Sunday, 4 June 2017

Pentecost

Readings: Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 103; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7,12-13; John 20:19-23

The Jewish feast of Pentecost, the feast of the 50th day, comes seven weeks after Passover. It recalls the giving of the Law whose purpose is to establish good relationships, binding the people to each other and to God. The Christian feast of Pentecost, the feast of the 50th day, comes seven weeks after Easter. It recalls the giving of the Spirit whose purpose is to establish good relationships, binding the people to each other and to God. Because it is the Spirit sent by Jesus from the Father, the Spirit's work is to seal these relationships in and through Jesus Christ.

Following Paul and the Letter to the Hebrews in what they say about the replacement of the law by the Spirit, of the old covenant by a new covenant, Christian teachers - Augustine, Aquinas, for example - set up a contrast between an 'old law' which was written on stone, worked its effect from outside the person, was effective through coercion, and depended on fear and a 'new law' which was written on the heart, worked its effect from within the person, was effective through attraction, and depended on love.

It is essential to stress immediately that both kinds of law are known already in the Old Testament. It would be all too easy, and it has often been done, to turn this into a contrast between Judaism and Christianity. But the witness of wise and holy Jews across the Christian centuries, and the scandal of unwise and unholy Christians across the same time period, is enough to warn us off making that move. It is Jeremiah who provides the key text for the Christian teachers, the text that promises a new covenant written on the heart and a new law working in the way described. What God promised his people through the Hebrew prophets is now fulfilled in the preaching of the Jewish apostles: this is what Christians believe. Thomas Aquinas was clear that people living in the 'time of the old law' might already be living according to the new law and that people living in the 'time of the new law' - as we all now are - might still be living according to the old law. (We only have to think of the many kinds of legalism, puritanism, Jansenism, etc. that have blighted, and still blight, people's experience of Christianity.)

The point is often made at Pentecost that the gift of the Spirit, enabling people to understand each other across cultural and linguistic differences, reverses the experience of Babel. At Babel, the Lord scattered a united people who were building a city to make a name for themselves. At Pentecost, the Lord unites a scattered people to live in the city of God for the glory of God's name. Babel is a babble, the city of man without God, a place of confusion and disunity. It is what Jesus often refers to in John's gospel as 'the world'. Pentecost is another babble, the city of God in the hearts of human beings, a place of diversity and unity. Each person understands in his or her own language. Each one receives the one Spirit differently (different gifts, different forms of service, different workings) but united in the common faith that 'Jesus is the Lord'.


When human beings do find unity the principle of that unity is often external, an enemy who generates fear, a common project which generates pride. The Church has its unity from an internal principle, the Spirit, which is as internal as our breathing, as a drink we have consumed and incorporated into our flesh, as a fire burning in our hearts and needing to find expression on our lips. The gift of the Spirit achieves what Ezekiel promised, that the Lord would remove the heart of stone from His people's bodies and give them hearts of flesh instead.

In the Sequence for the liturgies of Pentecost we pray:

Light immortal, light divine, / Visit thou these hearts of thine; / And our inmost being fill:
If thou take thy grace away, / Nothing pure in man will stay; / All his good is turned to ill.
Heal our wounds, our strength renew; / On our dryness pour thy dew; / Wash the stains of guilt away.
Bend the stubborn heart and will; / Melt the frozen, warm the chill; / Guide the steps that go astray.

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