Sermon: Pentecost, 4 June 2017, St John the Divine

Preacher  Revd Alan Sykes

First of all, a quotation from a writer you’ve never heard of. Actually, that’s a bit presumptuous of me. What I mean is that I’d never heard of him until a couple of months ago. His name is Seraphim of Sarov and he is a saint in the Orthodox Church.

He was a monk and hermit in Russia in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Here’s the quote: Prayer, fasting, vigils and all other Christian practices … [do] not constitute the aim of our Christian life. Although it is true that they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end, the true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.

So, according to Seraphim, the Holy Spirit is absolutely central to Christian life – to life itself. And I think he’s absolutely right.

In a sense we all have the Holy Spirit within us and around us as our natural and inalienable birthright. The Spirit hovered over the face of the waters at the very beginning of creation. The Spirit is always and everywhere bringing light and life to the world and to us.

That’s an important point to make and to hold fast to. The Spirit enlivens and enlightens everyone, whether they be Christian or not. Creation has been blessed by the action of the Holy Spirit from the very beginning and still is.

But the Spirit – he or she, but definitely not ‘it’ – has a second role, which is the perpetual encouragement of human beings to come into an ever fuller relationship with God through Christ.

The Spirit has two roles, I believe, because we human beings have been given the priceless gift of freedom. A full and living relationship with God isn’t inevitable. It needs our co-operation. One of the Spirit’s jobs is to foster that cooperation.

Now, if we look at that passage in Acts chapter 2 that we heard just now, you could reach the conclusion that the work of the Spirit is dramatic, visible, eye-catching even. He, or she, descends from heaven in a violent wind and tongues of flame rest upon each of the disciples. They begin to talk in languages that were, one assumes, previously unknown to them.

People in our own day are still given the gift of tongues. Charismatics talk of being slain in the Spirit. A few years ago many people received the so-called Toronto blessing.

The Holy Spirit still does dramatic things but, more usually, I suggest, moves in less dramatic ways. I’d like to share a couple of very un-dramatic episodes in my own life.

Nearly forty years ago now – I was an atheist in those days – I had a girl friend who was a Christian. We would talk quite a lot about the Christian faith but I was basically sceptical, even antagonistic. This went on for quite a while but one day we were talking and suddenly, from being vaguely antagonistic, I became sympathetic to the Christian faith.

It was instantaneous. To use that phrase of John Wesley my heart became strangely warmed. I didn’t call myself a Christian for another couple of years but, as it were, the die was cast. The rest was inevitable. As far as I’m concerned, that sudden warming of the heart was the work of the Spirit.

It was all very quick but, outwardly, nothing had changed. Here’s something that took place within me much more slowly. We talk a lot in the Church about God’s boundless love for us – and rightly so. We talk a lot about our need to love God and our neighbour – rightly so as well.

If I’m honest, I’ve always had a tendency to be a bit of a semi-detached kind of person but over the years it began to dawn on me that committed, self-giving, generous love is the one thing that really gives our lives purpose and real joy. When we are being truly loving towards others, towards the world around us, towards God, we know, we simply know that that is what life is about.

Life is about loving and being loved in the most stupendously universal, extravagant way it is even possible to conceive.

All that took years for me to see. The Holy Spirit had a really tough job getting me to see it and, need I add, I am nowhere near being the extravagantly loving person that God longs for me to be. But at least, thanks to the Spirit, I also am at least beginning to long to be that person. I live in hope that one day, in the context of eternity, I will become that person – or whatever it is that God has in store for me. But the core of it will be love. Of that I have no doubt.

Which brings me to another observation. The Spirit usually works un-dramatically, quietly, courteously, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but he or she also works persistently. The Holy Spirit just never ever gives up on anyone.

I began by quoting Seraphim of Sarov. I’ll end by quoting another Christian writer. The poet W.H. Auden once said that a poem is never finished, it is merely abandoned.

Having tried to write poetry myself, I know exactly what he meant.

When it comes to the totality of our lives, perhaps in a way God is the poet and we are the poem. We may feel sometimes that we are unfinished. We may feel that we are the roughest of rough drafts. We may feel that the paper on which we are written should be scrunched up and thrown in the bin.

Well, a human poet may do that sometimes. The human poet’s waste bin may be full to the brim with bits of scrunched up paper.

There may be some real similarities between a human poet and the divine poet. But there’s one absolutely essential difference. A poem may well be left unfinished and abandoned by the human poet. As Auden said, it’s inevitable.

But we, the poems created by God, are never abandoned by the divine poet, because the Holy Spirit persists and persists and persists until the job is done, and then all creation will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

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