the story. That the ‘saving’ comes not by avoiding those – but by God in Christ going through them. That the resurrection means those things can never separate us from God.
He does this by helping them look again at the stories they’ve inherited, stories of God reaching into human lives, he shows them how their story fits in.
I chose this reading for my licensing service – because for me it’s the story of the Christian journey…the journey of getting to know Christ. It contains two vital strands …the importance of knowing and studying our shared story – the bible…and the transformative nature of meeting Christ at his table.
And at the heart of the story is that these aren’t things done alone. The pair are already trying to make sense of Jesus’ story together when he joins them. They invite Jesus to eat with whoever is in the house.
Like everyone else at the moment – we’re challenged to find ways of doing things together, whilst physically apart.
I’ve been going into church occasionally – just to check things. The first time I was almost reduced to tears at the sight of the gospel open on the altar – at the last reading we shared before the church was shut.
I wondered whether to leave it on that page…as some sort of memorial. But then I thought – we are still sharing the gospel – and people have shared it in much more difficult circumstances than this. So I’ve been turning the pages – almost as a sign of defiance – and of hope.
And it’s spurred me to think about how we might still study the bible together. I am, of course still writing sermons. But for all I know you might be using that slot to go and put the coffee on! And there’s no chance for questions or comments as you leave church…discussions over coffee are limited.
The Emmaus road story shows the importance of sharing the scriptures. At the start the disciples are talking together. Once they recognise Jesus they turn to each other and share the experience “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was opening the scriptures to us?” They rush back together to share with other disciples.
The bible is best understood together, in community, because left alone we tend to shape the stories to suit ourselves…to look inwards. We need to hear other interpretations to challenge our own.
On our own we can’t always make much sense of a bible passage. When we share it we find each person’s glimpse of the truth adds together to make a clearer picture.
We’re in a strange and disturbing new experience. In today’s gospel Jesus invites us to explore how his story enters our story and might begin to make some sense of both. He invites us to have a go at explaining his story – with all our misunderstandings – to each other and to him. He shows us how the Christian life is a journey of discovery as we share the scriptures in his presence.
In the next couple of weeks we’ll be trying out new ways of exploring the scriptures together. On Wednesdays at 7pm there will be Compline or other evening prayers… hopefully be led by someone different each week. Huge thanks to Karen Baylis for starting us off so beautifully.
Some of our home group have already met via Zoom, and our Lent course is resuming this way for those who can access it. We’re also launching ‘Ace’ our group for young people in school year 4 and up – only a week later than planned – and also on Zoom. Junior church will be resuming in virtual form.
I would love for us to have prayer groups…other discussion groups…if you have an idea get in touch.
I am aware that often this relies on modern technology not available to all. But there is still the telephone – you could always pick the sermon apart next time you have a chat – and please do feed back…it’s a very odd experience apparently preaching into a vacuum!
Today’s reading tells us the gospel doesn’t stay in Jerusalem – but follows us into our homes – to help make sense of our lives, especially when they’ve been turned upside down.
What do you get if you pour hot water down a rabbit hole? A hot cross bunny!
Easter morning – a morning for jokes and laughter…a morning for laughing at the jokes even if they aren’t very funny…a morning for just reveling in the existence of laughter.
Today we probably feel we have less than usual to laugh at. Today for many people, tears will feel more appropriate than laughter. But that will have been true for some every Easter.
Matthew’s gospel tries to show us how there is cause for joy – in spite of everything.
Matthew’s resurrection story is a vivid, fantastical description…a great earthquake, an angel of the Lord – his clothing white as snow his appearance like lightning, the stone rolled away, the guards felled…
…is Matthew perhaps saying there is no ordinary way of speaking of the resurrection? Normal human descriptions don’t work, because it isn’t about what’s possible for humans…it’s purely about what God can do.
…angels appear rarely in Matthew’s gospel…announcing Jesus’ birth…at his transfiguration…and here, announcing his resurrection from the dead. They appear only when heaven and earth intersect, when God’s presence in the world is especially felt.
What else does Matthew tell us?
Both the angel and Jesus say, “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid of the strange awesome happenings…for here God breaks the boundary of life that we call death…here God does something completely new. Here God shows us there is nothing can separate us from his love.
The angels say, “Jesus will go ahead of you to Galilee.” Galilee – where Jesus’ ministry of teaching, healing, reconciling took place. Galilee, where Jesus showed what God’s kingdom on earth looks like.
The angel at the tomb says, “He is not here, he has been raised.” Jesus cannot be contained even by a tomb.
In these times our closed church can seem something like a tomb – empty of prayer and praise, empty of singing and sharing. But we are being reminded in new ways that important though our building is – the church is the people.
We will return to our beautiful, holy building and find God there. We will squeeze in; stand shoulder to shoulder; share the peace. But perhaps we’ll do so with a renewed awareness that Jesus is risen and goes ahead to Galilee – to be found in our community wherever healing, feeding, teaching and suffering are shared in his name.
We have perhaps walked the way of the cross more closely this year – we might have to work harder to hear above our worries, the wonderful story of what is possible with God. But it is Easter. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!