Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Day of Pentecost 2017
Start Date 4th Jun 2017 10:30am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

The disciples were afraid. Even though they had come to believe that Jesus was alive, that he had been raised from the dead, they still feared for their own lives. They were marked men. What had happened to Jesus could happen to them, if the authorities found them. So they stayed hidden, as far away from view as possible, locked in the Upper Room where they could feel safe. What would become of them? They surely could not stay there for ever.

They had their memories: Jesus washing their feet, blessing, breaking and sharing the bread and passing round the cup of wine as he said, ‘This is my Body’ and ‘This is my Blood’; Jesus giving them a new commandment to love one another; promising them the gift of the Holy Spirit. But how could they know what that meant? Then later, after the cataclysm, after they had run away for fear and abandoned him, after they had heard of his agonising death, as they lost all hope and thought of running away again, suddenly there he was, certainly the Jesus they had loved and betrayed, but somehow different. And then the last appearance. Now what? Stay where they were. Better safe than sorry.

But it was all to change. On the Day of Pentecost: the rushing mighty wind blowing through the whole house and the Upper Room; the tongues of flame divided and dancing on the heads of the apostles. The transformation is extraordinary. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they no longer fear for their lives, but go out to speak to as many people as they can, to tell them that Jesus is alive. So excited are they that they appear drunk with wine, even though it is only nine o’clock in the morning. People from the whole of the eastern Mediterranean, from Rome through to Arabia, via Crete and modern Turkey and Persia, and Libya and Egypt in North Africa, all hear them speaking and understand every word. Many come to believe. The great explosion began that over the years has led to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and God spreading throughout the whole world.

One of the ancient myths in the Old Testament, in the book of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, is of people thinking that if they worked together they could build a great tower that would rise up and up until it reached the sky. Then they could be equal to the gods themselves and join the company of heaven. They would make a name for themselves. And all this was possible because they spoke the same language. But it was not to be. The Lord God could not tolerate this intrusion. ‘The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth.’ This is one of a series of ancient myths recorded in Genesis to explain how things are. No doubt the myth aims to help people understand about so many languages and the difficulty people have in talking to one another.

Pentecost turns the tower of Babel upside down. Now it is the Lord God himself wanting everyone to see for themselves that love is stronger than death; that the grave is not the final frontier; that death is swallowed up in victory; that in Christ shall all be made alive. The Holy Spirit of God now reverses the confusion of tongues so that all can understand, not just Jews, but proselytes, people sympathetic but outside the faith: now they can all hear and they can all believe.

The gift of the Holy Spirit is ours today. We receive the gift through the sacramental ministry of the Church: in our baptism and confirmation, in ordination and consecration, in absolution, in the anointing of the sick, in the Holy Eucharist, for it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that the bread and wine of the Eucharist become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord himself.

That sacramental ministry is offered also in a particular way to the Monarch. Two days ago we marked here the 64th anniversary of the Coronation of The Queen. At the heart of that Coronation service in 1953, itself a celebration of the Eucharist, as at all previous Coronations, and more important than the crowning, was the anointing with holy oil, on the palms of the hands, the breast and the head of the Sovereign. Before the archbishop of Canterbury conducted the anointing, the most sacred part of the service, he prayed for The Queen, ‘Strengthen her, O Lord, with the Holy Ghost the Comforter; Confirm and stablish her with thy free and princely Spirit, the Spirit of wisdom and government, the Spirit of counsel and ghostly strength, the Spirit of knowledge and true godliness, and fill her, O Lord, with the Spirit of thy holy fear, now and for ever; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’

‘Thy free and princely Spirit’: that is a beautiful expression of the truth of the gifts of the Spirit. We know that the Holy Spirit goes ahead of the ministry of the Church, moves in people’s minds and hearts, inspiring and renewing, bringing together, uniting, reconciling. As our Lord said, ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

Last year, the archbishops of Canterbury and York launched an initiative called Thy Kingdom Come for prayer between Ascension Day and the Day of Pentecost. This year, it has gone worldwide. People are praying in 85 countries across the world from Botswana to Brazil. On social media so far Thy Kingdom Come has reached more than seven million people. What’s happening? To quote from the website, there are prayer stations, prayer labyrinths, 24 hour prayer, candlelit prayer, prayer cards being delivered to houses, prayer balloons and kites being created. There are prayer scavenger hunts, people praying for their whole streets to come to know Christ, street parties, psalm drumming, fireworks and prayer tepees. Churches of all backgrounds and denominations have been working together to plan ecumenical events in towns and cities.

Here at the Abbey, a special prayer has been used publicly every day from Ascension Day until today. The prayer sees that it is through the action of the Holy Spirit that the Church becomes the Body of our risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ. We pray for the grace and power of the Holy Spirit to strengthen and enable us in order that we can proclaim the Gospel of Christ more boldly, celebrate the liturgy more faithfully, and care more generously for those who suffer sickness, persecution or disadvantage. All this we believe to be part of ensuring that God’s will is done and God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.

Above all, we are called to pray. We know that so many aspects of our troubled world seem to be intractable. Last night with the fresh terrorist attacks around London Bridge and Borough Market, we see once again how great are our troubles. How can we ourselves contribute to the defeat of terrorism? How can we reconcile divided communities? How can we heal the divisions in the Holy Land? How can we solve the problem of destructive hatred by some people of one religion against another? How can we contribute realistically to creating a better life for people who have been driven out of their homes, for people in refugee camps, for people dying of starvation, or unjustly imprisoned, or abused, or exploited, or tortured? How can we draw people of goodwill around the world to work together to make a difference, to improve the conditions of life for so many people? How can we avert sickness and disease and malnourishment? How can we prevent war? These things seem beyond us. We may be tempted to think they are beyond any of us, even working together.

But we have seen solutions. We do know that there can be transformations for good. And it is no great leap to see the Holy Spirit of God at work in God’s world, transforming, renewing, healing, uniting. And we are taught by our Lord that we can ourselves make a difference, though we may never see it, through earnest, faithful, determined, regular, committed prayer that God’s will may be done and God’s kingdom come.

Thy kingdom come O God, thy rule O Christ begin; break with thine iron rod the tyrannies of sin.

Almighty God, Father of our risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit you constitute the Church as the Body of Christ in every age: bless and equip, we pray, the Church in our own day; that we may proclaim the Gospel of Christ more boldly, celebrate the liturgy more faithfully, and care more generously for those who suffer sickness, persecution or disadvantage, that your will may be done and your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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