New clothes to grow into? Some symbols for Pentecost 2020. Sermon for Pentecost Sunday at Adel Parish Church.
Acts 2: 1 – 21
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.