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Friday, 6 June 2014

Is this a kissing book?

PENTECOST (8th June) 2014

Readings:       Acts 2:1-21
                       Psalm 104:24-35
                       1 Corinthians 12:3-13

                       John 7:37-52

Pentecost is a love story. Not, of course one of those love stories: some of you may remember the wonderful lines from early in The Princess Bride:

The Grandson:                                  Is this a kissing book?
              Grandpa:                                           Wait, just wait.
              The Grandson:                                  Well, when does it get good?
              Grandpa:                                           Keep your shirt on, and let me read.

It’s not like that at all. It is probably best captured in the words of the creative arts, in great literature, film or poetry, because we have over the centuries become inured to the passion of the biblical texts. Ironically, by becoming a part of our sacred liturgies – which in turn we have robbed of their wonder, drama and intrigue – they have developed a “meh” factor, and we no longer, usually, hear the drama and the passion and the love. Pentecost is a love story.

We have in many ways been reading a love story since Maundy Thursday. We read of the gut-wrenching love-lost of that night of betray and arrest, and the shocking tragedy of death on Good Friday. Some of us at this Cathedral heard the sickening crunch of the falling cross, a kind of creatively mixed metaphor, on Good Friday. And, from Easter morning on, we have been hearing a new motif, hope breaking into human darkness, light breaking into human despair (I mix my pairs deliberately), eternity breaking into mortality, and joy breaking in to the deepest human mourning. I am of course echoing in part Psalm 30:

You have turned my mourning into dancing;
    you have taken off my sackcloth
    and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
    O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you for ever.

But, for the first Christians to be able to turn, following the events of Good Friday and Easter, to texts such as Psalm 30 these words had to ring with the truth of their experience.  In other words, there had to be more than a minute issued following a committee meeting of the disciples that said, in the infamous and much abused words of German theologian Willi Marxsen, die Ursache von Jesus geht (“the cause of Jesus goes on”). The telling out of the good news in the early post Easter growth of the church was not the result of a procedural directive issued by a meeting of the disciples’ executive. It was a result of the powerful observations and experiences of the first Christians as their fear and dejection was turned to joy and empowerment by the resurrection appearances of the one they had lost.
Nor, despite the implications of some contemporary theology, was the transformation that took place in the lives of the first disciples just a matter of them collecting together a whole heap of images and stories common to other religions of their day and mixing them into a mishmash of new religion. The doctrine of resurrection itself was not a heady concept borrowed from Egyptian or Mesopotamian or any other mythology of a dying and returning redeemer, but a woefully inadequate way of expressing the facts that they encountered in the first days of the new revelation of God’s love. Shattered, broken, disillusioned, they encountered restoration of hope and the birth of a whole new inexpressible understanding of God’s relationship with humanity.

Later, though words fall short in describing the impossible, they were able to let go of their experience of the risen Lord, allow him to pass from their sight, yet experience anew in the coming of the Comforter, the one whose coming we celebrate today, a renewed and equally powerful if invisible experience of the presence of that same Lord. As they gathered in worship, and particularly in the sacramental signs of bread water and wine that we celebrate this day, they knew the risen Christ to be so powerfully present that not even death could dim their experiential vision. (Which is not to say some didn’t lapse: they did. But enough were so transformed that they story spread outwards and downwards even to our present time and place).
Above all they continued to experience in fellowship and scripture and sacramental liturgy that same warm love, made present by the Spirit who we celebrate, that some of them had known in the flesh and blood of Jesus of Nazareth. This was inexplicable, and in many ways inescapable, unless they deliberately turned their backs on the experience. This was the love that was made eternally possible by the coming of the Pentecostal Spirit of Christ. Pentecost is a love story.

We have not always lived out that love story that begins on this birthday that we celebrate. Even as early as the letters of Paul we find radical failures to love as we should love – that is why his letters to the Corinthians and Galatians in particular are so strident, even angry, as they experience the implications of tough love and his opponents’ betrayal of love. We too will let love's demands down from time to time – or each day – abut can turn and turn again to God’s redemptive healing. Pentecost is a love story, and slowly we can be transformed into the face of love – if we let God’s in-dwelling Spirit seize our lives.

If and as we do that – and it’s a lifetime journey touching every aspect of our lives from care of the environment to the love of our friends, families and enemies, but as we do that we can be an enactment of the dream of the great John after whom our cathedral is named: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living waters.”  Pentecost is a love story. Today is an invitation to be a part of that story.

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