Sermon: Sunday 15 May 2016
The Revd Pete Hobson, Director – Leicester Cathedral Revealed
What’s in a birthday?
Birthdays cluster in our family – do they in yours? It used to be July/August but it’s moving now. Both our daughters were born in May – one was 24 last week, the other will be 27 in a week’s time – and yesterday I left the party here celebrating Bishop Martyn’s welcome to go to one at least as important– our grandson Tyler’s 8th birthday party. There were 8 boy classmates and one girl (plus two girl cousins), energetic games, a piñata and a bouncy castle. What’s not to like? And the latest grandchild is now due on 1 June.
Today is also a bit of a birthday – Pentecost is often called the Birthday of the Church. But like all human birthdays, there are different ways to celebrate it – and it brings different meanings to different people.
To the Charismatic Christian, Pentecost is the ultimate spiritual experience – the very first baptism in the spirit, with the rushing wind and burning flames of Acts 2 signifying the overwhelming presence of God, changing the life of those first disciples forever. And so, the account goes it should be for you and me too. Experience as the overwhelming vindicator of all.
For the Biblical protestant, the gift of the Spirit is celebrated more along the lines of John 14 – the advocate, who will teach us everything, and remind us of all that Jesus said. It’s the guarantee of the truth found in the Word. So our response is to listen, remember, and obey. “God wrote it; I believe it; that settles it.”
For the liberal protestant, it’s more the gift of discernment and right judgement, celebrated in the collect. Our response is to study, struggle and provisionally pronounce. This is my truth – until I find a truer one.
For the Catholic, perhaps it’s more a matter of the guarantee of church order, preserving the church down the ages, celebrated perhaps in the singing at every ordination service of the hymn Veni Creator, as the bishop prays “Receive the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a deacon/priest/bishop”. So if a person is not validly ordained, then what they say and do in God’s name in that role is null and void.
Well, perhaps all of those portrayals contain elements of truth, and elements of parody. But even if you find yourself in none of them, I think they might illustrate the ever-present danger of reading back into the Bible things that we think, for other reasons, we ought to find there. We find what we want to find.
So coming at it as far as possible aware of that danger – what did happen to those first disciples on the day of Pentecost, in that religiously and culturally diverse city of 1st century Jerusalem – in many ways much like our own?
Let’s also remember that part of the background which is very different from our own, where we’ve just confidently celebrated in our own cathedral and public square the welcome of the 7th modern Bishop of Leicester, in a see whose history stretches back over 14 centuries. It may well be that residual Christian faith is no longer the default position of most, but our welcome event can still turn out the Lord Lieutenant, the Lord Mayor, the City Mayor, the civic Leaders of County and District councils, the Chief Constable and many others.
They however were followers of a discredited itinerant preacher who may have appealed to the masses, but who in the end fell foul of authority – both religious and political, and who all had seen publicly executed only 7 weeks earlier. True, the inner circle had become convinced of the incredible truth that God has raised Jesus from the dead, and taken him up into heaven. But it was far from clear what that meant for them – and not in the least clear what everyone else would make of it. Far from being establishment flavour of the month, they were a group of potentially dangerous minority opinion extremists, in search of a purpose.
Then the Spirit came upon them, as promised – we’ve read about it – and what happened next was extraordinary on any level.
- They found confidence in the message they had been given
- They found a powerful heartfelt experience validating the hopes they’d been hoping and dreams they’d been dreaming
- They found purpose out of the wreckage their lives had assumed
And out of that confidence, in that power, and with that purpose – they began to speak. And they kept speaking, throughout Jerusalem, and into Judaea, and to the ends of the earth. And here we are today, because of that and them. That’s why it’s called the birthday of the church.
But what does that mean for you and me today?
I could take you back to those words – confidence, power and purpose. But you can do that for yourself. I want to go somewhere else, as I finish.
I said that though their situation was different to ours, the city was in many ways similar. Diverse, plural, potentially divided. A group of people from many countries, speaking many languages. Yesterday morning, before joining Bishop Martyn’s celebrations, I was at the AGM of Leicester City of Sanctuary. A secular body of people that offers welcome and support to the over 1000 asylum seekers that Leicester currently hosts, speaking over 70 different languages.
Back in Acts, the miracle of a similarly diverse group all hearing in their own language was an evident reversal of the story of the Tower of Babel – where the peoples of earth gathered to in secular power to establish that life could be lived with no reference to the things of God – and as a result their languages were confused, and their apparent overweening power turned into unbridled and vicious competition. But on Pentecost it was those very messages of God that the crowds all heard proclaimed in their own language.
Modern Leicester, like the modern world more generally, is a place of diverse language, viewpoint and faith. The confidence Pentecost gave those first believers is a confidence we need to face that world. A confidence that there is a loving God whose purpose is life behind the chaos. A confidence that the stories of Jesus do reveal those purposes most clearly. A confidence that experience of forgiveness and commitment to loving service can lie at the heart of your life and mine.
This Sunday also marks the beginning of Christian Aid week. What better time to know we’re called to be confident in loving service and confident proclamation? What better time to live that out, in our deeds and to speak it out in our words? And, actually, what better time to respond ourselves and to recommit ourselves to that loving God, as revealed in that risen Jesus?
Happy birthday, Cathedral congregation. Many happy returns.