Acts 2.1–21; John 16.4b–11
a sermon for Pentecost (May 23) 2010
in the Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert, Durham
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
Every child learns to live in at least two worlds, and learns also how awkward it can be when the two worlds collide. Here we are at home: we are with the family, where we speak in a certain way, behave at table in a certain way, order our lives in a particular routine. But then here we are at school: there are different routines, different topics of conversation and ways of speaking about them, and perhaps even subtly different table manners. But then comes the dreaded time when the parents come into school; and when children speak of being embarrassed at that moment, I don’t think it is simply that father’s old jacket looks even more scruffy in that context, or mother’s hat – supposing it’s a great occasion like a speech day when mothers wear hats – really isn’t what one would have wished. I think the embarrassment comes because here two countries, each in itself normal and liveable-with, overlap; and the child, who is knows the language of both countries, the individual and corporate body-language as well as the verbal language, isn’t quite sure which one to speak. And of course it isn’t just parents coming into school: a similarly strange moment occurs when you’re out shopping with a parent and, lo and behold, there is one of the teachers from school, buying groceries in the supermarket just like anyone else. And you don’t quite know what to say. The two worlds aren’t supposed to meet in that way.
A trivial example; but of course it goes on through life, and many of us find as we get older that we live in several different worlds, each with its own expectations, its own individual and corporate body-language and spoken language. Once, on the great rock of Masada by the Dead Sea, I observed a chameleon in the very act of changing colour as it moved from a clump of grass to the sandy rock. Socially, and indeed at the moment politically, we either learn how to be chameleons, changing colour with our environment, or we feel the embarrassment of living at the overlap and not being quite sure whether we’re meant to be, shall we say blue or yellow. I am reminded of Michael Flanders’s splendid little poem about the chameleon, which ends by stating the embarrassment and confusion:
If that chameleon were me, I’d be ashamed to sham;
Each night, all white between the sheets, I’d wonder Who I Am.
The point about Pentecost is that it’s the point at which two worlds collide, and look like they are now going to be together for keeps. The two worlds are of course Heaven and Earth; and in the first century as in the twenty-first many people supposed that these two worlds were supposed to stay firmly and safely apart. We live on earth; God lives in heaven; we hope there may be some commerce between the two, and indeed we have special places and times when we allow for this, like the meeting between teacher and parent at the school gate, a kind of no-man’s-land which is neither quite family nor quite school and which thus avoids the embarrassment. In ancient Israel the place of that commerce was of course the Temple, the spot on terra firma where Heaven actually overlapped with Earth; and the Temple thus functioned to the rest of Israel rather like the fireplace functions in a living room, the place where that which is normally dangerous can be safely located and dealt with. But if you think of the Temple as the fireplace, providing warmth and light to the room while being in a safe spot, then the imagery of Pentecost stands out in all its starkness: here are the tongues of fire, touching down not on the Temple, or the priests about their normal activities, but on the disciples in the upper room! The fire has leapt out of the fireplace and seems to be setting light to the rest of the house! And as the book of Acts proceeds that is indeed exactly the point. Pentecost is nothing if not the democratization of the Temple; which is why the first big clash between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish authorities, resulting in the first martyrdom, focusses on the question of the Temple and on the claim that in Jesus it has been upstaged, relativized, left behind. And it is also why the challenge of holiness, of truth-telling and communal love, is so stark, as we see in chapter 5 with Ananias and Sapphira: once the fire gets out of the fireplace you’d better watch out.
So the point of Pentecost is intimately linked to the point of the Ascension, ten days earlier. In Jesus the two worlds have met, without embarrassment and awkwardness – though we in our split-level western cosmology regularly feel that awkwardness and embarrassment at the story of the Ascension, and at the stained-glass pictures of Jesus disappearing into a cloud with his feet and ankles still just visible above the puzzled disciples. No: the whole point of heaven and earth in Jewish thought is that they are meant to meet and merge. And the point of the gospel story as Luke has told it in his first volume is that Jesus had come to bring the life of heaven and earth together. That is the meaning of the ‘kingdom of God’. Thy kingdom come, he taught us to pray, on earth as in heaven. The disciples, we may presume, had been praying that prayer, among others, in the fifty days since Easter. And now the prayer is answered: like so many answered prayers, answered not in the way they might have imagined but in the much greater way which takes up their prayers and welds them into a new reality, the reality God intended all along and towards which their prayers were advance signposts.
The question of God’s kingdom in the gospels – the question to which so many parables are the oblique answer – is this: What would it look like if God was in charge here? Supposing, instead of Caesar, or Herod, or the Chief Priests, we had God in charge instead – what would be different, how would things work? We may imagine our schoolchild, grumbling under the harsh rule of a stern teacher, wishing that Dad or Mum could run the school instead; or perhaps, who knows, sometimes the other way round. Israel had dreamed for many generations that her God would come and run the world instead of the horrid tyrants who were presently in charge; and that is what they took Jesus to be talking about, for the good reason that it was what he was talking about. The point of the parables, though, was that it wasn’t going to be like they thought it would be. And the point of Ascension and Pentecost is to show how that plays out: this, it now appears, is what it will look like when God is in charge! And unless we read the book of Acts in this way we will never understand what’s going on.
Because the great temptation of our age is to turn Pentecost back into something much safer. Here is a new, happy, lively spirituality, enjoying the presence and power of God in our lives and perhaps through our lives in witness and healing. Fine. Wonderful. But we all too easily contain this in the new fireplace called ‘private spirituality’ – and we then wonder why the disciples so quickly got into trouble with the authorities, so quickly had to learn and speak the lesson that they were to obey God rather than Man. (And it was always Man then; the only women in positions of leadership in first-century Palestine were in the early church itself . . .) No: the point of Pentecost is that it enables the disciples to announce to the whole world, symbolically present in the many nations who hear the message in their own languages, that God has raised Jesus from the dead, that he is Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord. The first half of Acts explains what happens when the Messianic announcement meets the resistance of the Jewish authorities; the second half sets out, mostly through the story of Paul, what happens when the announcement of Jesus as Lord of the whole world meets the resistance of economic, social, cultural and above all political forces of the wider world, Caesar’s world. The story of Pentecost has fully unwound only when, at the end of the book, Paul arrives in Rome, announcing God as King and Jesus as Lord under Caesar’s nose, ‘openly and unhindered’.
All this poses a considerable challenge for us as we celebrate Pentecost today in a world whose political colour is indeed changing, but we’re not sure yet what to. It might be nice to think that blue and yellow would make green, but I’m not sure anyone has drawn that conclusion just yet. What does it mean to live as a community who celebrate God’s kingship in a world where sovereignty belongs with a confused electorate who are happier to vote for a new Dorothy in a Lloyd Webber spectacular than they are to vote for a definite set of policies about how our world should be ordered? Well, it means several things, but I want you to see how, once we read Acts in this way, and Pentecost in this way, we suddenly make startling sense of that otherwise very difficult passage in John’s gospel. Here, at the heart of the Farewell Discourses, which we are tempted to read as a safe and comforting passage about the depths of Christian spirituality, Jesus speaks about what’s going to happen when the two worlds meet, when he goes to the Father and sends the Spirit to be with them. They, his followers, and we their successors, will be pitched into a battle which is not just embarrassing as the two worlds collide, but actually downright dangerous. When the Spirit comes, the Spirit will convict the world of sin, and righteousness, and judgment; of sin, because they do not believe in me; of righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you see me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. What is that all about?
The best way to understand it, I suggest, is to recognise that Jesus is telling his followers that they will find themselves in the same position as he has been in. ‘As the Father sent me,’ he says on the evening of Easter Day, ‘so I send you’: and when we consider what that means we realise that he has stood, himself, at the place where the worlds collide, and never more so than when, in John 18 and 19, he faces Pontius Pilate and tells him about God’s kingdom, about truth, and about the nature of power. And the point of John 16 is that this is what we are to do as well. How tempting it would be to imagine that when the Spirit convicts the world of sin, of righteousness and of judgment we will be merely flies on the wall, spectators in this great cosmic struggle. But of course that is wrong. The Spirit is given to us so that God’s work may be done through us. God intends that the Spirit will declare that the world is in the wrong – but it is we who, tremblingly but in the power of the Spirit, will make that declaration. We are to be the people through whom it is made known that the world’s failure to believe in Jesus is the dark symptom of its failure to grasp the vocation to be genuinely human – in other words, of its sin. We are to be the people through whom it is made known that now at last we see how the world is meant to be: that heaven and earth are not distinct spheres in which God can stay safely in his place while we run ours in our way, but that the proper ordering of the world (its ‘righteousness’, in technical language) is now set out for us in the Ascension of Jesus, that great bringing together of the two worlds of earth and heaven. We are to be the people through whom it is declared that God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world justly, and that the judgment of the ruler of this world which was meted out on the cross itself is the measure of that final judgment. We are to be the people, in other words, who learn not so much to be chameleons, passing with some embarrassment from one world to another, but who learn the new combined colour of a heaven-and-earth combined reality in which we can speak to God about the world and to the world about God in the same tone of voice and with the same full integrity, so that we can, in our lives and our words, speak in prayer to the Father for the mess that we still see around us in the world and speak in witness to the world about the sovereign rule of God through Jesus. And when we even imagine what that might be like we find ourselves back in the book of Acts, declaring that we must obey God rather than human authorities; that we must speak of ‘another king, namely Jesus’; that we must declare that God is king and Jesus is Lord, openly and unhindered.
And of course, now as then, there are powerful voices eager to stifle any such message. There is just now a group calling itself a think-tank, and giving itself as its title a word that means ‘church’, but in reality possessing such a heavy chip on its shoulder that it cannot, it seems begin to think properly and wisely about how the church can and must speak in the councils of state. Pronouncements from such groups gain media attention, because many in our media are only too eager to concur, to insist that no rumour of God should be allowed in the public world. And it’s easy to see why, not simply because of the embarrassment that people still feel at the collision of two worlds: there are strong agendas out there about euthanasia, about cloning, about alternative sexualities, about the Monarchy, about the unfettered forward march of capitalism, all sorts of things, on which the church ought to speak, in the power of the Spirit, that word about Jesus which will show up the sin of the world, the true justice of God, and the condemnation of the dark, shadowy ‘ruler of this world’ who still tries to operate through human authorities.
A case in point from this last month. A month ago, despite years of campaigning and high-level protest, our beloved Home Office officials seized the moment when Parliament had been dissolved, and MPs were all out campaigning, to swoop on an innocent and vulnerable young man, Anselme Noumbiwa, who was living on Teesside after escaping from torture and threats to his life in Cameroon. I and others have spoken out on Anselme’s behalf before, but this time all efforts failed, and he has been sent back to Cameroon where, I understand, he is in hiding and afraid for his life. And then, this last week, a known Al Qaeda terrorist was not extradited to Pakistan, because a judge declared that it might endanger his human rights! If anyone can explain to me the logic of that juxtaposition I would be delighted to hear it. But what I suspect is happening is that various different forces are at work; and if nobody else will speak up against such nonsense from ‘the ruler of this world’, then at least we must do so. When the Spirit comes, the Spirit will prove the world wrong . . . which is not a comfortable message, and it’s not meant to be. But if we can at least recognise that discomfort, and see it as the thing you should expect when the two worlds collide, we can put our shoulders back, take a deep breath – in other words, breathe in God’s breath – and get on with the task to which the New Testament commits us but in which, like the schoolchild bringing the parent into the classroom, we feel a strange reluctance.
Of course we can get it wrong, and of course we will find it awkward. But how much more wrong would it be not to try! How much more awkward, when God finally brings heaven and earth fully together, will it be to discover that we had continued to live in the split-level world when we were invited, by Ascension and Pentecost together, to dare and to risk the possibility of bringing them together in our own lives and in our own witness! Because of course none of this is in the last analysis ‘about’ us. If we are embarrassed at the heaven-and-earth conjunction, we are forgetting that we are not, after all, the centre of attention in all this. Jesus went on to say that the Spirit would glorifyhim, not us: he will take what belongs to Jesus and declare it to us and through us to the world.
There’s an old chorus which begins, ‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus; look full in his wonderful face’. That’s a great invitation, but sadly it goes on ‘and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.’ There is a truth in that, but actually in today’s gospel a very different note is sounded: when we look fully at Jesus, risen, ascended and glorified, and when Jesus sends his Spirit on his people, then the things of earth will be seen in a new, sharp and properly disturbing light. And instead of escaping from the world, retreating like an embarrassed chameleon to one colour-field only, we are sent into the world, not to take on its colour but to reveal the new combined reality of heaven and earth, to live in that reality – which we do in sacrament here, and in service outside – and to declare to the awkward and unready world that Jesus is Lord. Pentecost is the end of the great cycle of events that began with Advent; but it is of course the beginning of the new world, the world of God’s kingdom, of his combined heaven-and-earth reality, the world in which, by praise and prayer and prophecy, we are now called to live without embarrassment and to love without measure.