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Archbishop Costelloe Delivers Address at Choral Evensong for Christian Unity Week

Pentecost Sunday


Homily for Evensong at St George’s Cathedral

When I was a young man still deciding what I wanted to do with my life I used to help out in my local parish in Melbourne by teaching catechism to young people on a Sunday morning. I well remember one particular Sunday, which happened to be Pentecost Sunday, getting all the children together to sing Happy Birthday to the Church. At the time I must have thought it was a good idea although I am not so sure that I would still think so today. Perhaps I have become more sophisticated in my theology, or possibly just more pompous, but I think I would try to find other ways of helping the young people understand that, in some important way, the feast of Pentecost is really the feast day of the Church’s beginnings.

This is certainly one of the perspectives found in Saint Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus, which we find in his gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles. The image of the community of the disciples of Jesus, made up Luke tells us of the eleven apostles, several women including Mary the mother of Jesus, and Jesus’ brothers, all joined together in continuous prayer, points to the fundamental continuity between the people who gathered around Jesus in faith during his life and the community who gathered in hope and joy after his resurrection. And it was on this community, gathered together in the upper room where Jesus had shared his last meal with the twelve, that the Holy Spirit descended, his presence symbolized by the powerful wind and the flames of fire which came to rest on each of those present.

It was through the power of this divine Spirit that each of those on whom the Spirit descended began to speak foreign languages as the Spirit gave them the gift of speech. And as they spoke, empowered by the Holy Spirit, those who heard them were amazed. “How is it” they said, “that each of us hears these people in our own native language?”

The Scripture scholars will tell us that this Pentecost event represents the reversal of the events associated with the building of the Tower of Babel, which we read about in Genesis chapter 11. In response to the efforts of the people who built a tower on the plains of Shinar high enough to reach to the heavens, the dwelling place of God himself, God descends and confuses their speech so that they can no longer understand each other. The people have sought to be equal with God, dwelling in his own realm, and the result of their pride and their overweening ambition is the loss of their ability to communicate with and understand each other. In the logic of the book of Genesis of course, this act of pride and hubris is the last chapter in a long story of human sinfulness, beginning with the disobedience of Adam and Eve, the subsequent murderous act of Cain who kills his brother Abel, and the gradual sinking into sin of the whole people which leads to the great flood. The biblical writers, inspired by God, have sought to teach us that once sin enters into the human story it brings with it death and destruction, and the poisoning of relationships, both with God and with each other. This poisoning of relationships is powerfully symbolized by the confusing of the languages, and it is this which the great event of Pentecost reverses. The Church it seems is called into being in order to be an instrument of unity and a source of healing for broken relationships, with God and with each other.

St John’s gospel has a different approach to this central mystery of our faith. For the author of the fourth Gospel the outpouring of the Spirit happens on the hill of Calvary as Jesus dies on the cross. Indeed John will express this slightly differently: Jesus does not “die” on the cross. Rather he bows his head in death and in doing so pours out his Spirit on the Church gathered at the foot of the cross, symbolized by Mary the great woman of faith and by the one apostle who remains true to Jesus, the Beloved Disciple, known to us as John, who is the great symbol of true discipleship. The gift of the Spirit, poured out on the Church, empowers the Church to be a community of faith and discipleship. In John’s Gospel, this is who we are and what we are called to become.

What John and Luke have in common, of course, is their absolute conviction that the gift of the Holy Spirit is all about the reversal of the tragic and destructive story of human sinfulness symbolized, in chapter 11 of the Book of Genesis, by the confusion of the languages of the people. For the ancient writer of Genesis, it is not just the confusion of languages of course which is so significant. The effects of that confusion are also far reaching. All the people, we are told, were scattered over the face of the earth. Where the story in the first section of the book of Genesis begins with the first human community, Adam and Eve, living in harmony with each other and with God, it unfolds in a tragic way to the point where that harmony and that unity is destroyed. The people created by God and given to each other no longer cling to each other as one: rather they are scattered across the face of the earth.

The death of Jesus is God’s final answer to this sorry tale of human sinfulness. When the High Priest Caiaphas tells the chief priests and the Pharisees that it is better that one man, Jesus, should die for the people than that the whole nation should perish, the gospel writer, as he so often does, adds a comment of his own. “Caiaphas” he tells us, “did not speak in his own person for it was as High Priest that he made the prophecy that Jesus was to die for the nation”. And then John goes on to add, “and not for the nation only, but to gather together in unity the scattered children of God”. It was sin that had scattered the children of God across the face of the earth and left them unable even to communicate with each other. It would be the death of Jesus which would, finally, destroy the destructiveness of sin and re-establish the unity of God’s children.

It is Jesus himself who, in John’s gospel, explains this to us. “When I am lifted up from the earth,” he says, “I will draw all people to myself”. These words are reminiscent, in some ways, of something which Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel: “Come to me all you who labour and are over-burdened and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light”. And these words, in their turn, bring to my mind at least the words of Jesus which I chose as my motto as the Catholic Archbishop of Perth: “I am the way. I am the Truth. I am the Life.” It is as if Jesus is saying to us. “If you want to know the way, follow me. If you want to know the truth, listen to me. If you want to experience life, unite yourself to me.”

As we gather in St George’s Cathedral this evening on the Feast of Pentecost to sing God’s praises and to thank him for the extraordinary gift of our Christian faith, we do so with his urgent prayer to his Father very much in our minds and hearts: “Father, I pray not only for these but for those also who through their words will believe in me. May they all be one. Father may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me.” The prayer of Jesus, and the heartfelt plea of Jesus to us, that we should be one, united to each other in love as Jesus and the Father are united in love, is one we cannot ignore. It leads us to ask the same question which was put to Peter after his Pentecost speech: “What then must we do?” Personally, notwithstanding the many issues of great importance which continue to divide the Christian community both here in Perth and around our country and our world, at least at the theological level, I think the answer is quite simple. It is the answer given by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel: “Come to me”. It is the answer pointed to by John as he retells the story of the death of Jesus: “They will look on the one whom they have pierced”. It is the answer given by Jesus when he tells us where to find the way, how to come to know the truth, where to experience the fullness of life: “I am the way, the truth and the life.” If we who seek to be disciples of Jesus keep our eyes fixed on him and our hearts open to the gift of his Holy Spirit who, he assured us, would lead us into the fullness of the truth, can we not go forward with confidence, not ignoring our differences, not pretending that they don’t matter, but knowing that it is the Lord’s way and not our own that we seek to follow, it is the Lord’s truth and not our own that we seek to grasp, and it is the Lord’s life, the breath of His Holy Spirit, rather than our own, which we seek to welcome into our hearts?

“When I am lifted up I will draw all people to myself.” From wherever we find ourselves at the moment, if we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and allow him to draw us more and more to him as the one who stands at the centre of everything, we will find, perhaps even to our surprise, that we are being drawn closer to each other. Like Mary and the Beloved Disciple, gathered together in communion at the foot of the cross, we will meet each other around the cross of Christ and find ourselves anointed by the outpouring of his Spirit of love. Eventually, because it is his work more than ours, and his will more than ours, we will be one as he and the Father are one, and the world will come to know that it is God who sent his Son and it is the same God who sends us, in the name of his Son, to be the living witnesses, signs and bearers, of God’s love for us and for all his people.