'You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.' So said Jesus to his disciples before his Ascension, St Luke tells us. Today we celebrate that bewildering, transforming gift of power, a gift that forms and empowers the Church as Christ's Body and its every limb and organ.
Pentecost, fifty days after the Passover, is the culmination, the end point, of our great annual celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. For forty days after his Resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples at various times and in various places, giving clear evidence that death had not defeated him, that he was truly alive and himself. After forty days, he made his last resurrection appearance and was seen by the apostles and his holy Mother Mary disappearing into the cloud of God's glory in what we call the Ascension.
Now, ten days later, on the day of Pentecost, we mark the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the apostles empowering them to begin preaching the Gospel to all who will listen, Good News for all people on earth. An amazing variety of people, gathered from all corners of the Roman Empire, heard the Gospel and made their own personal response of repentance and baptism into Christ. Thus began the Church, the community of the followers of Christ, which St Paul called the Body of Christ.
In an address here on the feast of the Ascension, I spoke of the authority of the State under God. I remarked how all those who exercise authority within this nation do so under the authority of the Sovereign, offering their allegiance to The Queen, and that Her Majesty's authority in the Coronation service is clearly seen to have been given by almighty God. I commented that this idea that has been fundamental to our national self-understanding for well over a thousand years sits comfortably alongside a quite different idea, that has emerged very gradually over the past eight hundred years, only reaching its full flowering within the past century. That quite different idea is democracy, rule by those elected, chosen, by the people. I say that the two ideas sit comfortably side by side and that is the case. It has not always been so and it can easily be envisaged how the relationship could cause friction. But in practice for many decades these two quite divergent principles have coexisted quite comfortably.
So, if authority is the issue, and where is it to be found the key question, what of the authority of the Church under God?
Jesus said in his last words in St Matthew's Gospel, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.' But St Matthew also quoted the moment when the apostle Simon, brother of Andrew, the first to bring people to Jesus, answered our Lord's question about his own identity. He had asked his disciples, 'Who do people say that the Son of Man is?' They said, 'Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.' But he asked afresh 'Who do you say that I am?' Simon responded, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.' Our Lord's answer was overwhelming, 'Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.' These are strong words and convey clear, indeed overwhelming, authority from Christ to his Body, the Church.
Who is to exercise this authority and how is it to be exercised?
These are not easy questions and the answers remain contested. Different parts of the divided Church of our own day have different answers. In the Acts of the Apostles, we see a crucial decision, whether the Church was to be a sect of Judaism or not, being made collectively in the earliest days by the Council of Jerusalem. The Council comprised the apostles and elders and the whole Church. The apostles included Matthias, chosen by lot by the gift of the Holy Spirit and, as the other apostles empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Later, Councils were of bishops, the successors of the apostles, as far as possible all the bishops of the Church together, understood to have been chosen and empowered by the Holy Spirit. But particular bishoprics came to be accepted as more authoritative than others. Rome, Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria emerged quickly, all being great cities of the Empire. By the 5th century, the Bishop of Rome had been recognised as having particular authority. So great would become papal power in Europe that eight hundred years ago, Pope Innocent III could place the kingdom of England under an interdict for five years between 1208 and 1213, after King John had refused to accept the pope's appointee Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. The interdict was a fearsome thing. It meant that no religious services could take place in England at all of any kind. Children remained unbaptised, couples unmarried, the sins of the dying unshriven, the dead unburied.
Papal authority, not these days as it was then, is exercised in communion with the bishops of the Pope's Church. Our own Anglican tradition too sees the teaching authority of the Church residing in the bishops, chosen and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Every ten years Anglican bishops gather at the Lambeth Conference. And in our Church of England, which is governed synodically, by bishops with elected priests and lay people, the bishops have the power to protect their teaching authority by blocking any proposal of which they collectively disapprove. And any substantial change that is regarded as doctrinal, such as the ordination of women priests and bishops, has to be approved by the requisite majority in the House of Bishops as well as the House of Clergy and the House of Laity of the General Synod.
Does this mean that the faithful people of God are simply babes absorbing the milk of pure doctrine? Is the response of God's faithful people irrelevant? Is there no balancing democratic principle as with the authority of the State? There is. And we call it conscience. The Church can be sure it reflects the mind of Christ only by a continuing process of listening and learning, reflecting and teaching. In this process every member of the community has a part to play, each person guided by conscience. And conscience is the work of the Holy Spirit within each one of us. And the collective conscience of all God's people forms the consensus of the faithful and informs the teaching of the Church
The Holy Spirit of God empowers us in our baptism and confirmation, through the gift of Holy Communion and the other sacraments, through the informing of our individual conscience, through the loving authority of the Church, our Mother and our guide. May we know afresh the power of the Holy Spirit, strengthening, renewing, engaging our faith and life.
O Holy Spirit, Lord of grace, eternal source of love, inflame we pray our inmost hearts with fire from heaven above. Amen.