Sermon for High Mass – Pentecost Sunday 20 May 2018
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Acts 2.1-21; Psalm 104.24-36; Romans 8.22-27; John 15.26-27 & 16.4b-15
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the thing that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” John 16.
I do not know if we have any “Parthians, Medes, Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia….”here this morning, but if you are visiting us, please join us for refreshments in the courtyard after the service. I do know that we have a group from Wheaton College in Illinois.
Wheaton College’s most famous former student was the evangelist Billy Graham, who is reckoned to have preached to more people than anyone else in history; although I think Bishop Michael Curry might well have broken that record yesterday with an estimated 2 billion people listening to his royal wedding sermon (unless they popped out to put the kettle on at that point). The Dean of Windsor had better have the structure of St. George’s Chapel checked, because in all its long years I doubt if it’s heard many roof-lifting sermons like that.
It seems a long way from a Billy Graham rally to St. George’s Chapel, Windsor or to High Mass at All Saints, Margaret Street – but perhaps not quite so far as we might think. I have discovered a link. It is to be found in the college’s library which houses the archives of a number of British Christian writers of the last century: C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, Charles Williams and others. Tolkien was a Roman Catholic and the others Anglicans, indeed mostly High Church Anglicans of our tradition. Dorothy L. Sayers was a churchwarden at St. Thomas’s Regent Street not far from here. As well as writing detective fiction and translating Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” she wrote plays like “The Man Born to be King” and works of Christian theology.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I suspect that the veneration of relics does not feature in the spirituality of an evangelical stronghold like Wheaton – but the college does have some. They are housed not in the chapel but in the library.
- One is the desk at which Tolkien wrote “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”
- Another is a wardrobe from C.S. Lewis’s childhood home in Belfast. Those of you who know your Lewis will recall that a wardrobe is the entrance to the imaginary world of Narnia.
We should remember that these people were not ivory tower fantasists, safe among the dreaming spires. They had lived, and some of them had fought, through the Great War. They had seen friends die; they had groaned inwardly and outwardly, more perhaps in despair than in hope, as they seen western civilization brought to the brink of destruction by war, economic depression, and the rise of dark totalitarian forces, promising to make their nations “great again,” to quote someone you may be familiar with.
In an age when both reason and religion seemed to have failed, Lewis and his friends came to see through their studies and discussions of each others’ writings the vital importance of the relationship between reason and imagination in understanding the truth of the Christian faith.
He dated his return to Christianity to a long late night conversation with Tolkien and another Oxford friend in 1931. They helped him to see that if he could accept the idea of sacrifice in the pagan myths which he studied, as saying something profound and meaningful and true about human life, then he could also grasp that the story of Christ and his sacrifice was a “true myth;” one which really happened. The pagan stories were God expressing himself through poetic minds, while Christianity is God expressing himself through what real things: the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Together these would inspire their own imaginative writings which have sacrifice for others, for the common good, at their heart.
Lewis was led into the truth during that late night conversation with his friends who spoke to him out of the Christian tradition, the apostolic witness of which our Gospel today speaks. That Gospel is part of another long late night conversation: Jesus speaking with his disciples in the Upper Room at the Last Supper; preparing them for his absence, speaking to them of the Spirit, the Paraclete, the Advocate, whom he will send after his death and resurrection.
In John’s Gospel, the gift of the Spirit upon his followers had to wait until his death and resurrection. The promise that the ascended, glorified Christ would send the Spirit upon his Church is central to the farewell discourses (chapters 13.31-16.33). These address the pressing question for the disciples in the upper room and for Christians ever since: What does Jesus say to the Church he leaves? How will he be present to us?
For John, in today’s Gospel passage the pain of departure, the fear of absence and loss, is relieved by the coming of the Holy Spirit. It contains the last three of five sayings about the Holy Spirit in the farewell speeches. In the earlier ones, Jesus had promised:
- That the Spirit as Advocate, Comforter or Helper would come to his followers to dwell with them for ever (14.14) and
- That the Spirit would teach as he had and would bring to remembrance all that he had said to them. (14.26).
Today’s reading adds three statements:
1. The Spirit will bear witness to Jesus just as the apostles who shared his earthly life bear witness (15.26-17). This double testimony to the truth about Jesus: the Spirit and the apostles concur, is important. The Church is not left with only the promptings of the Spirit, opening wide the door to all sorts of unverifiable claims by those claiming to be “inspired.’ Nor is the Church left only with the reports from the distant past. It has both the Spirit and tradition, and the gospel is located where these two intersect.
2. The Spirit will “prove the world wrong about sin, righteousness or justice, and judgement.” (v.8). The Spirit ‘s role here is to provide the Church with a true interpretation of the life, death and significance of Jesus. In the world’s eyes, Jesus was tried, condemned, and executed as an enemy of the state and of religion. But the Spirit, as interpreter of Jesus, enables the Church to testify to what was really going on: it is the world which is on trial, not Jesus. in unbelief the world acted unjustly against the Christ. God had vindicated him and he is fact the judge of those who judge him and the judge of all. As Jesus interprets God, so the Spirit interprets Jesus and provides faith’s reading of the story.
3. The Spirit will guide the Church “into all the truth and declare…the things that are to come” (16.12-15). This text has been used and abused to bless all sorts of fads and notions, but the fear of the new should not cause the Church to give up on its promise. When we become protective and defensive, we shut God out of the present, confining him to the past. Churches become museums and priests their curators. The Advocate speaks to us of the God of the present and the future. The Spirit asks, “What is the meaning of Jesus Christ for today?” and leads us to answers. This does not mean the Church is left prey to all who proclaim in the name of the Spirit, “Lo, here.” and “Lo, there.” The apostolic and biblical witness remains as a canon, the rule, for testing the spirits, for the Holy Spirit does not speak apart from or contrary to the historical Jesus (12-15). Rather, the Spirit keeps the voice of Jesus as a living voice in the Church.
For John, the discourses are not simply what the historical Jesus said to his disciples 2000 years ago; they are the risen and glorified Christ speaking to the Church in later generations, to us who are his disciples now.
The Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s Letter to the Romans and the Gospel of John, are themselves the product of the continuing work of the Holy Spirit. In John’s account of the passion, when Pilate asks Jesus: “What is truth?” Jesus remains silent, but the question does not go unanswered. The answer is found in what happens next. It is the glory of the cross – the self-giving love of God for the world. Truth in the final analysis is not words or propositions but God’s loving action – unfolded in the John’s Gospel until the final “It is accomplished” of the Cross.
We see that reflected in the drama of our worship this morning:
- Just as Jesus’s words to the disciples at the supper flow into his “high priestly prayer” (John 17), what has also been called his “prayer of consecration,” so, through the Spirit who prays within us, we share in his priestly work of intercession for the church and the world.
- As Jesus’ words were consummated in his giving of himself on the cross, so our hearing of his word is consummated in the sacrament of his sacrifice and our communion in it; a communion which is to issue in the offering of our souls and bodies as a living sacrifice.
As we groan inwardly and outwardly at the plight of our world: Palestinians mown down in Gaza, while preachers speak glibly of prophecy being fulfilled; while yet more pupils are massacred in a school in Santa Fe and no one in power does anything about it; while dark forces of hatred and division stalk our world; as we ask where hope, where redemption, is to be found, or despair of it being found at all, our “Santa Fe,” our “holy faith” speaks to us of another way: the way of love.
Yesterday millions of us, billions even, watched the royal wedding; far more I suspect than watched the alternative attraction at Wembley. All but the most curmudgeonly were cheered and delighted. The sun shone, the bride was radiant, her dress elegant, the groom handsome in his uniform and touchingly tearful, bridesmaids and pageboys angelic; the setting splendid, the music beautiful, the choreography faultless.
But it was more than another of those royal spectacles for the TV cameras which are one of our few remaining national accomplishments. At the heart of it, we heard a bishop preach about the fire of love and its power to change the world. And we witnessed two people making their marriage vows; some of us perhaps thought back to the day when we made those same vows; some here this morning perhaps looked forward to the day when they will stand before the altar of this church to make those same vows; vows which speak of the sacrificial love, the giving and receiving of love, which is at the heart not just of marriage but of all human life and relationships made in the image of the God who is self-giving love and whom we know by love and whose love is our only hope.