It’s a bit of a complicated time just now for us who live in Manchester. But maybe that can help us think about Pentecost.
To start on a lighter note: while hundreds of thousands of people across this country seized the opportunity yesterday to wrap themselves in the Union Flag, and wear silly hats, and celebrate the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markel, something of the icing on the cake was squashed for Mancunians by United losing out to Chelsea in the Cup Final – and what is worse, that not being the main item on the news.
At a more serious level, Tuesday sees the first anniversary of the bombing at the Manchester Arena. But out of this tragedy, which had been fuelled by fear turning to hate, emerged shared and individual acts of heroism and generosity and vulnerability. Let me just choose one small but iconic event, in addition to the acts of solidarity that took place here at the Chaplaincy and the Holy Name. I only this morning heard the story of Baktash Noori, a young Muslim man, standing blindfold in Market Street in the days after the bombing with a sign at his feet reading “I’m Muslim and I trust you. Do you trust me enough for a hug?” – and the constant stream of Mancunians responding with hugs.
We know the story of Pentecost – we have heard it many times. I still recall hearing it read out forty years ago in a hilltop chapel in the stillness and heat of a Zimbabwe afternoon. As we heard of the noise of the coming of the Spirit, so the msasa trees outside the chapel were moved by a great wind, and what had seemed to be the story of something that had happened once long ago suddenly became what it has always been if we are open to seeing it – the story of something that was happening there and then, that is happening here and now. The coming of the Spirit of Jesus is no event in the past, finished and done with: the coming of the Spirit is a present event – an event that is taking place here and now, as we gather in the name of Jesus, as I speak, as you listen, as we pray together around the table of the Eucharist, in Manchester in 2018.
The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins has his own take on it:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil…
The Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Jesus – is the Spirit of truth. The Spirit enables us to see things as they really are. Too often we find ourselves persuaded to see things as other than they are: to see things as the spirit of this world would have us see them. So we see possessions as the key to happiness; we see status and power as the essential attributes of a good life; we see each other, all too often, as either competitors or as resources to be used; we see ourselves as committed to a life which is an anxious series of tasks and conflicts. Or we see a world bleak beyond redemption, spiralling into moral chaos and depravity; we see a Church which is not the Church in which we remember growing up; we see a Church which if it really knew us would not accept us. Perhaps we see ourselves as unable to do more than ‘get on with life’ in a series of sad compromises.
To see in these ways is to become trapped, knowingly or unknowingly. To live like that has consequences: Paul, in the second reading today from the letter to the Galatians, has spelled them out for us. These are the outcomes of living in a false world, the consequences of being guided by an untrue vision of the world, by an untrue vision of each other, by an untrue vision of ourselves. And it is these untruths which can lead to fear, and fear fed by untruth can lead to hate and destruction and suicide bombings.
The Spirit of truth enables us to see the world, each other, and ourselves as we really are. It is not that there is some great secret knowledge, as the Gnostics believed, nor some over-simplified Pollyanna-ish refusal to see, as some critics of religion would assert. The truth is both simpler and more real, because the Spirit of truth is the Spirit of love.
The experience of knowing the truth is something we all recognise in our human relationships, when the truth about someone we love suddenly breaks in on us. And the truth may be nothing more strange, nothing more mysterious than that this person loves me, or that I love this person (but can anything be more strange and mysterious than that?). When we see the truth in that way, we realise that it was always there for us to see, but something prevented us from seeing it. Our hearts were, if not burning within us, at least smouldering, and we needed our own Emmaus experience in order to turn back, to come home to where we always belonged.
The truth which the Spirit enables us to see is that same truth – that each one of us is loved beyond calculation by God our Father, that we are called together as those who know God’s love revealed in Jesus so that we can love each other into living-out that same love as Jesus lived it out, that we – each one and together - are held and empowered by the Spirit of Jesus who makes what seems to be impossible become visible as what has always been possible – for nothing is impossible to God, and we have the Spirit of God in us and among us.
When we recognise that we love someone utterly, or that another offers us such love, then our lives can seem changed beyond recognition, but in reality we have drawn closer to who we always have been, and we spend the rest of our lives growing into the fullness of who we are – a long homecoming.
It is the Spirit who is at work in our relationships of love, just as the Spirit is at work in the gathered community of the followers of Jesus, just as the Spirit is at work in our prayer alone and in our prayer together, in our sacramental celebrations, in the Scriptures, in our Eucharist. And we can see that it is the Spirit at work because Paul has given us a list of the signs of the Spirit, that list which we heard read out a few minutes ago:
“What the Spirit brings is very different [from the marks of self-indulgence]: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
These are the signs of the Spirit: these are the signs of who we truly are – every last one of us – me and you. And when we look with eyes opened by the Spirit, we can see these signs in our lives – the lives of every last one of us, me and you. And Paul spells it out: “There can be no law against things like that, of course.”
Those who look on us without love will not see these signs, and knowing their rejection we may fear, deep down or with acute awareness, that if they really saw us as we are, every last one of us, me and you, we would in their judgement find no place in God’s gathered people.
But those who look on us with love can, in the measure of that love, see us as we truly are, and can, in the measure of ththat love, speak God’s truth to us and tell us who we are. And God looks on us with a love that is without measure, and that sees and encompasses everything that we truly are, and if we let the Spirit touch us, God will speak God’s truth to us and tell us who we truly are, every last one of us, me and you.
Prince Harry & Meghan Markel yesterday told each other who they really are – and in so doing told each of us something of the same truth. Baktash Noori, standing there in his blindfold on Market Street, helped hundreds of people tell him, and tell themselves, who they really are – and via YouTube hundreds of thousands of people shared that same truth about themselves and their neighbours.
We are God’s beloved in this corner of Manchester this Pentecost, and to the measure that we let God tell us that, then the grandeur of God, which is the truth of God and the love of God, will flame out from each of us, here, today, as on that first Pentecost, and those around us, each in their own language, (for love and truth are a shared language), will hear us preaching about the marvels of God, because the Spirit of the Lord fills the whole world.
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