Let me introduce you to Ruby, a guide dog puppy being trained by my wife, Jane. In time, and provided everything goes to plan, Ruby will leave us to do further training and become a guide dog. This is guide dog puppy number 29 and I hasten to add that all of the training is done by Jane. Over the years, blind people have made many comments on how these amazing animals have changed their lives, but there are two which stand out.
One comment is that, thanks to the guide dog, the blind person is able to ‘see’ again, though they see in a different way. The second comment is that they are given back their freedom. One blind person beautifully illustrated this when she spoke of receiving her first guide dog. When she wanted to go out with the dog for the first time, her husband, who had always accompanied her, got ready to come as well. But she said ‘no.’ She wanted to go out alone for the first time since she had lost her sight. Out she went with her guide dog, on her own for the first time – it was after a while she realised that as she was walking, she was also singing.
On that first day of Pentecost, the followers of Jesus Christ learnt how to see again through different eyes and this seeing led to freedom. Before Pentecost, we hear of Jesus’ followers (disciples) being behind locked doors, afraid of what might happen to them: probably afraid that what happened to Jesus would happen to them. After the experience of Pentecost, those same followers went out in front of a huge number of people and told them about Jesus. So what had changed? They were the same disciples who had previously locked themselves in. The people outside were the same people the disciples had feared would kill them. All those circumstances remained the same. From that point of view, nothing was different. But what had changed was the way the disciples saw the situation. They saw their situation and the world differently. As a result of a deepened and renewed relationship with Jesus Christ, which was the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, fear no longer had the upper hand. They had been given a freedom which enabled them to unlock doors and go out into the world, probably singing, but certainly speaking. It was this renewed relationship with Jesus Christ which changed the world 2000 years ago for Jesus’ followers. But this was not a one-off event which is locked in history: it continues to happen today.
Last month, we mourned the passing of Jean Vanier, a Canadian Catholic philosopher and theologian. In the 1960s, he was moved by the plight of thousands of people institutionalised with learning and developmental difficulties, people who could not manage life without special support from others. He invited two people from one of these institutions to live with him. The experience changed Vanier. Fired by his relationship with Jesus Christ which was deepened by the Spirit of Pentecost, Vanier saw these people through different eyes which freed him to take action. He saw within them the same humanity shared by us all and realised they deserved better than their institutions were providing. This community of three was the beginning of the L’Arche Community which today has one hundred and forty houses in forty countries across the world. This movement has challenged society to see the gifts and potentials within people with learning and developmental difficulties and has led to a transformation of the way they are treated and respected.
That same Spirit of Pentecost, which enabled the disciples and Jean Vanier to see and act differently, does the same for each one of us. It unlocks, frees and liberates. It enables us to see the world through different eyes – no matter how old or young we are, we see afresh. No matter what challenges or difficulties or fears we face, the Spirit of Pentecost renews our relationship with Jesus Christ so that we see differently. It is not always easy, but it can happen. Mill-stones around our necks become stepping stones to something new. Barriers become gates. Old obstacles become new opportunities. We may still be fearful to take a particular step, but fear no longer dominates our lives as we are freed to see the world and our circumstances through different eyes.
At this time of Pentecost, we thank God for the sending of his Spirit. It is also an opportunity to reflect on those things which stop us from living life to the full, which prevent us from being the people we have been created to be. Let us also pray that the Spirit of Pentecost helps us see differently – and, like the lady with her first guide dog, we may find ourselves singing.
Preached at Alcombe, Minehead, Somerset. 9th June, 2019.
Readings: Acts 2.1-21; John.14.8-17.
Image 2: Jean Vanier shaking hands with one of the core members of L’Arche Daybreak, John Smeltzer. Author: Warren Pot.