It’s been a tough kind of week, from inter Church squabbles to grappling with the GDPR. So just to remind me that there is more to ministry than ecumenical edginess and bureaucratic business, here is last Sunday’s sermon. Sometimes we all need to be revived with the breath of love.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
At the beginning of our service today, we prayed a dangerous prayer. Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, ignite in us your holy fire; strengthen your children with the gift of faith, revive your Church with the breath of love, and renew the face of the earth, through Christ our Lord. Amen
As Christians, we come to church, mostly, probably, in a routine kind way. It’s what we do on Sundays – unless other things intervene, and we are away from home, or busy somewhere. We come here, and we are nurtured, fed, comforted, uplifted – whatever it is that each service does for the people who attend. But today’s readings and prayers remind us of something important. We come to church, to ‘divine service’, as it is sometimes called in English – Gottesdienst in German, dievkalpojums in Latvian – to meet not just our brothers and sisters, but also to meet God, to be served by God, and to offer God our small sacrifice in return. If, truly, we encounter God, we are changed by that encounter. We prayed that the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, would ignite in us the Spirit’s holy fire! Did we mean that when we said or heard those words, and said Amen to them? For the last nine days we took part in ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, a global movement of prayer between Ascension and Pentecost. Each day we met to pray, and said:
“Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people
And kindle in us the fire of your love.
Come, Holy Spirit, be with us as we pray
And leave us not as orphans.
Come, Holy Spirit, renew us in body, mind and spirit
And send us out to be your presence in your world.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people
And kindle in us the fire of your love.”
We prayed this as we waited on God. Did we mean it, or was it just another routine prayer that we routinely said Amen to? If we did mean it, it was a risky thing to do.
Just look what happened to the disciples when the flames of the Holy Spirit rested on them. Peter was utterly transformed in the weeks, the 52 days between Good Friday and Pentecost. From someone who was too afraid of the authorities to admit that he even knew Jesus, here he is, standing up boldly, addressing the men of Judea and of Jerusalem, declaring – proclaiming – the fulfilment of prophecy. Peter, who we hear in the Gospels as always putting his foot in it, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time – here he is: preaching fluently, inspired and openhearted. Peter, who was afraid of the Jews, and who hid in an upstairs room in fear of his own life – here he is, raising his voice, and addressing these devout Jews, gathered together from most parts of the known world, apparently fearless! The flames of the Holy Spirit had indeed rested on him, burned away all the fear, the shame of his betrayal and the doubt and uncertainty: and left the pure silver of faith and clarity.
The Spirit moved among the disciples like the rush of a violent wind. As Jesus said to Nicodemus near the beginning of John’s Gospel, you know how the Spirit moves and where it’s been. You can’t see the Spirit, any more than you can see the wind: but you certainly know, and feel, and see the effect. A real autumn storm, for instance, leaves devastation in its wake – as do tropical hurricanes. And that is what the Holy Spirit is being compared to. A violent wind. Tongues of Fire.
Of course, there are other comparisons, less obviously capable of rearranging the furniture, the world, or indeed our lives. We hear also of the Holy Spirit being the breath of God; or of the Holy Spirit descending like a dove on Jesus at His baptism. But even the breath of God, while it’s a gentler image than a violent wind, is not just a tickle on the cheek. Our prayer said – revive your Church with the breath of love; which is almost like mouth to mouth resuscitation; God breathing back life into the church – why? is the church dying? Does it need resuscitation or reanimation? Does our faith need to be revived by the breath of God – and are we up to it?
So there are two levels to this: the Holy Spirit infuses both people as individuals, and the church as an institution, as the living Body of Christ.
When we as individuals pray for the Holy Spirit to fill us, we give ourselves into God’s hands, asking the Spirit to lead us in God’s direction, for God to direct, console, challenge, mend – whatever is necessary for us. But the point is that we are not in charge of this process: God is. God sees what we need, even before we ask; and the Holy Spirit will comfort the distressed, distress the comfortable, challenge the lazy, ignite the lukewarm, wipe away the tears of the mourning, strengthen the faith of those who are flagging, doubtful. Because of course, we know ourselves to be weak, and our faith often to be insufficient, too easily led into doubt. St Paul’s words to the Church in Rome, which we heard just now, are a comfort to us when we feel under pressure, inadequate, too small for the mission we have. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” The Spirit is there to help, as well as to challenge, to inspire us, as Peter was inspired; to pray for and with us, even when we can’t manage the words.
When the church prays to the Holy Spirit, we are asking to be filled, and renewed, strengthened in our faith, made more alive, reanimated – re-souled! A church that is filled with the Spirit doesn’t need to be Pentecostal, or charismatic – but it is burning brightly with love, fearless in proclaiming the Gospel and rejoicing in the Lord. It is a church that is led by the Spirit, and not by human design or planning. It is a church where people live out their faith, secure in the knowledge that they are love by God. It is a church where we encounter God and go out into the world to serve our brothers and sisters, changed and renewed ourselves by that encounter. That is not a routine, boring thing to do.
So let us pray again together:
Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, ignite in us your holy fire; strengthen your children with the gift of faith, revive your Church with the breath of love, and renew the face of the earth, through Christ our Lord. Amen
2When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 “In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
John 15.26-27; 16.4b-15
26 ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. 4But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them.
‘I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.
12 ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.