Joined: 16 Nov 2006
|Posted: Tue Jun 06, 2017 10:21 am Post subject: Pentecost - Address by Jim Corrigall
|Sermon for Pentecost: Breath of Life. 4.6.2017.
I was intrigued to read in the paper a few days ago that the American space agency NASA plans to send what they call a probe (a small spacecraft) right up close to the Sun next year … they say it will get so close it will be ‘almost touching the Sun’, although it will in fact be four million miles from this fiery star – which I guess for astrophysicists means ‘almost touching’. But given the heat of the sun and its atmosphere – the probe is being built to withstand temperatures of more than 1,400 degrees centigrade -- I think we can all agree that is pretty close.
What’s the point of this probe? … well, according to Nasa, it will attempt to answer questions such as how the sun makes solar wind – and why the sun’s atmosphere, known as the corona, is so much hotter than the sun itself. This heat difference is partly thought to be why the sun generates powerful solar winds that blast out into space. And so understanding all this better will, Nasa hopes, give us humans down here on earth insights into other stars, but crucially insights into space weather – for example, the geo-magnetic storms that damage satellite systems and power grids here on earth.
There’ll be no humans travelling on this space probe, yet I think we can all hope it will not get too close to the sun – and its wings melt like poor old Icarus (as we heard in our story today). Icarus of course lacked humility … and our opening verse from Scripture today reminded us of those words from Matthew’s gospel: ‘Blessed are the humble’ – and I think these words may be particularly apposite for our celebration today of Pentecost … that highpoint in the Christian calendar when we mark the coming of the Spirit to the early Christians, to the early Church.
Why is this day called Pentecost? – well, this is the Greek name for the Jewish Festival of Weeks, which fell on the 50th day after Passover. And the Gospel writers of the New Testament located the coming of the Spirit to this day, which falls 10 days after the date marking the Ascension. And why is Pentecost also called Whitsun? … in the Western Church, it was a key date for baptisms, and Whit refers to the white robes the baptised wore, so ‘Whitsunday’.
But why should Unitarians celebrate the Spirit at all? – surely Unitarians don’t believe in the Holy Spirit, just one united God? Well, in reality, Unitarians have long been appreciative of the Spirit … the words around our pulpit below me, state: ‘God is a Spirit, and they that worship him, must worship him in Spirit and in Truth.’ The earliest Unitarians, from Poland and Transylvania (where that early Church still survives strongly today), recognised the Spirit from the start as an essential part of the Divine, of God. The Transylvanians see the Spirit, as God’s agent in the world, God’s active presence working among us. Now it’s true that for them, the Spirit is part of God, and not a separate element of the Godhead … but one has to ask, is there really that much difference between these two positions, a so-called Trinitarian one and a Unitarian one? Considering that we are talking in metaphors anyway … surely these are metaphors attempting to illuminate a mystery that is way ‘beyond our ken’? (There may not even be such a big difference between saying: Jesus reveals God to us, he shows us God in all God’s fulness… and saying Jesus embodies God, is God incarnate.) Whether we say God is One, or God is a Trinity, these are in the end only ways of trying to understand mystery. Many theologians today argue that all religious language is metaphor, and that we need to understand it as such.
Let’s bear this in mind when we approach our first two Readings today, both from the Bible. The first was from Genesis 2: 4-7, from the story of Creation. And we heard there how ‘the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being’.
Now however archaic that may sound, much of it is factually true … we know today that we ourselves and everything on earth is formed from dust, stardust in fact – and we also know that without breath, we could not live. The Hebrew word for breath, Ruach, can also mean wind and Spirit -- so here it is the Spirit that awakens us, animates us and everything else, which is of course closely related to breath, to breathing.
The Genesis account of Creation is an attempt to render in human terms, in terms we can grasp, the story of the creation of the world … and perhaps we can only understand it through word-pictures – through metaphor, as in God in creating us, personally breathing life into the first man, as his special creation … for without breath, we would have remained mere clay models. If these word-pictures are in fact aids-to-understanding, then we should look at what meanings we can draw from them … I think a central point is that each one of us is dependent on something far greater than ourselves for our lives, for our very existence, for every breath we take – and we shouldn’t, like Icarus, become so full of our own strength and glory, that we think we can do anything. We depend for life on a force that is far greater than ourselves – and you can see that as God or God’s Spirit, or the spirit of nature, or the spirit of life. This realisation, I hope, brings humility.
Then in the Gospel passage (from John 20: 19-23), we heard that after his crucifixion, Jesus comes to his disciples (after he has Risen, but has not yet ‘ascended to the Father’) – and that ‘he breathed on them and said: “Receive the holy spirit”.’ And of course this account is consciously echoing the Genesis passage … Jesus is the new life giver … and his spirit is to be infused with our spirit, or perhaps becomes our spirit. Again, we can understand this as metaphor -- the spirit of Jesus coming to his disciples, and by extension to all of us (potentially at least). Is it harder for us to accept this metaphor?
Well, let’s turn now to our third reading, to the 13th Century Sufi mystic and poet, Jelaluddin Rumi, and the short passage by him entitled: ‘Everything You See’. Rumi writes here that everything we see around us, springs from somewhere else, from the ‘unseen world’ … from another level of reality …. The things we can see will all fade, he writes, but don’t become disheartened! … because the source is eternal, growing … Everything you see though will pass. So why are you weeping? Then he tells us: That source (the Eternal source) is within you too – and because of that the whole world springs from it.
The mystery Rumi attempts to describe here is beyond us, but he conveys through his own word-pictures and metaphors, something of the essence of what we can sense, but never see or grasp – that we are all part of the Great Spirit of the Universe. We cannot factually describe this mystery – but through images, through poetry, we can draw closer to that other (‘unseen’) reality – which we can sense but never contain.
What Rumi is conveying here is beautifully stated in another of his sayings: ‘You are not a drop in the ocean; you are the ocean in a drop’.
So what does this mean for us today? I think we can say this: The Spirit is within us, within each of us – it has been gifted to us. We have a sacred duty to express this Spirit of Life and Love, for life and for love – that is how we should live our lives, this Pentecost Day, and every day. In deep humility, we ask that it be so. Amen.