On Sunday we will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first disciples on the day of Pentecost. Wind and tongues of flame indicated this event, and then the newly empowered disciples went out and spoke to people of all nations gathered in Jerusalem in languages that each could understand. What a day that was! Do try to join us for worship in the Cathedral on the day (Sunday 31st) at noon SLT, when Gareth will be preaching.
At the Thursday service I used readings which looked at the actions of the Spirit: Psalm 96, Ezekiel 11:14-20, Matthew 9:35-10:20. You can read my sermon below. After the prayers and confession, Able Shepherd invited anyone who wished to come forward to kneel at the altar rail while he prayed for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit on us. It was a wonderful time to be together.
In my family there are six of us, my husband Phil, four children and myself. The age range of the children from eldest to youngest is ten and a half years. They are all adults now, two having left home and two still living at home.
A few years ago, when our youngest son was about 12 or 13, he complained to me that there was nothing that he could do in life. He explained that Phil had a good job and was something of an expert in his field, I had my own business, our eldest son was doing very well in his work, our daughter was training to be a doctor, our middle son was at a good college. It appeared that there was no niche for Eddy anywhere; it was all used up. He felt swamped in a family of high performers, overlooked and overshadowed by people who were more prominent than he was. Luckily that is not the end of the tale. He went on to develop a hitherto unrecognised artistic talent, to do well at computer work, and has now got a good job and hopefully will soon be following in his eldest brother’s footsteps as a very technical person in a large computer firm.
We’re in a very special time of the Christian year. We’ve passed through the contemplative time of Lent, on to the joy of Easter and then last week we celebrated Jesus’ ascension into heaven. On Sunday it is Pentecost, when we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit. I’ve chosen to use the readings that are available in the lectionary to use this week as we look forward to that special day.
The Holy Spirit can suffer a bit as Eddy felt he was doing in our family. With the prominence of God the Father and the human touch of Jesus the Son, that third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, can get lost. I think also, that the idea of a ‘spirit’ conjures up spooky pictures of white sheets, rattling chains and moaning noises, such as we would expect of a ghost. It doesn’t help the Holy Spirit’s public image to have been called the Holy Ghost in the past.
It is possible to consider that the Holy Spirit is female. The Spirit is associated with Wisdom in the Bible. In the Old Testament Joshua was ‘full of the spirit of wisdom’ and in Ephesians Paul prays that God ‘may give you a spirit of wisdom’. In the Old Testament wisdom is ‘chokmah’ and in the new it is ‘sophia’, both feminine words. In addition, the Hebrew word for spirit is ‘ruach’ which is feminine, although this is lost in the Latin and Greek translations. We know that God made us in his image and that we are made male and female, so it is not too far fetched to see the feminine aspect of God in the Holy Spirit.
In the book, ‘The Shack’ Mack meets the Holy Spirit. I know it’s just a novel but I like what is written about her. “Mack found himself involuntarily squinting in her direction, as if doing so would allow his eyes to see her better. But strangely, he still had a difficult time focusing on her; she seemed almost to shimmer in the light and her hair blew in all directions even though there was hardly a breeze. It was almost easier to see her out of the corner of his eye than to look at her directly.” A little later there is this passage: “Mack followed Sarayu as best he could out the back door and down the walkway past the row of firs. To walk behind such a being was like tracking a sunbeam. Light seemed to radiate through her and then reflect her presence in multiple places at once. Her nature was rather ethereal, full of dynamic shades and hues of colour and motion. ‘No wonder so many people are a little unnerved at relating to her,’ Mack thought. ‘She obviously is not a being who is predictable.’”
Despite this unpredictable, shifting, insubstantial nature, it is still possible to learn about the Holy Spirit, what she is like, how she interacts with us. In the passage in Ezekiel, God says that he will give his people ‘one heart’ and put a new spirit within them. What we can see from this is that the Spirit brings unity. We know very well that the world as a whole is not unified, wars go on, arms continue to be manufactured, there is a lack of trust between nations, we struggle to work together. The Church doesn’t manage to show the way, creating denominations through disagreements. Even within our own Anglican Communion, we are struggling to agree with one another. However, before we give up on the Holy Spirit and say she is not doing her job, we have to remember that we are still talking to one another and through that we may come to agreement. I am sure that the Holy Spirit was there in Jamaica with members of the Anglican Consultative Council, building bridges between people. The Holy Spirit is also here in the Cathedral helping people of different traditions to worship together and to learn to get along well together.
God also says that he will remove the old hard stone hearts of the people and replace them with hearts of flesh. It is the Holy Spirit working in us that helps us to listen to God and to walk in his ways, instead of stubbornly going our own way, being selfish and not caring about other people. She helps us to be the kind of people who are referred to in the Psalm: ‘Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, who have not lifted up their soul to an idol, nor sworn an oath to a lie.’ God does not leave us alone to try to follow his ways. He knows we can’t manage alone and so he sends the Spirit to help. In fact, one name for the Holy Spirit is the ‘Helper’. Because the help is within us, it affects not just our actions but also our thoughts and motives which will gradually change.
If we move to the Gospel reading there is another action of the Holy Spirit. Jesus looks to a time when his disciples will be persecuted and have to give account of themselves. He tells the disciples not to be afraid because it won’t be they who are speaking but the Holy Spirit in them, giving them the words to say. If the Spirit could do that for them, she will surely also do the same for us. It might be that we find ourselves persecuted or could be that someone wants to know why we believe what we believe. Either way the Holy Spirit will give us the words that we need.
There is so much to discover about the Holy Spirit if you read the references in the Bible, but even these small sections tell us something wonderful about her. I know some people tend to think that the Holy Spirit was for the past but I am convinced that she is active in believers today. We would be a great deal worse off without her action in our lives.
Even if we think we are making slow progress in holiness we can be assured that, because the Holy Spirit lives in us, we have been ‘sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance’. The guarantee tells us that we are citizens of heaven, children of God and heirs of eternal life.
It occurred to me that this guarantee is rather like the endorsement I put on the back of a passport photo for one of my students. I had to write ‘I certify that this is a true likeness of X’ and then sign it. This will allow my student to get a British passport which confirms his citizenship of this country. The Holy Spirit has endorsed our hearts, writing on each: ‘I certify that this is a true likeness of Jesus. Signed the Holy Spirit.’ That confirms our citizenship of heaven. Nothing can keep us out.