Vicar's Sermon - Pentecost 2018
They were all together in one place. The sound like the rush of a violent wind filled the entire house. A tongue of fire rested on each of them. They began to speak in other languages.
What do you make of it? How do you hear these verses? There is an energy here: a force, a pressure, a great explosion of grace poured out upon God’s people on the Day of Pentecost. For the disciples there is a new-found confidence: an awareness of togetherness that crosses all sorts of barriers to embrace people from all over the known world - people of all languages hear of God’s deeds in a way that speaks to them.
I really like the way our service starts on the Day of Pentecost. Normally, of course, we gather and then our first hymn is announced, we stand and sing, but not on Pentecost. We sit. We wait. There is silence….silent anticipation of God coming to us in a new way. ‘Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire.’
They were all together in one place: is that us? If so ‘Where are we? Where are we now as a church? Where are we as a Parish?...and are we ‘all together’? Physically we are all here in this space but how often do we talk of ‘We’ in this church instead of ‘they’ or ‘you’? Are ‘we’ the church, or is it just the Vicar (God forbid) or the wardens, the PCC? Tomorrow the PCC will be asked whether there is any reason why we might not take up an invitation from Bishop Paul to sign up to a three-year process called Partnership for Missional Church (PMC for short): His request is admittedly a bit like the Archbishop’s question to Harry and Meghan yesterday, ‘Will you…? – he’s expecting a positive ‘I will.’ For the last three years I have been working alongside a dozen or so parishes who have been piloting PMC in Durham Diocese (my task to be part of an enabling team). Some of the ideas from the process I have already introduced to our common life here in Barney but one of the main purposes of PMC is to help whole churches – not just keen individuals – to share in God’s mission. What strikes me about our Pentecost reading is the fact that all the disciples are involved, all of them are touched by the Spirit’s presence, all of them receive the anointing of God’s Spirit. Theologically we understand this….but practically we are tempted to act as if the Spirit’s work is concentrated into the hands of just a few…and we are the poorer for it. My experience with the PMC pilot churches is that they have been helped to unlock the gifts of their congregations and to discover the many gifts of God’s grace outside the church door in their communities.
The other week we had our Annual Parochial Church Meeting and it was Sylvia who helped us to celebrate what is happening with our music making in church by reminding us of the concert on Mothering Sunday. One of the things that made the event so filled with joy was the fact that ‘whatever their age, whatever their ability, everybody was included’. So it is when God’s Spirit is at work. Partnership for Missional Church has helped congregations across the Diocese discover ‘who they are, where they are and what they are for, TOGETHER.’ It’s our turn to get on board.
‘The sound like the rush of a violent wind filled the entire house’: so it says in the Book of Acts. Am image of the Spirit reaching into every corner of our lives. The Spirit of Jesus touching, transforming, quickening …everything! Again, the church of God in the West has squeezed His Spirit into a very confined space. But slowly, slowly we are bridging that ‘sacred/secular’ divide. Slowly, slowly we are realising that there is no place where God is not….that Jesus must be Lord of everything. It is not good enough for us to lock God up in churches and leave Him there from one Sunday to the next: His Spirit fills the whole earth. Isn’t that what Bishop Paul was trying to show us with his Prayer Walk through the Deanery last week: that God’s goodness can be seen in so many places outside these doors if we just lift our eyes to see. As he walked, as he met with teachers and business men and women, with farmers and artists and brewers and café owners and golfers and footballers Paul asked whether he could pray with them and for them and they all said ‘yes!’ The Spirit of God wants to bless His world, to reach into every nook and cranny of our lives. Again, we know this but see ourselves too often as gatekeepers, those who control where the Spirit goes. Churches that have engaged with Partnership for Missional Church across the country have found themselves opening up to the communities in which they are set, making connections with any number of folk who (with them) are seeking Life in all its fulness. So a church I know in Gateshead identified a need to serve those who were isolated, lonely and bereaved. Initially they thought that meant ministering to those who had buried their relatives in the neighbouring cemetery – and it does mean that – but then they realised that the large refugee community in their parish were (to a man, to a woman) all isolated lonely and bereaved. Now, following the Spirit’s lead (and working with many others) they help to run a football club and a cycling club and they offer friendship and help with the English language and they offer hospitality and have been guests of their new friends who have been touched by the grace of God that is filling that community. And another PMC church in Stockton was invited by the local council to instal floodlighting in the churchyard to deter the sex workers who were using that space…but instead found a way to work with professionals to offer support and help and care to the girls who others saw as a nuisance but who they saw as God’s children so offer a ‘Way Out’ to those who would escape from a life of prostitution and abuse. The Spirit of God fills the whole house…even its darkest corners.
And they spilled out of the house, we’re told, and they proclaimed the work of God in languages that were new to them but which communicated to those who had gathered from all over the world. What an image that is! Of course, we can ask questions about what is happening or how it happened but if we focus too much on the disciples we miss what is happening to the thousands who hear them speak. For them the good news of Jesus is heard in a way that they can understand: isn’t that the miracle?
One of the reasons I am a proud Anglican is that the Church of England is committed to incarnation: proclaiming the gospel in ways that speak to each generation and in ways that are natural to the culture and place in which we are set. These Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia are all different. To be honest each and every individual needs to hear and will respond to the gospel in a slightly different way. PMC is true to the culture of the churches that have engaged with it: it doesn’t squeeze us all into thinking or doing one thing. But it is also true to the particularity of our setting, our parish. What is OK for an Evangelical Church in Gateshead is not going to be OK for a High Church in Stockton…or a small country parish near Lanchester. But each parish has been helped to speak the language of its parishioners – to find new ways of meeting people and befriending people and encouraging people and celebrating the word and the works of God with them. What seems to be happening in these churches (which are growing) is that it is not what they are doing that is bringing people to faith but who they are. Not a technique or a worship band, or an app, or the answers to ‘life the universe and everything’ but finding a way to enable the whole church to be open to the Spirit of God.
Pray then. Pray for the Church Council tomorrow evening and pray that God’s Spirit will lead us together into the next chapter of this church’s life.