I want to begin this sermon not with a Bible text but by telling you that Taunton Deane Borough Council have given us planning permission to re-open the windows behind me, the windows that are now alcoves with the ten commandments and the beatitudes on. We have permission to return them to being windows and to let the light in again. We will have to ‘keep’ the commandments, in every sense of that word ‘keep’, but we can open the windows, we can let in the light, we can open up the space.
It seems to me a pretty amazing metaphor for what Pentecost is all about. And if the prospect of taking down those tablets seems more than a little alarming to you, if you’re not sure that we should be doing it, if the thought of changing anything in the church seems unsettling, then perhaps you more than anyone have really understood what the challenge of the coming of the Holy Spirit is all about. It’s no wonder that we might feel apprehensive today if we are celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit!
Let’s think about those first disciples and that first time the Holy Spirit came on a few and fragile group of disciples, even fewer and perhaps even more fragile than we are. They had just been through a time of great disappointment and pain, of things not turning out as they had imagined. They had also just been through the kind of process we can recognise and understand. They had elected a new apostle to fill up the numbers and to make up for the one who had gone. They did it and recorded it and remembered it for posterity, like you do if you’re being good and organised and keeping to the rules. And the lot fell on Matthias. But then something astonishing happened. They were gathered all together to keep the feast of Pentecost. Pentecost was a feast that was centuries old then and it was a feast that was all about celebrating the giving of the Law. It was a nice tidy, organised kind of celebration of the giving of holy laws. It was a feast to celebrate the giving of those ten commandments up above my head, a feast for good law abiding citizens– a respectable celebration of the kind of religion where you know where you are and where God wants you to be. And it’s good to celebrate the law, because good societies and communities can’t live without laws.. It was reassuring, familiar, and they and their ancestors had been doing it for centuries. But then… there came from heaven a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house. There was fire and excitement and disorder. And they began to speak in different languages. This wasn’t how the meeting was meant to go – and even the people outside started noticing that something was going on. The disciples were making so much noise that the people in the street could hear, even amidst the noise of chaotic Jerusalem, and it didn’t sound tidy or clear or straightforward at all – not like Evensong or Matins or the kind of ordered worship we have here. Some people thought the disciples seemed like they were drunk – but this was too early in the morning for most people to have reached for the bottle. Peter managed to find the presence of mind to say something and he dragged out of his memory the words of a little known prophet called Joel who said that sometimes God turns us inside out and upside down – and that there are days when the young people are the ones with the wisdom and the old people start dreaming about the future rather than dwelling on the past, when slaves get to be prophets in the church and when even women get to be the ones who speak in God’s name (and remember that we know that Mary, Jesus’ mother, was there). And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. Wow, everyone. Not just the law keepers and the religious ones. Not just the good ones and the nice ones. Not just the well behaved and the respectable, but everyone. God is really doing something. On this festival of the law, the usual laws of organised religion got broken. On this day of Pentecost, it’s not just about having memories of the past or thinking with your head, but about an experience of God that you can sense and feel right now. It doesn’t matter anymore where you sit or what you sing or who gets elected and how. What matters is that the windows have been opened and the wind is blowing and God feels so real. It’s as though the blocked-up window with the ten commandments on it gets blown out – and a new life force comes into the building.
For people like us this is a challenging story, but one we need to hear, perhaps even more than our brothers and sisters now meeting at Pentecostal churches, some of them even here in Taunton. We need to hear something of this story that goes against type for us, and we need to open our ears and our hearts and be willing to loosen up just enough to let the Holy Spirit do something new with us. And not just because we have to admit that the churches who love this story most are somehow doing better than us with appealing to the world and its people. And not just because we need to explore that other side of some of our personalities and learn a little about how to let go of some of the things that keep us going and keep us here. But because this is how the church managed to become something more than twelve men and a Virgin Mary. This is how God comes to people. This is how God comes to save us.
I remember once that someone told me that this story seems to be about a time when it was as though all the windows of the building were opened so that God could come in with blessing and power and passion. And that the story since has been a bit like someone running round and boarding up all the windows again – as though to keep God out. The church keeps finding ways to say why things can’t happen, why we have to stay with how things were, why we have to hold on to what we know and remember and keep it secure, why we have to keep the commandments ever before us. But the Holy Spirit blows and God is ready to blow out the boards we place on the windows.
But what would it mean to open the windows for the Spirit, to open our hearts and our minds to the violent rush of God’s presence right here? Even if we say an intellectual yes to this, how to make it possible seems less easy. We are cautious people, I know. We might even be members of this church because it is not ‘happy clappy’ and spontaneous, because worship is ordered and quiet, because we know where we are. But there is nothing wrong with being happy in God’s presence.. And little amiss with a little clapping now and again.. Nothing wrong with connecting with God in such a way that your body wants to sway just a little and your heart wants to sing with the knowledge that everyone who calls on the Lord is saved? In Latin America it is sometimes said that the Catholic church declared a preferential option for the poor, but the poor preferred to be Pentecostal, because they wanted an experience of joy and something to move and delight their hearts and bodies.. But did you know that there are now charismatic Catholics, that the wind of God blows in parts of the church in ways you might not have imagined?
I wonder whether, like me, you are one of those people who like to know what the rules are and keep them – you know, you like to be clear about what the deal is and what you are supposed to do. You wouldn’t dream of avoiding paying the car park fee or not parking within the marked bays. You wouldn’t dream of colouring outside the lines or actually going through any door marked ‘Keep out’. You prefer dances where the steps are set and there’s a right way to do it, and when you play a board game you wouldn’t dream of inventing your own rules. And when you leave the house there is a part of you thinking ‘Did I lock the door properly?’ We are, many of us here, not natural rule breakers and we’re not very spontaneous. We like our religion organised. We like to sit in a familiar pew. We like hymns we know and a service that has not too many surprises. I met somebody this week who asked me, with some alarm on her face, what on earth ‘messy church’ is… She was obviously worried at the thought of something chaotic and untidy… But many of us get a bit thrown if something too radically strange comes along. We’re more J.S. Bach perhaps than experimental jazz. Charismatic is somewhere else than here. And the Holy Spirit is OK if she is firmly part of the Trinity and safely tied up in the correct liturgical formulas. If this is you, then it’s me too – I admit it.
So today I know I need to listen hard to the story of Pentecost. Because here is a story about the coming of the Holy Spirit upon a group of disciples who were trying to keep organised in the face of trouble, and who found that God came with power and surprise, in a way they hadn’t been looking for. A few weeks ago I did find myself preaching at a Pentecostal church and really quite disproportionately worried that I wouldn’t know or understand what was happening.. and would I be able to let myself go without looking ridiculous. But in the end of course, fear of looking daft goes out the window if what’s at stake is meeting with the living God – or even if what’s at stake is connecting with the people that God loves.
Sometimes they say that older people can’t cope with change, that as all of us get older we become less adaptable, more stuck in our ways, more determined to hold onto the familiar. And there is some truth in that of course. But then I remember Alan Bennett saying famously that it’s the middle aged who want to hold onto things, because they are the people who have some stake in the way things are. Older people, he says, those who’ve already let go of power in the world, are not conservative or reluctant at all, but happy to experiment, with a sense of perspective that says that few things are so important that they can’t change.. Our congregation, I think, may be that kind of old lady. The congregation is getting old now.. centuries old. It has seen many changes. At one stage it blocked up the windows with the commandments, but perhaps now we are ready to have one more go at letting in the light. We are now at the stage, let’s face it, where we have little to hold onto, because we have little to lose. We are not any longer one of the town’s leading institutions. We have work to do to get people to know we are even here! We are just a small group of disciples of Jesus, gathered to worship in the heart of the town which is changing fast around us. We can look back to the past or we can be open to God’s future. We will ‘keep’ the commandments, as best we can, but we know that the Christian faith doesn’t ‘keep’ if it isn’t allowed to move and if the Holy Spirit is shut out.
I’m a tidy, organised church kind of a girl myself, but I know that I want to and I need to, step over the edge into the messy future of God and let the Spirit hold me and lead me in the dance of faith. I know somehow that all my attempts to ‘keep’ the faith I’ve known, to hold on to the past, will seem puzzling really once I know what God has in store for the future. I don’t know what the future will be. But I’m ready to step into it knowing that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the powerful and living God is waiting to transform me and us… and the world. Will you come with me? Amen