All Saints Margaret Street | Pentecost Evening Sermon Sunday 27 May 2012

Sermon for Pentecost Evening Sermon Sunday 27 May 2012

A Sermon Preached by Fr Gerald Beauchamp at Evensong & Benediction on Pentecost, 27 May 2012


Readings: Ezekiel 36. 22-28; Acts 2. 22-38


If you were at mass this morning you would have heard the lead-up to this evening’s second lesson. Tonight we heard the end of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. This morning began with the Eleven gathered together. They experienced a sound like a violent wind. There were tongues of flame. There was speaking in tongues – foreign languages. There was amazement. Darkly, there were accusations of strong drink. There was belief and disbelief. In this melee Peter stood up and preached. This is a great event. Its the church’s first sermon. Lets then this evening cast humility aside and critique Peter’s sermon. After all, those of us here are well practiced in critiquing preacher’s efforts


Peter’s sermon is just over 500 words long so if he was here and delivering it from this pulpit now it would take him around six minutes. The sermon relies heavily on quoting from scripture so its biblically-based. He makes no reference to works of art and the sermon owes nothing to the editorial pages of The Guardian. For some of you it may sound like perfection


But not so fast. Those of us who stand in this pulpit on a regular basis were (believe it or not) taught how to preach. Courses on sermons consist of theory and practice. In my case at Mirfield back in the ‘70s the students were divided into groups. Each week during the course two or three students plus a tutor would go with a student preacher to some far flung corner of West Yorkshire to preach at Evensong. Quite what the good burghers of the Dales had done to deserve us I’ll never know


We’d return to college to debrief in the tutor’s room over coffee or something stronger followed by a more uproarious debrief in someone’s room over something stronger still. (For us ‘new wine‘ tended to follow not precede preaching.) We’d regale each other with the foibles of the night: sermons fluttering to the floor, pages in the wrong order and my favourite: the well-proportioned student who ascended a long flight of steps to the pulpit only to find that at the top there was a door. The door wouldn’t open so he clambered over it. Unfortunately, the hinges came off and the door clattered down the steps. The student collapsed in a heap on the floor of the pulpit and emerged to preach looking like a bewildered Wurlitzer


But back to Peter. Despite spending much time with Our Lord, Peter had never been to a doctrine class. He’s heavy on the humanity of Jesus: ‘this man, handed over to you (that’s ‘the Israelites’) …’ is the one whom God ‘has made Lord and Messiah’. The notion that Jesus had at some point received his divine status either within time or eternity is one that the church would finally reject. Its not difficult to see why. If God made man and man has fallen away from God so far that he can’t get back by his own efforts then the way back to God has to be provided by God himself. Like a bridge the incarnation has to be securely anchored at both ends. Salvation depends on Jesus being both fully man and fully God


The church has ruled out the notion that Jesus Christ was adopted as divine and is subordinate to the Father. But (and its a big ‘but’) this conclusion took over 400 years to emerge. It required using language that came not from the bible itself. The Creed that we say on Sunday mornings contains phrases like ‘of one substance’: Jesus ‘being of one substance with the Father’. The phrase ‘of one substance’ is not found in the scriptures old or new. So Peter can surely be forgiven because although some of his words would be used by those in the early church who opposed what we now understand as the incarnation his use of Psalm 110 (The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand) shows that he is groping towards saying something more than one quotation from his sermon might suggest. Judging in hindsight is easy but rarely fair


More problematic is the judgement that Peter makes on his fellow Jews: ‘this Jesus, whom you crucified’. Jesus may have been killed ‘by those outside the law’ (i.e. Pilate and the Roman Empire) but for Peter the blame lies with his hearers. Peter points the finger. Its a pity that he wasn’t heckled from the crowd. ‘What about you, Peter?’ ‘Where were you when Christ was crucified?’ Those of us who preach on Good Friday at some point make reference to Peter’s three-fold denial that he even knew Jesus. If I change role from preacher to therapist I’d say that Peter was scapegoating others to deflect from his own guilt


Given the relationship between Peter and the risen Christ we can say that Peter was ‘ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven’ but as a preaching model its potentially disastrous. Pointing the finger at the Jews and accusing them of deicide was a canker that grew in Christianity leading through periodic pogroms to the holocaust itself


More difficult still is the whole framework of the Passion couched in terms of God’s foreknowledge and the apparent destiny of some to be Christ’s executioners. This may appeal to the darker recesses of Calvinism but for those of us who like our religion sunny side up it all sounds too grim. What sort of God is it that sends his Son expecting him to die? And yet, and yet: we cannot rob the Passion of purpose. Purpose may lose its breadth if its hardened into destiny (especially Double Predestination – God predestining those to be saved and those to be damned) but Peter was right to struggle with the raison d’etre of the Passion even if the outcome creates more questions than it answers


What saves Peter’s sermon finally is that it moves back and forth between experience and tradition – the Jewish scriptures. The experience that he and the Eleven had and that many more would come to share is that it revealed the man Jesus to be more than a man. The preaching and the teaching, the signs and the wonders all amounted to ‘more’. And the ‘more‘ became ever more apparent as the life came to its bloody end; and the end revealed as only the beginning


The world was stood on its head. Heaven was present on earth. The disciples knew a joy and a freedom they had never known before. There was a spirit, a spirit voiced by the prophets and sung about by the psalmist that was now writ-large as a fiery revelation not just to an individual like Moses but to a group, a group with a mission to the whole world. The order of the peoples that we heard of speaking in tongues this morning (‘Parthians, Medes, Elamites’ and all the rest) moves from east to west. The whole world is covered by the dawn of a new age


Assuming that Peter hadn’t lost his notes or crashed to the floor of the pulpit on the Day of Pentecost how might he have fared at a sermon post mortem? There would surely have been concerns. ‘Work in progress’ would probably have been the verdict. But progress there has been. Over two thousand years of it at the last count. And those of you who come here faithfully week in and week out witness not just of preachers wrestling with the text but the Holy Spirit empowering people to live lives that reveal the joy and freedom that we know in the crucified and risen Christ. Amen