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.