This morning we come to worship after news of what police are now calling another terrorist attack has broken. News of a van ploughing into pedestrians and three men getting out and stabbing people – some say in the name of God – in the name of Allah. Seven people killed and dozens injured. And the three attackers shot dead, the first within eight minutes of the first report. And this incident is less than two weeks after the bomb in Manchester that killed 22 people and injured many, many more. And since that bomb we have also heard of the bombing of a bus in Egypt, a bus carrying Coptic Christians, in which 25 people were killed and a bomb in Kabul that killed more than 100. It seems that every day brings news of some new terror, and terror begins to grow in us as we wonder what is happening to our world. I know that some of you here today were in Borough Market only a week ago and that you went to Southwark cathedral – where today now no choir sings to celebrate Pentecost because the cathedral is behind the police cordon. I know that some of you will know well people from these places or will have contacts and friends caught up in these events. And I know that many of us are asking what we should make of all this – and where is God?
So how we shall celebrate Pentecost today? How shall we mark this feast of the coming of the Holy Spirit, when the sound of a violent wind was not the sound of a bomb, but the noise of the Holy Spirit of God coming to turn a frightened group of disciples into the real beginnings of a world-wide movement for peace? How shall we remember faithfully the coming of God’s presence into what was then a nervous city, under occupation by a foreign power with violence around every corner and hidden in every archway? How shall we find again the courage of Peter who spoke of the coming of the Lord’s day, a day when everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved? On this day, when people call on the name of God to stab and maim and kill, when violence has come to us in the terror of a Manchester bomb, when fire betokens anger and danger rather than passion and power, what shall we say and how shall we celebrate God’s presence?
In Jerusalem that day… 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. And people from outside started noticing that something was going on too. They were making so much noise that the people in the street could hear it and wondered what was happened. Words like ‘bewildered’ and ‘amazed’ and ‘perplexed’ appear in this story.. Some people thought they seemed like they were drunk – and it wasn’t even communion. Peter managed to find the presence of mind to say something about what was happening 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 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 everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
Reading this story again this morning, in the light of the night’s events and the events of the past few weeks, I notice different things. I notice things about the crowd gathered around the outside of the place where the disciples were meeting and where they were from. They were from every nation under heaven says the narrator – but there are very specific places mentioned. Residents of Mesopotamia – that’s what is now Iraq. And Egypt is there too. And parts of Libya. Arabs too. These words mean something to us now, and they are words too often associated with violence, and war and terror. They are names of countries and languages and peoples we have learned to fear. They show us how there were once devout Jews from all those countries, who could all gather in one place to worship God at the Jewish feast of Pentecost. The story shows us that even then, even in a time when all those people could gather in one city to celebrate a common faith, even then there was misunderstanding and confusion. They couldn’t normally understand one another and they spoke different languages. And then in this story they suddenly hear the disciples speaking in their language. There was something about the coming of the Holy Spirit that meant that understanding happened, that the differences between these communities were overcome and that Peter could talk about a future time when everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
I had written another sermon for today, a sermon about the need to be spontaneous and open to the Spirit, a sermon about how having faith is more like playing jazz and improvising than playing from the score, a sermon about how sometimes you have to busk it and get away from the script. So how ironic then that I woke up this morning and realised that I’d have to prepare a whole new sermon. I knew that I needed to say something else… that the day demanded different words.
But as I sat down with this text and this story and this experience of the Spirit before me, I could see that it does speak into our situation today – of course it does – in it is the Word of God.
I believe that it encourages us to know and believe and trust that the God who came on that day at Pentecost is still coming today to make the church a community that carries a gift for the world. It encourages us to go on trusting that the people of Iraq and Libya and Egypt, that every single citizen of Britain whatever their origin, that the children of Abraham through Ishmael as well as Isaac, are all under God’s good hand. It tells us that the community created by Jesus Christ and blessed by God’s Spirit has a message of peace for the world – and that one day, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
There might be all sorts of reasons why we sometimes feel like giving up with faith, with church, even with God. The world is still violent and there is still suffering. Children can be killed at concerts, Christians blown up on buses and people of any faith can be the victims of terror and attack.. The world looks now as though the divisions between faiths and peoples are getting deeper and more entrenched. Will we ever be able to hear the Arabic name for God without a frisson of fear? This story tells us that we will, and indeed that we must, that all languages and all peoples can be holy and that God is promising and bringing peace.
The great Oscar Romero, now saint Oscar Romero, lived out his Christian faith and his ministry in a context of repeated violence against the people. He knew that his life was in constant danger and finally he too became a victim of the violence, when he was shot down while celebrating Mass. But he urged his people always to live not by violence or in its wake or in fear of it, but instead to live by what he called the ‘violence of love’. On the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit came with a sound like the rush of a violent wind. It is the violence of the Spirit, the violence of peace, the violence of love, that we must welcome and live by – for this is the only violence of God.
On Pentecost Sunday in 1978, Oscar Romero said
It will always be Pentecost in the church,
provided the church lets the beauty of the Holy Spirit
The Church will be fair to see,
attractive in every age,
so long as she is faithful
to the Spirit that floods her
and she reflects that Spirit
through her communities,
through her pastors,
through her very life.
May that be true of our two communities, our pastors and our very life – as we live as Christ’s ambassadors in the world around us and as those committed only to the violence of love. Amen.