I’m sure it is no coincidence that Christian Aid week quite often coincides with Pentecost and this sermon considers the link between them. It follows a reading of John 14:8-17 and 25-27 in which Jesus promises his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Today is Christian Aid Sunday which is something I am passionate about. Every year, hundreds of thousands of volunteers, almost all of them Christian church-goers, flood out onto the streets during Christian Aid week and raise over £6 million. The annual collection is the largest single act of Christian witness we have in this country.
Its history is particularly relevant to us in Europe at the moment. It started in the aftermath of the Second World War, as Christian Reconstruction in Europe. When British and Irish Church ministers met determined to do everything they could to help European refugees who had last everything. We tend to think as refugees as a modern challenge but Christian Aid has been addressing their needs for nearly 70 years.
Today is also Pentecost. The Christian celebration of God’s Spirit coming among us to inspire, motivate and empower us to go into the world and work for the coming of God’s Kingdom. What better symbol could we have of this than Christian Aid week? Even the colours match. The liturgical colour for Pentecost is red. In the church I went to when we lived in Australia we were all encouraged to wear red at Pentecost. On many years I went along in the shirt I am wearing today. The colour of Christian Aid week is also red. Every collector who goes onto the streets this week will be carrying a bright red bag like this one. Look out for them, recognise God’s Spirit at work on our streets.
One aspect of Christian Aid week that I want to focus on this morning is how it is so obviously a good thing. We just look at it, all those people giving up their time, to collect significant sums of money for people throughout the world who have nothing. We have heard this morning the Word’s that the author of John’s gospel attributes to Jesus:
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.
God is going to give us the Spirit of Truth. We shall recognise this because it will be written in our hearts. The idea that an ability to recognise God and Truth, through what is written in our hearts is a strong and recurrent theme in the Bible. It’s true isn’t it? When we see God acting most powerfully in our lives we can recognise it instantly. There is something deep within us that responds to God and recognises him. Christian Aid week is a good example of this. We can see what is going on and something deep within us responds and recognises God working through it. All those Christians across Britain and Ireland setting out to ask for money, the money itself (£6.5 million pounds), the network of international partners to whom that money is spent. Most importantly we recognise God in the way that the lives of some of the poorest people in the world are transformed. All over the world people like Morsheda are being transformed into people like Feroza.
This ability to recognise God’s will through an effect deep within us and the willingness to be led by that experience is fundamental to Christianity. It contrasts strongly, however, with the way the rest of the world is moving at the moment. There seems to me to be a rapidly growing conviction that all we need to do to be responsible members of society is to keep within the law. The emphasis seems to be shifting from a desire to do what is good to a lesser goal of merely avoiding what is illegal. Within this there is a further trend to push the boundaries of the law so that many individuals and institutions will try and bend the law as much as possible to their advantage. Perhaps the clearest example at the moment is international tax law. The positions of the establishment at the moment appears to be that as long as companies are managing their businesses within the law then they are behaving appropriately. This leads to the situation in which the largest companies spend extremely large amounts of money employing clever people to work out ways of avoiding paying tax. This may be through multi-national companies transferring funds between different countries or by setting up labyrinthine and secretive financial arrangements based around foreign tax havens. Whenever these arrangements are questioned the establishment response is generally that the companies and individuals have done nothing illegal. We need to understand that there is a difference between doing what is legal and doing what is right. Doing what is legal results in trillions of dollars being sucked out of the world economy, particularly in the developing world, and deposited in secretive bank accounts. That money dwarfs the total global development budget, let alone what Christian Aid collects each year. If the world could focus on what is good rather than what is legal there would be absolutely no need for Christian Aid. God is not satisfied with us doing what is legal, he wants us to do what is right and to help us distinguish between the two he has sent his Spirit to live within us.
Most of us understand what Pentecost represents as a Christian Festival but to understand its significance we also need to understand what it represented as a Jewish festival. To the Jews, Pentecost was, and still is, a festival to mark God giving the Ten Commandments. It occurs 49 days after Passover to reflect the Jewish understanding, from biblical texts, that God gave the Jews the Ten Commandments 49 days after they had been liberated from Egypt on the first Passover. The Ten Commandments were a great move forwards in the history of religion. It is one of the very first ethical codes adopted by any religion anywhere. The commandments marked a transition from assuming that religion was primarily about appeasing God, or the gods, by religious ritual, particularly those involving animal sacrifice, to a view that religion should guide how we live our everyday lives.
The commandments were still, however, essentially a list of laws. It wasn’t long before those ten laws multiplied within Jewish culture. The books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus are almost entirely composed of laws. Laws about what you should eat, how you should worship, how you should dress. As a church we visited the Manchester Jewish Museum within the old Synagogue on Cheetham Hill Road just north of the city centre. It was fascinating visit but left me quite depressed at the emphasis there seemed to be observing what seemed to be as rather petty rules.
The early Christian movement presented something quite different – a new relationship with God not through observance of laws but through a personal relationship with the Spirit written in our hearts. It is now coincidence that that movement remembers that gift as being given on the Jewish festival of Pentecost. The symbolism is that the emphasis on observation of the Law has been replaced by that on a personal relationship with God. We have replaced a Jewish festival which celebrates one with a Christian festival which celebrates the other.
So let us join in that celebration. Let us all recognise the Spirit of God written within our hearts. Let us be inspired by the disciples who first experienced God in their hearts and went out to do what is right. Let us be inspired by all those Christian Aid collectors who have experienced God in their hearts and are stepping out of the comfort of their homes to do what they believe is right. Let us not be satisfied, either as individuals or as a society, with doing what is legal. Let us work for what is right. It is only through doing this that we will work together with each other and our God to build his Kingdom.