Pentecost reflections

Hugh Baker remembers when a sermon became the finest political manifesto for building a just and hard-working society

Like me, you may have had glossy little leaflets through your door at April's end, urging you to vote for.. .whoever. Unsurprisingly, we have grown suspicious of politicians' glowing promises, for the worst examples of how humans treat one another have followed from times when the populace have believed them.

What would you have read, had you received a manifesto from Paris 1793, or St Petersburg 1917, or Germany early 1930s? The future would have glowed with promise, as 'the detritus of the past' was swept away.

It all ends in tears, of course, and maybe we in Britain have learnt our lesson. For a decade, the Party most singularly instrumental in pushing for fairness and equality has ruled...and we now know that the rich have got richer and the poor have got poorer... and we are not bovvered.

There are two contradictory impulses. One is to share; to be kind and caring, to have laws built on justice and equality, to care for the poor, the sick and the mentally disabled. The other is to reward hard work, enterprise and talent, believing that the overall effect on our prosperity is worth the disparities of  wealth which may result. We see these warring impulses written into the very shape of our national politics.

ls New Labour's Third Way was an attempt not only to hold the middle ground (and, therefore, power) in British politics, but to combine the strengths of these two seeming incompatibles. Wouldn't it be lovely to have them both: to have a society that was kind, compassionate and sharing, yet encouraged hard work, honesty and  virtue?

It happened once. There were people who '.. .were together and had everything  in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need' [Acts 2.44-5]. Did this 'socialism' produce the amoral indolence of which at many of us now despair in our own nation? Seemingly not, for their ties with God and each other were strengthened, not weakened: 'They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer.. .They broke bread and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people' [Acts 2.42, 46-7a].

What brought all this about? Preachers, take heart! It was a sermon. From Acts 2.1 onwards, we see a build up of God's influence on men which crystallizes in this 'divine society'. Firstly (verses 1 to 13) there is the empowering of the existing disciples by the Holy Spirit, followed by Peter's explanation (verses 14 to 40) to those who have observed what has happened. God is at work, laying the foundations in individual hearts of the corporate building; 'When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said...'Brothers, what shall we do?" [2.37]; 'Peter replied 'Repent and be baptized, every one of you.. .for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." [2.38].

Here we see described the foundations on which every Christian life is built. You and I are the (sometimes) unimpressive continuation of that first Spirit-powered community.

Once we were sufficient Salt and Light in this country for there to be created a National Health Service, which embodied Christian values in the heart of how we treated one another. Over half a century later, those values (or rather, the faith on whose existence they are dependent) are deemed to be redundant.

We shall only have Acts 2.42-7 insofar as we have had Acts 2.1-41 first. To have Acts 2.42-7 for ourselves, is the Church's task, and privilege.

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