Whitsun: "It's All About the 'F' Word"

The Revd Margaret Legg

It’s all about the ‘f’ word – no not the word I had to ban from the house when the family were younger - but rather several ‘f’ words: fear, faith and fire!

When I was a child, Whitsun was a great celebration, not least because Whit Monday was a Bank Holiday. Indeed the whole week – Whitsuntide - was too, but that was before my time! Now a days it’s been air brushed out of the calendar – tomorrow we have the Spring Bank Holiday (fixed in 1971as the last Monday in May) and it’s pure chance it falls on the old Whit Monday. The whole festival has, it seems to me, become rather lacklustre, lukewarm, another of the church’s quaint rituals. It doesn’t seem to fire us up any more. Yet today sees the disciples, with their fearful, timid post resurrection faith, set on fire! Not literally, but enthused, finally confident enough to speak out publicly about repentance and forgiveness and so effectively that 3000 were baptised, all in one day. Hence the Whitsun that I recall from my youth, as the newly baptised wore white garments. Jesus had told them this would happen, when he appeared to them in the Upper Room on that first Easter Day (Luke’s Gospel), where they had locked themselves in ‘for fear of the Jews’. But it’s taken 50 days (Pentecost means the 50th) to change their fearful faith into a faith that fires us up, gives us confidence.

Pentecost invites us to consider what sets us on fire, what is our passion, our dream and through the prism of faith, for it to become a reality. And I wonder if we have a tendency to be a bit fearful around our faith, to be less than enthusiastic? In this secular society in which we find ourselves, scepticism about faith seems to be almost the norm. And in such a climate far from firing us up, faith can almost inhibit us, dampen our enthusiasms because encouragement and support from the ‘world’ is lacking. The disciples found this – can’t you just picture those elements in the crowd sneering at them and discounting what was going on as the antics of a few drunks. Well, don’t let it get to you – in this country, these are the minority.

As the saying goes: fear knocked on the door, faith answered it, nothing was there.

Often in my work as a chaplain at St Mary’s Hospital I'm effectively making cold calls on the wards – pausing by each bed. As I enter the bay I take a deep breath. What response will I get when the patients see my collar? Over the years, I have come to realise that most are people of faith but are shy, wary of letting it be known. And if they don’t want to have anything to do with me, they just close their eyes, look down, shake their head.

Last week, summoned by the Bishop, we gathered to hear Baroness Scotland, the Attorney General under the Labour Government, speak about ‘Faith in the Public Square’. She spoke about being treated as an oddity because she was quite open about her faith. One example was how, in the days when she practised as a barrister, her team congratulated her on winning her case. When she responded by saying ‘Not me, God did it.’ The reaction was ‘Ah yes – she’s a Christian - sweet!’ ie poor thing, a bit weird. The 21st equivalent of the disciples being drunk!!   Her gentle challenge to us was not to let that secular mind set put us off living as people of faith. Discover what fires you up, enthuses you and your faith you will give you the confidence to do something to make it a reality.

The Spirit comes to the disciples on a massive, Jewish double celebration. At Pentecost the Jews commemorate the giving of the law by Moses and celebrate a new harvest – the wheat harvest is over and the barley harvest begins. For Christians it marks the giving of a new law – written not on tablets of stone but on the hearts of the people and of a new harvest - the harvest of spiritual food, of the gifts of the Spirit.  Gifts which are different for each of us. Today is an opportunity to think about our gifts, to ask that we may know them and have the confidence to use them. The Spirit is there, in each of us, knowing more about us than we ourselves may know, ready to guide us,to lead us to the truth about ourselves and about our faith, to help us when our courage falters, to pray for us when words elude us.

Now prayer won’t give you stuff on a plate (Gilbert Shaw, a priest working in the East End in the 1930’s said). You have to want it. Neither is it a ‘magic medicine’. Open wide, take the recommended dose and ‘Hey Presto’, your dream becomes a reality!

But it will inspire, give you the confidence and the drive to work for it and to believe that it can become a reality, with the power of God to drive it with us.

Just last month a friend finally qualified as an accountant. It’s like a dream come true. She has always been good with figures and wanted to do accountancy but never had the self-belief that she could manage to do all the studying, never had the self confidence that she could pass the exams. Until she fell in love and her boyfriend believed in her and encouraged and supported her over several years. And now she has done it!

If the love of a boyfriend can achieve that,what can the love of God in the Holy Spirit achieve!

One of the other stories Baroness Scotland told us was how in 2011, she was outgoing shadow attorney general with no resources and no power to speak of. Yet she was fired up and on a mission - to start a Global Foundation for the Elimination of Domestic Violence. This is very courageous minister, her civil servants would say, a bold initiative. Civil Service speak for ‘absolutely crazy, you must be off your rocker!’ She held firm, in faith, firing on all cylinders in her resolve and at the last minute help came from, of all sources, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan-Smith who allocated to her a Grade 6 Civil Servant.

So what sets us on fire?  Do we know what our gifts are and are we using them? A listener, hearing the lonely and giving them the companionship they crave. An employer with the gift of managing and developing staff, seeing them blossom under your tutelage

That’s the thing: it’s not just for others, when we are enthused and use our gifts then we too are transformed, like the disciples at Pentecost.

Forget Fearful Faith – Fire up with Faith!