Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
15 May 2005, 10:30 (Pentecost Sunday)
How good are those moments when you are struggling with what appears to be an intractable problem and then suddenly, quite without warning and for no apparent reason, the scales fall from your eyes and you see the answer, clear as you like. It all makes sense. We call then eureka moments.
Some eureka moments can be very funny. A few weeks ago Gill and I met up in London one Saturday and in the course of conversation she told me that she had come downstairs that morning and found a small, white tablet on the floor of the kitchen. Now, bear in mind Peter our eighteen year old son had been out clubbing the previous night and hadn't got in until five in the morning. Jack our sixteen year old son who plays drums in a rock band, had been rehearsing until late at a pub in the centre of the city. This tablet was unlike anything Gill had ever seen. It had an unusual marking on it and when she crumbled it in her fingers it contained fragments of a green powdery substance inside the white.
Anyway, Gill told me this and we agreed there was nothing for it but confront the lads face to face. We've always had very open discussions about drugs with them and this should be no different. So, Gill goes back to Birmingham and when the moment presents itself she takes Jack aside quietly and says "Jack I found this on the kitchen floor, I want you to be totally honest with me, do you know what it is"? Silence. Jack looks guiltily at his feet. "Yes mum, I do know what it is. It's a Trebor extra strong mint". Apparently these are now produced in mini size. Parents take note. Eureka moments. Suddenly everything falls into place. Some are ridiculous but others can be sublime.
Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, likes to describe poetry as a momentary stay against confusion. It's a wonderful saying. A heartbeat of truth that temporarily cuts through the complexities of a confusing world. I guess we've all experienced something like this from time to time. A poem or a piece of music that slices through the confusion of your life like a knife through butter and leaves you, even if just for a moment, at a point of absolute clarity and understanding.
Now if you have got your wits about you I hope you will already have seen where I am going with this. Pentecost is one of the great eureka moments of the New Testament. Perhaps the moment when confusion gives way to clarity. For those first disciples, it quite literally made sense of their world. The months before Pentecost were a bewildering switch-back for the disciples, from the euphoria of Palm Sunday to the disaster of Good Friday. From the extraordinary events of Easter Day through the mysterious glimpses of Jesus over the next forty days. To the confusion of the Ascension and the enigmatic command to wait bereft in Jerusalem.
They must have been in psychological meltdown by the time of Pentecost. Nothing but nothing can have made sense any more. But then this. Pentecost, tongues of fire, and a mighty rushing wind.......
It's not always easy to understand what is going on at Pentecost but it boils down to this.
Long ago in the mists of ancient history a story had grown up around the tower of Babel. A man-made structure that in the eyes of its contemporaries almost seemed to reach to Heaven. It had required massive co-operation to build and no doubt in its time it would have ranked as one of the wonders of the world. But in the course of building it something happened. People started to take an unhealthy pride in their achievement and, instead of drawing people to Heaven, this tower began to mock it. And in the face of this mockery God sent a spirit of confusion and misunderstanding to dog their efforts and the team building the tower disintegrated under a shower of miscommunication and mistrust. It was never finished. Babel became a metaphor for a divided community and a confused world.
You need to listen to the Pentecost story with Babel in the back of your minds. For Pentecost reverses Babel. At Babel one voice became many. Human pride resulted in division, misunderstanding and confusion. At Pentecost those many voices become one. Misunderstanding gives way to unity. Division to harmony. Confusion to a common understanding. It is the great eureka moment of church history.
But why is this so important? Let me try to answer this by starting at a macro level. That is to say with the world and society at large and then moving things down onto a micro level. In other words, something to do with me as I relate to the world. Start with the big picture. Despite all our talk about the global village, our world is more disconnected than ever. We have information on a scale undreamt of, but so little knowledge. And even where we have knowledge we've cut the vital link between knowledge and value.
When Francis Crick and James Watson reported the discovery of what they called their beautiful new structure in 1953, little could they have guessed the influence that DNA was going to have on our emerging understanding of life and, in particular, human life. In his book The Astonishing Hypothesis, written after forty years reflection on the meaning of the DNA revolution, Francis Crick wrote these words. The astonishing hypothesis is this. That you, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and freewill are, in fact, no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. So much knowledge, so little value.
Half a century on from the discovery of DNA, we have reached the stage where human identity and human value are no longer seen as being connected in any way. The problem is that if you sever the link between knowledge and value you separate culture from morality. So the Nazis gassed children at Auschwitz and came home to listen to Schubert. That is merely an extreme example of something that affects us all. For all our much-heralded mass communications our world is characterised by disconnectedness. Communities are in freefall.
But it doesn't have to be this way. What is Christian Aid Week after all if not an attempt to help us re-establish our connectedness with other parts of the world that are affected by the way we choose to live our lives. Christian Aid is an attempt to reconnect knowledge and love. To reconnect culture and morality. More aid, fairer trade and debt cancellation are the three corners of a triangle that the Campaign Make Poverty History is trying to address. They all demonstrate so clearly how what happens in a village in India, or a city in Africa, or a town in South America is affected by the decisions of individuals and governments here. We are connected. Like it or not.
Christian Aid is an attempt to reconnect culture, how we live our lives, with morality, our sense of responsibility to those with whom we share our humanity.
On a cosmic scale this is what Pentecost is about. An international community is united. Many voices become one. Confusion gives way to understanding. Competition is transformed into co-operation. Community is formed. Connection is made.
It's a stunning vision of the way the Holy Spirit renews community and how appropriate that Christian Aid Week begins on Pentecost Sunday for this is almost a perfect example of what true spiritual renewal is about and my goodness we should support it wholeheartedly.
But let's not stop there. What about the young people who cycle up and down the Castle moat or those who turn The Vines and some parts of the High Street into no-go areas after dark. What about the hungry and the homeless who share this space with us. Pentecost challenges us to re-establish the connection. To recognise the connectedness of all of life. Not simply to see such people as problems to move on but those with whom we are intimately connected and for whom we share responsibility.
Now in drawing to a close, let's take it up close and personal as they say. Let's take it to the level of the individual. You and me. Most of us find life bewildering these days to a greater or lesser extent. It is so hard to connect the complexities of modern life to the deepest longings of our hearts. We are desperate to make sense of our own lives in the context of a confusing world.
A lot of the time we are simply filling life with amusing distractions to avoid having to address these things. But in the wee, wee hours there is no escape. What is it all about? Who am I and why am I here?
We long for it all to make some sense. Little wonder that spiritual conversion can be such a powerful thing when it hits you. Like tongues of fire burning away the dross of our lives. When God touches you - how does the saying go - you stay touched. This baptism in the spirit was a eureka moment for three thousand people at that first Pentecost as it has been for so many since then. God quite literally makes sense of the world for us.
Well much to my relief it wasn't Ecstacy it was an Extra-strong Trebor mint. Hooray! But who needs drugs when you've got the Holy Spirit to make sense of the world. The confusion and disconnectedness of life is answered this day by the rush of a mighty wind, tongues of fire and the transforming power of God's Holy Spirit. And to that there is only one thing left to say. Eureka.