Sermon given at Sung Eucharist: Pentecost Sunday 23 May
23 May 2010 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Readings: Acts 2: 1-21; Romans 8: 14-17; John 14: 8-17
This last week has been a precious and important time for the Abbey. On Friday, we celebrated the 450th anniversary of the Royal Charter of Queen Elizabeth I that finally settled the status of the Abbey after the turmoil of the Reformation as a collegiate church. Members of the collegiate foundation from Westminster Abbey and, our close partner, Westminster School met to pray together and then to eat together. The whole day was enlivened and focused by the presence of the Abbey’s Visitor, The Queen, together with The Duke of Edinburgh. Happily the sun shone and all went well. On Wednesday, rather more quietly, we celebrated the anniversary of the death, the heavenly birthday, of St Dunstan, who in 960 brought monks here from Glastonbury to establish or re-establish the Benedictine religious foundation. We celebrated the Eucharist that morning in the oldest part of the Abbey still used for worship, in the East Cloister, the chapel of the Pyx, part of the 11th century Abbey built by St Edward the Confessor. So in the past week we have been reminded of much of the history of the Abbey and been driven back over ten centuries.
Today’s great feast takes us further back, to the very birth of the Church in Jerusalem, on the feast of Pentecost. St Luke tells the well-known story in the Acts of the Apostles that we heard as the first lesson this morning. There are crowds of people in Jerusalem from all over the Jewish world, from north, south, east and west, from as far away as Rome. Some of them have been born and raised as Jews and others have heard the Jewish religion taught and are on a journey towards accepting for themselves the Jewish faith. They are there in Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish feast of Pentecost. The feast takes place fifty days after the Passover and celebrates the moment when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive from the hands of God the Ten Commandments. In the wilderness far from the Promised Land, God’s people receive his commandments and with them the sense of being a new nation. The people of Israel look back at that moment as the birth of their new nation, founded on obedience to God’s commandments. Once they are settled in their Promised Land, Pentecost takes on an additional significance as the celebration of the harvest. So, the people of Israel, God’s people, are gathered in Jerusalem on this day to celebrate their nationhood and to thank God for the harvest.
Into this celebration, early in the morning, erupt Peter and his fellow disciples. They are so excited that they appear to be drunk. They have good news to tell, news that they have earlier been afraid to share for the sake of their lives. Now, careless of their lives, they are driven by the power they have received from on high in the gift of the Spirit, out into the crowds to persuade them that there is something greater to celebrate than the gift of the Ten Commandments. They only convict us of sin; they do nothing to free us from sin. But there is a Saviour, Christ the Lord, who died and is alive, so that all who believe in him might be free from the binding power of death and might find true and joyful new life in him. St Luke tells us that 3,000 people that day were added to the body of disciples. ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ [Acts 2: 42] Thus was the Church born and the marks of the Christian life identified. The Church is to be attentive to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship one with another, to the breaking of bread together, and to communal prayer. So the Church has been ever since.
So, today’s great feast calls us back to our origins and provides a touchstone both for the Church and for each of us, testing the character and quality of our life as Christians. How attentive are we to the teaching of the apostles? Their teaching of course comes to us in the New Testament. We might today ask ourselves whether we are careful and thorough in paying attention to the Gospels and to the rest of the New Testament. Do we rely simply on hearing them read in Church or do we make time day by day for the reading of the Bible and for biblical meditation. And when we read, do we pay attention to the words and deeds of Jesus given us by the Gospels? Or are we distracted by legitimate questions – whether Jesus really and actually said and did this or that, or whether we are just listening to the construct of the Evangelists – so that we fail to hear the authoritative word of Scripture for us?
And then, we might ask ourselves whether we value enough our fellowship with our fellow Christians. The Abbey’s life is built around the sense of a community of faith – a college, a community that lives, prays, reads and eats together. Does that community build us up as Christians? I hope and pray that it does but we have a particular challenge here with so many worshippers being occasional visitors to the Abbey. Perhaps it would be fair to ask each of us here whether the particular community of faith we each belong to week by week at home builds us up as Christians – and if not, what we are ourselves to do to improve our communal life together.
The third element in St Luke’s definition of the Christian life in Acts 2: 42 is the breaking of bread. He surely would have meant the celebration together of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper or the Mass, at the heart of which is the act of breaking and sharing the bread. We know from slightly later writings how from the earliest times the Church met together to celebrate the Eucharist, weekly at first, and often in conditions of great secrecy, fearing persecution. The service had very much the form of our own day: bible readings, prayers, the peace, the taking and blessing of bread and wine, breaking the bread and distributing the bread and wine. Individuals would take enough of the consecrated bread home for them to make their Communion day by day, even though being found with the reserved host might mean arrest and imprisonment or death. Daily Communion was so important to the early Christians that they would risk their lives for its sake.
Finally, Luke identifies prayer, the prayers. As I said in my sermon on Friday, the ‘daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer and the daily Eucharist [are] the foundation of the life of the Abbey, just as they have been for a thousand years.’ Being part of a praying community is a privilege and support to the fulfilment of our obligation to daily prayer. Prayer is however never easy. For each of us daily prayer, our own private time of prayer, of time simply focusing on the presence and love of God, is paramount. Nothing should divert us from a dedicated time of daily prayer. The practice of the presence of God is the vital preparation for life beyond this life.
Our nationhood, our identity, as Christians, as the Church, is built not on our obedience to the Ten Commandments or the rich harvest such obedience brings, but on the action of the Holy Spirit in us. This wonderful gift of God himself recognises our essential weakness and our reliance on the power of salvation and of God’s grace if we are to become what we truly are through baptism, children of God and heirs of God’s kingdom. Our journey of faith as members of the Church, the Body of Christ, will take us to the joy and glory of heaven. The gift of the Holy Spirit day by day, which we celebrate at Pentecost, frees us from fear and self-regard and focuses our attention on the final purpose and goal of our lives, our chief end: to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever.