Pentecost and the Power of Love

Pentecost and the Power of Love

by The Chaplain

Today celebrates one of the most important festival days in the Christian year. It took place 50 days after Easter and is the day that we really regard as the birthday of the church when Jesus gave to the disciples and to the world the gift of God we call the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a way in which we describe the unseen power of God at work through people in the world. I would like us to think about other unseen powers that we perhaps take for granted. And I want to suggest that the most powerful force in the world is the power of love.

A reading from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, `Peace be with you.'

After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

Jesus said to them again, `Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.'

When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, `Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.'

A reading from the second chapter of book of Acts

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.

One of the greatest modern miracles of practical science in my opinion has been the invention of satellite navigation. Developed to use Global Positioning Satellites for missile guidance in times of war the technology has made its way into handheld units, or car-mounted devices and have brought peace and harmony to the lives of many husbands and wives who no longer have to argue over maps. Indeed it has brought greater harmony between parents and children because whenever asked 'How long before we get there?' I can give a precise answer, to the minute of our estimated time of arrival. Incidentally, these devices also contain databases of the position of speed camera sites but I didn't have mine switched on that fateful morning back in March.

We allow ourselves to be guided from place to place by the invisible transmissions of up to a dozen satellites and whilst we could not completely explain the structure of the radio waves we are grateful they are there.

And there are lots of other unseen forces that we rely on. For a few examples we could talk about the natural forces of magnetism, gravity, electricity and the invisible, man-made radio signals that carry our phone messages, TV pictures or even the infra-red signals from our remote controls. We cannot see them and, in fact, we perhaps cannot explain them: ask a physicist to explain exactly what gravity is. But we need these invisible forces and we are grateful for the good effects they have on us.

Indeed, for the A-level physicists amongst you, Keith Ward's lecture last week -- for which he had consulted the finest scientists at work today -- pointed to the study of Quantum Fluctuations in a vacuum as identifying a deeper non-material reality than that of material existing in the space-time continuum. The conclusion of those at the cutting edge of physics is that the universe -- as well as I can quote Professor Ward -- does manifest evidence of a deeper consciousness characterised by rationality and beauty. This equates well with an understanding of the nature of God.

Whilst I confess to not completely understanding the nature of cutting-edge science, could I dare to ask why others should presume to understand - or dismiss -- the nature of God as the source of being itself?

But back to unseen forces, from a psychological perspective we might speak about all the great power at work within ourselves: our thoughts, our feelings, our decisions and our very consciousness. We cannot see the material evidence of their existence, and sometimes we cannot explain what we know to be within us, but we are aware of the effects of their existence.

At the simplest level, we might also think about the unseen forces of nature, such as the invisible radiation we experience as light and warmth, the air we breath and the movement of air in the power of wind, and that is what brings us back to our thoughts about Pentecost.

In the Hebrew language of the Jewish people and the first followers of Jesus the word for spirit was also the same word used for the power of the wind and also for human breath. This word ruah has implications of great power and real gentleness. That is really shown in John's Gospel, when Jesus gives them the Holy Spirit on Easter Day itself. described as his breath, his spirit, his ruah.

But in Luke's account, the Holy Spirit comes 50 days after Easter on the day we call Pentecost, which actually means 'fiftieth day'. Luke describes a great wind blowing through the room where the disciples were gathered and which left them with - as if were - tongues of fire resting upon them. This is not describing something as it actually appeared: God is not fire and wind, because although both of these can be helpful, they can also be destructive, and there is nothing in the God of love that is destructive or harmful in any way.

Pentecost represents to Jesus' friends an understanding that God was with them in a real and powerful way. It changed them from being people who were afraid for their lives into people who went out into the world with the same message of love and peace and forgiveness that Jesus had shared with them.

Pentecost is about being reminded that the early church depended very much upon the unseen presence of God - a presence they could not see or understand but something that made a great difference to their lives. It is not that the Holy Spirit gave them extraordinary special powers but most often the Holy Spirit gave them the confidence to use their ordinary powers in an extraordinary way.

And I think that is the most important thing we can learn from today: God doesn't need to give us extraordinary powers to make a difference in the world. Sometimes we just need to allow God to 'inspire us' - meaning, filled with God's Spirit -- to try our best to do what we know is right, if we could just have the courage to do it.

For example, the Holy Spirit is very often spoken of as the comforter, reminding us that God is with us. Comforting is not an extraordinary skill and to comfort someone is sometimes just about being alongside them when they are upset. Sometimes all we have to do is to listen and to reassure, and be there with them until he or she feels ready to move on again. When people care, and when people love; that is the power of God's Holy Spirit acting through them. That is the most powerful force in the world.

Of course, it is not only those who accept the existence of God, who can be inspired to do courageous and creative acts. But we never speak of people being 'inspired' to do mediocre work or acts of evil. We understand inspiration in terms of goodness and if, as Christians understand God to be the source of goodness then inspiration must be some pointer towards the nature of God.

We can show our love for the world by our attitude of care towards it; we can show our love for our families and our friends. And we can even show love for people whose lives, in other parts of the world, who are in situations of great suffering and difficulty, such as those in Burma, affected by the cyclone, or those whom the charities try to support, such as Christian Aid, whose main fund raising week begins today. But love is not just a warm feeling. Love has a cutting edge and a cost.

We show love by what we give - especially when love has a cost to us - such as giving money for others when we could spend it on ourselves. We show love when we give time to others - especially when time is precious. We show love when we offer our friendship to those whom we find it hard to like, or even to those who dislike us. And we express love when we forgive others even when our natural desire might be to hate or to want revenge.

Peace, courage and forgiveness are three of the gifts of the Holy Spirit spoken of in our readings so, when you think about the Holy Spirit, try to understand it as the power of love that can change the world. There are many unseen and unexplainable forces or powers, such as gravity, magnetism, electricity or even the unseen satellite signals that guide us around; we know they are there because of their effect on our lives.

But over and above these invisible forces, the greatest power in the world is love. It is the power of God that we celebrate God on this day of Pentecost. It is the power by which we express and share in the very nature of God through our lives.

The Revd. David Johnson
Chaplain of Dauntsey's School
May 2008