Pentecost 2016. Yr C
Acts 2, 1-21; John 14, 8-17 & 25-27
Do you see yourself as more of an introvert or an extravert?
Those of us who have been on lots of diocesan courses will almost certainly have taken
a Myers-Briggs personality test at some time, and ended up with a label consisting of an series of letters, telling us whether we are introverted or extraverted, thinkers or feelers, judgers or perceivers, and rely most on our senses or intuition. And if you go online, you can find lots of lots of do it yourself tests (like https://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test ) which will give you a series of questions to determine much the same thing.
But you probably have a fair idea where you are on the introversion/extroversion spectrum from your own experience. You know if you’re the first up when the karaoke machine is switched on, or dread being asked to perform in public? You know whether you like going to noisy parties, or prefer a quiet celebration with a few people you know well; you know whether you need to be alone often to recharge your batteries, or feel lonely and insecure if you haven’t got people around you; you know whether you find it easy to make new friends, or tend to stick to the friends you’ve known most of your life.
I suspect that Luke, who wrote the Gospel featured in the lectionary this year, and also wrote the Book of Acts from which our first reading came, was more of an extravert than an introvert. His account of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is full of noise, activity and interaction.
The Holy Spirit comes upon the followers of Jesus as an irresistible, terrifying force; it is experienced as a driving wind, as tongues of flame. The whole group begins to speak aloud, all at the same time, all in different languages. When they rush outside to share their experiences, they are so loud that people assume they have been drinking, even though it’s early in the morning.
In Luke’s account the giving of the Holy Spirit to the disciples comes 50 days after Easter, on the Feast of Pentecost. This was a festival which marked the end of the spring harvest in the Jewish calendar, and was associated with the renewal of the covenant with God. In Luke’s account the coming of the Holy Spirit is promised at the Ascension, and it is a gift of power. His account links the coming of the Spirit with new life, unity and renewal. As the people from all those difficult to pronounce places hear the disciples speaking in their own languages, the divisions symbolised by the Tower of Babel are healed. All human limitations are overcome. In his speech to the people, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel, who prophesied that when the Spirit was poured out, daughters as well as sons would prophesy, young and old would see visions and dream dreams, and slaves as well as free citizens would be empowered. Peter’s speech implies that when the Spirit is given, God’s Kingdom is coming.
The writer of John’s Gospel comes across as much more introverted. In his account, the gift of the Spirit is promised in Jesus’ farewell discourses to his disciples during the Last Supper; and the Spirit is given to the disciples on the evening of Easter Day, when the risen Christ appears to them in the Upper Room. There is no noise or strange happenings in his account Jesus simply breathes the Spirit into them, as God breathed life into Adam.
This is the Spirit coming as a ‘still small voice of calm’ rather than with a fanfare of trumpets.
John gives the Spirit the name Paraclete, which is translated into English in various ways: Advocate, Counsellor, Helper, and in the English of the Prayer Book, Comforter. These words speak of God’s nurturing and strengthening presence. The Spirit is the Spirit of Truth, and will teach the disciples about God, just as Jesus has taught them. At the end of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus promises that the greatest gift of the Spirit will be peace, a peace which the world cannot give, which will free his disciples from worry and fear.
In John, the Spirit also brings the gift of unity, but it is supremely the unity between God, Jesus, and those who follow Jesus. The Spirit is a gift from the Father, and has the character of the Father, just as Jesus has. It brings power, but it is the power to continue the work that Jesus has begun, and to keep the commandments which Jesus has given.
But the Spirit also separates. Just as the world is about to reject Jesus, so the world cannot receive the Holy Spirit. By implication, when the Spirit lives within Jesus’ disciples and inspires their actions, it will separate them from the prevailing culture, and from the values which govern the actions of the powerful in the world, and mean that the world is likely to reject them too.
During the last week, from the Sunday after Ascension to Pentecost, we in the Church of England have been asked by the Archbishops to join in a time of prayer for renewed confidence among church members in sharing their faith. I must admit, as I read the publicity material for this week, my heart sank.
Talk of “all of us having confidence to share the Gospel” and “Praying for the Holy Spirit to come upon us in a renewed way, that we may witness to Jesus Christ” painted pictures in my mind of people coming to my door with pamphlets and tracts, or Bibles with passages highlighted in different colours; and of street preachers, shouting at passers by about the terrors that await them unless they change their ways. Fine for real extraverts, but not really my style!
But what the publicity for the Week of Prayer has done is to prompt me to look more deeply at the Lord’s Prayer, and to read commentaries on it and poetry inspired by it, and to see how it can be interpreted in a new and radical way. And that can be done in a quiet and contemplative way.
Many of those commentaries reminded me that the Lord’s Prayer is not about me and my relationship with God, but about us and our relationship. We ask God to give us not me our daily bread, and we ask God to forgive us our sins, and to save us from temptation and evil.
It reminded me that praying for God’s Kingdom to come and God’s will to be done is not simply about changing my way of living or about me signing up to certain beliefs, it is about everybody else in the world, and especially those on the edge of society; it is not just about religious belief, it is about peace and justice and equality for all
It also reminded me that the gift of the Holy Spirit was not something new that was given to those first disciples, whether on Easter Day or Pentecost. Pentecost is about the recognition that the Spirit of God has been active in the world since its beginning, outside religious organisations as much as within them; and what we pray for at Pentecost is that we may recognise the Spirit in us and other people, already at work in our world, and join our efforts with the Spirit’s efforts to create the Kingdom and do God’s will on earth.
And as I thought about further about this, and about introversion and extraversion, I was reminded of some words attributed to St Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary use words.”
Yes, we can work to bring in God’s Kingdom or spread the Gospel in extravert ways, through large scale mission events, like those being advertised as ‘beacon events’ to end the week of prayer today; or we can work for justice and equality through demonstrations and marches. But equally, we can work quietly to bring people to a new awareness of what Jesus taught; and can demonstrate what it means in our lives and our own context through the way we live. We don’t all have to build the kingdom noisily: some of us can grow the kingdom, seed by seed, sheep by sheep. All of us relying on the gifts of the Spirit that empower and inspire the introvert as well as those that appeal to the extravert.
I finish with a poem, published for this Week of Prayer by Malcolm Guite, which reveals the challenge of both Pentecost and the Lord’s Prayer:
Thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth
Can we imagine what we’re asking for?
When all we know and all we think we’re worth
As vanity might vanish, disappear,
Fading before the splendours you reveal:
The beggars crowned with glory, all the meek
Exalted even as the mighty fall,
And everywhere the triumph of the weak.
And we, who have been first, will be the last
And queue for mercy like the refugees
Whom only moments earlier we passed
By on the other side. For now the seas
That separated are no more. The Sun
Is risen like justice, and his will is done.