I love cities. They can be so full of life and excitement: but they can also be suffocating, claustrophobic. I was once staying with my brother Michael in a small apartment in the middle of Manchester, England, one August weekend. It was hot and oppressive. So we took off into the country, the lovely Peak District, which is a bit like the hills of Vermont. We climbed for hours up to the top of one of the highest hills called Kinder Scout. We were exhausted, but wonderfully exhilarated. We drank in the air in great thirsty gulps and as we breathed we felt intoxicated by the fresh air and the amazing views…and we started leaping around and shouting and screaming with sheer delight. A couple of hikers below us looked up and I think they probably thought we were drunk.
Today is the Day of Pentecost. On this day the gift of divine power came down upon the disciples, and there was no mistaking it, for it was accompanied by an experience which pounded their senses. Divine power was invading them. An intense catastrophic experience; a rushing wind, tongues of fire; a power beyond human lives invading human lives. Tongues like fire rested on each of them and they then began to speak in other languages. It must have been an extraordinary scene, the disciples as amazed as everyone else. Perhaps they were leaping around in their ecstatic state. No wondered some scoffed and said, “They are filled with new wine!” (Acts 2:13)
What was happening to them? Quite simply it was the fulfillment of the promise made in our Gospel reading today from John. In this passage Jesus is about to leave the disciples, but he tells them not to worry or be sad, and he makes them a promise. He says these deceptively simple words: “Because I live, you also will live.” (Jn 14:19)
I bet they didn’t understand what he meant. ‘What does he mean, “We will live?”’ We’re already alive aren’t we?’ But by LIFE Jesus doesn’t just mean ‘existing’, being alive rather than dead. By ‘life’ Jesus means ‘eternal life’; a quality of life so different to your life lived before, that it’s as if we were never really alive at all. Jesus said, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” (Jn 10:10)
So how do we understand eternal life? How do we understand the Holy Spirit? I could give you a pneumatalogical discourse! But for me the best way to talk about the Holy Spirit is by experience – what it’s like. So often we know the Holy Spirit is there because of its effect. It’s like looking out of the window and seeing the leaves moving. We know it must be windy even though we can’t see it. And in the same way I think, we can see people’s lives change and move and grow under the power of the Holy Spirit.
An image that I’ll never forget took place when I was about 20 and I helped take a group of small children out for the day. A friend of mine was a teacher and I was helping her take her class out for an outing. The school was on the Isle of Dogs, which then was a depressed part of east London. The children lived in pretty dreary projects and there was nowhere for them to play. On this day, we took them, and I guess there were about 25 of them, through a foot tunnel under the river Thames, and out the other side through Greenwich Park and up onto Blackheath, a great windy open space. I though the kids would love it. But at first they were scared. Scared by all this openness after the confined space of their high rise homes. They all huddled together and tried to stay as close as possible to their teacher. But then one or two of them started walking off hesitantly and then a few more, and then they began to skip and jump on the grass, and they started to laugh and shout, and then, suddenly, like when the wind catches the sails of a sail boat, they were OFF! Running wild through the wind, breathing it in, screaming with delight, racing and leaping about in every direction. It was really moving to see it.
It seemed to me like the image of two kinds of life. The first kind of life is like those children were when they first arrived on the heath. They were scared, confined, huddled together anxious, imprisoned. But then they were, as it were, caught by the Spirit. Life giving, liberating, inspiring, released, freed…O Spirit of God as free as the wind. That’s the OTHER kind of life. That is the eternal life which God is calling all of us to. I wonder, today, which kind of life best describes your life? Do you experience freedom and openness and inspiration and joy? Or is your life more about anxiety, confinement, frustration?
The day of Pentecost is a wonderful day to ask that question. What would my life look like if I took Christ at his word, and asked to be filled with the Holy Spirit?
Jesus said, “Because I live you will live.” Not, “You will exist,“ but “You will truly live.” Truly experience that abundant life, that eternal life which Christ came to offer each one of us. Christ is risen, he has conquered sin and death, and through incorporation into Christ through faith and baptism, we too can receive life which is truly eternal, and can never die. ”Because I live you will live.”
How do we get this life? We don’t have to earn it, or deserve it – that’s like expecting the sail boat to propel itself. The sail boat simply has to extend its sails and allow the wind to fill them, and away it goes.
And so the invitation to us this morning, this Pentecost morning, is to ‘open our sails.’ That is always a risk, because God’s spirit sometimes takes us where we don’t want to go. Once the wind of the spirit catches us the journey may be scary. God may take us to places where we don’t feel comfortable, where we shall need all our courage and fortitude. So, a warning. God has a habit of answering our prayers. Be careful what you ask for. Don’t pray, “Come Holy Spirit, my soul inspire” unless you mean it! Don’t pray, “Breathe on me breath of God” unless you are prepared for the consequences. Those first disciples had their lives turned upside down by the divine power invading them. For them the gift of the Holy Spirit changed their lives forever.
If you dare to say ‘yes’ to the prompting of God’s Spirit in your heart, if you follow where God seems to be calling you, you won’t be spared trials and hardships along the way, but you will discover what it is to be alive, truly alive in Christ. And this life is for all eternity. Whatever challenges that God places before you, however hard they may seem, God promises to give us his strength and power to help and support us. I love those words of Bishop Barbara Harris, ”The power behind you is greater than the task ahead of you.”
So on this Day of Pentecost, I will dare to pray a prayer for you and for me. That God the Holy Spirit, the breath, the wind of God may come in power to each one of us. May he fill our sails, that we may know what it is to be alive, truly alive – with abundant life – God’s gift to us.
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