SERMON PREACHED AT THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL
OF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST
NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND
SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
(10th May) 2015
Readings: Acts 10:44-48
1 John 5:1-6
John 15: 9-17
A week ago I suggested that Luke’s Acts-volume has often distressed me. It has struck me as an odd and embellished narrative, even though I am painfully aware that much of the impetus for the charismatic movement that was to sweep through the mainstream churches in the 1960s and 1970s was re-readings of many of the Spiritual out-pouring scenes in Acts, the second chapter of Acts in particular. It is no coincidence that two significant elements of charismatic renewal were a family-based music group called The Second Chapter of Acts, and a book by Dennis Bennett entitled Nine O’clock in the Morning; together these fuelled many experiences of uplift and ecstasy. (We may even sing Annie Herring’s Easter Song here, one day!) Dennis Bennett is described on one (slightly self-serving!) website as “the Episcopal priest who verbally fired the shot that was heard around the world.”
I am not entirely a fan of the charismatic movement, though I believe it provided a necessary re-invigoration of the mainline churches, and certainly turned my then new-found faith in unexpected and heart-warming directions. Like many movements it later became self-aggrandizing and elitist. It served however to remind mainstream Christians that there is indeed a Third Person of the Trinity, and while sometimes charismatic excesses turned the manifestations of that Third Person in to demented and ridiculous Cross-denying behaviour, at its best the encounter with the Spirit of the God of the Cross took us back into an encounter with a living and dying and living again saviour who proclaims justice and love throughout time and space.
The narrations of spiritual renewal were, as I say, based in re-readings of the Book of Acts. In today’s reading of Acts we find Peter preaching a (twice interrupted!) sermon that takes us into the experience of spiritual re-invigoration. By the 1960s mainline Christianity was tired and confused, and whether Dennis Bennett was the catalyst or not, something re-invigorating swept through its corridors from that time. Scholar Colin Brown suggested that the New Zealand movement began at my former parish, All Saints’ Palmerston North, and my alma mater, Massey University, from the mid-1960s, and was associated primarily with the teaching of then curate Ray Muller, who was later Parish Development Co-ordinator for Wellington Diocese. Whatever happened back then, many lives were changed, and ordinary people were enriched and transformed. Perhaps for that period we of the mainline churches were yet to grow into the transformation of unjust structures, that key mark of mission in Anglican ecclesiology, yet even if not especially that must begin (but not end!) with the transformation of our own sometimes deadened lives. The Holy Spirit of Christ came to be known as the empowerer of human lives (even though as yet she was not the feminine of God that I will be suggesting she is at the next service!).
The charismatic movement, then, enflamed (but did not destroy), a wooden church. The Book of Acts however stands as a testimony to a movement of God that went outward and onward from Jerusalem, its place of origin. Like the man who put his hand to the plough, the Book of Acts challenges the Church of God not to look back, except in so far as it clings tenaciously to its whakapapa, its energised story. A spiritually extraverted worship that forgets to look back to that extent will be thistledown, blowing like Dylan’s answer on the wind. A spiritually energised movement that tenaciously holds only to the past and its own good times will stultify and turn into the wooden structure it sought to replace. Sometimes the charismatic movement did that, but there have been signs of God’s hand since, too, leading us into greater awareness of the call to social justice and the deep spirit-enriched possibilities of the liturgies of the millennia. It is to these combinations that we in general and we as a Cathedral people of God specifically are called.
We might do worse than to learn, even if our circumstances are thank God less dramatic, from our brothers and sisters of St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. I was privileged to visit there a few weeks ago: it formed so big a part in big picture terms in the overthrow of the demon of apartheid in South Africa and in small picture terms in Anne’s reinvigoration in faith a quarter of a century ago. There liturgy, the great poetry of our faith, and social action came together as they must if we are to speak of and pray to a God who has compassion, as the God of Exodus and Cross clearly does, on the grieving and the broken and the outcast of the earth. In liturgy the Spirit falls upon us to reinvigorate us to become the hands and feet, or as James K Baxter once put it, the body and blood of Christ in the world.
Liturgy, indwelt by the Spirit of Pentecost, challenges us and simultaneously empowers us to be the place of God’s hospitality, the place of welcome and homecoming to the marginalised. Who are the marginalised in Napier? Where are the marginalised in Napier? How can we find and be the empowerment of God’s Spirit to make them welcome in this place that is theirs, at least if not more than ours? These are the questions to which the Spirit challenges us. The search, the prayerful search, for answers is yours and mine alike as we learn to stutter and then sing a new song to and for the Lord who has done and is doing, as the psalmist puts it in powerful understatement, “marvellous things.” The litmus test though will always be along the line of: “what are these actions of liturgy or evangelism or outreach or social justice doing to touch the outsider and the hungry and the seeker?” We have much to do together to seek answers to that question, but if our search for answers continues to be grounded in prayer, in a spirit of cooperation and openness to the future-birthing Spirit then we will be the people of cooperative love that Jesus, in the Fourth Gospel, challenges us by God’s Spirit, to become: abide in my love … love one another.”
 Brown, Colin, “How Significant is the Charismatic Movement?”, in Colless and Donovan (eds), Religion in New Zealand Society, first edition (1980), 105. Given that Colless and Donovan were Palmerston North’s Massey University academics there may be some historical bias, though Colin Brown himself was less associated with Palmerston North.