Acts 2.1–21; John 15.26–27; 16.4b–15
a sermon in Durham Cathedral on the Feast of Pentecost, June 4 2006
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
‘Grant us,’ says the Collect, ‘by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things.’ That is not, perhaps the first thing that comes to our mind when we think of Pentecost. The very word ‘Pentecost’ has been so coloured by the great Pentecostal movements of the last century (one of which started here in this diocese, in Sunderland) that we think of this festival as a time of fresh supernatural outpourings, of tongues and prophecy and healing and all-night prayer meetings and the transforming fire which leaves communities and individuals changed for ever. We don’t so often think in terms of making up our minds on difficult issues, of forming right judgments on contentious matters. Indeed, some Christians have supposed that to invoke the Spirit means to ignore the mind, the decision-making faculty. The cultural history of modern Pentecostalism might explain this: the earlier Pentecostal movements and the more recent charismatic movements have both reacted against sterile rationalism, and with that have drawn heavily on an emotional and romantic existentialism in which ‘doing what comes naturally’, going with the flow, is all that matters, and anything that speaks of structure, form, planning in advance, thinking things through, is frowned upon as belonging to the letter rather than the spirit, the lifeless corpse of dead works rather than God’s fresh breath of life.
Well, there is indeed a danger of formalism, of a cool, rational religion which looks down its nose at the embarrassing enthusiasm of its less refined cousins. In England, indeed, God help us, this sometimes gets muddled up with class distinction, so that the more upwardly mobile you are the less likely you are to raise your hands while singing, let alone shout ‘Hallelujah!’ at inopportune moments. We Anglicans are past masters at these subtle (and ungodly) games; and sadly that means, of course, that nobody is likely to accuse us of being drunk at nine o’clock in the morning. What a shame.
But the emphasis of the Collect on the Spirit’s work in enabling us to have a right judgment in all things ought not to be played off against the glad, exciting, spontaneous combustion of God’s fire and wind falling afresh on his people. The first Pentecost was a time not only for speaking in tongues, but for urgent biblical exegesis and theological explanation. It isn’t an either/or. Indeed, the Collect balances the first petition, for right judgment in all things, with a second one, that we may always rejoice in the Spirit’s holy comfort, which speaks much more of the inwardness, of the heart-dimension. But, as always, head and heart must go together, and our generation that has reacted against dry rationalism needs to reconnect with the Spirit-driven impetus towards forming right judgments. That, after all, is part at least of what that dark and strange gospel passage from John 16 is all about. ‘When the Spirit comes, he will convict the world about sin, righteousness and judgment.’ Or, as in the Jerusalem Bible, the Spirit will ‘show the world how wrong it was’ about sin, about ‘who was in the right’, and about judgment.
That is the context within which we receive the famous promise that the Spirit of truth will lead us into all truth – a promise routinely trotted out these days to justify any and every innovation, no matter how bizarre in terms of John’s gospel, of the teaching of Jesus which the Spirit will develop and re-apply, and in terms of the Father, the God of creation, who has given all things to the Son and will now make all things known through the Spirit. Only in a world, and alas in a church, that had forgotten the earlier bit of the passage, about the Spirit proving the world wrong about sin, righteousness and judgment, could it be supposed that the Spirit will suddenly turn round and reverse the sober, scriptural and thought-out moral judgments of previous generations. Not that there is not more to learn, but that there is such a thing as error, as making wrong judgments in many things, and that we urgently need to discover once more how to avoid doing just that. Jesus did not say, after all, that the Spirit will show that the world wasright all along about sin, righteousness and judgment – that the world’s standards of morality were on target, that the world was right to reject Jesus and the challenge of his kingdom-message, that the world was right to think that its creator would never call it to account. No: one of the marks of genuine Spirit-work, according to John 16, is that the Spirit will convict the world, prove the world wrong, show up its standards as bogus, and bring it to judgment. And the really scary thing about this is that the Spirit will do it all, so it seems, through the work of the church. It isn’t that the church will sit back and watch the Spirit doing this work by some other means. The Spirit will accomplish this task of convicting the world of sin, righteousness and judgment through the witness of the followers of Jesus.
Many people are shocked at the very idea that the church, inspired by the Spirit, ought to be convicting the world, proving that the world is wrong. Isn’t that awfully triumphalistic, arrogant, and even (horrid word) judgmental? Well, are we praying for right judgment in all things or aren’t we? But of course the answer is there in the text, though the squeamish lectionary typically omitted the crucial bit that makes sense of the puzzle. At the start of chapter 16, in the bit we missed out, Jesus speaks of his followers being put out of the synagogues and even killed for their witness. Could it be that our reaction against any idea of being the Spirit’s agents in proving the world wrong about various things stems from our desire to be liked, to conform, to avoid the sneers or the stones of the world around?
Consider, in this light, one of the great questions which arises straight out of Luke’s account of Pentecost itself and which presents itself again today as a matter of urgency. When the disciples spoke with new tongues on the first day of Pentecost the tongues were specific languages. The disciples, who presumably normally spoke Aramaic and at least a bit of Greek, were suddenly and temporarily able to speak all kinds of other languages as well and be understood across a wide geographical range. I have heard of the same thing happening in our own day; indeed, I was talking to someone at a conference a couple of years ago and mentioned this phenomenon, and he said, humbly but clearly, that it had happened to him too, that he had spoken in a tongue given him by the Spirit and that it turned out to be the mother tongue of someone present who needed to hear the gospel. I have no problem with that; God can do whatever God wants to do, and there are more things going on at different levels of his world than most of us even dream of.
But whatever you think about that kind of thing, I want to see it as a kind of index to an urgent wider issue, that of Christ and culture. If the ancient Israelite belief is true, that the God of Israel is the creator God who is addressing the whole world through Israel; if the early Christian belief is true, that this God has revealed himself fully and finally in and as Jesus of Nazareth, who is now the true Lord and Saviour of the whole world; then of course it will be the case (not as a kind of random example of linguistic magic, but as the necessary mode by which the good news of what God has done in Jesus is conveyed to the surprised world) that this same God will enable the followers of Jesus to bear witness to him within the languages, which inevitably means within the cultures, of the whole multicoloured world.
The question of Christ and culture is at least as old as Justin Martyr, the anniversary of whose death fell last Thursday, and at least as relevant as the deaths of the Ugandan martyrs, whose anniversary fell yesterday. As in John 16, martyrdom has always been a sign that relating Christ to culture may be hugely costly; because ‘relating’ doesn’t mean ‘watering down the gospel to fit what people expect’, but ‘speaking of the Lordship of Jesus Christ in a way which shows clearly and comprehensibly what is meant’. Thus it will not do to suggest, as some do today, that embodying the gospel within a particular culture means simply giving way to the social and moral norms of that culture. The good news which is to be spoken in every local language and dialect must remain the good news, a word from outside, a word saying something unexpected, a word, indeed, of judgment as well as mercy, of challenge as well as comfort. To a world full of bad news, of fresh empire-building, of a widening gap between rich and poor not only globally but on our own doorsteps, of complete moral confusion about our human bodies and what to do with them – to this world, in all its cultural variety, we cannot and must not translate the message in such a way that it merely echoes what the culture already thinks and does. When the Spirit comes, he comes not to tell the world that it’s all right as it is, but that God loves it so much he wants to judge it and heal it.
This of course applies not least to cultures that think of themselves as Christian, but which use that as an excuse to act out of their own cultural imperatives (for instance, to make war, and to make money by making war) even when these are precisely matters in which the Spirit has come to show the world that it is wrong. And we in today’s church, in our own country, are facing quite a barrage at the moment of new challenges, for instance of attempted legislation which is going with the flow of contemporary culture but which stands precisely under the judgment of the gospel. I think of the powerful euthanasia lobby, defeated a few weeks ago but promising to return; of the seductive so-called anti-discrimination legislation which will attempt to force the church’s hand on major moral issues; and of a host of economic and social measures in which clear and Christian wisdom will be called on to stand against the tide, particularly to speak up for the poor and helpless, for the asylum-seeker, the refugee, the prisoner. This is where, day by day, we need to pray that by the Spirit we will have a right judgment in all things. I ask you to pray that prayer for the House of Bishops meeting this week, and for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church of the United States meeting later in the month.
Let’s put it like this. The whole point about Pentecost was that the disciples, up till then hiding away in an upper room, were blown out on to the street by the rushing mighty wind to speak the truth of God in Christ in public, and to do so boldly and unashamed. If Pentecost is simply all about us having new private religious experiences, however exciting and dramatic, we are turning Christianity into a private hobby. The gospel of Jesus Christ is nothing if it’s not public truth, issuing a costly and dangerous challenge to the world’s conceptions of truth. The world of the first Christian centuries was full of competing and clashing cultures, religions and tongues, and the followers of Jesus discovered that the tongues of fire which rested on the apostles enabled them to address these different cultures with a fresh judging and healing word of truth. May it be so again in our day.