Thoughts about Pentecost for 2018

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples 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. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:1-4a)

I was still thinking about the image of love as fire, which the Presiding Bishop built on so powerfully yesterday in his sermon before Prince Harry and Meghan. And I dare say it was because I was thinking of that that I was struck, as I looked at the proper for today, by St Luke’s use of the image of fire as he describes the apostles’ and the holy women’s experience of the Holy Spirit that first Pentecost.

In one way, of course, Luke was simply doing what the Bible had always done. Again and again in the Scriptures, where they speak of God’s presence in grace, redemptive power and glory—for example in the stories of Abraham, Moses, and Elijah—again and again they use the image of fire.

Think for a minute of that most remarkable of stories, Moses at the Burning Bush! (Exod. 3:1-10) Or, to be more precise, the story of Moses at the Bush that Burns but is not Burnt Up. It’s remarkable in several ways. For one thing, it tells us what Moses was thinking. Only very rarely do stories in the Bible tell us what anyone thought. As a rule they tell us what people said and what they did. As for what they thought, we have to decide that for ourselves. But the story of Moses at the Bush is an exception. Even then, the writer doesn’t actually say, “Moses thought”. The writer says, “Moses said”—but it’s clearly Moses thinking aloud, for there’s no one else there.

Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not consumed.’

Did I say there was no one else there? Well, of course there was someone else there, but it was evidently a surprise, even to Moses. God was there.

“Put off your shoes Moses, for you are standing on holy ground.”

God calls to Moses out of the bush. Again, let’s be more precise: as God often does to those who turn aside to take a closer look at something, God reveals God’s self to Moses, calling to him from the very thing to which he has chosen to pay attention. And indeed, it turns out in this revelation that God also has seen something, and God, too, has turned aside

“ Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.”

And so to Moses in this moment is revealed the Name of God and God’s gracious good will to have mercy on God’s people.

We Christians, of course, believe also in a second and even greater revelation—that wherein the Word became flesh by way of blessed Mary, she whom we call theotokos, “God bearer”—or as our more homely English idiom has it, “Mother of God.” Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century speaks of her too, witness as she is to the grace of God turning aside and coming down to God’s people—she too is a burning bush—like the first, burning but not burnt up.

And that is one of the abiding truths of God’s breath, God’s dynamic, God’s life in us—for those things are all elements of what “the Holy Spirit” is—the abiding truth is that if only we are willing to be open to God’s breath, God’s life, it takes hold of us as it took hold of Jesus’ followers that first Pentecost. It takes hold of us “in tongues as of flame”—so that we too are on fire but not burnt up. For the effect of God’s fire is never to destroy us if we open ourselves to it, but rather to enable us to be ever more truly ourselves, the individuals God actually created us to be.

Does this really have anything to do with the Presiding Bishop’s sermon to their Royal Highnesses yesterday, or was what I experienced a mere co-incidence of words without serious implication? Of course it has everything to do with it! For Bishop Michael was quoting from the Song of Songs:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame. (8:6)

—the Song of Songs, which is—as the Old Testament scholar Ellen Davies reminds us in her wonderful little book Getting Involved with God—which is the only place in the Bible where there is a dialogue of love: the only place in this entire literature of the relationship between God and God’s people where we hear “one partner say, ‘I love you,’ and the other answer right back, ‘Yes, yes; I love you too.’”[1] And yet, if our faith is true, then coming to this mutual love—we for God and God for us, and on that basis we for others and others for us—is entirely what our life is really meant to be about.

Love means ecstasy—that is, standing outside of ourselves. And that may be costly and painful. Indeed, it often is.

Loves means intimacy—intimacy with God, intimacy with each other, intimacy with the whole creation. And that means being vulnerable: vulnerable to another. And that too can be painful, and often is.

And yet that ecstasy and that intimacy are the qualities of life for which we were made. The rest—even all those wonderful gifts and talents and clevernesses on which we pride ourselves so much—even the good things—they are transient. As Ecclesiastes and St Paul remind us, they will vanish away.

“הֲבָלִים הָבֶל,” says Ecclesiastes, “הֲבֵל הַכֹּל” (Eccl. 1:2). “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” is how we usually translate it—the only problem being that “vanity”, at least as we normally use the word, is not really a very good translation of the Hebrew הָבֶל—which literally means “vapour”. For what the preacher is saying is not that everything is bad, but that all things, even the good things, are transitory, ephemeral. Only love, together with the faith and the hope that invariably accompany love, will actually last. Love alone is the true fire that the Spirit, the breath, the life of God, will light in us if we will let it, and it will not destroy us. Love alone is the true fire that will burn in us and yet not burn us up.

In one sense we do not need to pray for this gift, for God offers it to us all the time: that is the message of Pentecost. Rather, let us ask God for grace that we may open our stubborn and cowardly hearts to it: for that is always the problem.

And now let us confess our faith…

[1] Ellen F. Davis, “The One Whom My Soul Loves” in Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Lanham, Maryland and Plymouth, UK: Cowley, 2001).

Easter 6, Year B: Text of a Sermon preached at the Convent of Saint Mary in Sewanee, 2018.

For the Gospel: John 15:7-17

Our gospel passage this morning comes from Our Lord’s discourses at the Last Supper in the Gospel of John. It follows directly on from what we heard last week, Our Lord’s parable in which he spoke of himself as the true vine, and his disciples as the branches. As the branch cannot flourish apart from the vine, he said, so we, his disciples, cannot flourish without him.

Jesus now continues, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you”—he speaks, I believe, of our communion with him through prayer: if the words of Jesus, that is, the things he says and the things he does—if these abide in us, then, he says, “ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). This will happen because if Jesus’ words and deeds are in our hearts and minds, then our petitions will be echoes of His words and deeds. As He speaks, so we will speak. Our prayers will be fragments of his teaching, transformed into supplications, and so will necessarily be heard, as He is heard. Let us be clear what this means: our Lord’s promise of the absolute fulfillment of our prayers is inseparably linked to our personal fellowship with Him. “Ask for whatever you wish,” he says, emphasizing the freedom of our choice given the union of our wills with that of Christ, “and it will be done for you.” So Saint Augustine of Hippo said, “Dilige, et quod vis fac”—“Love, and do what you like” (Homilies on First John 7.8). Precisely. Because if we abide in Jesus’ fellowship, then what we like will be what God likes. And even if there is something we would dearly prefer that cannot be—as Our Lord himself would have preferred not to endure the agony of the  cross and prayed in Gethsemane, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” but it could not be—even then the final movement and basis of our prayer will be, as was his, “nevertheless, not what I will but what you will”(Mark 14:36). This is something to which we bear witness every time we pray His prayer, as we shall pray it in a few minutes, putting our hand into the hand of God and being so bold as to say, “Our Father… thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

Our Lord continues: ”My Father is glorified by this”—that is, by your abiding in me and the consequent fulfillment of your prayers—in order that “you bear much fruit” (in the fruitfulness of the vine lies the joy of the husbandman) and so “become my disciples” (15:8). We may well ask, “Are we not disciples already?” And of course we are! But we mustn’t forget that the Hebrew and Greek words for “disciple” mean “learner”, “student,” or “pupil”—and so by definition a true disciple is someone who is in a process of “becoming”, always growing and learning, always being transformed into Christ’s image, as Saint Paul has it, “from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). That is our calling now, in this life, and it will be our calling even in the life to come, even in the resurrection life—to ascend, as He did, to the Father.

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (15:9) Christ’s love is the atmosphere in which we must seek to live: not something sought in a moment of crisis, but breathed in, day by day, hour by hour. All else, whether good or ill, is, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, “הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים”—“vanity of vanities” as it is usually translated—which is actually somewhat misleading. For the word הֲבֵל—“mist”, “vapour” or “breath”—is used metaphorically in Qoheleth’s Hebrew, as its equivalents often are in English, to refer not so much what we normally regard as “vain”—that is, useless, or empty—but rather to what is ephemeral, fragile, passing away. Ecclesiastes is not saying that nothing is of any value, but rather that everything in this life—even good things, even things that God has given us for our joy, everything is transitory. And of course we know that is true. It is true of the universe itself, and it is certainly true for us. We all strive to do things—for good or evil, for ourselves or for others, in generosity or in selfishness—but whatever we do, life passes. Carpe diem! we say, following Horace: “Seize the day!” But there will certainly come for all of us a day that we cannot seize, a day when we cannot finish what we have started, a day when we must entrust even what we hold most precious to the mercy of God. What then is our hope? “Abide in my love,” says Our Lord.

And so we come finally to his promise: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (15:10). Love ensures obedience, obedience ensures love. That is something that even our as yet imperfect human loves can show us. When we are, as we say, “in love,” then to please the beloved is not a burden but our desire and delight. If that is true—and it is—of our merely human loves, how much more is it true of the One who IS Love, and the source of all love! No wonder our Lord concludes, “I have said these things to you, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (15:11). May God give us grace to seek that joy, as the saints have sought it throughout history, and there perhaps find that although all things in this life are transitory and fragile, passing away like a breath, yet there, in God’s joy, all things, having come from God, find also their permanence and their fulfillment.

In that thought we may dare perhaps hope that Gustav Mahler was right:

O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube:

‘Es geht dir nichts verloren![2]

‘O believe, my heart, O believe:

‘Nothing to you is lost!’

And that, in a sense, is the Easter message.

Amen.

[1] For rich commentary on this text, and indeed on Ecclesiastes—which she describes as “the most diffident book of the Bible”—see Ellen E. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox, 2000) 166-69.

[2] Gustav Mahler, “Auferstehung” Symphony no. 2, no. 5.