Bishop Richard - BBC One Pentecost Sermon

Published on: 31st May 2020

This crisis has bought out both the best and the worst in people.On the one hand folk have joined together to support neighbours in need.They’ve co-ordinated food supplies; they’ve been in contact through phone, email and internet.However, there has been an ugly side too.Some have used the fear to exploit the vulnerable.Some have hoarded, stock piled and even profiteered, more concerned about their own well-being than the needs of the vulnerable. At times of crisis this has always been the way.

The challenge all societies have to face is how to encourage citizens to behave well.The political approach in our country over many years has been the law.We have rules and regulations now to cover almost every area of life.If you look at Hansard Parliament, when functioning normally, passes far more legislation now than it did 50 years ago.Some would argue that its because our world is more complex and we need laws to cover areas that our forbears could never have foreseen.There is truth in this, but part of our need for legislation is a breakdown in trust.We simply don’t seem able to trust one another to be kind, exercise a duty of care and protect the vulnerable so we have to codify and places rules around everything.Our legislators seem to believe that in order to make people better you have to change society.

The Christian approach is very different.Jesus teaches us that you need to make people better to change society not the other way around. The Gospel message is about how that change comes about.It begins with human hearts because the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.Alexander Solzhenitsyn the famous Russian novelist said that the line between good and evil passes not between people but through every human heart.” As this current crisis reminds us forcefully, we - and that means all of us - have a capacity for great goodness and great wickedness as well.

Real change can only begin with an acknowledgement of the problem.Those who enter into the 12- step addiction recovery programme can never make progress until they own that they have a problem themselves.What Christians call the human problem is sin. It can’t be reduced to a set of acts or behaviours, although that is how it can manifest itself.Fundamentally its about alienation and a broken relationship with God – the source of our life, that leads to an alienation from one another. The things that we often call sin are symptoms of the disease, not the disease itself.

Today is Pentecost Sunday and it comes towards the end of the telling of the Christian story that marks our services that began back in Advent. The big story tells us of a God who though he was complete in himself created beings in his image who could share his life and love.It tells us that human beings, hugely gifted but finite both in knowledge and power, chose to establish their own rules and boundaries rather than follow those God had set for their flourishing.It details the consequences of that rebellion and autonomy and the extraordinary lengths and cost God went to in order to woo us back to himself. The seriousness of our problem is magnified by the cost of the solution.God in Jesus Christ takes human sin and pain upon himself, and in an event that seems to threaten the very integrity of God himself satisfies both mercy and justice. Through the cross we can be forgiven, reconciled and restored, and Jesus’ resurrection reveals to us a new world that lasts beyond this one into eternity.

And on this day, Pentecost Sunday, the last piece of the jigsaw falls into place.Those events of cross, resurrection and glory are moved from head to heart.The Christian faith is revealed not as dutiful religious observance, nor legalism, nor dry dogma, but as a dynamic spiritual experience of the reality of God living within us. The Holy Spirit living in us is the agent of the change that the New Testament promises.Those first disciples experienced Him so vividly that people thought they were drunk. Later Paul described their transformed character as the fruits of the Spirit. There is no doubt that they were works in progress, but something happened to them that first Pentecost Sunday that was more than learning theology or a radical new moral code. It changed them and continued to change them as they walked in step with the Spirit in their unfolding mission. The Spirit was the wind in their sails and the fire in their belly.

I’ve witnessed far too many lives transformed by the Spirit: of people healed, relationships restored, addictions broken and hope rekindled, to consign the stories of the book of Acts to the history books. Today we celebrate that the same Spirit who changed them is the agent of our transformation as well.

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