St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

When the Spirit comes, Pentecost 2018

When the Spir­it comes

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, Pente­cost Sunday, 20th. May 2018.

Read­ings: Acts 2.1–21; Romans 8.22–27; John 15.26–27, 16.4–15.

It used to be said that the Holy Spir­it was the neg­lected mem­ber of the Trin­ity. We talked a lot about God the Fath­er and a lot about Jesus but we sel­dom spoke about the Holy Spir­it. That imbal­ance was also reflec­ted in our hymns: we had an abund­ance of hymns addressed to God as cre­at­or and to Jesus as Lord but hymns about the spir­it were com­par­at­ively few in num­ber. With the rise of the Pente­cost­al and Cha­ris­mat­ic move­ment in the second half of the last cen­tury we can no longer say that the Holy Spir­it is neg­lected but among Anglic­ans there is still a degree of mis­un­der­stand­ing and per­haps even fear of the Holy Spir­it. For a long time Anglic­ans called this Sunday, not Pente­cost but Whit­Sunday. Those of us who grew up with the Author­ised Ver­sion and the B.C.P. were used to refer­ring to the spir­it as the ‘Holy Ghost’ which is an unhelp­ful trans­la­tion imply­ing some mys­ter­i­ous, eth­er­e­al being of whom we should be afraid. Look­ing over the fence at our Pente­cost­al broth­ers and sis­ters with their emphas­is on speak­ing in tongues and oth­er dra­mat­ic spir­itu­al gifts has prob­ably increased the sense of appre­hen­sion among some Anglic­ans about the Holy Spir­it. So let me attempt this morn­ing what you might call –not an idiot’s guide but an Anglic­ans guide to the Holy Spir­it.

So who or what is the Holy Spir­it? The Holy Spir­it is the spir­it of God prom­ised by Jesus to his dis­ciples before he left them. The spir­it of God we are told in the Old Test­a­ment had been act­ive in the world since the begin­ning of cre­ation. It was the spir­it of God who swept over the waters of the form­less void and brought order out of chaos. It was the spir­it of God that was breathed into the first human giv­ing him life. Through­out Israel’s his­tory it was the spir­it of God who empowered par­tic­u­lar people for spe­cial min­is­tries. So in Exodus 31 Beza­lel was filled with God’s spir­it to cre­ate artist­ic designs for the tab­er­nacle; in Judges, Gideon received a gift of God’s spir­it for lead­er­ship; Isai­ah received the spir­it for proph­esy. But through­out the Old Test­a­ment there are hints and actu­al prom­ises that the Spir­it of God would one day be poured out on all of God’s people. It is one of those proph­es­ies that Peter refers to in his Pente­cost­al ser­mon; the proph­ecy from Joel that in the last days God will pour out his spir­it on all flesh. So before Jesus depar­ted from his dis­ciples he prom­ised that although he was going away he would not leave them as orphans. He would send in his place, the Holy Spir­it. They would dis­cov­er that this Holy Spir­it was not some strange being but he would remind them of Jesus-his pres­ence with them would be like the pres­ence of Jesus him­self.

Luke’s dra­mat­ic account of the events of that first Pente­cost in Acts chapter 2, describe the ful­fill­ment of Jesus’ prom­ise to his fol­low­ers. The gift of the spir­it brings new life and pur­pose to the hitherto rather puzzled and con­fused dis­ciples. Sud­denly they know what to do- they are impelled to share the good news about Jesus. It was not acci­dent­al that the birth­day of the Church should fall on this Jew­ish fest­iv­al. The Feast of Pente­cost or Feast of Weeks was fifty days after Pas­sov­er and marked the end of the cel­eb­ra­tion of the spring har­vest. It was a time for devout Jews to thank God for his good­ness and pro­vi­sion. The fest­iv­al meant that Jer­u­s­alem was filled with Jew­ish pil­grims from all parts of the empire and togeth­er they became wit­nesses to the new thing that God was doing. The spirit’s work is not to con­fuse or mys­ti­fy but to make things clear and that is what happened. This diverse col­lec­tion of devout Jews heard the dis­ciples pro­claim­ing the good news about Jesus in lan­guages they could under­stand. No won­der the response was so remark­able. Luke tells us that after Peter’s speech to the crowds on that first day of Pente­cost, some three thou­sand people decided they wanted to become fol­low­ers of Jesus. Well, that was all a long time ago. What is the work of the Holy Spir­it today?

It is the Holy Spirit’s work to reveal God and Jesus to us. In fact without the Holy Spir­it we can­not really know God. That is why in the ser­vice of Bap­tism we pray that God will pour out his Holy Spir­it on those who are bap­tized. John the Baptist said, I can bap­tize you with water but ‘the one com­ing after me’, namely Jesus will bap­tize you with the Holy Spir­it. The water of bap­tism is a sym­bol of the new spir­itu­al life we are offered through Christ. In oth­er words all Chris­ti­ans, all who are fol­low­ers of Jesus have the Holy Spir­it. Paul says you can­not genu­inely make the con­fes­sion that ‘Jesus is Lord’ without the work of the Holy Spir­it. So we need not be afraid of the Holy Spir­it for his task is to make us more like Jesus. Wheth­er our Chris­ti­an jour­ney began in our infancy or wheth­er it began in some dra­mat­ic moment or series of events in later life, it was God’s Holy Spir­it who was alive in us. That is why John tells us that the Spir­it will glor­i­fy Jesus – he says he will take the things to do with Jesus and make them real to you and me. John uses a par­tic­u­lar word for the Holy Spir­it which the NRSV trans­lates as ‘advoc­ate’ and the GNB trans­lates as ‘help­er’. The Greek word is actu­ally ‘paraclete’ and its lit­er­al mean­ing is someone who comes along­side to help. An advoc­ate speaks on our behalf, par­tic­u­larly in situ­ations when we feel inad­equate to speak for ourselves. Paul tells us in Romans that this is what the Spir­it does for us. When we are con­fused and don’t even know what to pray the spir­it comes to our aid and prays for us-the Spir­it he says ‘inter­cedes for us with sighs too deep for words.’ In our rela­tion­ship with God the Holy Spir­it is con­stantly at work even when we may not be aware of him.

John also tells us that the spir­it is the spir­it of truth and that he will guide us into all the truth. It is import­ant to remem­ber that these words were spoken to Jesus’ dis­ciples as a group and a great deal of the ref­er­ences to the Holy Spir­it in John’s Gos­pel and the Acts of the Apostles are in the con­text of com­munity. The Holy Spir­it was poured out on all equally and togeth­er they obeyed his lead­ing. When the infant church was unsure of what to do, they gathered togeth­er and in com­munity, listen­ing to one anoth­er, sought the dir­ec­tion of the Holy Spir­it. So when the church grew rap­idly and the phys­ic­al demands of caring for the diverse and often needy mem­bers became a bur­den on the apostles they met and prayed togeth­er to find a solu­tion. God guided them to appoint a team of dea­cons to do the min­istry of pas­tor­al care so they could get on with their work of preach­ing and teach­ing. That became the pat­tern for decision mak­ing in the early church. That is how they resolved the vexed ques­tion of wheth­er Gen­tile Chris­ti­ans had to observe the Jew­ish laws and rituals; that is how they came to artic­u­late the doc­trine of the Trin­ity and the teach­ing that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. The Holy Spir­it is our help­er in our indi­vidu­al walk with God but also in a spe­cial way in our cor­por­ate life as a Chris­ti­an com­munity.

Finally it is worth noti­cing that the theme of full­ness, of being filled with the Spir­it runs through the entire nar­rat­ive of Acts. In the Pente­cost event, Luke writes that the believ­ers were all filled with the Holy Spir­it; when Peter was summoned by the reli­gious lead­ers and asked to account for his actions, it is noted that he was filled with the Spir­it; when dea­cons were chosen to look after the mater­i­al needs of the com­munity, one of the require­ments was that they should be ‘full of the Spir­it and of wis­dom’ and when Steph­en was about to be stoned because of his pro­clam­a­tion of the Gos­pel it was seen that he was full of the Holy Spir­it. I’m reminded of the story about D.L. Moody the fam­ous evan­gel­ist of the late 19th Cen­tury who was once asked if he had been filled with the Holy Spir­it, to which he replied yes, he had, but he added, but I notice that I leak. So on this day of Pente­cost it is fit­ting that we pray for God to fill us afresh with his Holy Spir­it both as indi­vidu­als but also as a com­munity so that we too will be Christ’s wit­nesses in our world.

 

Philip Brad­ford