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Sermon: Pentecost 2013

Christopher Hill
Sunday 19th May 2013
Cathedral Eucharist

A single word from the Scriptures; a deeply moving experience in the slums of Rio de Janiero; and Pentecost Sunday – the traditional ’birthday of the Church’ and the dedication of this our Cathedral Church.

Tucked away in Paul’s second letter to the Church in Corinth there are some remarkable words about the Holy Spirit, whom we must think about toady of all days here in this Cathedral of the Holy Spirit.

Paul tells the Corinthians that every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’.  The Good News of God in Christ is not – Paul says _ ‘yes’ but also ‘no’.  It is always ‘yes’.  How often do we Christians sound negative . . .So how come God’s answer to human yearning is always a ‘yes’.  And then Paul tells us that God has anointed us, put his seal upon us, giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a ‘first instalment’.  At every baptism and confirmation I think of that phrase – the ‘seal’ of the Spirit, a sort of code for baptism and confirmation – confirmation means to seal, to stamp, to brand, to mark for ownership by Christ.  I think of recent baptisms and confirmations here in the Cathedral on Easter Eve, at Farncombe, at Fleet and yesterday at Gordon’s School.  Celebrations of the seal of the Spirit.

But the single word I want to consider today is that word ‘first instalment’.  I know that’s two but the original is one arrabon, originally a semitic or Hebrew word by borrowed by late Greek.  In earlier translations it is rendered an ‘earnest’, ‘pledge’, ‘guarantee’, but ‘first instalment’ is better.  We, the Church, are a ‘first instalment’ of the Spirit.  Not in all its fullness but nevertheless really and truly a people of the Spirit of God who creates and transforms the world – you and I are a ‘first instalment’ of the same Spirit who breathed over the waters of chaos and brought life out of nothingness in the beginning of things, you and I are first instalments, deposits, down-payments of the Spirit of Pentecost that empowered the first disciples to reach out to all the nations with the good news of God in Christ we hear about in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

Now the Spirit of Pentecost came both corporately to the disciples in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost, they were all together in one place, and individually.  The Spirit – single and unifying, rested like a flame of fire on each individual.  You have your gifts as an individual.  But the Church corporately is also the bearer of the Spirit.  And today is the traditional birthday of the Church.

Do you think about the Church much?  I don’t mean the Stewardship campaign, the Cathedral fabric, the clergy, still less that strange body we call the Church of England!  No, something much deeper . . . The Church as Christ’s Body, the Temple of the Spirit, the Bride of Christ, the People of God, and all other ways in which the Church is described even in the New Testament, while it still remains ever in need of radical reform and purification – as successive ecclesiastical scandals show only too well.  Yet though all ministry, lay as well as ordained, is treasure in very fragile, earthen vessels, the Bible continues to use high language of us the Church.

Theologians have talked about the Church ecumenically for many years.  Anglicans in discussion with Reformed Christians and Roman Catholic Christians have used language for the Church such as Sign, Instrument and Foretaste of the Kingdom of God.  On the birthday of the Church at Pentecost, think for a moment of the Church as a Sign of the Kingdom.  Whenever you turn the other cheek and absorb anger or evil, whenever you speak up for the good and the right, whenever you help your neighbour or the disadvantaged, or the prisoner (whether literally in prison or metaphorically in the captivity of affluence, drugs, alcohol, sexual perversion) whenever you contribute to the common good, you as Church are a sacrament or sign of God’s Kingdom.  And not just like a road sign which does not contain what it points to.  More like the sign of a kiss in a human relationship which contains the love it expresses.  So you are not a mere sign but you – as Church – are an Instrument of the Kingdom.  Of course not in its fullness or completeness, not yet.  But like an hors d’ouvres, the first fruits – or what St Paul tells the Corinthians (who were a pretty motley lot by the way) what St Paul tells the Corinthians they are – an arrabon.  A first instalment of which more is guaranteed to come.

Now all this Bible and theology (ecclesiology is the technical term) you will be saying, I don’t really want to think about the Church.  It’s all rather abstract and wordy.

So let me contextualise – as they say.  Those who like pictures rather than words can now wake up.  I will take you mentally to Rio de Janiero, where I was privileged to be talking with Anglican and Roman Catholic colleagues from different parts of the world, just two weeks ago.  Some of you may have seen what I have said about Rio (and some pictures) on the Diocesan Website.

We visited a favela – a kind of shanty-town.  When slaves were freed in Brazil in the late 19th century – the last ‘western’ country to do so – at the instigation of the Papacy, the freed slaves moved out of the centre of Rio to the surrounding hills.  Where they found a shrub which survives the harshest conditions, the favela.  And they called their settlements after it.  In the late 30ies the authorities wanted to move people from the slums in the middle of Rio to make room for the rich to build larger houses.  One way they moved the poor was to set fire to the slums and send the fire-brigade without water – that is true.  The authorities did then build a township with basic facilities and called it ‘The City of God’.  It was for 20,000 people.  There are now between 60 – 80,000 people in this single favela.  And up until a few years ago it was entirely and absolutely controlled by drug barons.  There were regular and prolific murders, gun-fights, the killing of men, women and children.  No one could go in or out or do anything without their permission.  Eventually, after some loss of life it was successfully policed, and the label is community policing.  We visited the community organisations for the old, football clubs (yes, Rio and the World Cup next year as well as the Olympics in 2015), the Police station, a local community bank with its own notes to keep money within the community – here is a 10 real note which can only be cashed in the City of God.  And we were taken round by two priests, one Anglican, one Roman Catholic, with their community helpers.  People were warm and welcoming, smiling and cheerful – though still desperately poor.  And the river running through the City of God was not yet quite like that of the New Jerusalem described in Revelations with the trees for the healing of the nations, as it was an open sewer.  But we were welcomed, we were safe, we were moved to be so received.  The City of God was a city of hope.

In the little Anglican Church an artist has decorated the walls with the story of the City of God – from the fire, through the gun-fights, to a place of safety and joy.  And behind the altar there is a fresco.  Christ is in the centre but he is surrounded by locals from the City of God in ordinary Rio dress.  But not only Christ has a halo.  All have halos . . . all are called to be and already are ‘saints’. Even if still pretty imperfect saints – like you and me.

You see the Church is an arrabon, a first-instalment, guaranteeing eventually the other payments like a deposit.  Those locals in the City of God were making the true City of God in their slums.  They were a sign, instrument, foretaste of the Kingdom of God – that is what the Church really is.

And that means you, too.

Remember today the Birthday of the Church.  Remember that you are the Church.  Remember that by the Spirit of God you can be an effectual sign and instrument of the Kingdom of God itself – a first instalment of the Spirit.  And to enable that to be, all you have to do is say Amen to God’s yes – that’s Paul again.  And you do this here and now today as you say Amen to receiving the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood.  You receive the Sacrament of our Redemption, with an Amen as joyful as the Mozart Amen in this morning’s Missa Brevis and become the Sacrament of the re-creation of the world into its true configuration as the Kingdom of God.

Or to put it another way, whatever the mess of life we are in – like those favelas in Rio – we can still be a first instalment of the true City of God.