Pentecost Sunday (Following Terror Attacks in Manchester and London 2017)


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Preached by Fr Phil Ritchie

Another horror in London last night, sitting in the late evening watching a film suddenly news pops up of another terror attack and Twitter, Facebook and all the online media channels are full of news as it happens. Last week it was Manchester, today our thoughts are with London praying for the dead, the injured and all those who were and are still involved in helping.

I wrote my sermon for today on Thursday and I suppose it was an attempt to talk about faith as personal relationship, about my journey from politics to personal faith. This is because on Pentecost Sunday I felt the need to return to basics. In the last days of the election campaign in an atmosphere of fear or at least anxiety about violence then is a space for the Spirit, the consoler, the comforter. I suppose I wanted to show that the Spirit of God is active in our political and social passions but that she is also at work at a deeper level in our hearts.

In the late 1980’s my family all attended Holy Trinity Church in Coventry. At the time it was going through a charismatic revival – truly spirit filled – but we were not really part of this and our family tended to represent the people who wanted to remind all these spirit filled charismatics that there was a world out there! For us the Christian faith meant Liberation Theology, Socialism, caring for the poor and needy and lots of CND marches – I loved it and it imbued me with a deep love of the church! In my younger days Jesus was concerned with social justice and living authentically as a human being. The incarnation was everything – it was all about God being with us and in solidarity with us. The cross was ok as showing God’s solidarity with our suffering but the main thing was the resurrection which was about liberation and love and freedom even in the worst of times. We were horrified at the idea of ever inviting anyone to share in the love we had discovered in the church and the Christian faith – and we certainly never suggested that repentance was anything that our friend should concern themselves with – that was just for Capitalists and war mongers!

Pentecost was always a little bit suspect because it had been hijacked by the Charismatics and that was far too much about personal engagement rather than global politics. We liked it being about languages being understood- that seemed to be a sign of multi-culturalism and global understanding – although we were nervous that it might have an element of the supernatural about it! Something which made us feel uneasy.

Over the years I began to feel that what I had wasn’t enough, or maybe, rather, it wasn’t little enough – it was too concerned with its own personal political integrity. The idea of letting go has become increasingly important, letting go into God. Pentecost reminds us of the importance of re-discovering the possibility of giving voice to God in our own lives, in our own community. And that’s difficult when it can feel like we are the last remnants of the generation that de-bunked everything, that put questioning and ultimately a hermeneutics of suspicion at the heart of everything they did. Is there really a Jesus who wants to know Phil Ritchie outside of politics and being nice to people? I think that fairly early on I discovered that there was but it has been a bumpy ride.

When we look on this community in the power of the Spirit we maybe see different things. We see an inclusion which truly welcomes whatever our struggles with mental health issues, with poverty, with a sense of being marginalised by society. But we mustn’t forget that the loving inclusion we celebrate here is born not from the values of 21st century British Liberalism but from a love that was revealed to us in Jesus and poured upon us in the Spirit.

There are a couple of people here who most often seem to give voice to this – and they suddenly bring me up short by talking quite naturally about Jesus, they talk with enthusiasm about people coming to know the life of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.

London Bridge and borough market became last night the site of unspeakable acts of violence. And there is shock and silence in the face of such horror but there is also the holy spirit, the comforter and consoler.

I am not saying that we all need to go around telling people about Jesus or raving on about the Holy Spirit. But I know I am practised at a particularly English evasion, a focus on the importance of silence, a passion for identity politics, an ability to see the invisible link between the Christian faith and High Culture. I am deeply suspicious of those who claim to have a simple faith. But despite all of this I feel the need to keep returning, keep waiting for this gift of the Spirit, keep hoping that I might be able to live in simple faith. To the notion that Jesus is not just for me but for all humankind – and that part of our role might be sharing the Good News with those we meet.

The Dominican Geoffrey Preston writes:

“Stop thinking and acting as though God and yourself are related chiefly as law-giver and subject. Stop thinking that the relationship between God and humankind is primarily a matter of justice in some ordinary sense of that word. Believe the altogether extraordinary and unlooked for and well nigh unbelievable news that God has freely chosen to be God in a quite different way to this world, to be God as he who forgives and loves and accepts.

This involves a genuine change of heart and mind. It’s a free gift but we have to open ourselves to it. Do we live as people who believe they have received the Holy Spirit? Do we understand ourselves as forgiven?

To answer those questions might take a very long time – a lifetime perhaps. But what is clear is that much of our journey will be a journey of iconoclasm, tearing down the false images we have made of what God is like or maybe sometimes returning painfully to images we once judged false but now shine with a strange beauty. The Christian life is centrally concerned with what Timothy Radcliffe calls ‘entering that Freedom which is God’s own gift’. I am going to finish with a poem written by another Dominican, Paul Murray, called ‘The Space Between’:

The Space Between

What happened was for me
A kind of miracle

Like being suddenly able
To breathe under water

The astonishment at finding
It possible again to believe

And at finding the space
To breathe and breathe deep

Between the word ‘Freedom’
And the word ‘God’

Amen.

(Originally posted at The Iron Church, the vicar’s blog)