Sermon given at Evensong on Pentecost 2011
12 June 2011 at 15:00 pm
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
There is a reassuring sense of completeness to the faith represented in this building, and in these acts of worship that take place regularly in it. The faith, celebrated here offers us a complete story of the world and our life in it (a ‘metanarrative’, in contemporary jargon). It is the story of an infinitely good Creator God who brought this whole drama of life into being, the history of the whole world from beginning to end, even the small parts you and I play in it, and who will also bring it as a whole to a good end. It’s reassuring because whatever we are experiencing in our part of it now, good or bad, we know the overall pattern of the whole story is assured and complete. It’s the pattern already given to us in that bit of history which is the story of Christ: his life, death, and resurrection: that’s the ultimate pattern for us all. The rhythm of worship reinforces this reassurance. Cyclically it repeats this story year by year, reminding us of the end from the beginning.
That is why compared to this reassurance of religion the consolations of philosophy, as Boethius described them, are not enough. Philosophy will not tell us the meaning of the whole. The philosopher Hegel famously described philosophy as ‘the Owl of Minerva which only spreads its wings with the falling of dusk’ (meaning that philosophy understands history only after the event; after the day is done). Religion, however, believes it already sees its overall and ultimate meaning. And even for the many who cannot believe these religious claims, religion can still somehow spread its aroma of consolation and completion through the evocative stories and rhythms of its worship. It is what many come for.
But today, Pentecost, those rhythms of the christian story and its easy consolations are deliberately disrupted. Not by reminding us of the difficult parts of the story, the deaths and dire disappointments which do happen en route to the good end. Good Friday is the day which does that. The disruption of Pentecost is different. It’s the sharp reminder that even within the assured overall pattern of things God does still do new and surprising things. The reminder that God may address us not just in the generalities of life but directly and specifically, perhaps disturbingly, here and now, Pentecost, the irruption of the Holy Spirit, does not allow us to settle down just to hear God generally in the reassurance of a familiar prayer or the resolved chords of much loved music - there is a time to rest assured in faith like that, but God does also sometimes calls us to what is new, changing, surprising.. And that is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Where and how does God meet us in this more direct way? Well - ‘He blows where he wills’. And that’s not always in church. In one of the finest ever books written on the Holy Spirit, former Bishop of Winchester John Taylor describes once sitting in a railway carriage, watching a flaming English sunset and the long shadows it cast over the passing fields, and experiencing suddenly a kind of ‘current’ between himself and what he was looking at: a feeling not just of looking at something but of being directly addressed by what he was seeing. He was experiencing what Jewish philosopher Martin Buber had also described in his experience of the world: but also, long before that, he was experiencing what Hebrew prophets described in their experience specifically of the Spirit of God. It’s an experience which changes people. The writer C.S. Lewis found himself similarly addressed on the top deck of a bus – and it jolted him into a wholly new direction in life.
I think I have occasionally felt such a current, sensed myself being addressed by God like this. Often at unexpected times. I remember a time when reading inscriptions on tombstones in a country churchyard which celebrated unknown lives, but lives well-lived, and much loved. I recall a similar jolt watching the worn but somehow shining face of a tireless worker in a shelter for the homeless. At such times as these, as well as occasions in church worship, I find myself addressed by God not just as a general idea in the mind or story of the universe, but as a sharp jolt of reality which moves me, wants to transform me, here and now. The common element in all these experiences is finding oneself addressed, scanned, opened up, invited beneath the shallows of life to something deeper which really matters. Something which matters so much it presses us to re-orientate our lives to something more worthwhile. Just as Peter’s experience of the Spirit we heard in the New Testament re-orientated him to see that Gentiles mattered to God, not just his fellow Jews.
Although this is a personal challenge, it is not a private mystical experience which belongs only to some who are religious. The same Spirit is also God at work in the whole drama of history, the drama of politics, the drama of nature. This is the same Spirit who moved on the face of the waters in creation and continues to move in the groaning and unfolding drama of this natural world and cosmos: its extraordinary evolution through apparently random mutations, providing the seedbed for new creative changes there too, not just in our personal lives. But: we should not let this cosmic scale of the drama shut us off from its personal dimensions too - this call to you and me, to something new.
In the end perhaps we can only fully inhabit and enjoy the consolations and completions of religion, the reassurance of the whole story, if we are also prepared to be not just listeners, but responsive actors within it; if we are prepared to follow these promptings of what this Spirit says to us here, now, in this particular moment of our lives – however disturbing that might be…