Today is known as Pentecost Sunday and so our first reading this morning told us of that momentous occasion when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples with such astounding effect. And you probably noticed that immediately everyone was wondering what on earth was going on. It was an event which woke the neighbourhood and significantly it divided opinion. It looked and it seemed to those nearby that the disciples had spent far too long at the local pub! but this wasn`t alcoholic intoxication. “No,” said St. Peter- “this is what God has promised to do”; as Jesus promised in our Gospel reading he would dwell with and within his people, provide a foretaste of resurrection life, life in what Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.
What interests me is that even today opinion is divided. At one extreme are those who contend that if you haven`t had an experience equivalent to what the disciples went through then you`re not a proper Christian and at the other there are those who are uncomfortable with what they refer to as the `emotionalism` of it all; those who think it`s a bit trivial to imagine that the Holy Spirit is only there to give Christians the spiritual equivalent of a trip to the theme park!
I`m exaggerating somewhat but it seems inevitable that any talk of the Holy Spirit causes dis-ease in some way or other. My particular concern is for those whose immediate response is to want to pass this one by and leave it all to the `nutty fringe` because being indwelt, blessed, guided and directed by the Holy Spirit is not the preserve of the few but basic Christian living.
It`s rather obvious really but part of the problem is caused by the language we use. So often, it seems to me, talk of the Holy Spirit lacks that sense that we are on Holy Ground and that actually our words need to be measured carefully if they are not to be confusing, alienating or misleading. Trying to be kind I sense that sheer enthusiasm perhaps gets the better of many of us. Perhaps it`s that intoxication again but maybe also it`s a certain forgetfulness of whom we`re really speaking when we talk of the Holy Spirit?
Again I know it may sound obvious but when we speak of the Holy Spirit we are speaking of God. As the Book of Common Prayer Holy Communion service reminds us on Trinity Sunday: “That which we believe of the glory of the Father, the same we believe of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, without any difference or inequality”. What I`m getting at is that these very wise words are an immediate corrective to those who give the impression that we are talking of some sort of entity or `force` that`s somehow `associated` with God. No, we`re talking of God with us.
The problem (and I can`t help declaring a certain bias) is that it`s forgetfulness of this which means that the Holy Spirit is too easily co-opted in the service of a rather shallow emotionalism and a thirst for `experience`. If I were being unkind it would seem that the Holy Spirit is often associated in some circles with what`s called `informality`, or `authenticity` but to be honest this is more often than not an excuse for that which is casual, unreflective and even frankly irreverent.
And all the time, what`s at stake is not how comfortable you may or may not be with putting your hands in the air but whether you`re being given an insight into the full scope of what God is seeking to do in creation and in Christ…. basically, it`s about whether you`re being given a big enough vision of God.
Now don`t misunderstand me; there is no excuse for attending worship looking as if you`ve just swallowed a lemon. One of the Fruits of the Spirit is joy and expressing that in worship is too easily (for some odd reason) frowned upon….. I don`t get that.
What I`m suggesting is that reflection on the Holy Spirit is firstly, as I say often separated from our understanding of the Father and the Son – the entirety of God as he has revealed himself. Our conviction is that by his Spirit this one God creates, claims and calls us; he indwells, gifts and empowers us to be his people; to carry forward his work of reconciliation and re-creation…. that`s a big agenda and it`s far bigger than giving Christians the occasional shot in the arm!
But the second thing and the main reason we go awry is that we begin in the wrong place. When he heard the people making a fuss about what on earth was happening to the disciples and why there was such a racket you may have noticed that it was Peter who stood up to try to explain things. Amazing enough in itself!
But the important thing to grasp is that Peter pointed the people to the Book of the prophet Joel. Now, in pointing to the Scriptures to help explain what was going on, essentially Peter wanted everyone to realise that there was what we call a `back-story`. Too often I believe, our reflection on the Holy Spirit goes awry because it begins with this story in Acts and fails to take account of that back story. Peter says this is a manifestation of God working his purposes out; another of those moments when God`s desire to redeem and re-create his world breaks through, becomes clear- what I sometimes call the Big Picture…
In other words I think it helps if we pay a little more attention to that back story and in particular to the Book of Genesis. You might recall that simple reference to the Spirit or `breath` of God moving over waters; present in bringing all things into being. Essentially, I think we end up with a rather shallow conception of the Holy Spirit –and indeed of God- because we forget this work in creation. Whereas if we begin here we end up with a deeper, far more awe-inspiring conception of what it means to be engaging with the living God.
St Ignatius of Loyola lived at a time in the Church`s history when talk of the Holy Spirit needed to be carefully measured because, as I`ve mentioned, there is an enduring potential for hot-headedness and division. But without mentioning the Spirit at all he expressed the same truth by choosing to speak of the God who `labours` within us and who continues to create us and in a huge number of places, St. Paul is equally adamant that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is fundamental to who we are as Christians.
For far too long it has been easy for some Christians to, as I say somewhat side-line the Holy Spirit because of an assumption that this is about what`s going on, on the surface; the froth and bubble of Christian living … (and as a matter of taste and temperament we think I`ll have none of that!) but on the contrary we`re talking about the `creator spirit` the living God labouring that we might become what we were created to be. And that implies a certain tension even upheaval, give our capacity for self- deception and sin.
So firstly, I would suggest that Pentecost invites us to reflect on how important it is, that we might go about recognising, discerning and responding to the movements of the Spirit in the events of each day. Otherwise we`ll end up in a very dry place where there is little sense of God`s immediacy.
And secondly, I think this is REALLY why there`s an enduring dis-ease whenever the Spirit is mentioned because this is where things start to move. I can`t help thinking that the Celtic Christians got it right in associating the Spirit with the Wild Goose- an altogether different image.
You see I want to suggest that when we talk of the presence of the Holy Spirit we`re saying that our God takes us and our lives very seriously. You might not have heard it put like that. But, for example reflect on your creation. You are no accident but a son or daughter of God. … this truth is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
Your decisions and the choices you make matter. Guidance is a gift of the Spirit.
Your thinking matters; how you respond to life`s pitfalls and the discovery of your own capacity for wilfulness and sin… all of this matters. The Holy Spirit is the Advocate on your side.
Your relationships matter. In his letter to the Galatians Paul tells us of the fruit of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness” (Galatians 5.22) It`s no accident that all but one of them are relational gifts- the means by which we will bless others.
And your growth matters. That we should come to resemble Christ more fully really matters. “More of Christ, less of us” as Archbishop Michael Ramsey once said. So that the world may believe.