Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Pentecost tells the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the early Christian community. We read it in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, a vivid and dramatic account of a violent wind, tongues of fire and the sound of many languages. The reaction was, understandably, one of bewilderment and astonishment.
In the more charismatic traditions of Christianity, the Spirit may be experienced in equally dramatic ways today, causing people to faint, speak in unfamiliar language (tongues), and behave in unconventional ways. Remember the Toronto blessing a few years ago, for instance? It might well be an experience of ecstatic joy for the people involved, but for those who look on, or who don’t share it, or for the more sceptical, the whole thing may seem contrived, indulgent, bizarre or over-emotional.
I wouldn’t want to exclude the possibility that God’s Spirit may well be manifested in surprising ways, but, for me, at least, the Spirit is encountered more in silence and sacrament. The very ordinariness – and yet extraordariness – of celebrating the Eucharist, of eating and drinking with a church community – sharing the same cup, breaking the same bread – is, for me, as charismatic and authentic an indication of the presence of the Holy Spirit as the more ecstatic ways I just mentioned. But in neither case can there be any suggestion of ‘ownership’ of the Spirit, and to rush to judgement in either direction would be a mistake. However, did you notice that this morning’s collect has no mention of wind or fire? It asks God to grant us ‘a right judgement in all things’. Judgement here, I think, means discernment: in other words, learning to seek and discover God’s will in all things, at all times, and in all circumstances. It is the foundation of any Christian vision of the world; the basis for any Christian interpretation of reality; the inspiration for any Christian action. For without the Spirit, we are lifeless – and if Pentecost teaches us one thing, it is that the Spirit brings life, reminding Christians of the constant need for an elemental renewal of our grounding in God and in Jesus.
Today we remind ourselves, more broadly, that the Spirit of God was present at creation – indeed before creation, if the Genesis story is any indication. We read that the Spirit moved over the waters of chaos before bringing order and purpose to the dark and formless deep. The Spirit is therefore a sign of God’s presence giving life to, and belonging to, the whole cosmos, not just to the Church, and certainly not just to certain individuals within the Church. The Spirit – the one we refer to in our creeds as ‘The Lord, the Giver of Life’ – is creative in the world, in the wider creation and in all humanity, not just a specially selected few. Now, that obviously doesn’t discount the possibility of individual revelation, but it causes me to wonder whether there is sometimes a temptation to try to possess that force which, like the wind, blows where it wills. We may well hear the sound of it, but we do not know where it has come from or where it is going, for this Spirit is unbound and universal. And just as an individual cannot monopolise or contain the Spirit, neither – despite the ways we may interpret the Scriptures – can the Church. However much we may try to possess the Spirit, the Spirit will not be contained.
One possible way of understanding the scriptural accounts of the giving of the Spirit is that the biblical writers, within the concepts available to their time and culture, were making clear that in the particular life of Jesus, they saw not only God, but also a picture of the fullness of human potential. In John’s Gospel, in contrast to Acts, we find Jesus ‘breathed’ the Spirit into his followers. Jesus was the portrait of the destiny available to all who were to be the recipients of the Holy Spirit. Somehow the presence of Jesus among the Christian community lived on after his death, so that he could be discovered again and again as people opened themselves to the possibilities of achieving their full human potential. As we know, Jesus’s earthly life came to an abrupt, premature and violent end. But the qualities he embodied during his life somehow took hold of his followers, making them aware that the Spirit of God he embodied could now be a reality manifested in them. As the recipients of the Spirit from Jesus, they were alive in a new way, just like he was, after Easter. This was a startling revelation: small wonder the ways in which it is described are so powerful and dramatic.
Coming back to judgement, the Holy Spirit comes to prove conclusively that the world has got many of its judgements skewed. So, we have decisions to make. Because the work of the Spirit is to bear witness to the truth of Jesus, and to open up the possibility for us to mirror Jesus in loving God by loving our neighbour, the coming of the Spirit is a moment of judgement which presents us with enormous challenges in every part of our human lives. No doubt many of you saw the royal wedding yesterday, and maybe were as inspired as I was by Bishop Michael Curry’s focus in his sermon on the redemptive power of love. So where is the Holy Spirit at work among us, as individuals and as the church? How do we allow Jesus’s spirit to penetrate the situations that confront us in our world, our nation, our local communities and our own lives from day to day? Do we in, in our thoughts, attitudes, words, choices and actions, reflect the Spirit of Jesus?
The coming of the Spirit or, perhaps more accurately, the discerning of the Spirit who is already constantly here among us in the world, calling us to our full human potential, is a defining moment. The purpose of God and creation is to bring about a universal society, in which no one is left out, a society characterised by a profound mutual care that draws on the depths of the love within God himself. In spite of the fundamental problem of human existence – our disastrous failure to live amicably with one another – God has acted to re-create human society, to re-constitute it around Jesus, whose Spirit lives on, to give shape and definition to God’s continuing actions in the world. Christians are charged, along with all those who look for a transformed humanity, to be a community that, through practical and sacrificial love – which is redemptive, as the Bishop said – and through building one another up in the service of God and neighbour, enables us, in that process, to discover our true selves. This is nothing less than the life of God, the presence of God’s Spirit, within us.
Lest you think all of that sounds quite grandiose and unattainable, let me finish by suggesting that allowing the Spirit in to do his transforming work in us does not necessitate dramatic ecstasy, fainting or speaking in tongues. It may, but it isn’t a necessity. Think smaller scale, for these are no more a sign of the Spirit’s power to transform human lives than, for example, the decision to say no to destructive patterns of thinking and behaving, the laying down of a lifelong shame, the determination to right a wrong or reconcile a broken relationship, maybe give time and attention to a deep silence which invites the Spirit into an overcrowded mind or a troubled heart. Allow the Spirit to lead you into a life you never thought possible or imagined living. Today invites us to be re-created – yes, even born again.