"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

I live on the other side of the city. On my first Sunday here I was about 10 minutes late – a source of considerable embarrassment. The quickest distance between two fixed points, my house and St. Big’s is, of course, a straight line, so I looked at the street map of the city and worked out my journey: but it’s not a straight line when you are driving. Now, I’m not a great navigator and my map reading is poor but we now have Sat-Nav, although on that Sunday I'd left it at home and I found myself driving around the streets around here and noting how many churches there are in such a small area – that aren’t St. Big’s. But even when the Sat-Nav is working there’s still a risk that it’s not up to date and you encounter new roads, or roads you are familiar with have become one-way or, where I live, whole swathes of streets have been blocked off for months on end to stop the morning rat-run.
Hold that thought.
In our Gospel this morning, Jesus seems to be talking a lot about leaving his followers - about his death, and the disciples were rather anxious about where they would go when that happened. How could they live? How could they carry on the work of the Kingdom? They’d heard his teaching but how could they remember it all? How could they do it? How could they live in that close relationship with the Father that Jesus obviously had?
The answer is in the promised coming of the Holy Spirit, but that was still to come and at this stage they haven’t fully grasped the implications. In John's gospel, we hear Jesus using an interesting word to describe this third Person of the Trinity. She is called the parakletos - the "Paraclete" (or, as some of the children I teach have been known to call her, the Parakeet, which gives us a whole new set of interesting possibilities). The Greek word simply means someone who is called alongside. Our English translations understand this in a number of ways. She is the Comforter bringing us encouragement and healing. She is the Advocate who pleads our cause with the Father. She is the Counsellor, bringing us advice and guidance. She is the Helper who comes to our aid and, thinking about my lamentable sense of direction, why not our Pilot, our Navigator too?  The Holy Spirit as Sat-Nav?
Yes, I did deliberately use “Her” and “She” instead of “Him” and “He” then. In the creation story of Genesis we read that “the Spirit” - in Hebrew, the RUACH – “of God moved upon the face of the waters.” The Hebrew presents the Ruach in feminine tense, and with female characteristics, an idea that until recently we have lost or ignored, but an idea reclaimed by those wishing to recognise the inclusive nature of God. The Ruach is simply the feminine manifestation of Jehovah of the Old Testament, the Jehovah who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The point is that the one God has made himself known to us in three Persons - the Father, who is the Creator and Sustainer of all things, the Son, by whom all things were made and who came and taught and healed and died and rose again and who is Saviour and Lord, and the Holy Spirit, through whom God works in the life of the believer, applying the finished work of the Son to our lives, bringing about the character of Christ in our lives and fulfilling the mission of Christ through our lives.
It is important to grasp this three-in-oneness by which God is revealed to us if his work in us is to become complete. The Christian life is impossible without the work of the Spirit within us. But the Spirit focuses on the words and work of the Son who is, in the words of the creed, “eternally begotten of the Father”. If we talk about the Spirit with little reference to the Father and the Son, we’ve got things wrong.
Many charismatic Christians place entirely too much emphasis on the Holy Spirit. In fact, the Holy Spirit seems the only part of the triune God some Christians pay attention to in their worship, their preaching and their faith. And these Christians often try to put rules and restrictions on the Spirit: you only possess the Spirit if you have a certain kind of "born again" experience which can lead to a feeling of spiritual superiority, as if to say "I have the Holy Spirit and you don't."
However, many other Christians place entirely too little emphasis on the Holy Spirit. God the Father and Jesus the Son are the only parts of God they pay attention to and they nearly leave the Spirit out altogether. They assume the Holy Spirit is reserved for other people who are blessed with greater spiritual gifts. It's as if they downgrade themselves as second-class Christians.
The point is, you can't know God the Father or Jesus the Son without experiencing the Holy Spirit, yet many Christians have badly neglected the true place of the Holy Spirit.
So, what about the Holy Spirit? What should we say about her on this Pentecost Sunday?
The guidance of our Spirit Sat-Nav will always be in accordance with the road map and that road map is a combination of the teaching of the Bible - and I would argue with more emphasis on the New Covenant than the Old, the tradition of the church, personal revelation and religious experience, our own intellect and our own sense of being open to that same Spirit’s guidance as St. Paul says in his letter to the Phillipians, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” And yes, there are some new dead-ends that don't have a specific mention - and new developments and diversions which throw and confuse us and which change down the ages: the issues that face the church today aren’t always the ones it faced a generation ago and the problems and issues we struggle with today won’t necessarily be the same ones the next generation struggle with.
It's true that when the Holy Spirit first came to the church at Pentecost, She came with signs and wonders. There was the sound of a rushing wind and tongues of fire and people speaking in languages they had never spoken before. Elsewhere in the New Testament, there are other places where the Holy Spirit came with the power of healing or the gift of speaking in tongues.
But, some Christians read those few passages of the New Testament and decide that this is all the Holy Spirit is! There are other places in the New Testament where the Holy Spirit comes with the gift of teaching. Peter and Apollos and Phillip and many others receive the Spirit and begin to teach -- they speak clearly and understandably so that other people may know the gospel. This is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus calls the Spirit "another Paraclete" (14.16) because, the plan was – and continues to be – that after Jesus’ ascension, the Spirit would take the place of Jesus with the disciples, now as then: to lead us to a deeper knowledge of the gospel truth, and give us the strength and resources needed to enable us to undergo the trials and difficulties we encounter in our personal pilgrimages of discipleship and to develop us daily more into the likeness of God. There are places in the New Testament where the Holy Spirit means patience and strength through trial and suffering. There are places where the Holy Spirit means simply that someone has a solid faith which is an inspiration to others. In some places in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit comes before baptism, and in other places, after baptism. There is simply no way anyone can put limits on the Holy Spirit, who is free because she is part of a sovereign God.
Paul makes this very clear in his famous passage from 1 Corinthians: "There are varieties of gifts," he says, "but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord" (12:4-5). One person has the gift of the wisdom, another has knowledge with which to teach and someone else has the gift of healing. (A long way down at the end of Paul's list is speaking in tongues.) The Holy Spirit, like Jesus, is God's gift of Himself. She is here for everyone and shows herself in many different ways.
When Paul lists the fruits of the Spirit, that we may know where the Holy Spirit is present; he doesn't talk about pride or boastfulness or being sure of your faith or knowing chapter and verse of Scripture. Paul simply says that the signs of the Spirit are these: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22). Live in these qualities and you live with God and the Holy Spirit lives in you.
Sometimes the Holy Spirit is the quiet strength of a faithful heart and sometimes she is the rush of a mighty wind. But She is here with us: our Comforter, our Counsellor, the Spirit of truth and will never leave us forsaken. God's Holy Spirit will abide with us now and always, even to the end of the age. Amen

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Sir, for a fine and thought-provoking sermon. I like thinking of the Holy Spirit as feminine. In my mind, I have, at times, conflated the Holy Spirit with Wisdom, Lady Sophia, but I'm not sure of the theological correctness of the concept. But then, I'm not certain of the theological correctness of a good many of my concepts.