Sunday, 20 May 2018

Pentecost Sunday

The reaction to the humiliation of Iraqis by Americans some years ago showed that the acted violence of the cinema, TV and computer games does not completely blunt people’s sensitivity. Thank God, we might say, although it may seem strange. Photographs of real torture still affect people in ways that acted violence does not.

The soldiers involved in that ‘porno-torture’ defended themselves by saying that they were ‘following orders’. At the same time those higher up claimed that what happened was unapproved and illegal activity by ‘a few bad apples’. Not for the first time we are faced with the prospect of wickedness for which no human being is prepared to accept responsibility. Ever since Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent, and they both blamed God, human beings have been wriggling and twisting to pass the buck to someone else.

From ancient Greece, above the clamour of Troy and the other great battles, rises a clear human voice expressing another possibility for humanity, the possibility of courageously accepting responsibility for what we do. This is the voice of Antigone whose brother had been killed in battle. Creon, King of Thebes, orders that his body is not to be buried. It is a classic way of humiliating and intimidating an enemy: do not allow them to bury their dead but expose their rotting corpses for everyone to see.

Antigone disobeys the King’s order and buries her brother’s body. When called to account she does not wriggle or twist or try to blame someone else. Instead she appeals to a deeper and more ancient law than the one decreed by the King. There is a justice, she says, that dwells with the gods, and is eternal. Human laws and decrees are good and right only to the extent that they are in accordance with this deeper and more ancient law. Orders must be moral. Laws too must be just.

Pentecost is the feast of the giving of the law. It is observed by the Jews in remembrance of the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. By that law the community of Israel is formed and its ways of relating to God and to others specified. Christians celebrate Pentecost in remembrance of the gift of the Spirit. By that gift the community of the Church is formed and its ways of relating to God and to others specified.

The Apostles could say afterwards ‘we are only following orders’ and this is true. They went and did what Christ told them to do. They preached the good news to the ends of the earth and baptised all who came to believe in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. ‘As the Father sent me’, Jesus says, ‘so I send you’.

But then he did a strange thing. He breathed on them. God breathed the breath of life into the nostrils of Adam and he became a living being (Genesis 2). Jesus breathes the breath of the Spirit into the nostrils of his apostles and they become a new creation. They become people whose life is directed by a new law, written not on stone but on the human heart. Jeremiah predicted this new law, written within people, on human hearts (Jeremiah 31). This new law obliges from within. It works through the power of love and the attraction of what is good. Other kinds of law oblige from without. They work through the power of fear and the threat of punishment.

But the one who lives by the Spirit is commanded by the love of Christ, Paul says (2 Corinthians 5.14), is literally 'urged on' by the love of Christ. He does not mean simply that we carry the memory of things Jesus told us to do and try to imitate him externally. He means that the Spirit of Jesus has come to dwell within us, moving us from within. The love of Christ has been poured into our hearts (Romans 5.5) and so we live not as subjects of a law but as people led by the Spirit (Galatians 5.18).

At Pentecost we celebrate the transformation of humanity from within. Much work goes into trying to transform humanity from without. But there is no real change, no advance towards a kingdom of justice, love and truth, unless people are changed from within. We can easily conform to what external authorities want and avoid trouble. We can even blame others, or circumstances, for the wrong we do. But the one who lives by the Spirit is capable of more. Empowered by the Spirit he or she can speak up for what is right, can struggle for what is just, can do what love demands, even at the price of self-sacrifice. To live by the Spirit is to be mature, to know good and evil (in the first place in ourselves), to call good and evil by their names, and to accept the things for which we are responsible. We are slaves in the new life of the Spirit (Romans 7.6) and so we are truly free.

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