Saturday, May 18, 2024

Truth, Testimony, Love: A Homily on Asking For The Gifts of Pentecost

A homily preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, on 19 May, 2024, the Feast of Pentecost.

Readings:  Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-267,16:4b-15

Today, the Day of Pentecost, all four of our readings, even the Psalm, mention the Holy Spirit and its work.   The Spirit is incredibly active in these readings:  it fills the earth with life, it descends on the apostles and enables them to speak in foreign languages,  it comforts and accompanies those who are weak and struggling, it bridges the very gap between us and God.

The Spirit does so much amazing work in our readings that its a wonder to me that we don’t call ourselves Spirit people, or maybe even, God forbid, Pentecostals. But we are instead, after all, Anglicans, and as is often noted, not all Anglican churches are comfortable talking about the Holy Spirit.

Even so, today I want to talk about the Holy Spirit, it’s role in our church and in our lives, about the gifts the Spirit offers us, and how we as a church can ask the Holy Spirit for these gifts.  I will define these gifts as having a truth to believe in, having the courage to speak about the truth of our faith, and having the generosity to love those different from ourselves.

In one of the Alpha Course videos, Nicky Gumbel tells a joke about a man who went to a very formal church.   Every now and during the service he would put his hands in the air and say “Hallelujah!”  or “Praise the Lord”.   Finally an usher came over to him and asked why he was making a disturbance.   “I’m sorry”, the man said, “but I just gave my life to Christ and I’m excited because I received the Holy Spirit!”

“Well, you didn’t get it here” said the usher, “so you need to behave.”

While I don’t think any of our ushers would ever say something like that, I think we find the joke funny because it plays on ideas of churches that are formally religious but spiritually dead.  Indeed, the whole point of the Alpha course is to help people find Sometimes people reject this offer to get to know Jesus because they distrust religion, even if they define themselves as spiritual.   The argument is that organized religion (it’s really not that organized) is hypocritical, hateful, and divisive.   When such people criticize religion, they are criticizing human institutions, but in fact, this is nothing new.  

One of the readings often used on Pentecost, the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of Israel as a valley of dead, dry bones, uses a familiar theme of the Hebrew prophets.  The prophets told the priests and leaders that God had not use for their rituals and sacrifices if they ignored oppression and injustice within their society.    Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees in the gospels is in this tradition.  As you recall from the vision of Ezekiel, it’s the Spirit of God which restores flesh, life and breath to the people of Israel and their dead faith.

Thankfully, today reminds us that the same life-giving spirit of God is given to us.   Today’s stories are all about spirit.  Religion is never mentioned.    Jesus promises his disciples an Advocate, a Comforter, who will come from the Father and who will continue to be present with them after he is gone.   Jesus does not promise them a religion.    In Acts, the apostles are visited with the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire which allows them to tell the story of Jesus in many languages.  The result, as often noted, is the birth of the church.  It is not the birth of a religion.

The story of Pentecost, then, is the story of the Spirit of God given to God’s people so that they may live well and flourish in the world.    If Ascension is about Jesus’ leaving the world, then Pentecost is about Jesus remaining in the world through the life-giving Spirit of God.    The message of Pentecost is not about us being religious.  Rather, it is about us being church, a people gathered by the Spirit, enabled by the Spirit, and led by the Spirit.

In the last part of this homily, I want to look briefly at three gifts of the Spirit, which I believe are at the heart of today

The first gift is truth.   In our gospel reading, Jesus tells the disciples “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth”.   Let’s face it, truth is elusive these days, in these world of “alternative facts”, and conspiracy theories.  Postmodernity has taught to distrust “truth claims” and to see them as ways to gain power over others, and some do use truth as a weapon, particularly in religious circles.   As a result, we’ve come to distrust truth.

I think that as believers, we need to trust the Spirit’s promise that our faith is real and true, that Jesus is Lord, that the church is called to do serve the world that God created and loves, and that following the way of Jesus is the key to human flourishing.  I think we can hold on to the truth of our faith in a way that is generous and attractive to others, spiritual seekers, who are curious about what we believe.

The second gift is testimony.  Jesus said to told his disciples, that the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.   Testimony as they say in court is about telling the truth.   In faith terms, testimony is about telling others about the truth of our faith.   

Now testifying sounds a lot like evangelism, which we Anglicans are supposed to be notoriously bad at, to which I say, “Pshaw”.  I saw more than a few of you stand up at last month’s women’s breakfast and talk about the difference faith in Jesus has made in your lives.    (We men, by the way, don’t do that as well at our breakfasts).   I was inspired to hear your testimony (when I should have been washing dishes).  Imagine how powerful it could be during our worship if from time to time someone could stand up and say that Jesus has made a real difference in their lives.   

The third and final gift I want to talk about is the generosity to love people different from ourselves.  Acts tells us that “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability”.  The Spirit wants to gather people, from across all nations, into God’s family.   We’ve heard this clearly through Eastertide, in the stories of the Ethiopian and of the Roman soldier Cornelius, reminding us that membership the people of God is open to all.

There was a recent article in The Anglican Journal about how our Communion is enriching the church in Canada as more and more people come to Canada and bring their faith with them.    Our Diocese includes people and clergy from Chinese, African, and Indo-Pakistani communities, and that same diversity enriches our parish life at All Saints. The Spirit allows us to love those who come to God’s because we are all God’s children regardless of gender, skin colour, or language. The Spirit gives us the generosity to invite others into God’s community.

So what do we do if we feel that we as church (writ large) are lacking in these gifts?   After all, many of our congregations are getting older, fewer younger people are interested, and we’re all getting tired.  Has the Holy Spirit passed us by?

I don’t think it has, but I think that we have to ask for what we need.   After all, Jesus tells us, I”f in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (Jn 14.14).   This month in our Diocese, Bishop Andrew has declared that the next two years will be called the Season of Spiritual Renewal.  We are church will be intentional about asking for the gifts of the Spirit, and trusting that we will receive it.   One of the things that you will be seeing and hearing a lot about is an emphasis on prayer, prayer in private, in groups, and across the church.  We will be looking at some the traditional spiritual disciplines of our faith and listening to the wisdom of voices across our Communion and in our indigenous churches.   I think it will be an exciting time.

It all starts with Pentecost, and Pentecost is about trusting that God will give his people the gifts of the Spirit, the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, and that can bring new life to our churches.     These gifts are there for the asking.   So let me close with a simple prayer that says it all, from one of my favourite saints, Julian of Norwich.

God, of your goodness give me yourself,

For you are enough for me. I cannot properly ask anything less, to be worthy of you. If I were to ask less, I should always be in want.

In you alone do I have everything.


Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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