Today is Pentecost, the Christian feast of the Holy Spirit. A day when the defeated and frightened band of Jesus’ friends was filled with the very love and life of God and turned into an outward-facing community that would transform the world. God’s Holy Spirit is a fountain of sending love. God’s Spirit connects us, goes between us, opens us to one another and to Him. And that is true for individuals and communities – true for me and my family and also true for our community here in Liverpool.
Liverpool is famous for many things and among them is the song they sing in one of our football clubs, and from time to time the song the whole city sings: You’ll Never Walk Alone. As we celebrate Pentecost here, I want to ask “What does that really mean, not walking alone? What does it mean for Christian people?” and in particular at this time to ask, “What does it mean for us as individuals and as a community in situations of life and death?
Let me tell you two of my most precious memories. An hour before my mother died I entered the hospital room and she saw me and smiled; she knew that I was with her, and when she died an hour later my Dad was with her holding her hand. Years later when my Dad died I was in the room with him, holding his hand and blessing him. My Mum and Dad died in company. They did not walk alone on that road.
The day before yesterday I was present at the funeral of my brother-in-law. He too died with his family around him, holding his hand, not walking alone.
These are precious memories that not everyone can share. Some of us were not with our loved ones when they died. Sometimes death can come unawares; here in Liverpool we remember the 96 who died 27 years ago at Hillsborough and whose families have had to struggle for so long for truth and justice. But the 96 did not walk alone, because the love of their friends and families was around them and has been around them ever since. And the families have not walked alone through these years and decades of struggle because the love of our community has been around them and is around them still. It is not good to walk alone. No one should have to walk alone.
And in the end Christian people believe that no one who is held by Jesus has to walk alone. Because Jesus said: “I will be with you always”. And today we remember that He said: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever."
So today we celebrate God’s gift of community in the Spirit, of never walking alone.
And God gives us more; he gives a strength that overcomes all fear and overcomes the power of death. Today, alongside my Mum and Dad and Clive my brother in law, and the 96 who died at Hillsborough, I remember the death of Marie Wilson in Enniskillen on Remembrance Day 1987, a death that transformed the landscape of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Marie died after a bomb blast, holding the hand of her father Gordon, a devout Methodist Christian. Famously Gordon Wilson took up the story:
“"She held my hand tightly, and gripped me as hard as she could. She said, 'Daddy, I love you very much.' Those were her exact words to me, and those were the last words I ever heard her say…
And he said: “But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. …talk won’t bring her back. She was a great wee lassie... She was a pet. She's in heaven and we shall meet again.”
And he said: “I will pray for these men tonight and every night."
Marie did not walk alone. Her father held her hand. And the men who killed her did not walk alone because Gordon prayed for them every night. This extraordinary strength, this miracle of love, is what the Spirit of Jesus Christ can give to our community. This is the way unfolded by Jesus, who prayed for those who crucified him and who taught us to pray for those who persecute us, and who sends the Holy Spirit as our advocate so that we might be strengthened to do the impossible, and formed and shaped to follow Him.
Truth, and justice, and freedom from fear and hatred, and the miracle of forgiveness and love across the barriers of division; these are the gifts of God to us. He gives them today, if only we will seek them and ask His help to find them. In the face of the worst that life and death can throw at us we can be unafraid, because of the promise of Jesus that we remember this day, Pentecost, the feast of the Holy Spirit, the feast of community, the feast of not walking alone.