Sermon preached by the Archdeacon of France, the Venerable Meurig Williams
at St Andrew’s, Pau, on Sunday 4th June 2017, being the Day of Pentecost
Pentecost is precisely what it says on the tin. It is the fiftieth day: the fiftieth day after Easter. Today we bring our Easter celebrations to a glorious conclusion. And, being in France, celebration and festivity should always be accompanied by something to drink.
Happily, the Gospel obliges. On this last day of our Easter festivities, we hear Jesus in the Gospel declare ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me; and whoever believes in me drink.’ According to John, Jesus speaks these words on the last and great day of his own Jewish festival of Sha’vout fifty days after Passover, which is a harvest festival. In these few verses of the Gospel, we are left in no doubt that the harvest of his Spirit will be a rushing flow of water, given to us to drink. If anyone asks you what Christianity is, one very simple answer is that it is a drink!
This is a persistent theme in John’s Gospel. Jesus speaks of new birth in ‘water and spirit.’ Absorbed in conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacobs well, he speaks of the Spirit as a spring of water that wells up to eternal life. Those who worship in spirit and truth will receive living water and never be thirsty. The gardeners among you will know only too well the potency of this image, as water is vital for life, growth, health – and, eventually, harvest. It’s significant that, here in France, before we drink, we wish each other santé – with all its associations of health and well-being.
It’s good that we are promised so much water in the Gospel, not least because our reading from Acts seems to be full of fire! Just as the Gospel promises us a torrent of water, Acts recalls the tongues of flame which rested on the apostles, as they were given new energy and new confidence. Peter tells the crowds in Jerusalem that this is the coming of that great day spoken of by the prophet Joel, when God will pour out his Spirit on all flesh; the old will see visions and the young will dream of new beginnings. The kingdom of God is breaking in to the world we know, and things can never be the same. ‘Some say the world will end in fire’ wrote W.B. Yeats, ‘a terrible beauty is born.’ This is the language of intensity and heat; it is energetic and impassioned. It sets the tone of many of our prayers, when we ask that God may ‘kindle in us the fire of his love.’
So the scriptures at this Eucharist give us two powerful images for our Pentecost celebrations: water and fire. They speak of the Spirit of the risen and ascended Christ refreshing us with his life, invigorating and energising us for the task of mission and service. Pentecost, as I said, is the climax of the Easter season. We have one day of celebration left. Tomorrow, we need to start asking what we are going to do with all this water and fire, and with all the gifts of God’s Spirit generously given to us today. What will the harvest of the Spirit be in our lives, for the Church, and for the world?
Today, we need to hear God telling us ‘it’s over to you.’ We must listen for the voice of the Spirit as we go forward into an unknown and exciting future, with all its opportunities, risks, hopes and fears. How do we sense the Spirit enlightening the discoveries of science, informing the discourse of politics, or inspiring creativity in art and music? How does the Spirit guide us towards being people of reconciliation, opening our eyes to injustice, urging us to be where people hurt and are excluded?
There is something missing in our celebration of Pentecost if there is no room for the voiceless, the outsider, the victim, the exile, the refugee or the stranger in our midst. They were the ones provided for in the Old Testament celebrations of the harvest at Sha’vout which our Gospel recalls. In one of his letters, St Paul speaks about the fruit of the Spirit, growing in us, and yielding up a rich harvest of love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness, self-control. These are the gifts we are called to share with others. These are the gifts that can refresh us and energise us, to say things and do things that make the world a better place for everyone.
This is how we can use all this water and fire. But never forget. Water and fire are refreshing and energising. They are also potentially destructive, as anyone who has experienced floods or a house fire will know. Our energy, our sense of being refreshed and inspired by God, needs to be in harmony with the wisdom and love of God, which is another theme of Pentecost. Our speaking and acting need to be grounded in prayer, in worship, in being fed by the sacraments of the Church and being formed and reformed by the word of God. Whatever we do and say needs to be an authentic expression of our belonging to the world-wide Church, not as isolated or misguided lone rangers. That’s what will guard against religion becoming a dangerous substance in an already dangerous world.
One of the finest hymns for Pentecost, written by Stephen Langton, the 13th Century Archbishop of Canterbury, who drafted the Magna Carta, offers us a prayer to keep our hearts and minds focussed, as this Pentecost celebration becomes tomorrow and the rest of our lives:
Come, Holy Spirit,
send forth the heavenly
radiance of your light.
Come, Father of the poor,
come, giver of all good gifts,
come, light of the heart…
Without your spirit,
there is nothing in us,
nothing that is not harmful.
Cleanse that which is unclean,
water that which is dry,
heal that which is wounded.
Bend that which is inflexible,
fire that which is cold …
What will I, what will you, what will we do with all this fire and water?