Eucharist Sermon - 23 May 2021

Pentecost
Acts 2:1–21, John 15:26–27; 16:4b–15
The Revd Philippa White, Precentor and School Chaplain

‘The sweet thunder of this purr shook the old walls… rocked the foundations of the house, the walls began to dance….And each stroke of his tongue ripped off [from me] skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world… My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur.’[1]

This is the end of The Tiger's Bride, a dark Gothic-feminist rewrite of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale by Angela Carter, in her 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber. 

These reimagined fairytales bring to the foreground the idea of transformation which is there in almost all fairytales. Here, the transformation of the protagonist, the unnamed Beauty character, is both physical and spiritual. She is transformed through an outside, powerful, agency - it's unclear quite whether it's the tiger-like Beast's own magic or some kind of magic under which he lives, but it doesn't matter to Carter. She is transformed because of others' choices over which she has had no control (her feckless father lost her to the Beast in a bet), but also because of decisions she has made. She is transformed, ultimately, because she chooses out of compassion and desire to say yes to the beast's unspoken invitation - but she doesn't know what the result of her choice will be when she makes it. (For her analogue in the previous story, The Courtship of Mr Lyon, as in the traditional fairy tale, the transformation that concludes the story is the beast's return to humanity.) 

Transformation, choice, desire, power; consequences beyond what could have been expected.

These are the building blocks of fairy tales because they're the building blocks of human existence – magic, in the fairy tale context, is a metaphor for all the mystery and paradox of human existence. Castles are plunged into sleep, pumpkins become coaches, poverty becomes wealth – and, in a moment, vice versa. Magic reigns: as a way to explore desires, justice, consequences; things that in our real world don’t usually appear so clearly, which happen for real people not physically and externally, but in our inner life.

Transformation, choice, desire, power are the building blocks, too, of the story of Pentecost. Don't misunderstand me: I’m not saying that the work of God is magic, or that the story of Pentecost is a fairy tale. But like a fairy tale, when the Spirit comes, it feels as if the rules of normal life have disappeared – the disciples are thrown into a new world, a world of transformation: transformation contingent on desire and choice, transformation because of God’s power; transformation with consequences beyond what could have been expected.

The Pentecost story in Acts – the first and foundational coming of the Holy Spirit – is a complete suspension of the rules of reality. None of this makes sense. Wind does not come from nowhere; fire doesn’t just appear and, if it does, certainly doesn’t simply rest harmlessly on the heads of those present. And learning a language, as an adult, is a long process requiring commitment and work – as the choristers who learn French and Latin, can tell you! But in Pentecost, none of these are true. God in the Holy Spirit appears, and the world – and the disciples – are transformed. Like the magic that transforms people, places and things in fairy tales, the transformation wrought by the Spirit comes powerfully, startlingly, instantly from somewhere outside the disciples’ normal reality – and yet it operates within the disciples, in their bodies and their spirits.

As the Spirit first blows into the life of Jesus’ people, the first transformation by the power of the Spirit begins. The disciples are transformed: transformed in their abilities, in their identity, and transformed for the purpose of going out to tell the story of God’s love. Transformed by the Spirit at work in their bodies and their lives. But it’s not just an abstract transformation. The transformation experienced by the disciples at the first Pentecost was a concrete one: the gift of languages.

It’s important that it’s language. First, it is a remaking of what was fractured in Genesis, as fallen humanity sought to rival God in building the tower of Babel and were instead scattered, mutually unintelligible. Here, by the power of God, that scattering is undone. In the mouths of the disciples, all language dwells and suddenly mutual understanding is possible and easy, where before it was costly and effortful.

It’s also a sign of their commission: to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. Their transformation into polyglots is clearly a way of equipping them for this mission – a mission which, in various forms and by various people, is told through the rest of the book of Acts, and in a different way in the rest of the NT. The consequences of their transformation – consequences that, on the day of Pentecost, they could not have anticipated – continue to echo through the world.

But importantly, the gift of languages is not abstract. It happens in the bodies of the disciples, in their tongues, in their minds. Stop a moment to imagine opening your mouth and a language you have never learnt coming out fluently – if that’s a frightening thought, I don’t think you’re wrong. There is something frightening about the sheer power of God, especially at work in our own human bodies – which can only bear the presence of God by God’s grace. The transformation wrought by the Spirit is outside our control – entirely, completely and by definition. Yet it requires our assent; our willingness to be transformed.

It’s easy to miss the physicality of the disciples’ transformation. But it is physical – not a fairytale transformation into a bird or a beast, but a physical transformation nevertheless. The work of the Holy Spirit is about our human bodies as they exist in the physical world.

The physicality of fairytale magic can help us to see this. In the most fairytale like of the Narnia books, the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the unpleasant small boy Eustace undergoes a transformation; in fact, two transformations. His selfishness and greed transform him into a dragon; to be transformed again to human form requires repentance and the work of Aslan, the lion who is Jesus. This work is deeply physical. As he tells his story, ‘Then the lion said ‘You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws but I was pretty nearly desperate. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off it hurt worse than anything I’d ever felt.’[2]

Yet this painful stripping transforms Eustace back from a dragon to a boy. More: this portion of the story ends ‘It would be nice, and fairly accurate, to say that from that time forth Eustace was a different boy. To be strictly accurate, he began to be a different boy…. The cure had begun.’

Eustace has to want to be healed. And, healed, he has to work to become the different boy he had begun to be. But the healing itself – that’s all Aslan.

The transformation wrought by the Spirit is by God’s sovereign, free action yet requires our action to begin and complete it. The human protagonists of God’s great story are participating in a story of choice, desire, power; a story of transformation with consequences beyond what could have been expected, because the work of the Holy Spirit is always to transform and remake the world. Like the transformations in fairy tales, this is a transformation from outside – by the free will of God, which doesn’t depend on human action – yet its effects on humans require human actions. Desire for God. Assent to God’s coming. Willing participation to confirm and complete God’s work.

And our celebration of Pentecost ought to reaffirm that this is our story too – or it can be, if we choose. The protagonists of a fairytale are courageous and resourceful, and respond to the mysterious and magical world around them with compassion. But most importantly they must be willing to suspend their disbelief and live by the rules of the fairytale world in which they find themselves.

And as the Spirit catches us up into a new world, we too must be compassionate and courageous and, above all, willing to suspend our disbelief. To assent to the uncontrolled and uncontrollable. To allow ourselves to be transformed. To pay the cost of God’s free gift; to allow the external force of God’s Holy Spirit to enter us and work within us and to complete in us what God’s sovereign, free action has begun; that, through us, God may be at work in the world in new and transformative ways.


[1] ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, The Bloody Chamber (1979), Angela Carter

[2] Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1957), CS Lewis