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The Advoc­ate, the Holy Spirit.
Ser­mon preached at Enmore, Sixth Sunday of East­er, 1st. May 2016

Read­ings: Acts 16:9–15; Rev­el­a­tion 21:10, 21: 22–27, 22.1–5; John 14:23–29

We are just two weeks away from the Feast of Pente­cost so we should not be sur­prised that all three read­ings this morn­ing make ref­er­ence to the Holy Spir­it. We began with the pas­sage from Acts 16, where Paul has a vis­ion of a man from Mace­do­nia plead­ing with him “to come over and help us.” Paul is on his second mis­sion­ary jour­ney and has been trav­el­ling through Asia Minor, preach­ing the gos­pel in every city he and his com­pan­ions pass through. His jour­ney is not haphaz­ard but he goes where-ever he believes the Holy Spir­it leads them. So in the pas­sage just before the first read­ing this morn­ing, Luke the nar­rat­or tells us that “the holy spir­it had for­bid­den them to speak the word in the province of Asia. When they came to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithy­nia, but the spir­it of Jesus didn’t allow them; so passing by Mysia they went down to Troas.” It’s in Troas that Paul has his vis­ion and believ­ing this is a word from God he imme­di­ately finds a pas­sage on a ship to take his party across the Aegean Sea to Neapol­is and from there to Phil­ippi. We may not have exper­i­enced a vis­ion as Paul did but I sus­pect many of us can think of times when some­thing has happened to make us change our plans and this has proved to have a bet­ter out­come than the one we had been con­tem­plat­ing. The Holy Spir­it can guide us in many dif­fer­ent ways but we need to be open to his direction.

Phil­ippi was a Roman city: it was near this city that the forces of Ant­ony and Octavi­an had defeated the army of Bru­tus and Cas­si­us in 42 B.C. and fol­low­ing that battle a num­ber of vet­er­ans were settled there. When Paul arrived in Phil­ippi he fol­lowed his nor­mal prac­tice of find­ing the loc­al Jew­ish syn­agogue, only to dis­cov­er that there was none. This could only mean that there were very few Jews in that city. How­ever, through the loc­al grape-vine, Paul dis­covered that there was a place near the river where some Jew­ish women and God-fear­ers gathered for Sab­bath day pray­ers. Here Paul met Lydia, a deal­er in purple cloth, who had come to Phil­ippi from Thy­atira, a city that had once been part of the ancient king­dom of Lydia. Lydia was an inde­pend­ent woman, work­ing at the top end of the fash­ion mar­ket and she respon­ded to the mes­sage about Jesus that Paul preached and thus became the first European con­vert to Chris­tian­ity. Luke describes Lydia’s con­ver­sion in this way: “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” Con­ver­sion is always God’s work: Lydia was not ‘Paul’s con­vert’, as she is often described but the change in her heart was the work of the Holy Spirit.

Fol­low­ing her bap­tism, which included all the mem­bers of her house­hold, Lydia invited Paul and his party to stay in her home. Paul may have felt some unease about stay­ing in the home of an inde­pend­ent Gen­tile woman but one sus­pects there weren’t any oth­er offers going and Lydia was per­suas­ive. Paul’s stay in Phil­ippi was cut short because there was strong oppos­i­tion to him in that fiercely Roman city so it is most prob­able that the little Chris­ti­an com­munity in Phil­ippi con­tin­ued to meet in Lydia’s home and under her lead­er­ship. The let­ter Paul wrote to the Phil­ip­pi­an church some time later is prob­ably his warmest and reflects the love he had for this com­munity that had wel­comed him so gen­er­ously in the face of so much hostility.
Our second read­ing today from the Book of Rev­el­a­tion picks up the theme that we thought about last Sunday: John’s vis­ion of heav­en. Again we are reminded that heav­en is not a place ‘up there’ some­where, where we go when we die but heav­en is brought down to us. In today’s read­ing, the Holy Spir­it gives John a vis­ion of the Holy City, Jer­u­s­alem, com­ing down out of heav­en from God. In John’s vis­ion heav­en and earth are both brought togeth­er-there is no longer any sep­ar­a­tion but God dwells with his people and makes all things new.

John tells us that there is no temple in the city. I’m sure Church War­dens will take com­fort from that-no more wor­ry­ing about dodgy gut­ter­ing or bricks and mor­tar. But John’s obser­va­tion has a more ser­i­ous intent. When John wrote, the old temple in Jer­u­s­alem lay in ruins as Jesus had pre­dicted. The old temple was built with walls to sep­ar­ate men from women and Jews from Gen­tiles. It rep­res­en­ted a reli­gious sys­tem that eas­ily slid into the idea that God could be con­tained and even con­trolled. It eas­ily came to rep­res­ent hier­archy and priv­ilege. Through the cen­tur­ies the Church as an insti­tu­tion has some­times fallen for the same tempta­tion. We have too eas­ily become a middle man between God and his people, try­ing to con­trol access to him. The absence of a temple also implies an end to sep­ar­a­tion between sac­red and sec­u­lar zones in the New Jer­u­s­alem. God and his people are forever united.
We also notice that the New Jer­u­s­alem is large and inclus­ive. Ancient cit­ies had walls to pro­tect the inhab­it­ants from invaders: the gates were watched by day and shut at night. In God’s new world the gates are nev­er shut and people bring the glory of the nations into the city. All that is good and beau­ti­ful from the four corners of the world is wel­comed – the art, the music, the diversity of cul­ture and lan­guage, all this finds a place. John’s vis­ion is world affirm­ing rather than world deny­ing. He pic­tures etern­al sal­va­tion as the redemp­tion of the world and of his­tory itself. There are no dis­em­bod­ied angels con­stantly pluck­ing harps but a city filled with light and vibrant life.

Two fea­tures of the city’s land­scape are high­lighted: the river and the tree. Both images come from the Garden of Eden in Gen­es­is and are picked up in Ezekiel and oth­er parts of scrip­ture. The proph­et Ezekiel saw a river flow­ing from Jer­u­s­alem down into the Red Sea, mak­ing its salty waters fresh and life sus­tain­ing. In Ezekiel’s words “everything shall live where the river runs.” (47.9) The clear flow­ing river is a sym­bol of life flow­ing from God to his people and we are reminded of Jesus’ con­ver­sa­tion with the woman at the well in John 4 where he offers her liv­ing water which will nev­er run dry.
On either side of the river is the tree of life. The roots of the tree of life like the source of the river of life are found in the garden of God. The leaves of the tree are for “the heal­ing of the nations.” What nation has ever exis­ted that was not in need of heal­ing. Every nation, includ­ing our own car­ries memor­ies of deeds done which cry out for for­give­ness and heal­ing. Heal­ing is pos­sible for us and the nations because of anoth­er tree that stood out­side a city, on the hill of Cal­vary where a man was nailed bear­ing the sins of the world. Through­out Rev­el­a­tion John keeps tak­ing us back to the Lamb of God who makes our sal­va­tion pos­sible and who through his death and resur­rec­tion begins the new cre­ation which is finally brought to fruition in the New Jerusalem. 

Finally, we con­sider the Gos­pel read­ing where the role of the Holy Spir­it in the life of the believ­er is prom­in­ent. John 14 fam­ously begins with Jesus’ words, “let not your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me.” In the pas­sage from the same chapter read this morn­ing Jesus repeats that exhorta­tion, say­ing “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Jesus com­forts the dis­ciples who are dread­ing his immin­ent depar­ture by assur­ing them that they will not be left alone. He prom­ises to send the Advoc­ate, the Holy Spir­it, who will teach them everything and remind them of all that Jesus said and taught. The Greek word trans­lated as ‘Advoc­ate’ is ‘Paraclete’ and it lit­er­ally means, someone ‘called along­side’ to help or assist. The term had a leg­al con­nota­tion – a per­son facing a charge in a court employs a bar­ris­ter to defend them, to argue their case. But the word had oth­er con­nota­tions as well, so vari­ous trans­la­tions are found, includ­ing ‘help­er’, ‘com­fort­er’ and ‘coun­sel­lor.’ So Jesus tries to reas­sure his fol­low­ers that his depar­ture has a pur­pose, he is going to the Fath­er and pre­par­ing a place for them but they will find that his spir­it will be always with them. They will nev­er be alone. The dis­ciples found all of this hard to under­stand but it made more sense after the death and resur­rec­tion of Jesus and it made even great­er sense after Pentecost.

Even today many Chris­ti­ans find the concept of the Holy Spir­it rather puzz­ling and dif­fer­ent teach­ings about the Holy Spir­it have res­ul­ted in deep divi­sions with the Chris­ti­an com­munity. I find it help­ful to think of the Holy Spir­it simply as the Spir­it of Jesus liv­ing in us. The work of the Holy Spir­it is to make us more like Jesus in our think­ing, in our atti­tudes and in our beha­viour. It is the Holy Spir­it who moves us to pray, who helps us to for­give our enemies, who helps us to be more com­pas­sion­ate, less selfish and to love our neigh­bours. The Holy Spir­it is giv­en to all Chris­ti­ans but we need to be open to the Spirit’s activ­ity in our lives. The great evan­gel­ist, D.L. Moody was once asked if he had been filled with the Holy Spir­it to which he replied ‘Yes, I have but I find that I leak.’ Many of us can identi­fy with that state­ment, I’m sure. But when we feel spir­itu­ally bar­ren we can ask God to refresh us and fill us anew with his Spirit. 

God our redeem­er, you have delivered us from the power of dark­ness and brought us into the king­dom of your Son: grant that as by his death he has recalled us to life, so by his con­tinu­al pres­ence in us he may raise us to etern­al joy; through Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spir­it, one God now and for ever. Amen

Philip Brad­ford