A segment of a pentecost-themed quilt showing a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, against a background of red and yellow flames.

Pentecost for Unitarians

Yesterday we hosted a day conference here at the Essex Church – jointly organised by the World Congress of Faiths and the Alister Hardy Society – on Spirituality, Understanding and Compassion.  Alister Hardy was a marine biologist with a deep interest in spirituality.  He set up the Religious Experience Research Unit, which was originally housed at our Unitarian training college in Oxford.  The Unit’s collection of accounts of religious experiences is now held at Lampeter University – where they hold well over 5,000 personal accounts of religious or spiritual experiences.  As part of my ministry training I did some work on religious experiences and discovered that various research studies have repeated a finding that around 70% of people, will report having had a spiritual or religious experience.  Defining such an experience is the task of an academic paper not an address such as this, but one key way of defining a religious experience is that it is an occurrence that will have had an effect on a person’s life.  A researcher might enquire, “Did you feel changed in some way by what happened?  How has your life been different after this experience?”

With that definition we can then say that on the day of Pentecost that we heard described in the reading from Acts of the Apostles earlier on – Jesus’ followers had a major religious experience that changed their lives forever.  This was the turning point.  This could be considered the start of a new religious movement.  As we look back from 2000 years in the future, we can’t be sure what happened but we can be more sure that something happened to empower this small Jewish group to start preaching the radical spiritual messages they had learnt from Jesus, and preaching them not just to the Jews but to the whole Greek and Roman world.

We’ve just started a study group here at Essex Church – reading Karen Armstrong’s latest book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and Karen Armstrong is going to be speaking at the UUA’s General Assembly next week in North Carolina.  It’s hardly surprising that she has become a popular academic for religious liberals because one of the messages of all her work is that in our modern world we do religions a disfavour if we try to take them literally.  Again and again she reminds us that until relatively recently religious believers were able to operate at a mythic level.  People did not need to take sacred texts as literal truth, but rather as mythic truth.

Now if we bring such a viewpoint to the account of Pentecost whole new possibilities emerge.  We can, as the Rev Robert Hardies does in the sermon we heard an extract from earlier on – entitled Found in Translation – we can consider the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost as a metaphor, as a symbol.  Hardies uses it as a metaphor for the pluralism we find in our own religious communities.  He emphasises the importance of us finding a way through language – through speaking and listening, to bridge the differences that we inevitably find within our congregations.  We know, don’t we, that even in a liberal religious community such as ours, it takes an effort sometimes to understand each other, that both speaker and listener have at times to yield to one another in order to reach an authentic understanding.

We cannot just hope to batter away at people in our own language and expect them to know what we mean.  We cannot in that classic British manner, when finding that someone does not speak English, just say exactly the same words but louder and slower.  As I found myself doing only the other day outside the church whilst trying to direct a group of tourists to Kensington Palace.  “Go along the road and turn right!” I embarrassingly found myself repeating using ever greater decibels in an attempt to get my message across.


As Hardies points out – the miracle of Pentecost is not the fire or even the speaking – it is the understanding.  People from all over the world came and heard the message – heard and understood – isn’t it a marvellous description of the onlookers

‘Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’

Our task then as religious liberals is to overcome the trends of our post modern world, the fragmentation, the sense of separation and alienation – and use the power of communication to bridge the divides that separate so many parts of our world.  What we practice in our church communities we have then to take out to the world in which we live, and this of course is exactly what Jesus’ followers had to do all those years ago.

Remember the realities of their situation and how we are coming to hear about it.  The events of Pentecost are said to have happened around 30AD or Common Era, in the Jewish capital city of Jerusalem.  But when was this event recorded and by who?  The biblical book known as the Acts of the Apostles is generally considered to have been written by Luke the gospel writer – and written around 80AD.  That date in itself is significant.  The story of Pentecost is set in Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish faith and community, the city of the temple of Solomon.  Yet the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD and Jerusalem, a city that had enjoyed a few years of independence, was once again returned to Roman rule.  The Jewish uprising was crushed with great cruelty and loss of life.  By this time the new religious movement had long since moved beyond Jerusalem yet none the less they would all have felt the dreadful loss of the Temple.  The news would have reverberated around the Graeco-Roman world.

In the joyful description of Pentecost there is a sub text – the line “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” gives a clue.  Now that Jerusalem has been destroyed the task is clear – to spread the good news to all the nations of the world.  This new religion is no longer solely for the Jews, it must be made available to everyone.  There was another matter as well.  If you read the books of the New Testament closely there is a recurring message that the kingdom of God is near, that the day of the Lord is on its way.  The early Christians were a Messianic movement and clearly believed the end of the world was nigh.  They gave up their possessions, they lived communally, and they waited for Jesus to return.

By the time Luke is writing Acts of the Apostles and his gospel, his good news, we have a second generation.  Most of Jesus’ original followers will have died having passed their stories, their experiences, on to the next generation – and it is they who start to write these accounts down and in their very act of writing – they start to shape the religion.  And shape it in oh so human ways.  Did you notice the mention of some people doubting what they had heard and sneering and saying the apostles must be filled with new wine.  A few verses later Peter defends them all by saying they cannot possibly be drunk because it is only 9 o clock in the morning.  What a human response.

And so what of us, we seekers and questioners, we too who may have doubts?  Pentecost was, and still is, a Jewish festival – also known as Shavuot, a harvest festival coming 50 days after Pesach or Passover, and commemorating Moses’ receiving of the Ten Commandments.  Pentecost is a key Christian festival, coming 50 days after Easter and commemorating the coming of the Holy Spirit to the apostles.  Maybe we can make our very own holy day of Pentecost, where we recognise that there is indeed something of the Holy Spirit in each of us, a day in which we remind ourselves that we too have something of that spirit to take out into our world – perhaps the message that we say here at Essex Church each year in our membership service

We trust the power of honest communication,

creativity, and kindness, to heal and hold us always.

Isn’t that just the sort of message that a fragmented people in a fragmented world might want, and need, to hear.  Amen

Rev. Sarah Tinker

Sermon – 12th June 2011