A Sermon Preached on Pentecost Sunday: 15th May 2016
Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
The film critic Mark Kermode tells the story of his regular early morning train journey from Southampton to London. Like many who travel early, he is half-awake and half-asleep as the train speeds through the suburbs. There’s a regular guard on the train, a nice guy who was not born in the UK and so doesn’t always use words as we do. One thing he does is omit the word ‘the’ in his announcements. So, one morning in January, in a doze, Kermode suddenly hears the words, “This is guard. Welcome to Clapham Junction.”
The idea of God welcoming you to Britain’s busiest railway station may seem far-fetched, but there is something central about the Feast of Pentecost that makes the idea of hearing the voice of God in the most unlikely places that is at the heart of its meaning.
The Feast of Pentecost marks the most decisive shift of emphasis in the entire biblical narrative. From this moment on, God no longer just speaks to special people at special times at special moments. From this moment on, the gift of the Holy Spirit is not given only to exceptional people in exceptional circumstances; the gift of the Holy Spirit is now, as Peter preaches quoting the prophet Joel, “poured out on all flesh.” From this moment on, the gift of the Spirit is given to all “who call upon the name of the Lord”. God is to be known from here on not through priests, sacrifices, temples (or even I would say religion); now God is to be known personally, internally, intimately, in the hearts of each and every believer. From the day of Pentecost all of us find ourselves caught up in the life of Christ, with him present in us and not just up there or out there.
That’s why it is possible for you, me and Mark Kermode to truly hear the voice of God at Clapham Junction Railway Station. Prayer – the way we connect and communicate with the God within – is a paying attention to the presence of God within us, seeking the help of the Spirit given to us at Pentecost to listen to the voice of the one speaking to us, and bringing the longings and concerns of our humanity to the throne of the God who is, to quote Bishop David Jenkins, “closer than close.” The God who we see in the beauty of creation, the God we experience in fine architecture, great music, profound art, the God who we see in Jesus, incarnate, crucified and risen, the God we search for in moments of deep suffering and loss, this God is now here, in us, with us, and eternally for us. Pentecost is the culmination of the Easter promise of eternal life: now you and I know it through the Spirit within.
How do we mark that truth in our Christian journey? Without turning a profound truth into an apology for a particular expression of religious ritual, in the Christian church we mark that truth by baptism, by our incorporation into the life of Christ. And for many adults in the Anglican tradition, we make the baptismal promises our own when we are confirmed, when the bishop places his hands on our head and prays the words, “Confirm, O Lord, your servant with your Holy Spirit.”
We don’t give enough attention to our baptism and confirmation. It is, among many other things, the ordination of each and every member of the People of God. Sadly we have all-too-frequently emphasised ordination at the expense of baptism and confirmation. To give but one current example of this un-Pentecostal clericalism, perhaps that can be demonstrated by the number of us – and I include myself in this – who have been asking what help the diocese is going to give me now Peter and Alison are leaving. Well, we may get further ordained ministers before too long but, this moment of significant changes in our staffing ought to give us an opportunity to ask a more fundamental question, which is about our own ministry, the one to which we ordained at our confirmation and which we exercise by virtue of our baptism as a member of the church. The truth is that we already have the resources among us to serve our church and parish far more effectively than we can imagine, if we take the truth and significance of our baptism and confirmation seriously. The gift of the Holy Spirit upon each and everyone of us is our own commission to ministry, it is our ordination to a life of service in the world. And what’s more, the language of ‘help’ is perhaps rather misleading. The truth is not that it is the job of the people of God to ‘help’ the clergy do the work of the church; it is the ministry of the clergy to ‘help’ the people of God fulfil their baptismal vows, to ‘help’ each and everyone of us take seriously the gift of the Spirit that is given to each of us at our baptism and which many of us made our own at confirmation. The help we need is given by the ‘Helper’, the Holy Spirit.
Regrettably, clericalism has often hidden this truth. This is made only too clear in a fantastic paper I read yesterday which is coming to our meeting of the Archbishops’ Council on Tuesday. One of the many strands of work going on nationally at the moment to try and help the church be more focused on making disciples through evangelism (and many of us have been praying about this during the week) is a whole strand on developing lay leadership. The paper recognises some major challenges and it offers a critique of the effects of clericalism: first it critiques the clergy, saying “the large majority of clergy fully understand that identifying lay talent is vital to the flourishing of the local church but are often prevented from prioritising that by pressure of time and some feel threatened by the need to develop different management and leadership styles that are unfamiliar to them. Our work needs to recover the distinctive heart of the priestly vocation which is about feeding and releasing the gifts of all the baptised and calling individuals to different forms of service.” Those of us who are ordained have for a long time not always prioritised the role of equipping the people of God to fulfil the vows each of you made at your confirmation and baptism. It is our calling to aid you to exercise your ministry. That is my ministry.
But then it critiques the laity as well. Having first acknowledged the challenges of the pressures of life and the need to equip each of us with the spiritual resources for daily living out the Gospel at home, at work and in society, it says: “lay people frequently carry a limiting self-perception of their role, significance and value, colluding with the idea that the clergy have all the answers and are the authority when it comes to matters relating to church and faith. In doing so, lay people abdicate their responsibility to know and apply the Gospel themselves and contribute to their own disempowerment.” Strong words.
I must confess to not being entirely comfortable with the concept of “clergy” and “laity”. I think it’s one of those historic difficulties we have got ourselves into by not paying attention to the significance of what it means that all of us are baptised and that it is our baptism and confirmation, not our ordination, that is the fount (or the font) of the gift of the Holy Spirit given us at Pentecost. But I think it is worth saying, as we at St Mary’s face a significant change in our levels of authorised staff, lay and ordained, that this is a good time to explore once again the significance of the gift of the Holy Spirit on each and every one of us, a chance not simply to seek to replicate that which has gone before, and to seek to increase the depth of our commitment to the ministry of each and every person which comes by virtue of the gift of the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost.
One final point is worth sharing for your pondering this great feast day. Pentecost marks the birth of the church, not just the presence of the Spirit in each and every person. In some ways, in our individualistic, self-authenticating society, this is a harder truth to deepen, although the gift of community is deep in our understanding of what it means to be St Mary’s, Battersea. To use a provocative phrase, though, Pentecost marks the ‘communism of community,’ a true breaking down of boundaries and opening up of commonwealth, where the Spirit enables us to share everything in common, our faith, our struggles, our resources, our dreams. This journey we make together, this discovering of the God who is within us through Jesus Christ, is also a discovery we share together, emphasised not just by a shared baptism but by a single loaf and a common cup. We share together in the communion of Christ’s body and blood. And so, to quote some words I’ve used before from the character Toby Ziegler in The West Wing and which capture something of the Pentecostal communism of community: “We’re a group, we’re a team; we win together, we lose together, we celebrate and we mourn together. And defeats are softened and victories sweeter because we did them together. You’re my guys and I’m yours…and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you” This is the counter-cultural vision we offer to those who join us, to be a community that looks not just to our own well-being, to our own gain but to the well-being and the gain of others, who may be strangers but who are bound together by the shared gift of the Holy Spirit. We share a bond in Christ by the Spirit. “We who are many are one body, because we all share in one bread,” we say almost every Sunday.
So when you next hear the “voice of guard” whether at Clapham Junction, in St Mary’s or in the most unexpected place, treasure the Spirit who speaks within and be ready to share that gift and all that Spirit shows you about the nature of God’s love and the needs of the world with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Above all, give thanks for the precious gift of the Holy Spirit, the Giving Gift within us; recognise him within you and present in his people, the church. And give thanks. Alleluia, Christ is risen!