The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Acts 2.1-21; Romans 8.14-17; John 14.8-17, 25-27
On Mount Sion in Jerusalem pilgrims visit the wonderful Dormition Abbey, the place where, maybe, Mary fell asleep, the polite way of saying, died.
Then they go round the corner and visit David’s Tomb, which may be David’s Tomb, but no one really knows. And then they climb the stairs which are just behind where the tomb is and enter an upper room. It’s a room that is clearly mediaeval, clearly from the time of the Crusaders, clearly and definitely not the room in which Jesus met with his disciples for the Last Supper. But maybe it’s on the site of the building in which there was an upper room in which the disciples met and which then became their base, their bolt hole in Jerusalem.
As you listen in to what some guides are telling the awe-struck pilgrims you realise that not many of them deal in maybes, they much prefer something more definite than that.
I was last there in November. We saw the Abbey, we saw the tomb and then we went up the stairs and as we got closer I could hear a terrific amount of noise. The room, being gothic and vaulted is very echoey anyway and is often quite noisy. But there was something different about the noise on this occasion.
We made our way in and there were a lot of people looking around. But the noise wasn’t coming from them. Instead, in one of the corners of the room were a group of people all … well, all making a noise, an indescribable noise.
Groups of pilgrims will often sing a hymn when they’re there and our group was planning to, we were waiting in true Anglican fashion to sing quietly, ‘Be still for the presence of the Lord’, ironically! But this group in the corner was very different.
As we moved closer to them it suddenly became clear to me what was going on – they were speaking and singing in tongues. This was a group of Christians open to the Spirit who, in the ecstasy of the experience of being not just in the Cenacle, not just the room of the Last Supper, not just the room in which Jesus appeared after his resurrection, not just the room in which Our Lady and the apostles stayed for those ten days between the ascension and Pentecost, but this as the room of Pentecost, the room into which the wind blew and in which the flames appeared, were moved to speak and sing in the Spirit’s language. That spirit-filled room had filled them and was singing through them.
It was my very first experience of hearing people speaking in tongues but not my last that day. Going out of the room and onto the roof there was another group, equally ecstatic, laying hands on a young man in the centre of the crowd, singing and swaying and glossolalia abounded.
To be honest, and being out of my comfort zone, it was both attractive and frightening, it was exhilarating and beautiful. There was no maybe about it, they were caught up in the ecstasy of the Spirit.
This is the fiftieth day, the day of Pentecost, the day when the church is born from the womb of that Upper Room, the day when the fear fell away from the apostles and they were driven to speak, to witness, to testify and with a gift of tongues they speak in ways that everyone understood. I couldn’t understand a word that was being said by these groups of Christians, but I understood that it was joyful, that it was somehow echoing the sounds of that very first day of Pentecost.
The reason I’d never experienced any of this of course is that there can be something of a silo mentality in the church. As a non-charismatic progressive catholic I don’t do that kind of thing and I’ve been used to going to church in places that do not do that kind of thing. What I’m used to is a liturgy, is prayer that’s planned and scripted and predictable, that’s ordered and whose beauty comes through externals and tradition and reliance both on word and action. The unpredictable does not sit easily with this kind of church. A lively Spirit might seem to be out of place in a well ordered service.
Jesus is speaking to his disciples and he’s speaking to them of the Spirit which the Father will send and in the Gospel we heard him say this
‘You know him, because he abides with you.’
The Holy Spirit is not to be siloed, she’s not the procession of any part of the church, any tradition within the church. The Spirit is the breath of the church, as fundamental to us as the air that we breathe. The Spirit fills us whether we’re gifted with tongues or not, whether we’re gifted with prophecy or not. The Spirit moves and animates and breathes and voices and vivifies the church. The church would not be the church and the sacraments would not be the sacraments without the Spirit.
We know this to be true at every Eucharist. In that great Prayer of Thanksgiving at the heart of what we do today the priest calls down the Spirit upon the gifts, upon your gifts. That moment in the prayer is given its own name – Epiclesis – the Greek for calling on and the hands of the priest stretch across the bread and wine, signifying the descent of the Spirit, as they say
grant that by the power of your Holy Spirit,
and according to your holy will,
these gifts of bread and wine
may be to us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ;
The Spirit transforms, fills with grace; just as the womb of Mary was grace-filled so that she would bear God’s son, so the bread and wine are grace-filled that they ‘may be to us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.’
This is as wonderful and powerful as what was happening in the corner of that Upper Room in Jerusalem and it happens every time we meet. And not just on this bread and on this wine. The priest prays a second epiclesis
Send the Holy Spirit on your people
We too are grace-filled so that the Spirit can speak through us as Paul suggests in our Second Reading.
‘When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness.’
With the power of Pentecost we pray, with the power of Pentecost we voice our relationship with the divine reality. George Herbert writes in praise of Whitsunday and begins his poem
Listen sweet Dove unto my song,
And spread thy golden wings in me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and flie away with thee.
We live until the song of the Dove and the song of our heart are one, we breathe and speak as the Spirit prompts. We are a Pentecostal church, charismatic, gift-filled, grace-filled. We are the church, this is our birth-day, and with spirit-filled zeal we sing heaven’s song so that it can be heard once more in the streets. There’s nothing provisional, nothing maybe about the life of the Church, for as we so often say, The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us. And that my friends is true.