Pentecost 2020 – Relationships
When I sat down to work on this reflection, the many weeks of Covid isolation were looming large in my mind. While I am usually quite comfortable working quietly by myself, and I have several interesting projects under way, I suddenly found myself wanting to go for a walk around the Mall – not usually my favourite pastime! It was not to buy anything, just to walk around where there were people. I am very grateful that my daughter and grandchildren come over every few days and talk to us from the driveway. I always felt much more cheerful afterwards – more myself.
This set me thinking about relationships and how fundamental they are to our lives, at every level. How relationships are an essential part of being a whole person. Today we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit in a new and exciting way to establish a special community of believers; one where relationships were central – ‘They were all together in one place’ it says in our reading. So how does the idea of relationships fit into our experience of God, church, communities, and ourselves?
At the highest level of relationships we find this within the being of God. From the very beginning in Genesis 1 we find that God was not solitary. We read that ‘the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters’; relationship was already part of what it meant to be God from the very beginning.
At Hall we have the Icon of the Three Angels on the wall. Next time you are there go up and take a good long look at it, or look at examples of it on line. What the iconographers are portraying is the love that flows within God – between the Father, Christ and the Holy Spirit – look at them carefully and you will see this love and inter-communication in their eyes. They are one: United by love in relationship. Relationship is essential to God’s being – it is not surprising then that it is essential in various ways for us as well!
At the next level down we find the relationship between God and humankind.
We can see this for example in the Old Testament. Here we find the Spirit playing a large part, as God’s mode of action in creation and in the human heart. For example, we heard in the first reading this morning of the Spirit of God moving from Moses to the elders wherever they were. This was not an ecstatic hysteria in a gathered group, as two of them were off in the camp, presumably busy about something when the Spirit fell on them at the same time. This is the Spirit actively expressing the Father’s intent, setting people aside to care for others. Throughout the Old Testament we see examples of the Spirit leading individuals to particular tasks, as artists, as community leaders, as people set apart to communicate divine truths as prophets. In each case these are not acting for themselves but for service to others. This is critical - In each case these are not acting for themselves but for service to others.
What they say and do is intended to strengthen relationships in various ways, or to point out how the behaviour of individuals and groups did not meet God’s demands for right relationships. Justice not injustice, mercy not greed, care for the vulnerable, and so on. For example the prophet Amos says: “Hear this you who trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land saying…we will make the ephah small and the shekel great and practice deceit with false balances … The Lord has sworn ,,, Surely I will never forget their deeds.” God is constantly calling the Israelites to a wholeness in their community relationships, and they frequently fail to meet this challenge. But the Spirit of God comes again and again calling, pleading, threatening even, those who fall short.
Further, in the Old Testament we see God caring for all, not just those in Israel: In Jonah, for example, we see a prophet called by God to a certain task and driven by God to successfully preach repentance to the Jews most hated foes, the Assyrians. God wanted all to fulfil the promise of human existence, not just an in-group.
We see a further example of this kind of self-centredness, this disdain for others, in the last part of today’s gospel reading. When the guards report to the High priests, saying ‘nobody has spoken like this!’ The Jewish leaders sneer, saying: ‘this crowd that listens to him are accursed – they do not know the law’! These so-called leaders believed that the ordinary people were of no interest to God; only those who were pure like them were valued. The Pharisees had a phrase by which they described the ordinary simple people who did not observe the thousands of regulations derived from the ceremonial law. They called them the people of the land, and they were considered beneath contempt and, as far as possible, the pure should have no dealings, no relationship of any kind, with them. Such disdain!
I cannot resist a fun side track for a moment. In this passage the leaders go on to say that no prophet can come from Galilee – forgetting that Jonah came from Galilee and that he did not preach repentance to Jews but to the hated Assyrians! and their repentance was acceptable to God! So much for being a member of an exclusive in-group!
Next we come to the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Church.
A little before our reading from John, Jesus is reported as saying “If you love me you will keep my commandments and I will ask the Father, and he will give you another helper/Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides in you and he will be in you”.
This promise becomes a reality in the Acts reading. The Holy Spirit descends on the community of the faithful in a new fashion at that first Pentecost and soon they are living and preaching what came to be known as The Way – a way of loving relationships enable by the Spirit within them. Their numbers swelled as their lives proclaimed this new and wonderful way for people to live.
Finally we come to the Holy Spirit and us today
At the beginning of today’s Gospel reading, we find Jesus is speaking on the last day of the feast of Tabernacles. This feast was a reminder to the Jews of the time Moses struck the rock in the desert and running water gushed out, saving their lives. Water that saves was the theme of this ceremony and Jesus takes this up when speaking to the people of his own mission. ‘He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, “Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.”’ We can be the source of life for those we relate to! Here Jesus promises that, through him, if we believe in Him, we can be a strength and inspiration to others around us; we will be the water of life they need. As we move about among our fellows, we can help and hearten and inspire them. Life will be a bigger thing for them and us. God will be nearer and more active than he had seemed to be before. And the process by which this living water flows is through relationships.
Now this need for relationships has always been true – so what is Jesus saying that he sees as making a difference?
It is to do with the way we live – particularly the way we relate to others and internally within ourselves. What do we know about this new way that people found so attractive? We find the best summary of this in Galatians where Paul described the spirit filled life: here he differentiates between the self-centred life and the god-centred life. The former alternative shows the effects of self-centred choices: licentiousness, drunkenness, jealousy, quarrels, factions; As we saw earlier, in-groups and disdain for others. The latter alternative, made possible through the indwelling and renewing work of the Holy Spirit, results in lives increasingly showing the effects of God-centred, outward-looking existence: we find growing evidence in our lives of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And these transform our relationships to ones of respect and inclusiveness. Notice these are outward looking, not inward looking.
So, we have the promise of Pentecost – if we work with the Holy Spirit we can begin to show these signs of a full human life, and this will be reflected in the effects we have in our relationships; and with God’s good grace we can draw them into living in the Way also.
We see here then why this time of isolation has been so uncomfortable for us. It has been essentially inward looking and people have reacted against this in many ways. This has led to strong reactions from people desperate for relationships – we think of people singing from their balconies and so on. The truly human life is lived in relationships with God, with our neighbours and with ourselves. As a parish we need to review our relationships; to look at ourselves, look at our neighbours, and ask how can we be more loving, more respectful, more inclusive.
The challenge lies with each of us at this time to look at ourselves and aided by the Holy Spirit work to become what God calls us to be. May we at this time make a special effort to show the fruits of God-centred lives to those we contact in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.