I wonder how many of us have seen the episode of Mr Bean where he goes to church? I guess you have to wonder why he’s there in the first place – after all the wonder of Mr Bean is that he is completely and unreflectively self-centred with an attention span measured in microseconds – but for some reason here he is, and he comes right up to the front row – not an Anglican, then – and right away begins to fidget and look for something – anything – to relieve the absolute crashing boredom of the service. The hymn starts and it’s one he knows – or at least he knows a line of it - ‘O praise him, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia’ – Mr Bean has to fake the verses because he hasn’t got a hymnbook and there’s no way the man he’s standing next to is going to let him look at his. So what he loses in vagueness during the verses he makes up for with double volume on the alleluias. And on the snores that start a minute and a half into the sermon.
I don’t know about you, but this sort of comedy always makes me squirm as much as it makes me laugh. It makes its point by exaggeration, which means there’s just enough truth in it for us to recognise, and maybe even to recognise ourselves. Church sometimes is like that, sometimes I’m a bit like that even though I do a slightly better job of covering it up than Mr Bean does.
It’s a stereotype of church that’s just a little bit true. Are we just going through the motions, are we secretly boring ourselves? Have we actually fallen asleep? Well, today’s the Day of Pentecost and it’s time to wake up! Hold on to the edge of your seat, because today’s the wiz-bang sound and light show, today sparks fly and if you’re not paying attention you’re going to get singed. Today the church gets whatever it is that Jesus has been vaguely promising us all this time, today the waiting comes to an end.
Mr Bean would not have drifted off or spent an hour chasing a runaway Kool Mint under the pews of St Luke’s church. Many churches go to enormous lengths to put on a visual display to catch the party mood, red balloons and cellophane, I even read a recipe the other day for something called a Flame Font – apparently if you make a mixture of Epsom salts and rubbing alcohol you get a flame that burns bright red with no smoke, but I had an ordination to go to yesterday and that was whizz bang enough. So the way Luke tells it, the disciples were all together – probably doing what Jesus told them to do when he said, ‘go back to Jerusalem, back to where it all went pear-shaped, and just wait for what happens next’. Or else they were doing what St John says, all sitting around behind locked doors waiting to be arrested and dragged out by the temple police. And then – wind and flame, one for each of them, sort of hovering over the top of everyone’s heads. And then their tongues are loosened, they start talking and it’s all downhill from there because the whole of the Roman Empire can never shut them up again.
Scary, unsettling, but invigorating, empowering. Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, the coming of the Spirit of power that Jesus promised. Pentecost is the day the disciples – that’s us, by the way – wake up to (a) what it is that Jesus has been telling them and showing them, over and over again, since day one, and (b) what the heck God wants them to do about it. Except, here’s the unsettling thing, for me, anyway. I generally feel more like the before photo of a disciple than the after. When’s the pyrotechnics supposed to happen, I’d like to ask? What’s all this about power and talking crazy but being understood?
Well, I guess I’m not giving the game away too much by suggesting that Luke’s made for TV version probably has a bit of poetic licence in it. For a start today’s Gospel reading, St John has got a different and altogether less flashy take on what the gift of the Holy Spirit is all about. No flames, not even a 40 day buildup, the risen Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, ‘that’s all there really is, folks. My life is yours, now. My spirit is in you – what I have always been about, now that’s what you’re about. Do what I have taught you – live my way of love and forgiveness and I will live in you’. Words to that effect.
And of course people knew about God’s Holy Spirit hundreds of years before Jesus told his disciples about it. In our reading from the Book of Numbers the cloud of God’s presence comes down and rests on seventy of the elders of Israel so that they prophesy – according to Jewish legend on that occasion 70 tongues of fire descended, one for every nation of the known world – so in fact we might wonder if Luke is repackaging an old story for a new audience – or in the passage we read from Ps 104, the Spirit of God is the breath of life, the atmosphere we breathe, the very stuff of creation as Genesis tells us in the 2nd verse of the whole Bible. We know that God’s Spirit is heard not only in the voice of our own tradition but in the wisdom of other religious traditions, to borrow a computer analogy the Spirit of God is if you like the software interface between God and Creation. It’s the Spirit that keeps us ticking, the Spirit that gives us the capacity to feel and create and love. It’s the whisper of intuition, the awareness of being connected with one another and with the whole of creation – when we attend to the voice of the Spirit just beneath the surface of our lives then we know the reality Jesus is talking about when he says, ‘I will abide in you and you in me’.
All of which means the Holy Spirit of God is the spirit of relationship, Jesus lives from the heart of his relationship with the One he calls his Father and invites us into that – the two-way flow of love that expands to become an every-which way flow. As St Paul understands very well - even though writing 20 or so years before either Luke or John it seems he hasn’t heard their stories about tongues of fire or divine CPR – as he puts it the Holy Spirit of God is nothing other than the encounter with the risen Christ of faith that joins us into the depths of Jesus’ own relationship with God.
We know the Holy Spirit of God is present in our lives because if we attend carefully to the voice of our own heart, and if we attend carefully to what connects us to the people and to the world around us, we experience it for ourselves. Atheism is simply the attempt to live on the outside of life, the attempt to avoid the depth dimension of human experience. Be in love. Pay attention to the ebb and flow of your own life which is the movement of the Spirit in you.
But one thing the Spirit is not, despite Luke’s pyrotechnic description, is flashy. One thing the Spirit doesn’t do is give us super-powers or ensure that everything’s going to work out OK The need for a supernatural insurance policy is very powerful, in some Churches despite all the lessons of human history you’ll still hear preachers assuring you that if you have enough faith, if you really, really believe God will reward you with wealth and success, you’ll never get sick, that carpark you really, really need right now will appear as if by magic if you just believe strongly enough. Deep down though, I think we all realise that isn’t true. The Spirit of God doesn’t give us the ability to leap tall buildings, and it doesn’t give magical protection. The people who died in Cyclone Nargis last week, and the tens of thousands who are struggling there a week later for the bare basics, bear witness to the fact that God with us and God for us is no guarantee against human suffering.
Because the power of the Holy Spirit is relational power, the power to be vulnerable, the power to share and to enter creatively into the heart of God’s people just as in Jesus, God shows God’s commitment to entering into the reality of human life and sharing both our joys and our suffering with us. That’s the central paradox of our faith – that in the crucified and dying Jesus we see the priorities and the character of God laid bare – God’s commitment to us through thick and thin. That’s what the disturbing words of the baptism liturgy mean, the water of baptism that represents for us both the power of creation and the deep waters of Jesus’ own death.
When Mr Bean comes to church, bored to desperation as he is, he never does quite manage to drift off to sleep. Someone keeps nudging him awake. For us, it’s Pentecost. The annual elbow in the ribs that says, ‘are you awake? The Spirit of God is here! On the inside of you, on the outside of you, what are you going to do about it? Wake up to acts of love and compassion, to solidarity with those who suffer - wake up to give an account of the faith that gives you life! Wake up to the sheer joy of being God’s daughter, God’s son! Wake up to the beauty and delight of God’s creation!’
Actually, you’d better wake up. You’re on fire!