Pentecost Sunday

11 May 2008 at :00 am

Acts 2: 1–21; 1 Corinthians 12: 3b–13; John 20: 19–23

In diversity is our strength. Statements about the strength that comes from diversity are often found on the lips of people who have to manage organisations, cities and communities, and indeed nations. The new Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, paid tribute when he was elected to the diversity of what he called the greatest, most cosmopolitan and generous hearted city on earth. The introduction to a recent document from the British Government Home Office said, “We have a vision of a successful integrated society that recognises and celebrates the strength in its diversity.”

It must be and is true that there is strength in diversity. But on its own that statement is not enough. Celebrating diversity could allow us all to live alongside each other, in our separate little communities, each one sharing nothing and contributing nothing to the others. Celebrating diversity could lead us to tolerate difference to the point where there was no common understanding of how we should co-exist, no common ethic or morality, no common analysis of the issues facing the world, no attempt to reach a community of understanding on the means of solving the world’s problems, no sense of a common humanity. Diversity alone is not enough. We need also to have a sense of what binds us together, what we owe to each other and can receive from each other, a respect for our essential unity as the children of one heavenly Father.

That first Pentecost morning, when they received the gift of the Holy Spirit, such an extraordinary and powerful experience that it could only be described in picturesque terms, seen as tongues of fire dancing on their heads and heard as a mighty wind rushing through the room in which they had been holed up paralysed by their terror, the apostles were driven out to proclaim to all that would hear them the wonderful truth that Jesus the Christ had been raised from the dead. And there were many people to hear them. That first Pentecost morning there was a great and diverse community of people in Jerusalem. They came from all over the known world. They spoke in different languages. And yet in their diversity they were brought into unity. They could all hear and understand what Peter and the apostles were saying.

The gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift we celebrate today, the gift for which we pray today, the gift we know we can receive today, is a gift that binds together. The Holy Spirit is the third person of God the Holy Trinity: as St Augustine says, the love that binds together the loving Father and the beloved Son. The Holy Spirit is the power of God in creation, brooding over the face of the waters, drawing order out of the chaos. The Holy Spirit is the power of God at work in his world, reconciling difference, urging peace, drawing into unity. The Holy Spirit is the power of God in each of us, informing our conscience, refreshing and developing our gifts, drawing us close to the love and power and beauty of God himself.
Binding together, drawing into unity, healing division, reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable: that is the work of God the Holy Spirit. This has important implications for the Church. Debates within the Anglican Communion, which have threatened to tear the Church apart and to divide us one from another, need to be seen in the light of the work of God to bind together. Those with strongly held opinions, whether they come from one side of the debates about human sexuality or the ordination of women or from the other, claim that they cannot stand by and ignore the truth of the matter, as they see it. The issues they seek to uphold are of such great importance, they say, pertaining so strongly to the heart of the Gospel, that they will leave the Church and form a breakaway Church rather than compromise the truth. They must divide the Church for truth’s sake. They are wrong. Truth and unity are not alternative paths people can choose to follow. The call to be united, to be reconciled, to be bound together one with another is at the very heart of the truth, since it is the very nature and the work of God the Holy Spirit.

There is in fact much here to celebrate. Relations between Roman Catholics and Anglicans hold steady and show signs of real personal warmth. The Archbishop of Canterbury quietly visited the Pope again last week. Plans are being laid for a new commission to ponder our remaining differences. On a local level, good relations with Westminster Cathedral were marked nine days ago by a joint service there, matching our annual joint service here in Edwardtide. The forthcoming ten-yearly Lambeth Conference of the whole Anglican Communion, will, against some dire predictions, this year bring together most of the bishops. Our prayer is that it will draw the bishops into greater unity one with another. Then they will be faithful to their calling to discern the work of God and co-operate with it.

Discerning the work of God and co-operating with it requires us and other Christians to have a care for the world God creates and redeems and in which the Holy Spirit is active, binding together, drawing into unity, healing division, reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable. In a world divided by sin and selfishness and corrupted by greed and cruelty, it would be easy to despair of this goal being achieved. Some Christians do, building for themselves an intellectual and emotional castle against the world, and sitting pretty behind a moat and drawbridge. That cannot be right. In any case, while it is impossible to develop a version of panglossian optimism that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, there are in fact extraordinary signs of hope. Reconciliation in Northern Ireland three decades ago could never have been imagined but now Irish Protestants and Unionists are happily sharing power with Irish Catholics and Republicans. There have been too many formerly inconceivable changes in South Africa, in Eastern Europe, in the Balkans ever to allow us to despair of peace and justice in Zimbabwe, even in Burma, even in Israel/Palestine. Our fervent prayer and active collaboration with the work of the Holy Spirit can bring results.

We have thought of the reconciling love of God the Holy Spirit in the Church and in the world. His power to unite and to bind extends also to us, individuals who listen to his voice and seek to follow his way. He constantly and insistently calls us into relationship with God himself. His is the love that will not let us go. Time and again, he calls us back to God’s way. Time and again, he encourages us into the truth. Time and again, he opens for us the way to life.

God the Holy Spirit offers us on this earth a foretaste of heaven. Heaven and earth are not for ever separate and un-reconciled. In God, all is one, all our diversities are reconciled, heaven is joined to earth and earth bound to heaven. This feast reveals not only our destiny, but the destiny of all humanity, to be united to God and in him with each other. May God’s will be done.

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