A Sermon for Whit Sunday Evensong
12 June 2011
photo © 2007 Lee Bolgatz | more info (via: Wylio)Our youngest child is home from University right now. Perhaps some of you know what that feels like; a clean and well-kept home that had seemed somehow empty just a short while ago has now lost its sense of order. Chaos appears to have supplanted the neatness and tidiness that had reigned supreme for just a few short weeks since the Easter break. Piles of books, discarded bags of washing, dirty crockery and half-empty glasses, yes, our little boy is home again. And we are delighted that he is.
In a strange way, I get that feeling of déjà vu when the time comes to trundle up to Hull and collect him, for we were doing the same thing for his elder brother just five years ago. Choosing to read the same subject at the same university as one’s elder brother seems pretty unlikely, but that’s exactly what our youngest decided to do.
Déjà vu indeed. Those who know about these things tell us that it is frequently our sense of smell that creates within us a feeling of familiarity with what is otherwise a strange place.
I remember, as an eleven year-old, walking down a corridor at Emanuel School and having a very real sense that I’d been there before.
photo © 2010 Ed Schipul | more info (via: Wylio)Perhaps you too have experienced that strange sensation of déjà vu? Just like the black cat in the film ‘The Matrix’ that Neo sees walking by, immediately before he sees what appears to be the same black cat walking by. “Whoa,” he says. “Déjà vu” causing everyone to freeze, right in their tracks as they suddenly become afraid.
If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know that Trinity explains to Neo that “a déjà vu is usually a glitch in the Matrix. It happens when they change something.”
I certainly had a déjà vu moment when preparing for this evening’s service. It came as I turned in the Bible to this evening’s second lesson. “Hang on a mo,” I thought to myself, “haven’t I just read that?” My next thought was “what an amazing coincidence that this evening’s second lesson contains a quotation from the first lesson. The odds against that happening must be enormous!” And, for a moment, in my mind’s eye, I saw a bookmakers shop and there was I, in the bookies, collecting my winnings, having placed a bet on the chance of such an unlikely event occurring.
Ah, if only…
But, of course, it wasn’t chance that resulted in these two readings coinciding. When those charged with creating the Common Worship lectionary put their heads together, they made the deliberate decision that these two passages should be read consecutively this evening in churches up and down the country.
Which bring us to the next question: why did they do this? To attempt to answer that question let’s look at the two passages of scripture.
In the first lesson (Joel 2:21-end), we heard how the prophet Joel, who apparently lived in post-exilic times after the rebuilding of the temple in 515BC and before the destruction of Sidon in 343BC, brought a message of hope based upon experience:
photo © 2011 Andrew Kneebone | more info (via: Wylio)We are asked to imagine a terrifying plague of locusts and its horrifying impact upon society and the natural environment created by the human society. Then the locusts become a mighty army sent by the Lord against Judah.
If we read Joel’s entire prophecy, as it is recorded here for us, we can sense that human society and culture in Judah were on the brink of obliteration.
The devastation visited upon Israel by the locusts and drought was immense; much more serious than the drought situation recently announced by our own Government.
At that moment Joel’s prophetic voice rings out: “Do not fear! God has not abandoned you; God is still in your midst.”
Now not a lot of people know this, but my home church in Battersea is that of St Barnabas, on the north side Clapham Common. And yesterday was the day in the church’s year when we remember Barnabas the Apostle. As I’m sure you’ll know, Barnabas’ gift was one of encouragement and, at this point, perhaps your mind will wander to the Bayeux Tapestry and the scene where we see the Bishop of Bayeux encouraging the troops.
There he stands, way back from the front line, a massive man in simple dress, holding a huge club which he brings to bear on any soldier he finds running away from the battle.
If you haven’t seen the tapestry, you weren’t expecting that description of encouragement were you? And yet, that is exactly what encouragement is: it’s turning around those who act as if defeat is inevitable.
And so we are encouraged as listen to the prophetic words of encouragement: words that end with a great promise: “Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved;”
Now, jump forward some three centuries. You’re in Jerusalem, and what a multi-cultural city it was, with people there from just about the whole of the then-known world. Perhaps the nearest thing we’ve got to that hereabouts is Lincoln Cathedral, where you hear a vast array of dialects and languages spoken by visitors to what was, for some centuries, the tallest building in the world?
Let’s set the scene. Imagine if one of the cathedral guides started telling visitors the key message of Christianity, how Jesus Christ had come to bring the offer of new life to all and, instead of then having to repeat what they had just said first in French and then in German and then possibly other languages, depending upon the extent of the guide’s linguistic skills; what would happen if all the visitors heard a simultaneous translation coming from the guide’s lips? How fantastic that would be!
But what about those English visitors who had little or no exposure to foreign languages. Might they complain, thinking perhaps the guide had spent too much time in the Wig and Mitre before coming on duty that day?
It is at this point that our second lesson begins with the first part of Peter’s speech (Acts 2.14-21) in which he answers the unvoiced question ‘what does it mean?’
The group cannot be drunk, Peter explains, because it’s only breakfast time. On the contrary, this is something predicted in scripture.
And so he goes on to repeat the words of the Prophet Joel, clarifying the apostolic proclamation.
- First, Peter identifies the phenomenon that people have just witnessed with the biblical gift of prophecy, which was generally accepted to be the work of the Spirit of God;
- Next, he identifies the phenomenon with “the last days” that herald the time before the “final day of the Lord”.
- Finally he makes it clear that the promise of salvation is inclusive of age, gender and social class; the spirit is poured out on “all flesh” (v.17) and salvation is offered to “whoever calls on the name of the Lord” (v.21).
You may feel this is very much a message for today. At a time when the broad, inclusive nature of the Church of England and, indeed the wider Anglican Communion, is coming under threat from certain affluent and fundamentalist elements who wish to exclude everyone who doesn’t fit their mould. Such people appear to be saying that salvation in Jesus Christ is not intended for everyone; it is only available to a select group of people who share certain characteristics (such as heterosexuality) and a common culture (of male authority).
May I please suggest to you that such people are going directly against Peter’s teaching and the words of Joel’s prophecy?
And so we come back to our original question, “why place these two readings alongside each other on the Feast of Pentecost?” I hope by now, you can see that one answer to that question is to emphasise how God has always intended to make salvation freely available to everyone upon request.
Let us therefore end on this glorious promise of inclusivity: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved!”