Pentecost Sunday 2009 Sermon
31 May 2009 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Acts 2: 1-21; Romans 8: 22-27; John 15: 26-end, 16: 4-15
It is possible to think and speak about each succeeding decade of the 20th century as having something of its own character, its own spirit. It may well be caricature, but is nevertheless widely recognised. In these islands we think of the first decade of the 20th century as characterised by Edwardian imperial confidence and luxury tinged with decadence. Harold Nicolson describing the Edwardian weekend identified the gentleman taking his morning bath as feeling “disgusted and dyspeptic”. This era ended with the First World War, followed by the 20s with financial collapse, bobbed hair and beads and the general strike, the 30s with the rise of dictatorships and cautious rearmament, the 40s with the Second World War and the welfare state, the 50s with convention and ‘you’ve never had it so good’, the swinging 60s, the 70s with punk, more strikes and the IMF supporting the pound, Mrs Thatcher’s 80s, and the 90s with Maastricht and the rise of New Labour. No one has succeeded in calling this decade the “noughties”, so we are soon to emerge from a decade without a name but with a very definite character, a spirit of its own, predominantly one of anxiety, about militant Islam and global warming, and now about the threatened or apparent collapse of our parliamentary democracy.
Unless we cut ourselves off completely from the world, living as a hermit in a cave, all of us to some degree or another are governed or at least affected by the spirit of the age – by a predominant culture or set of prevailing attitudes. We can see it at work in practice in the apparently widespread acceptance in the House of Commons, until recently, that the various allowances available to Members of Parliament were there to be exploited for personal gain, as a tacit and hidden means of increasing a Member’s remuneration package. Not everyone made the most of their opportunities, so it was always possible, if not easy, to resist the trend. The no doubt justifiable furore in the media in the past few weeks and the militant anger of so many people against MPs requires of us all that we re-examine the hidden assumptions in our own attitudes and ways of life and the almost unconscious manner in which we serve our own ends and make the most of our opportunities of personal gain. Whoever is without sin can cast the first stone.
As I see it, the question of great importance for our society and civilization that emerges from our current bout of disgust, if not of dyspepsia, concerns the criteria we should be using to assess how we should behave in any given circumstance. Put it another way: what is to prevent us being flotsam and jetsam, blown about by current tides and winds, utterly subject to the spirit of the age or prevailing set of conventions, whatever they may be? Are there virtues and values that should give us a yardstick or do we just make them up as we go along or even live day by day without a care about what is right and wrong? The current popular anger suggests that there are enough people around who believe that you ought to be able to tell the difference, but the spirit of this age is marked by paradox and confusion. Consider issues of freedom and regulation. We educate for autonomy and independence of thought and yet are surprised when children resist authority. Every time we identify a social problem, we make a law against it and impose ever tighter regulations. Such regulations have the paradoxical effect, as identified a few days ago by the Archbishop of Canterbury, in an article in the Times, of “weaken[ing] the conviction that the best foundation for fairness is an ingrained habit of respect, bound up with one's own self-respect. They can end up actually undermining charity and good sense still further. And – once again – they create that disreputable atmosphere of asking how little you need to do in order to comply.”
Now consider issues of life and death. The paradox is that in the UK we get into a panic that seems to dominate the headlines for months about a missing girl or about a baby beaten to death by his stepfather – please do not think I wish to minimise either tragedy – or about unburied body parts, whilst at the same time tolerating almost 200,000 terminations of pregnancy each year, of which fewer than a thousand are on the grounds of potential serious handicap. To add to the paradox, medical science at the same time strains every sinew to produce designer babies and children for mothers well beyond natural childbirth. The reason for all this is not hard to find: every individual believes he or she has the right to choose, the right to live our lives as we wish. But the overall effect is one of confusion, uncertainty what is right and wrong, indeed whether there is any such thing as right or wrong – it is ‘what feels right for me’ that matters.
It would be tempting to identify this as simply a characteristic of modern life, of the beginning of the 21st century, and to suppose that there had been a golden age when everything was different. I could suggest that it was a great deal better in the 1950s and that we should try to get back there. But I think we should find as many paradoxes there, even if they were different ones. The problem is not particular to any age; the problem is the condition of life in the world.
Into this confusion Jesus speaks. He is talking to his disciples on the night he was to be betrayed. “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.” So our contrast is, on the one hand, the spirit of the age leading to confusion and uncertainty and, on the other, the Advocate, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth, leading to clarity, understanding and strength. When this Advocate comes, as Jesus says, “he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement.” He “will guide you into all the truth.”
In the first lesson today, we see the effect of the gift of the Holy Spirit. The disciples, who have themselves been uncertain and confused, become clear, focused, even fearless. The symbol of the Apostles being heard and understood by everyone despite the handicap of different languages surely signifies that this gift from God, the gift of his Holy Spirit, transcends the passing culture of any age or community. Here is authority and truth. Here is the yardstick against which everything can be measured. Here is the test of true moral worth. Here is ultimate value, real virtue.
Yes, you say. That is all very well. But we still need to judge particular circumstances, face new situations, make decisions. Is not all this too abstract? How do we know? There are grounds for hope, as St Paul tells the confused Christians in Rome, longing for guidance. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
May the gift of the Holy Spirit lead us into all truth this Pentecost – and into virtuous and godly living.