A small puff of air, breathing out onto a candle on top of your birthday cake is fine, but generally speaking wind and fire are a dangerous combination. I may be the most junior and most inexperienced member of the local Rural Fire Service Brigade, but that much I have come to understand. When a fire is fanned by strong wind, particularly when the wind changes direction unexpectedly, dramatic things will begin to occur. There is both wind and fire at the heart of this great Festival of Pentecost which we celebrate today in the life of the Church.
As we heard in our New Testament reading from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples are gathered together in one place. Jesus has ascended into Heaven, as we celebrated last weekend, promising that he will send his Holy Spirit, to be amongst them, to guide them and to keep them in the truth. That is the promise that we heard in the Gospel dialogue from the Gospel of John, in a teaching from Jesus to his disciples before his death and resurrection: that there would come a time when although Jesus would no longer be physically with them, he would send the Advocate, his Spirit, who would abide in all who believe in him.
As we heard in our Gospel reading, this Holy Spirit would lead those who follow Jesus in three special ways: the Spirit would teach them as Jesus had taught them when he was physically with them; The Spirit would remind them of all that Jesus had already said; and, the Spirit would, by his presence, keep them from living in fear for the future.
Of course all of that would have meant nothing to the disciples when they first heard it, when Jesus was still with them, when they did not know what the reality felt like of trying to live life without him. But now Jesus has ascended into Heaven, and they have been left wondering what will happen next for them. Things are different without Jesus being around. Like a young man or woman who has completed his apprenticeship and is heading out to work on their own for the first time, these followers of Jesus are feeling their way, still trying to make sense of what the Gospel now means for them.
As I was trying to place myself in the shoes of these first disciples as I reflected on these great events over the last few days, my mind wandered back to Isaac’s (our oldest son’s) first swimming lesson. As soon as we arrived at the pool I knew that things weren’t going to go well. The swimming instructor had stuck pages of handwritten notes and diagrams all over the wall. It did not take long to realise that this was the first time that she had ever taught a swimming lesson. She was trying to talk to the children, and read from her notes, and do all of the actions… and her notes ended up in the water, and the whole thing was a chaotic muddle. I imagined her going away afterwards and thinking, I don’t know what has just happened, when I wrote all of these notes down it all seemed so simple, but the leap between the theory and the practice was something that I wasn’t prepared for!
Jesse is here with us as our Ministry Apprentice. He brings some great gifts to us which are needed here, and which we do not already have; and we offer him the opportunity to practice those in a safe space, with guidance and help, so that at some point in the future he will be able to go somewhere else to be a great Deacon and Priest in the service of God. Many of us have experienced this double reality, of being prepared and trained for a task, working alongside others and learning from them on the one hand, and then on the other hand coming to the day when it is up to us, when we need to get on with it ourselves.
So here are the disciples, in Jerusalem, still wondering whether Jesus might re-appear at any moment as he has done since his resurrection and before his ascension into Heaven; and the elephant in the room is clearly, that no one really knows what do next. Following Jesus whilst he is with them, and following Jesus when he is not with them, are two very different things.
I know something of the experience, in a very small way. I remember clearly my first morning as your Parish Priest. I had been commissioned on a Sunday evening in our beautiful church, with a great crowd here as we were led in worship by our Bishop. Although I had been working with congregations all across the Diocese, I had not been a Parish Priest for nearly seven years. On the morning after my commissioning, the Monday morning, I went up to church, said my prayers and walked back to the Rectory. I sat down at my desk and looked out of the window for about ten minutes, thinking what on earth am I supposed to do next? Where am I going to start?
That is how the disciples are feeling on the morning of this great day of Pentecost. They, like all good Jews from both near and far away, have gathered together in Jerusalem for a great Festival. But things are so different for them without Jesus there to lead them, that they are almost paralysed. They have known this experience before – after Jesus’ death, not knowing that he has risen from the dead, huddled together in the Upper Room, wondering what will happen to them. It is not quite the same now, they do know that Jesus has risen from the dead, but he has ascended to the Father and they have been left to be his witnesses, his Church, and they don’t know where to start.
By the way I wasn’t sitting in the study for long, after about ten minutes the telephone rang, something needed to be done, and my ministry here began. For the disciples it was rather more dramatic. Without warning there was the sound from heaven of a mighty rushing wind and fire rested on the heads of each of them. They each know the presence in their lives of the promised Holy Spirit, and filled with confidence and purpose they find themselves able to communicate in languages that they had not previously known. And they spill out onto the street, and Saint Peter preaches the first Christian sermon, quoting from the Prophet Joel, proclaiming the Good News that now is the chosen time when God’s Spirit will be poured out, and that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.
Wind and fire. These are the experiences of the Holy Spirit that transform the disciples.
The wind is a symbol of God’s presence. Remember in those great creation stories, the wind of God’s creative presence blowing over the waters at the beginning of everything? In fact the word used for ‘Spirit’ in both the Greek and the Hebrew could just as easily be translated as ‘wind’, so this great rushing wind is the great rushing experience of God’s Spirit being present amongst those first disciples. And of course we have come across this fire before, that brings forth a flame without burning up or consuming what is on fire. Remember the burning bush that Moses is confronted by on Mount Sinai, when he comes face to face with the presence of God and is called to lead his people out of slavery and into the promised land?
Wind and fire: the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, the presence of the holiness of God, the calling to go and out and work for God’s purposes. As it was at the beginning of creation, so it is in this new creation as the disciples are transformed by the wind of the Spirit. As it was for Moses, so it is now as the disciples are given a new purpose, new guidance, new confidence, to minister for Jesus.
We believe that this experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit, is as true for us today as it was for the first disciples. And we remember this in our liturgy today, as we extinguish the Paschal candle at the conclusion of Eastertide, and that light is passed on to us to minister for him.
We know that without the Holy Spirit the Bible would simply be a book of history. It is only when we read the Bible in the power of the Holy Spirit that Scripture comes alive to us as the Word of God, as God speaking through it to you and to me. We know that without the Holy Spirit, the sacraments would be mere rituals. It is only through the presence of the Holy Spirit, that Christ comes alive to us at the Eucharist, that his saving work is effected in Baptism, and that his forgiveness is poured out through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
We know that without the Holy Spirit, the teaching of the Church, would be human opinion. I am not suggesting that there are not times when that is the case, but we have the hope that the Spirit’s presence will lead us in our deliberations not to the decisions that are most expedient or economical, but to the decisions that are right and truthful as Jesus promised us. We know that it is the Holy Spirit who brings us truly into contact with the reality of Heaven. Albeit, through a glass dimly, but nevertheless, it is the presence of the Holy Spirit that transforms our experiences so that they might be, for us, a foretaste of what God has prepared for each one of us.
Last weekend, on the Feast of the Ascension, we reflected together on the process of recollection within our Christian lives, of taking time regularly to reflect on where we are, to be honest about what is going well and what needs to change; encouraged that Jesus is constantly interceding for us.
Today, on the Feast of Pentecost we hear another word of encouragement for our journey of Christian discipleship, knowing that the transforming power of the Holy Spirit is at work within the Church, and within us who are members of it; teaching us as Jesus taught his first disciples, reminding us of all that Jesus has already said, and by his presence with us keeping us from living in fear for the future.
So rejoice friends. Jesus says, “do not be afraid, I am sending you the advocate.” And we pray, “come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people, and kindle in us the fire of your love.”