This sermon was preached at our service of Morning Prayer on Sunday 31 May. The audio recording of the service is posted below under 'Downloads.'
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place (Acts 2:1).
Friends, on this Day of Pentecost in the Year of Our Lord 2020, that opening verse from Acts chapter 2 might sting a bit – because of course, due to the pandemic, we are unable to gather together in one place to celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, our Helper and Comforter.
And we rightly grieve that hard reality even as we trust in the Spirit to help and comfort us in these extraordinary and difficult times.
But today, as a church family of St. James Caledon East, we mainly grieve the death of our beloved friend and long-time member Norman Taylor, who died peacefully yesterday morning at home, surrounded by his wife Lois and their three daughters.
For that reason, thinking back to our message from several weeks ago, Norm’s death was a good death, even a beautiful death. He showed us what the Christian art of dying is all about.
But even so, Death is painful and our grief is compounded by the fact that we will not be able to gather together in one place with Lois and their family to grieve as we normally would at a funeral. And so we pray for the Spirit to help and comfort us, but especially Lois and her children and grandchildren, almost all of whom were unable to gather together in one place to say goodbye to their grandfather.
Norm will be remembered for his remarkably kind heart, good nature and steadfast faith in God, which were all truly exemplary during his long battle with cancer. Sometimes I lament that ‘they don’t make ‘em like that anymore,’ but that’s not true, or at least, it doesn’t have to be. That’s because Norm was living proof of what the Holy Spirit can do in the lives of all who put their trust in God. The Spirit not only helped and comforted Norm in his suffering, but was also shown forth in the fruits of the Spirit that were borne so abundantly in Norm’s life and character: the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22).
And so although we grieve Norm’s death – and the fact that we cannot do so together in one place - above all we give thanks for his saintly witness, which is to say, that the promises of God were fulfilled in his life – an eternal life.
And friends, because the Holy Spirit is still alive and active, that can be true for you too. You too can be helped and comforted in your suffering, you too can have the fruits of the Spirit grow in your life. The Spirit is what will change and heal your own life and through you heal this broken world, in which you are called and empowered to be an agent of love and peace.
That brings me to the subject of another recent death and current event of this past week. As you no doubt will have seen on the news, even the pandemic has not stopped many gatherings in one place of protesters in major American cities, protesting the murder of a black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer, who strangled Floyd for almost 9 minutes while Floyd gasped, ‘I can’t breathe’. This is just the latest act of brutality and injustice against the African-American people, who have suffered this kind of treatment for 400 years.
I’m hesitant to comment on politics south of the border, but this is not merely a political issue: it is an affront the dignity and unity of the entire human family; and for that reason it relates directly to the story of Pentecost.
On the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended as tongues of fire on the disciples and they were empowered to speak of the mighty works of God in the languages of all nations and peoples under heaven. This was the first fruits of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham: that all nations of this broken world would be blessed and unified through his offspring, Jesus Christ – the One anointed with the Holy Spirit to be Israel’s Messiah and the King of kings and Lord of lords, the Prince of Peace for all nations and peoples.
Jesus, the risen and ascended King, has been given authority over all nations by God the Father (Psalm 2); and at His coronation, the Father also gives a gift to us – the gift of the Spirit. All members of the Church, Christ’s body, are anointed with His Spirit to continue His work of extending His unifying blessing to all nations.
And so through the Spirit poured out from on high on the Day of Pentecost, the curse of the Tower of Babel is reversed. In our first reading from Genesis 11, we heard how the languages and peoples of the earth were confused and scattered. This was the consequence of humanity’s perennial attempt to build a tower up to heaven - that is, to climb up to God’s throne and boot Him out, so that we can rule on our own terms, with our own laws, in our own ways. And history has proven time and again how unjust humanity’s own terms, laws and ways can be.
And so on this Day of Pentecost 2020, a different sort of flame smolders in the streets of numerous cities. It is a fire of rage. And so we pray that those raging flames would be consumed by the purifying flame of the Pentecostal Spirit so as to bring unity to divided races and peoples once again.
We pray that the Spirit, the Helper and Comforter, would bless those whom Jesus promised would be blessed in Him: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted (Matthew 5:1-12).
We pray that the Holy Spirit, the bond of love between God the Father and God the Son, would abide with all who love Jesus and keep His commandments.
We pray that the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, whom Jesus handed over when He breathed His last on the cross (John 19:30), would give life and breath to all who are suffocated by the sins of racism and abuse of power.
Speaking of the Spirit and breath, one of the most powerful ways in which human beings are filled with God’s Spirit and breath is through singing. And perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the African-American church is its music and singing. Many of their old spiritual songs were first sung in the days of slavery - and one of their main themes is the Exodus.
For example, in ‘Go down Moses,’ the words are: ‘When Israel was in Egypt's land / Let my people go / Oppress'd so hard they could not stand / Let my people go / Go down, Moses / Way down in Egypt's land / Tell old Pharaoh / Let my people go.’
By singing those words, filled with God’s Spirit and breath, the slaves were able to endure their affliction. Centuries later, the same breath filled the hymn-singing civil rights movement.
And friends, we can learn from that powerful example: we too should sing in our own times of suffering, even if our suffering is not nearly so severe. That’s why singing at funerals and wakes is so powerful and healing. (One day we will gather together here in one place to sing hymns at a memorial service for Norm Taylor).
And so my practical, take-home suggestion for you today is to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs in the meantime (Ephesians 5:19). That's how you can be filled with the Spirit. YouTube is a great resource for hymn singing. You can also sing along with the recordings of our own musicians. Since you'll be in the comfort of your own home, if you're self-conscious about your voice, you have no excuse! By intentionally singing hymns while we're scattered, our voices will be united in one Spirit; and by practicing individually, our congregational singing will be improved when we're able to gather back together in one place to sing God's praises as one body.
Singing can heal wounds, change hearts and unite the world. That’s because singing is human breath in glorified form. It’s God’s breath in us. The Holy Spirit is the breath of God the Holy Trinity. God the Father speaks His Word and the Spirit gives that Word melody, rhythm and force. God sings creation into being by His Word by the breath of the Spirit.
So often the sounds and noise we hear from this broken world are dissonant and out of tune. But we trust that because Jesus reigns, all things are being brought into subjection under His feet (1 Corinthians 15:27). And as God redeems and reconciles the world He loves, all the various themes of creation’s history will be harmonized by the Holy Spirit when we are gathered together in one place in the New Jerusalem of the new heaven and new earth, where all nations, tribes and tongues forever sing God’s praise around His glorious throne (Revelation 9:7-17).
That chorus of heaven sings even now; and we know that our beloved brother Norm has entered into that glorious company and now sings in that great choir. We trust that their singing will help our own. For that, thanks be to God.