May 31 2020

The Spirit of Pentecost

And when the day of Pentecost was now come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound as of the rushing of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them tongues parting asunder, like as of fire; and it sat upon each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Acts 2.

Whit Sunday in the church calendar marks the feast of Pentecost, the time when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples in the dramatic fashion which we heard.

I understand that the nature of the Holy Spirit is that it is sent to direct and inspire the work of the church. It takes the form of speaking in tongues to show that prophecy and outreach will be necessary, and that the message of the church will be heard by every nation.

Now we are not a congregation which usually engages in evangelical proselytising, and in a genuine sense the message of Pentecost or Whitsuntide often feels to be lost on us. In addition, of course, we also feel the personification of the Holy Spirit draws us into Trinitarian territory, where many of us feel uncomfortable. But there are aspects of the Pentecost message which can still be meaningful for Unitarians.

In the gospel according to John, the appearance of the Holy Spirit among the first disciples is seen very much as that which supplies the place of Jesus who, after the crucifixion and resurrection appearances, ascends into heaven.

The nature of that which comes in his place has been given the name of The Comforter, signifying that which is called to one’s side as a helper.

Over the centuries the work of the Holy Spirit has continued to be felt in the life of humanity. Whether we believe in its dramatic origins in the narrative of the book of Acts, or whether the Comforter draws near to you in its more familiar guise of our conscience and morality, its work is essentially the same. It inspires, it teaches, it admonishes, it guides. Religious leaders throughout the ages have listened for its still small voice, and acted on its promptings.

The ability to speak in tongues has often been emphasised as the paramount and most important aspect of Pentecost. And so it is, but not for the reasons usually given. Some enthusiastic churches encourage their members to babble incoherently during services, in the mistaken belief that they are speaking in tongues.

The great wind, and the tongues of fire, and the strange languages the disciples were inspired to utter, are not the primary purpose of Pentecost. The primary purpose is that the people who heard them (and according to the account, they were Jews drawn from every corner of the ancient world) were able to fully comprehend what the disciples were saying. Parthians, Medes, Judeans, Cappadocians, and Mesopotamians, all wondered “How is it that we hear, each in our own native language?”

The disciples, few if any of which had a sophisticated education, were inspired to speak about the subject which was the primary intellectual preoccupation of the age, i.e. religion, and to do so in this astoundingly diverse manner. A disparate group of individuals, speaking publically about God in differing languages, and yet completely coherently.

So, the extraordinary nature of this event, following on so closely after the death of Jesus [Pentecost literally means “fiftieth”, and is celebrated fifty days after Easter], is a very Unitarian moment.

Our congregation at Great Meeting does not impose any doctrinal test on either yourselves or on the minister. But we do not need a test to know that we are a very diverse group of individuals. You could say we all talk about God, or the absence of God, in different languages; and yet there is that within our worship and in our fellowship which makes it possible for us, as divergent as we are, to understand one another.

Some of us are agnostics and some are believers. The teachings of Jesus are central to some, and for others it may be the teachings of the Buddha, or of Hinduism, and so forth. Some come to meditate and some come to pray. What makes it so acceptable for us all to meet together in chapel, or here on-line, is the knowledge that our spiritual diversity is not a hindrance to our spiritual growth. We may be speaking in “divers tongues” theologically, but we are all being understood.

The very best of Unitarianism, and what is so gratifying about it, are those moments when we are aware that we are on the right path, regardless of having different outlooks.

I feel we have to be courageous and believe that through the very same diversity which received its blessing at Pentecost, we can experience a deepening spirituality, and arrive at a profounder understanding of each other.

Our concluding prayer is adapted from Rev Frank Walker’s Whitsun Meditation, “The Consuming Fire”:

O God, the consuming fire, burn away what is dead and useless within us. Then warm us and enlighten us. Give new energy and power to our bodies, minds and spirits.

Where life has become a dull routine, with so much withered and perished and parched, we pray for a stirring within us towards light and hope. O God, the refreshing fountain of life, send our roots nourishment.

Whenever we are obsessed by fears and nagging anxieties that take the edge off all enjoyment, we pray for a true sense of proportion. In trust we go forward one step at a time, finding the faith that casts out all fear.

Whenever we suffer illness of body or mind, we pray for a fresh upsurge of life and health within us.

In difficult circumstances that cannot be altered, we pray for courage to hold us and keep us, so that we shall endure as cheerfully as we can…

O God, the refreshing fountain of all lives, send our roots nourishment, so that in due time they shall grow and bear the fruits of the spirit, love joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness goodness and faith. Amen.

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