Todays readings for Pentecost Sunday plus the Feast of St. Dunstan Acts 2:1-21 Psalm 104:26-36 Romans 8:22-27 John 15:26-27,16:4b-15
Transcript of the Sermon given by Right Reverend Alison Taylor.
WHAT IS REALLY HAPPENING AT PENTECOST?
This morning’s Reading from the Book of Acts describes Pentecost, and what is an extraordinary event it is. The apostles are all together in Jerusalem after the Ascension, for the Jewish Feast of Weeks. There is a great noise, like that produced by a hurricane. Then tongues of fire appear over the heads of the followers of Jesus. Now, the noise and the fire are what is being heard and seen here, but what is really happening? The reading from Acts says that as these signs appear, the apostles are all filled with the Holy Spirit. But what does that mean? We learn that the apostles were then able to speak in such a way that the thousands of people who were visiting Jerusalem from all over the known world could understand them in their own native language. The reading says that the apostles announced the good news of salvation ‘as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.’ So this puts it simply: at Pentecost Jesus’ followers were filled with the Holy Spirit, meaning that they were given the gifts and power that they needed to help advance the reign of God that Jesus had initiated. Or, put another way, they were being enabled to share in Christ’s mission here on earth. The Holy Spirit had given the apostles courage and gifts and strength of resolve and love on behalf of Christ. And what does this tell us about God, about the blessed Trinity? It tells us that through the Holy Spirit, God continues always to be active in his creation. He hasn’t walked away from it. God loves us and he is always spurring us on to choose to love and to use our gifts and to shave for the sake of ourselves and others, to choose life over death. The Holy Spirit enables us to mirror back into the world a little of the radiance of the life of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit is not confined to the Church – wherever and however you find the kingdom of God being advanced, there is the work of the Holy Spirit – but we can think of the Church is a kind of sacrament of the Holy Spirit.
In the Church we recognise those Christians through history who have shown exceptional courage in their Christian faith, great love and especially who have used their gifts very generously on behalf of God and we call them saints. We speak of them as ‘filled with the Spirit’, just as the apostles were at Pentecost. In the Church we cherish the saints and believe they are with us through the communion of saints. Saint Dunstan is one of these saints of God and he is the patron saint of this parish, meaning the parish is named after him and that we sense a very close connection with him. Now, most of us know that Saint Dunstan was one of the early English saints. He lived from 909 to 988, that is spanning a lot of the tenth century. He was a Benedictine monk and also the Archbishop of Canterbury. Saint Dunstan was probably the most popular saint in England at one time and there are many, many parish churches named after him. We are unique though in Melbourne in having him as our patron saint.
ST DUNSTAN’S CHARISM
Something we often do with saints is to speak of their special charism, what it is about them that especially reflects the glory of God . I once heard the glory of God likened to a disco ball with countless facets that shine and catch the light into the world, and an individual saint’s charism is being just one of those facets, those surfaces which catches the light and reflects something particular about God for us, and from which we in the Church might learn. I think that is the case with St Dunstan, more than a thousand years have passed since he lived and died. What might be St Dunstan’s special charisms for us, here and now? In Camberwell, in the Anglican Church of Australia – in a small parish with great heart but some financial challenges, and in a rapidly changing society where Christianity is not nearly as widely accepted as it was? There are two or three points I would like to make concerning this. The first is that St Dunstan lived in one of the most turbulent times in English history. This was the period before the united English monarchy and there were no fewer than six kings in England and Scotland, each with their own small kingdom. As well, the Danish Viking raids and a presence in England still continued. In fact, many of Dunstan’s relatives in Wessex where he came from held to the old Danish, that is, the Norse religion. Viking sackings had left many monasteries in ruins and the Church in disarray, much diminished and dispirited all over the country. Challenges to the Christian faith and it’s needing to compete with other value systems is not new and should not sap our confidence. We are not defined by the perceptions of the society around us or by their values. The second thing is that Dunstan came from a noble family and, although he was a monk, his life was far from secluded and peaceful. All his life he was known as a man of prayer and great learning, but he lived much of his life at the courts of one king or another and he was an active player in court politics. It was not that he was what we would today call a ‘political animal’: rather, because he stood up at all times for the Christian faith and the welfare of the Church and its people and this meant he made enemies. Once he was thrown into a cesspit and left for dead. Twice he fled royal courts barely escaping with his life. I’m not sure what we can learn from this: perhaps that we too can overcome difficulties and -even quite large ones – that we might face. The third thing is that during his lifetime, Dunstan did manage to re-establish the great monastery at Glastonbury in Somerset, which had fallen into ruin. Then, as Archbishop of Canterbury for nearly thirty years, Dunstan became virtually the Prime Minister of southern England. Dunstan realised that the Church in England could no longer be organised just around the monasteries and he set about strengthening and expanding the parish system. Dunstan cannot have been certain he was reading the signs of the times correctly – one never can be – , but he went ahead, doing what he believed was best with great courage. Making this fundamental change for the Church. I think the common factor in all these aspects of Dunstan’s charism is that he knew the great treasure that his Christian faith was to him. He never resiled from that. He acted out of his faith and for the sake of it, in the very complex and challenging environment that he found himself in. He was not afraid of change. He took the gifts and empowering of the Holy Spirit that were offered to him. I think it’s here that the charism of Saint Dunstan for us can be found.
GIVEN TO ST DUNSTAN’S
It seems audacious to compare St Dunstan’s parish here to the circumstances of Saint Dunstan’s life more than a thousand years ago, and even further back, to the apostles at Pentecost, but that is exactly what I believe we should do. We are the heirs, the descendants, the sons and daughters of those who heard the mighty wind and saw the flames. They heard and saw wondrous signs of God, but so did Saint Dunstan and so can we. We shouldn’t sell ourselves short; we should take ourselves seriously as the people of God in this place. We shouldn’t underestimate the empowering of the Holy Spirit in our lives lived together here. We can believe in Pentecost today and we have the charism of Saint Dunstan with us.