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