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Unexpected Pentecosts

Pentecost: 23 May, 1999.
Fr. Grant Bullen, Rector, St Mary Magdalene's, Adelaide


Greetings from St Mary Magdalene's in Adelaide.

As a small church in a small city sharing the same Anglo-Catholic tradition, many of our people hold St Peter's Eastern Hill in a certain awe - this is the big league! So some of my people are excited about their priest preaching here today. I suspect they'd like me to make a good impression.

But as life would have it, Pentecost, this celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the church, is the one Sunday I feel most inadequate in the pulpit. Oh yes, I understand the biblical story well enough. The empowering of the Christian community for its mission in the world; and the transformation of cowardly failures into courageous revolutionaries for Christ. And at a stretch, I could probably regurgitate some Catholic doctrine for the occasion.

But at Pentecost, I feel inadequate ..... because I'm not sure if it has ever happened to me.

In comparison with this powerful transformation through history, I have to honestly say ..... "I don't know this experience ..... I'm not sure if it's ever happened to me."


I remember twenty years ago at theological college, how desperate I was for God to change me, to empower me so that I could be a good priest.

I adopted a variety of churchmanship postures trying to unlock the secret of transformation, but to no avail.

I came out of college ..... a little bit wiser perhaps ..... but still the same old struggling me.

But I did have one experience ..... nothing spectacular ..... but one experience that I remember.

I was in the habit of staying behind in the chapel after Compline. It was beautiful. I'd wait until everyone had left, light a candle or two, turn off the lights ..... and I found I could pray there. One night I was really on song, pouring out a stream of flowery, romantic prayer": "Oh God, I just want to feel your presence ..... I just want you to come close to me, here and now" It was wonderful .....

Until slowly, to my horror, I became aware that I was not alone in the chapel!

Feeling very foolish, I spun around in all directions assuming that someone must have returned. But no, there was just me. And yet, the feeling of presence kept building and growing..... and my body went warm, fuzzy and prickly ..... and yes, perhaps there was a noise like rushing wind in my ears and ..... and ..... I ran!

I flew out of that chapel and sprinted to my room. I never ran as fast as I ran that night. And as I ran, I heard God laugh, a laugh of sheer and utter delight ..... And having heard it that night, it has never left me.


There it is .... my one mystical experience - nothing like the Acts of the Apostles, I know ..... but it's what I have. And was this event an experience of the Spirit of God? Does this qualify as a Pentecost for me?

Well let's be clear - it was not what I was asking for and not at all what I expected. I want that big, once-for-all experience that totally transforms me, that makes me someone different to what I am, that makes me more influential, more effectual ..... That's the sort of empowerment of the Spirit I've been hoping for ..... God laughing as I run away doesn't seem quite the same.

And yet, it has changed me. I've never lost the laughter of God. God laughs consistently and often in my presence. The truth is, God finds me funny ..... God takes a quirky cosmic pleasure in me.

Here I am, wanting to be a hero of the church ..... but the truth is, God finds me funny.

Now there is a certain pain in encountering the truth ..... the truth about oneself. It hurts a bit ..... just a bit ..... but there is freedom here. And when I can stay with this truth about myself, here I find peace, enjoyment, life!

And in a mysterious way, when I put down the need to be powerful and important and live instead with this truth, it seems that God can use me, in a funny ordinary way, to do some good.


I strongly suspect that St Mary Magdalene's had a Pentecost experience 10 years ago.

Now we are a very small, humble, even poor, church (in a declining city), but we were dying and now we are alive. We see 100 people a Sunday where a decade ago we saw 30; we have re-connected with young people and with children; from our once derelict Mission Hall, we now offer six day a week service to the poor, employing multiple staff - our mission and justice work is considered to be cutting-edge for Adelaide.

We were dying in the late 80's - the priest had left for a sectarian break-away taking half the already small congregation with him, leaving large debts and crumbling buildings behind him.

But the Spirit of God came to us in the most unexpected and unlikely guise.

In 1989 a group of young tertiary students from an Anglican Youth Conference came and asked if they could use the Hall to run a Saturday night Drop In Centre.

From the moment the Mission doors opened again in the name of the gospel and the poor stepped back into our life, the Spirit of God blew, rattling our windows, and bringing us back to life.


Our truth is, that we are not grand or important, but in accepting who we are, we dream of God turning us into a little oasis for people in spiritual and material need.

And so I am here in the hope of learning from you. We are trying to surf the wave of our unexpected spectacular Pentecost and we wonder if you as a sister church may have some clues about where we should look next.

I am here to learn ..... but in exercising the privilege of preaching today, can I leave with you the humble and uninformed questions of the visiting stranger:

What would you like God to do for you? Are there any puzzling fresh breezes blowing in your life? What might happen, if you paid attention there, where you feel the wind blow?


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