Sermon for Pentecost
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
27 May 2007, 10:30 (Pentecost)
The author Bill Bryson is an American living in Britain. He's a lovely, ironic, humorous, understated and most self-deprecating man (I know, so un-American), who has fallen in love with our country and our culture and now plays marvellous pictures of The Way We Are back to us, helping us to see ourselves in a new and, maybe, softer light.
I was at a dinner in Durham a month ago where Bill Bryson was the after-dinner speaker. He closed a very witty and often incisive speech by quoting this passage from his book about Britain - Notes from a Small Island...
One of the charms of the British is that they have so little idea of their own virtues, and nowhere is this more true than with their happiness. You will laugh to hear me say it, but they are the happiest people on earth. Honestly. Watch any two Britons in conversation and see how long it is before they smile or laugh over some joke or pleasantry. It won't be more than a few seconds. I once shared a railway compartment between Dunkirk and Brussels with two French-speaking businessmen who were obviously old friends or colleagues. They talked genially the whole journey, but not once in two hours did I see either of them raise a flicker of a smile. You could imagine the same thing with Germans or Swiss or Spaniards or even Italians, but with Britons - never.
And the British are so easy to please. It is the most extraordinary thing. They actually like their pleasures small. That is why, I suppose, so many of their treats - teacakes, scones, crumpets, rock cakes, rich tea biscuits, fruit Shrewsburys - are so cautiously flavourful. They are the only people in the world who think of jam and currants as thrilling constituents of a pudding or cake. Offer them something genuinely tempting - a slice of gateau or a choice of chocolates from a box - and they will nearly always hesitate and begin to worry that it's unwarranted and excessive, as if any pleasure beyond a very modest threshold is vaguely unseemly.
'Oh, I shouldn't really,' they say. 'Oh, go on,' you prod encouragingly. 'Well, just a small one then', they say and dartingly take a small one, and then get a look as if they have just done something terribly devilish. All this is completely alien to the American mind. To an American the whole purpose of living, the one constant confirmation of continued existence, is to cram as much sensual pleasure as possible into one's mouth more or less continuously. Gratification, instant and lavish, is a birthright. You might as well say 'Oh, I shouldn't really' if someone tells you to take a deep breath.
I used to be puzzled by the curious British attitude to pleasure, and that tireless, dogged optimism of theirs that allowed them to attach an upbeat turn of phrase to the direst inadequacies - 'well, it makes a change', 'mustn't grumble', 'you could do worse', 'it's not much, but it's cheap and cheerful', 'it was quite nice really' - but gradually I came round to their way of thinking and my life has never been happier. I remember finding myself sitting in damp clothes in a cold café on a dreary seaside promenade and being presented with a cup of tea and a teacake and going 'Ooh, lovely!', and I knew then that the process had started. Before long I came to regard all kinds of activities - asking for more toast in a hotel, buying wool- rich socks at Marks & Spencer, getting two pairs of trousers when I only really needed one - as something daring, very nearly illicit. My life became immensely richer.
Apart from being a beautifully observed piece about Britain, that passage helps to explain how an American like Bill Bryson can end up living in Norfolk and becoming a Commissioner for English, yes you heard me correctly, English Heritage. It is about assimilation, learning the language of a new culture and being changed, bit by bit, until the citizenship of a different country no longer sits awkwardly and gauche on unfamiliar shoulders but wraps itself around them like a new outfit becoming comfortable, not all at once, but gradually, over time.
And that is the picture I want to use to explain Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit to God's Church. For the nature of the Christian journey is about becoming gradually more at home in the clothes and the culture of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The role of the Holy Spirit in a Christian's life is to help us order our lives according to the language, cultures and laws of the Kingdom of Heaven. To turn us from tourists to natives in the kingdom of God.
Just before Easer Gill and I went to Gorizia in Northern Italy. Despite some lovely scenery, and a fascinating history, and easy access to places like Venice, it has somehow managed to stay off the tourist track – which means, in effect, that no-one speaks English.
Now, despite Gill's admirable attempt at a crash course in teach-yourself-Italian in the months running up to our holiday, to be honest our Italian did not stretch to much beyond knowing how to order spaghetti and pizza. It is amazing how cut adrift you are when you do not speak the language.
But a knight in shining armour rode to our help in the form of Hannes, a local man with one of the most generous personalities I have ever met. Hannes spoke English, albeit falteringly, and he took us under his wing in the most wonderful way, taking us out in his car to places of interest, inviting us to his home, introducing us to his friends, wining and dining us.
Hannes made us feel at home. He was our interpreter, our companion and our guide, which makes him a sort of icon for the Holy Spirit's role in the life of a Christian.
For that is precisely what God's Spirit starts to do in our lives when we make the leap from the familiar territory of uncommitted Agnostic, to the completely new country of committed Christian faith. The Holy Spirit interprets the unfamiliar landscape of Christianity to us, accompanies us on our journey, makes us feel at home, gradually teaches us the language and helps us understand the customs.
There's a lovely and ancient description of the Holy Spirit in today's Gospel reading where the Holy Spirit is described as the Comforter. The Greek word is parakletos - it means literally "the one called alongside". The Holy Spirit is the one who God calls alongside us to help us on the Christian journey. In John's Gospel, Jesus describes the Spirit four times in this way. Different versions of the Bible translate this word in different ways, but whether it is comforter or counsellor (or, as in our version, Advocate), at heart it is the idea of a travelling companion, of God always being present.
All of which, of course, sounds wonderfully comforting. Most of us would sign up quite willingly to the notion of a divine travelling companion on the road of life. So much for the Gospel's description of the Holy Spirit.
It all gets a lot more uncomfortable when you turn to the Book of Acts which, incidentally, is often described not as the book of the Acts of the Apostles but the book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit.
You cannot escape the fact that Christianity is propelled onto the world's stage in the space of half a century, by a process which makes modern-day Christianity look all rather tame.
It begins at the first Jewish Festival of Pentecost after Jesus' death and resurrection, and the story of what happened to those disciples there is recorded in Acts Chapter 2. Quite simply, they were overshadowed by an experience of God so strong, so powerful, that it is described in words that are elemental and atavistic, almost primeval.
"When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place and suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind and it filled all the house where they were sitting and there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance".
If one aspect of the Holy Spirit's work in a Christian's life is to comfort us, there is another which is to shake us up to the core of our being. This can be unsettling, disturbing, even frightening because it involves letting God come close to us, closer than we probably dare to let even our most intimate human relationships.
It is not that God delights in disturbing us. It is that he longs to transform us into the people we often long, deep down, to be.
Let me put it another way. Most people, Christian or otherwise, are drawn to, and attracted by, the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth. He is an inspiring figure on the stage of human history. But inspiration is not always enough. I can be inspired when I watch someone at the top of their game. Maybe a singer or a dancer or a sports star. But, however inspired I feel, that doesn't help me sing or dance or play sport like them.
Millions of people have been inspired by Jesus down the ages but have found that it is a different matter trying to live like him. So the theology of the Holy Spirit is, at one level, quite simple. The same Spirit of God, expressed so fully in the life of Jesus, is equally available to us here and now and if we want to be disciples of Jesus, people who learn from the life of the master. If we want to be more than inspired, but changed, we need to open up our lives to God's Spirit in the same way that Jesus did.
But here's the tricky bit. You can't open yourself up just a little bit. You can't have just a fraction of the Spirit. The witness of scripture is in the words of the old saying "all or nothing". Be filled with the Spirit, be baptised in the Spirit. This is a draught you cannot sip but only drink deep.
As those early Christian disciples drank deep of God's Holy Spirit they experienced a radical transformation of their lives, as individuals and in community. This is not a possibility consigned to the dusty pages of biblical history. It is every bit as real a possibility for us today.
If an American living Norfolk can become a Commissioner for English Heritage, then old dogs can learn new tricks. May God make us brave enough, adventurous enough to want the powerful, yet disturbing presence of the Holy Spirit as our travelling companion in life. Amen.
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