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Homily by Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon

Day of Pentecost, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
May 19, 2013

Acts 2: 1-21; John 14:8-17

The Holy Spirit who speaks to us in our own language

You may have noticed that, in both our readings today, the Holy Spirit is referred to in the feminine. This is a very ancient practice. It is included in the earliest Hebrew writings where the word for Spirit, “ruach” is feminine. Particularly in the Old Testament, it is often linked with “wisdom”. Much later, the Greeks altered the reference to neuter gender and the Romans later to male.

Obviously, holding to the feminine creates a nice balance in the person of our Triune God. We do, as you may have noticed in our liturgy, refer to both the Mother and Father of Creation. Jesus, clearly, had to be one gender or the other as God in human form and he was a man. Then we have the fundamentally female Spirit.

Theologically, I would have to say that, while it is very helpful to have many imagings of our God, so that we can experience a God who identifies deeply with all we experience in life, I believe this God is never really limited or captured in any one form which we can describe.

Reflecting on the day of Pentecost, when we focus on the coming of the Spirit, I think that what we are offered is the dimension of Holy life which is our company forever. Through this Divine Spirit, we are called to be passionate – hence the traditional image of the red flame. We are invited to receive many gifts, like courage, wisdom and inspiration as we try to follow Christ into the world around us in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit is full of imagination – opening up before us new visions of who we could be and offering us all manner of resources for our journeying, if we will but look for them and receive them. As Jesus reminds his friends that, if we know him, we know the Mother/Father God, and the Holy Spirit is a further way of doing that. We will never be left alone. The Holy Spirit links us to Divine life, in all its fullness.

We can look around us and see the wonder of the creation. We can read and remember the costly life of Christ and all that he said and did among us. Then we have the Spirit who lifts our hearts, as we face each day and the ambiguities and demands of faithful life, and holds us in love and grace as we go.

The story in Acts of the coming of the Holy Spirit to the people is rather like a description of a Pentecostal Charismatic moment in the life of the church. It is filled with all sorts of phenomena, with people probably “speaking in tongues” and hearing the voice of the Spirit of God addressing them in their own varying languages. Given the number of languages mentioned, it surely must have been a multicultural society

In his early days, my clergy brother, John, spent some time in a Pentecostal Church. The fact that he had a gift of healing attracted him to that denomination. He only stayed for a while because he didn’t agree with the theology overall, or in relation to healing. He trained for the ministry in the Uniting Church at the same time as I did.

When I talked with him about the speaking in tongues, which I knew he had done, he felt that it was a response to being pumped up into an ecstatic state – with the music, prayers and general style of worship which is typical of Pentecostal charismatic churches.

He felt close to God when he spoke in tongues, but the words had no specific meaning for him and he didn’t really believe in the member of the congregation who always interpreted what the people who were speaking in tongues were saying. He felt it was more like a song of praise,

In the Acts passage, the disciples of Jesus and their friends were gathered and were probably feeling lifted up by the leadership of Peter and the hope and strength which lay among them as they were reminded of the word of Christ. Obviously, there was some sort of charismatic moment when those present felt a profound connection with God and the gift which God would offer them.

Probably not many of us have experienced a moment as dramatic as that, but possibly we have had an experience of a special closeness with God, one which has come to us as a surprise. Perhaps we are alone and needy or sad and, all of a sudden, we feel the presence of a loving God. Maybe we are standing on a mountain top or by the sea and the very beauty of the creation lifts up our heart. Or we could be a grand old cathedral, or some other sacred spot, and it is as though the memories which lie there reach out to touch us with love and wonder.

Sometimes it may be a confronting moment when the Spirit gently but firmly faces us with who we are becoming.

Then, finally, we have the moment of connection with the Holy Spirit in the story in Acts when everyone finds the Spirit speaking to them in their own language. This is a story which we could hold dear. We are connected to God, through the Holy Spirit who speaks to us in a form which we each can understand.

I want to suggest that this may not really be confined to the actual language which we speak, but is about the God who engages with us in ways which relate to who we are, our history and culture, our life-experience and capacities. We don’t need to have a theology degree to understand this God in the Spirit.

This reality may also mean that we each have special insights to offer to each other which arise from this relationship.

Our Church Council is engaged in exercises of personal communication which arise from the Sydney Alliance. We spend 20 minutes, two by two, sharing our response to one question, like “When were you first aware of God?” It is fascinating to not only discover more about the journey of the person concerned, but to hear insights and wisdom from the person which you may not have heard before.

We really do hear the Spirit addressing us in our own language and what we hear may be a grand and beautiful gift for someone else. The power of being part of a church congregation lies in the wisdom and inspiration which is gathered there for sharing and for seeing a new vision for our life together.

This coming week, it is the birthday of the first Buddha. As I reflected on that, it seemed to me that we, who are Christian, cannot really claim that the Holy Spirit first came to us a couple of thousand years ago. Surely the First Peoples of our land, those who have lived here for more than 24,000 years and who sensed a Divine presence in the earth beneath them and in the Dreaming were must have been visited by the Holy Spirit? The God who in whom we believe would surely not be waiting until the followers of Christ came along and leaving everyone else without the inspiration and power of the Holy Spirit?

In reflecting on this, I am suggesting that we may have much to learn from people of other faiths – those who heard the Spirit’s wisdom in their own language and culture. None of this diminishes the wonder of the Christ who walked our way and witnessed to the costly and risen life which is possible in God. On the contrary, it may enhance our lives and relationships in ways which surprise and inspire us.

In the silence, as we complete the homily together, let us reflect on a moment when we had a particular sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit, or when we received a gift from another’s insight.

Then, if you wish, come and share and place a little flame before the flame of the Holy Spirit, or do so in silence.

Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon