As you know, you’ve been told right at the beginning of the service, today is the feast of Pentecost one of the most exciting and important days in the Christian year even though hardly anyone outside the church recognises it.
Gone are the days when most people knew this time of year as the Whitsun Bank holiday, which used to be on the Monday after Pentecost, but now it falls every year on the last Monday in May. Today is the church’s birthday, the day we celebrate the church coming into being through the gift of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Excitement is something we so often seem to pass by in the church, I don't know why, perhaps we are creatures of routine and therefore there isn't time or space for a bit of extra buzz, that should generate if nothing else a smiling face, once in a while. There are actually people who believe church is supposed to be a dull and sad and perhaps that is how they have always experienced it.
There are many who would believe that God gave the gift of the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost to energise the church and make it more exciting.
But let’s be honest today's church is not always the most exciting activity in the world, although it could be if we really wanted it to be. Sadly on the whole, if people are looking for excitement, there are better places to go and better hobbies to undertake on a Sunday morning, which is one of the reasons, and I say one of the reasons, churches no longer have huge congregations.
But those churches that do have excitement and more importantly joy when they meet together for worship are thriving as they all share in the delight of uniting together. Of course we all come to church with our preconceptions on how it should be, how we should react and what makes us comfortable or uncomfortable.
Someone once said, “If you ever find the perfect church, don’t join because you will spoil it!” and the truth is that if you join any church it will at some point offend you. Or, you may like this phrase (I don't know where it came from ) “To dwell above with the saints we love, O that will be glory! But to dwell below with the saints we know, well, that’s a different story!”
So lets imagine the scene as described in the Acts of the Apostles at Pentecost: The disciples were all gathered in one place—that reminds me of several scenes after the death of Christ, when the disciples were huddled together, seemingly stunned and unable to move beyond the events that had so changed them. Suddenly, they heard the sound of that wind. I wonder if it was just a roar of wind like we might hear before a storm, or was just a gentle breeze.
The reading then says that, ‘divided tongues, as fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them’. And then they began to speak, and as they did, they heard words coming from their mouths that they did not recognise.
When the crowd, described as “devout Jews from every nation” arrived, the disciples discovered that they were speaking distinct languages that could be understood! We can only imagine the surprise on the faces of everyone in this story. Surprise, astonishment all mixed up, and perhaps a lot of confusion.
Of course, some of the crowd that gathered was sceptical, just as we would be. It feels like a trick, doesn’t it? Like an elaborate ruse. It must be drunkenness, some say. This is not the way that God manifests himself in the world. It must have seemed unseemly to those in the crowd who liked order and tidiness. Just as we like order and tidiness, just as we like to know what is coming next in the life of the church, we don't want to be disturbed interrupted when our tradition makes us sure of what we are and what God wants us to be. No we don't like surprises, we don't like to be disturbed.
But actually in this moment, God is presenting a new path, a new way of being. Here in this powerful story the disciples are called to something new—in this amazing moment, they begin to see themselves in a different way. They are empowered to preach the gospel, to be witnesses. As such they were called to offer to everyone the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness, freely offered by the Father, made possible by the Son, and embodied in the Spirit.
To have been in the early church would have been a wonderful experience. God was working in powerful ways. Daily there were reports of new people coming to faith in the risen Saviour. It was an exciting time. But the early church was not a perfect church, you have only got to read the Acts of the Apostles and also St Paul's letter to the Corinthians to know that there were problems to sort out, people being hurt and comprises having to be made in the name of Christ. These trials and tribulations in the early church seem to show us that the church must maintain a balance.
Some churches are so outwardly focused that they fail to attend to problems within. If those problems are not addressed, the church may grow at first, but eventually the internal problems will result in discord and disintegration. Other churches are so inwardly focused that they forget their mission in the world. If they do not recover their sense of mission, they will be consumed with bickering and self-centredness, leading to demise. Healthy churches maintain the balance of dealing with internal problems, but also stay focused on the task of taking the gospel to the world. It is an incredibly difficult balance to maintain and has caused many to walk out and metaphorically speaking on their exit they have 'banged the church door loudly behind them', which means they have let everyone know exactly how they are feeling, and my heart bleeds for these people, as they have missed the peace that only comes from knowing God and walking in his son’s footsteps, strengthened by the Holy Spirit. And do you know what I could have walked out myself many, many times over the years not only in this benefice but in other places I have lived and worshipped.
I am not smug because I decided to stay, in fact in many ways perhaps I should have walked out. However, it took some praying and soul searching a lot of worrying and more importantly a great deal of forgiveness together with a powerful mixture of humility to continue. I am sure many of you here today are still hurt and angry about something you have disagreed about in the church locally and universally. We are all far from perfect, flawed and in need of help.
At Pentecost, it is good to remember the transforming effect of the Holy Spirit. When our world looks bleak, when we walk in sadness and anxiety, when nothing seems right, the Spirit of God stirs the energy of joy within us. When restlessness or boredom or disappointment takes hold of us, the Spirit deepens in us the energy of peace. As we struggle to believe in our own gifts and blessings, the Spirit strengthens in us the energy of goodness. When a look of love is all someone needs, the Spirit creates in us the energy of kindness. When our moods are dominated by harshness and our words by disrespect, the Spirit blesses us with the energy of gentleness.
And that brings me to this church to All Saints Are we open to the possibility that God may be calling us to something new? Can we let go of our preconceived notions of who we are, and what it means to do church in this space, in order to bring the message of God’s love to a wider circle? [And if we are open to this kind of change] , how will we know what is the right path? I think the answer is that there is no one absolute right path. Just as on the first Day of Pentecost the word of God was heard by each listener in his or her own language, so God comes to each of us in the way that we can embrace it.
The job of the church is to open the doors to all and to be open to many different ways of being the church – all under one roof. So lets celebrate today, and may be, just may be it will be a new beginning for one of us as we experience a power that moves in and within us to strengthen and guide the future of this church.