Acts 2.1–21; John 14.8–27
a sermon at the Eucharist in Durham Cathedral
on the Feast of Pentecost, 27 May 2007
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
Anoint and cheer our soilèd face
With the abundance of thy grace;
Keep far our foes, give peace at home;
Where thou art guide no ill can come.
I love to think of Bishop John Cosin writing, and praying, that translation of the ancient Veni Creator Spiritus, with all the turbulence of the mid-seventeenth century to give plenty of substance to the urgent petitions. Cosin is quite a presence in Auckland Castle, as he is about Palace Green if you know where to look, and stands as a salutary reminder of a rich, rugged but robust spirituality that somehow came through the middle of that terrible century and planted again the flag of emerging Anglicanism here in Durham. And we can read the confusion and danger, the sorrow and the turmoil, of those years, in those lines about comfort, life and fire of love, and especially in the clear recognition of the blinded sight, the soilèd face, the foes who are to be kept far off and the peace which we long for at home.
Cosin thus folds the troubles and dangers of his day, both civil and ecclesiastical, within the invocation of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who comes to inspire and lighten, to anoint and to bless with the sevenfold gift. And we his successors have need, three and a half centuries or so later, to pray in the same way, beset as we are in church and state once more with many and great dangers. Pentecost is regularly thought of as a time of great joy and excitement, and rightly so. But any reading of Acts or John, two of the main places in the New Testament where the Spirit plays a large part, will show that Pentecost must also be a time of clear-eyed recognition of the challenges which God’s people face both in the world and in their own internal life, and of the urgent need for the inspiration, strengthening and guiding of the Holy Spirit without whom we are simply a bunch of ignorant armies clashing by night.
Take Acts for a start. The great Pentecost scene, with the wind and fire and the sudden rush of multilingual speech, has confused many in the last generations because it has been set within the wrong story. It has been held up as the archetype of a particular form of Christian experience, a filling and empowering which transforms sleepy or backsliding Christians into lively and zealous ones. Thank God that happens in many different ways, because the church always needs waking up and shaking up, and the day we forget that or resist it we might as well crawl away under a stone. But that isn’t the story which Luke is telling at this point. There is nothing wrong with the disciples before Pentecost; they are praying, worshipping, joyful followers of the risen and ascended Jesus, simply awaiting further instructions and the power to carry them out. And the story which Luke is telling doesn’t focus on them and their spiritual experience, though it includes that. Luke’s story is about God and God’s kingdom and about the sovereign lordship of the risen and ascended Jesus.
Because Pentecost, you see, goes very closely with the story of the Ascension. Many western Christians have been embarrassed about the Ascension over the years, because they have thought of heaven and earth in the wrong way. We have supposed that the first-century Christians thought of ‘heaven’ as a place up in the sky, within our space-time universe, and that they imagined Jesus as a kind of primitive space-traveller heading upwards to sit beside God somewhere a few miles away up in the sky. And we have told ourselves this story about the early Christians within an implicit modernist framework in which God and the world are in any case a long way away from one another, so that if Jesus has gone to be with God – whatever that means – we understand that he has left us behind, that he is now far away in another dimension altogether. And we have then thought that the point of this story is that we, too, will one day go off to this same place called ‘heaven’, leaving earth behind for good. But this way of understanding the Ascension is, quite simply, wrong on all counts. The early Christians, like their Jewish contemporaries, saw heaven and earth as the overlapping and interlocking spheres of God’s good creation, with the point being that heaven is the control room from which earth is run. To say that Jesus is now in heaven is to say three things. First, that he is present with his people everywhere, no longer confined to one space-time location within earth, but certainly not absent. Second, that he is now the managing director of this strange show called ‘earth’, though like many incoming chief executives he has quite a lot to do to sort it out and turn it around. Third, that he will one day bring heaven and earth together as one, becoming therefore personally present to us once more within God’s new creation. The Bible doesn’t say much about our going to heaven. It says a lot about heaven, and particularly heaven’s chief inhabitant, coming back to earth.
That is the story of the opening of Acts; and Pentecost, in Acts 2, means what it means within that story, not some other. Pentecost is therefore to be seen as the moment when the personal presence of Jesus with the disciples is translated into the personal power of Jesus in the disciples; because Pentecost signals the mode and means by which the chief executive is putting his new authority into operation. Our generation has backed off from the idea of Jesus, let alone the church, as actually running things in this world, because it sounds to us like triumphalism, like fundamentalism, like the attempt to establish a direct theocracy which is of course an affront to our wonderful western democratic ideals. But Pentecost, and the story of the early church which follows from it, shows clearly that this isn’t so. The disciples, filled with the Spirit, begin the work of Jesus’ sovereign and saving rule over the world, whose Lord he now is, by their shared common life, their works of healing, their proclamation of him as Lord and King, and their bold witness against the authorities who try to stop them. And that just about sums up the whole book, all the way to when Paul arrives in Rome and announces God as King and Jesus as Lord right under Caesar’s nose, openly and unhindered. So Pentecost is about the powerful presence of Jesus with his people; about the implementation of Jesus’ healing, saving rule through his people; and thirdly about the anticipation, in and through that work, of the final day when heaven and earth shall be one. It isn’t just that the Spirit is the ‘down payment’ of what is to come for us as his people; the Spirit is the advance sign of what God is going to do for the whole earth, the entire created order.
Because, you see, at the heart of Pentecost, in Acts and actually in John as well, the coming of the Spirit is all about the launching of the new Temple. In Judaism, heaven and earth overlapped in the Temple; but now, says Luke, Jesus is the one who has taken earth, in his own person, his own human body, right into heaven; and the Spirit is the corollary of this, the life of heaven becoming manifest and powerful here on earth. Heaven and earth are thus locked together in a firm and unbreakable Trinitarian embrace, as God the Father welcomes the human Son, the first-fruits of the new creation, into his rightful seat as Lord of the World, and pours out his own Spirit upon Jesus’ followers so that they can both be and accomplish new creation in themselves and in the world. This is the sold rock on which Christian mission is built, and in consequence also the solid rock on which the church must live in its own life of worship and mutual love. And this is why, on the day of Pentecost, Peter’s sermon isn’t about how people can have a new spiritual experience. It’s about the fact that God’s new day has dawned at last, the great and glorious day of the Lord spoken of by the prophets, and about the fact that the crucified Jesus has been exalted as King and Lord over Israel and the whole world. And the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit are given not just to comfort, inspire and enlighten us for our own private benefit, but to send us out as heralds of this new dawn, as messengers of this new King.
And as we find ourselves thus commissioned and equipped, we discover that, again to our embarrassment, we have to speak about truth; indeed, that we have to speak truth, to a generation for whom that claim is instantly suspect, automatically put through the shredder of deconstruction and irony. And I suspect that the embarrassment of truth goes quite closely with the embarrassment of the Ascension: because we still live within that implicit split-level world where we know that we are upon earth, where we can’t be certain of anything, and that claims to absolute truth are claims to a heavenly perspective upon the world, a God’s-eye view which can quickly be exposed as laughable arrogance. (I am reminded that in E. P. Sanders’ famous book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, the index has an entry which says ‘Truth, ultimate’, with three page references, pages 30, 32 and 430; but when you turn to those pages you find that each one is blank. Sanders is both ironically declaring his epistemological humility and also cocking a snook at those interpreters who believe that we can ever know the ultimate truth.) But, unfortunately for our over-ironic age, we are offered and indeed given the Spirit of Truth, and we have no choice but to follow where this Spirit leads and to speak the truth to which we are thus led.
And John leaves us in no doubt where that will be. ‘Sanctify them in the truth,’ prays Jesus in the upper room, ‘your word is truth.’ But this, again, is not a private experience, such as the gnostic might wish for. It leads directly, as in Acts, to confrontation with those who presume that they own the truth, and back up their claim with violence. ‘My kingdom is not from this world,’ says Jesus to Pilate in chapter 18. ‘So, you are a king, are you?’ asks Pilate, eagerly latching on to the words which might have Jesus condemn himself out of his own mouth. ‘That word is your way of putting it,’ replies Jesus. ‘My way is like this: I was born, I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ ‘Truth!’ answered Pilate. ‘What’s that?’ And John’s point, in the middle of the massive irony, and the direct clash of the non-violent kingdom of God with the violent and ignorant armies of Caesar, is crystal clear: truth is what happens when heaven and earth come together as they were always meant to. Truth is therefore what you find in Jesus, who is the point where that happens. And truth is therefore what happens when the Spirit comes to fill, to guide, to commission, to empower the followers of Jesus. ‘Teach us to know the Father, Son, and thee of both to be but one’; truth is what happens when we are caught up in the powerful, healing, transforming love of the Triune God, acted out on Calvary and at Easter, poured out at Pentecost, given so that we, the followers of Jesus, may be truth-tellers, truth-tasters here at the Eucharist, truth-livers as we confront the lies in our own hearts and lives and communities, truth-doers in our public and political life, in our ordering of our church at this turbulent time when like John Cosin we are faced with scepticism on the one hand and puritanism on the other. All we can do in such a time is pray the Pentecost prayer, not as triumphalists trying to trump everyone else with our spiritual superiority but as humble hearts seeking after holiness and hope, and ready to find our minds and our manners remade by the truth, by the Truth Incarnate, by the Spirit of Truth whom he sends from the Father.
Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
And lighten with celestial fire.
That through the ages all along
This may be our endless song:
Praise to thine Eternal Merit
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.