but I have just completed my sermon for tomorrow Evening. Miracles do happen! Mind you, I still have to sort out all the powerpoint material for OpenHouse tomorrow, and source some exciting Pentecost images (the best thing I could find on the web is here You click on the photo to make things happen...but it depends on internet access, which the church just doesn't have. Do have a look anyway, though). Meanwhile, though, writing this sermon was personally quite challenging, and as I can confidently expect a congregation of up to 12 at Evensong I'm going to be very brave and post it here, not because I think it's amazingly good, but because you are the community where I look for accountability.
Sermon for Pentecost: 4th June 2006.
Ezekiel 36 22-28; Acts 2 22-38
“I will give you a new heart…I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh”
I was just 7 when Christian Barnard carried out the first heart transplant but I can still remember the huge excitement that the surgery generated. It seemed unimaginable, that the body could survive such a major invasion, could deal with the disruption of a total shutdown of the normal systems and actually, incredibly, emerge stronger and healthier afterwards...
Today apparently at least 300 heart transplants are carried out in the UK each year. If all goes well, the recipients should then be indistinguishable from the mass of humanity around them,- but they are often quoted saying, in various ways
“This surgery has changed my life…now I can live life to the full again.”
For long centuries, the constant beating of the heart has represented life itself, till it has become symbolic of a person’s character. Are you soft hearted? Do you wear your heart on your sleeve? Is your heart warm or cold? We don’t even think about the physical reality that lies behind these everyday expressions, and certainly dramatic surgical intervention is something that Ezekiel and his Old Testament audience would never have dreamed of. Nonetheless, Ezekiel speaks the same language as those transplant patients.
“I will give you a new heart…”
A whole new heart….and one that is more healthy than its predecessor…
A change of heart that leads to a change of life…a fuller life than ever before.
Impossible? No,- with God nothing’s impossible.
To read our two passages in parallel as we have tonight is to appreciate just how fully the coming of the Holy Spirit was prefigured in the writing of the Old Testament, for surely what we hear about in Acts is indeed a gathering of the nations…
Jews from all over the Roman Empire returning to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Pentecost. I wonder what their expectations were…
A chance to catch up with family and friends? Perhaps?
The opportunity to worship God in his Temple? Of course
A time to celebrate his gift of the Torah,- and the day when Moses descended from the holy mountain, bearing those two stone tablets on which were enshrined the essential rules of God’s people?
A heart transplant?? No way!.
But as Peter stood up to speak, they must have guessed that they were looking at someone whose heart had been changed – right there before their eyes. Something had surely happened to transform the frightened, disheartened fisherman who’d been in hiding with his friends into this charismatic orator, addressing a crowd of thousands,- never mind his unexpected gift with languages.
Such was the power of the Holy Spirit, everything about him was different,- and we ourselves are heirs of that difference, since the same Spirit is available to us here and now. Each of us is called into that new kind of life, first at Baptism then again and again throughout our Christian life.
For us, God is both surgeon and donor. At Baptism, it is he, working through the priest as the representative of his Church, who offers us a new lease of spiritual life, the life that comes directly from him. It’s this life that Jesus won for us by his death on the cross. His death, leading to our life…. That's what we are baptised into.
If we call someone stony-hearted, we're recognising that in some ways they are less than human, because they seem untouched by the troubles and sufferings of the rest of the world. But when God offers us a new heart, a feeling "heart of flesh" that heart will be as full of love and concern as is His own. We will become the people whom, all along, he intended us to be. That sense lies, too, behind the promise to bring us into our own land, the place where we can truly be at home, fully ourselves. As Augustine says,God had made us for himself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in him….He is our homeland.
Of course, the most common problem in all transplant surgery is that of rejection. The body is simply unable to accept the new healthy heart and the other organs shut down in rebellion. I’d say that’s a familiar phenomenon in our spiritual lives too. When we look at ourselves, at the church, and the world, we see minimal evidence of the transformed lives our readings celebrate. We read about the contagious Christianity of the early Church with a mixture of incredulity and awe, and compare ourselves unfavourably. What’s gone wrong? Was the gift of the Spirit after all a one-off event,- necessary so that the Church might be born, but no longer in evidence today? I’m writing these words on Saturday, - and though I know we’ll pray earnestly tomorrow that the Spirit may come down upon us, I’m not altogether sure that I really expect something radical to happen.
Which, of course, makes me part of the problem.
The Holy Spirit is an enabler, and not a dictator.
If we are too frightened to open our hearts to her, she won’t force us to do so…and it seems to me that very often we are ruled by our fears. We understand, don’t we, that open-heart surgery is not something to undertake lightly.
Who knows where we’ll end up, or how different our lives may look if we let the Spirit in to our lives, as individuals and as a church. It’s scary stuff.
We might need to jettison things that we really value, might have to put our selves on the line…
Let’s just think about this for a minute.
Perhaps my old heart isn't that unhealthy after all…no transplants today, please. I’ll hang on and see if I recover by myself.
When it comes down to it, I’m not certain I actually want to change so much that I stick out from the crowd. Sure, I want to be transformed by the Spirit, but not so that I actually have to change my daily lifestyle, make sacrifices, whether of time, of money or of self-esteem,- take the initiative, repair damaged relationships,.
Deep down, I may not be sure that I can really trust the surgeon here,- and I don’t want to die on the table.
I suspect that I’m not alone in this kind of internal struggle, but I do realise that ultimately it’s a mug’s game. None of us can actually turn ourselves around to become the sort of shiny spiritual beings we long to be unless we offer the Holy Spirit a free hand in our lives. We can’t guarantee that we’ll emerge from the process with everything that we THINK we need preserved intact…but we can trust God to look after the essentials. After all, he loves us even more than we love ourselves,- and his vision for our lives is something wonderful beyond our wildest imaginings.
So,- what to do now?
The disciples spent time together in prayer, as they waited and longed for the Comforter, the one who would strengthen them for their mission to the world,- so prayer, honest, open prayer seems a good place for us to begin.
And while we pray, we might perhaps begin to experiment with trying to live transformed lives.
If we’re finding it hard to believe that God really is at work changing things where we are, then perhaps we might go looking for him out in the world. If we fear that he will drive us beyond our comfort zones, then stepping out in that direction might itself be a step towards meeting him. We may not feel as if we’ve been transformed, but if we begin to live that way the process may surprise us en route. After all, Jesus spent most of his time on the margins, mixing with people whom we might not normally choose to befriend. Perhaps he would like us to look for him there…or he might surprise us by standing waiting right on our own doorstep.
I honestly don’t know,- but I’d like the courage to explore.
So, it’s back to prayer. If we ask, God will give us a new heart so that we can recognise, welcome and love him in all people and in all places…
We may never share the dramatic heights of charismatic experience,- but the promise which God makes through Ezekiel holds good today. He offers us nothing less than his own Spirit of love, and invites us into a relationship with him, a relationship that can transform not just every aspect of our present reality, but which offers boundless possibilities for the future too.
“You shall be my people and I will be your God.”
“Lord, your summons echoes true if you but call my name
Let me come and follow you and never be the same.
In your company I’ll go
Where you love and healing show
So I’ll live and move and grow in you
And you in me.”