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At the risk of putting off future generations I want to let you know that at our confirmation class last week, I gave out pencil and paper and asked the candidates to draw the Holy Spirit. No-one appeared to be too worried by this and as you would expect there were pictures of fire, flames and wind as well as some other ideas. Representing the Holy Spirit is difficult, in our service this morning we will use the images of light, fire, wind, sound, flame and power in the readings, collects and other prayers almost interchangeably. The common theme though, is that all these are untouchable, they are not very concrete, the wind blows but cannot be seen, the flame flickers casting orange and red light but cannot be caught and it seems to me that language has this property too, of being at once indefinable yet somehow very solid. Think of poetry, in a few words an image, a sense, a feeling a nuance can be created that like the wind or the flame is ethereal and almost impossible to otherwise describe.
I was very fortunate while living in France to learn the language sufficiently to allow me to think in French and to speak more or less fluently rather than formulating ideas in English and translating them. Certainly then and even now there are some concepts that I can express with a French word or phrase but cannot adequately manage in my mother English simply because there doesn’t seem to exist an exact equivalent. The miracle of Pentecost, that all those nationalities, Moabites, Parthians, Mesopotamians and so on could understand as if in their native tongue, is indeed amazing and astonishing.
It is easy to get even simple ideas wrong. One day at a conference one of my French colleagues seeing me emerge from a side meeting on a particular subject smilingly asked me “Did you assist at that meeting?” “No I didn’t” I replied since in my opinion I had been of no help at all. My friend looked very shocked and wandered off. It was only later I realised that he had meant to say in a conversational sort of way: “Did you go to that meeting” which is the correct rendering of the French verb “assister.” He was only trying to have a chat, no wonder he had me down as insufferably rude!
No such problems though for Peter and the Apostles, empowered by the Holy Spirit this was a miracle, so perfect that everyone understood what was being said as if they had said it, or thought it themselves. Notice too that here in the very birth of the church the message of God’s saving grace is made available to everyone, there is a unity.
I have been puzzling recently over these questions of mutual understanding and unity, provoked in part by David Cameron’s questions about multiculturalism, in part by a friend who is trying to mediate between Hindu and Muslim groups in India and the commonplace thought that our society has become more tolerant. You know I am not really sure about that. Since the end of World War Two we have been good at recognising different viewpoints and of saying that they have a right to exist and to be heard, something that we call tolerance but at the same time we have agreed, maybe too easily to separations and divisions. Think of Pakistan and India, North and South Vietnam, North and South Korea, East and West, and even if the Berlin Wall fell there was soon another one built this time on the Israeli West Bank.
Our tolerance seems to be less about really seeking understanding with one another and more about simply and grudgingly putting up with things we don’t like: I’ll put up with your views but keep them behind the 19th or the 17th parallel or behind the barrier. Even our own Anglican church with its divisions about women priests with ministers and even Bishops moving to the Catholic church in opposition to the proposals seems not to be immune to this.
Yet surely Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, doesn’t encourage division or segregation at all but is a model of the perfect communication and uninhibited understanding that God wants for all his created people.
The first observable act of the Holy Spirit was to enable understanding.
So, I want to leave you with the thought that it is not enough, at least in serious subjects, simply to know that someone holds a different view to us, we need to explore what it is they really mean, to get inside their thinking and to do our best however hard, and untouchable to understand their language and as witnessing Christians in the community to do our very best to help them understand ours.