The Sardine Theory of the Holy Spirit

You may recall that many years ago there was a comedy programme called `Beyond the Fringe`. On one occasion the now very famous writer Alan Bennett gave a simply merciless parody of a Vicar who was giving his morning sermon.

“Life”, he said in his best parsonic voice, “is rather like a tin of sardines; we`re all of us looking for the key. Some of us think we`ve found the key. We roll back the lid of the sardine tin of life- to reveal the sardines, the riches of life within. But you know there`s always a little bit in the corner that you can`t get out….”. “I wonder”, he went on, “is there a little bit in the corner of your life? I know there is in mine…..”.

It`s great stuff. And for some odd reason I thought of it when I was looking at our readings this morning! I suppose it`s because each of them have an element of incompleteness about them.

Firstly, we heard St. Paul making one of his more magisterial statements- he tells us of the grace in which we stand. But even though this is the case, there is, he continues, a certain vulnerability. We`re prone to suffering –life`s slings and arrows and our need is for endurance. And he assures us of the presence of the Holy Spirit to strengthen us. The encouragement in this, for me at any rate, is in knowing that the challenges we face are not a `God-free zone`, nor are they a sign that we have somehow strayed from the path. They are the place in which God`s grace will be revealed.

Then secondly, we had a small passage from John`s Gospel which again, points to a sense of incompleteness. We heard of the sensitivity which Christ shows towards the disciples (and our) inability to really comprehend his teaching. And how graciously and for our good he holds some things back. He said: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now”.
But he goes on to point to the work of the Holy Spirit as the one who will “guide us into the truth”- bring us to completeness.

So we have two pictures of the Christian life. In the first one- we`re assured of God`s grace and goodness- but life`s circumstances are going to test us. We may have to hold fast to this truth with our very finger nails. But Paul assures us that God is at work to strengthen and uphold us. In the second picture we`re reminded that we`ve still some way to go on our journey. But importantly this lack of completeness is somehow Christ`s will for us. There`s yet more that he wants to do for us.

I remember as a young man having a chat with our curate and complaining that I just couldn`t get used to the way no matter how much I resolved not to let the Lord down in such and such way I always messed up. And he said something interesting. He said `we always need to recognise our humility`. He was saying that, in a sense, it`s as if the Lord allows all of this so as it were open our eyes to the truth about ourselves as creatures. I found this very wise and helpful.

And I`ve often thought that this is why St. Paul made such caustic comments to for the Church in Corinth. Where he takes them to task for becoming so `puffed up` in their faith and for behaving as if they were the finished article:

In his first letter to them he says: “Who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you! For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honoured, we are dishonoured!” (1 Corinthians 4)

What we`ve got here, is Paul pointing to his own struggles in faith and finding the Corinthians insufferable. Because they left no room for humility- and for Christ`s continuing work in them.

Now I don`t come across this kind of spiritual pride very often. This triumphal and foolhardy `oh so sure` kind of attitude is I think quite rare. I more often than not meet people who think they are, shall we say, in the second-division of faith. And my point is not that we should wallow in this sense of inadequacy- but simply take heed of what I believe Paul and our Lord teach us: that a sense of `incompleteness` just goes with the territory of being a Christian. We`re not the finished article. And far from being a sign inadequacy- it`s quite possibly a work of the Holy Spirit.

I`m probably giving something of my age away if I tell you that I grew up to the sound of the Rolling Stones singing: “Can`t get no satisfaction”. But this was the anthem of a generation wasn`t it? A generation that was struggling with its incompleteness. And we have seen the enthusiasm with which it pursued its quest – and some of the consequences as we have learnt that no matter how hard we try there is no experience, no thing, no person or narcotic that can fully complete us.

But that`s the point isn`t it? Our incompleteness, begets desire and this is followed by that the seemingly endless list of short-cuts to fulfilment. And I`m suggesting that it is work of the Holy Spirit to give us a `holy restlessness`. I think it`s part of the Holy Spirit`s work to expose and point out if you will, the limitedness of created things. Again, no person, activity or thing can ever fully quench our appetites. And the Holy Spirit reveals those things and persons for what they are -as created, not the creator.

Psalm 62 tells us: “Only in God will my soul be at rest…” And in that well-known prayer, St. Augustine said, `O Lord you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you`. Quite so.

To give you a un-seasonal analogy the moments to look for is that sense that I know some people have after all the Christmas gifts are opened and you simply can`t squeeze in any more mince pies and you sit and wonder `is that it then?` Or as Rabbi Lionel Blue once said- “Late one night I went to the refrigerator to get something to eat- and as I opened the door realised that it was my soul that was hungry”. In other words- the incompleteness is God`s moment with us.

And (as I`m always saying) part of the knack, I think, is just learning to listen to ourselves. So can I invite you to become more aware of those `sardine tin moments`, or those `refrigerator moments`- whatever you`d like to call them. They may appear as moments of frustration, of weakness and of incompleteness. But I invite you not to run away from them or short-circuit them with another Mars Bar. Instead welcome them, embrace them as moments of growth which are every bit as much a sign of the Holy Spirit as elation and joy.


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