A few years ago, one of our Bishops hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. He had been to a lunchtime reception and had become somewhat merry. On his way home, he was restrained by the police for his somewhat erratic behaviour and when asked for his name he allegedly replied, “I`m the Bishop of Southwark. It`s what I do”. This was an unfortunate episode, though as today`s New Testament reading points out, he wasn`t the first Christian to be accused of being drunk! But as well as being both amusing and tragic, his reply is interesting. “I`m the Bishop of Southwark. It`s what I DO”.
I say this because firstly, as one of my colleagues reminded me….. when we speak of the Holy Spirit, as we do today; we`re speaking about God and we bring together these two things; who God IS and what God DOES. “I`m God, it`s what I DO”.
To put it another way it`s always seemed to me that if we`re going to say, “We believe in the Holy Spirit” then we can`t avoid speaking of him in the present tense… We`re talking `practical God`.
So, my first warning would be to take care for instance, whenever you hear people say things like, “Of course, Jesus WAS….” this that or the other. Take care when He is located as a figure from the past. Think very carefully when you hear that fashionable maxim, “What would Jesus do?”… as if he`s stepped out for a while, leaving us to get on with things under our own steam…. No, God IS as God DOES.
And what does God do? Well secondly, we need to notice that our scriptures teach us very clearly that the Holy Spirit comes to reveal and (as we say) to bear witness to Jesus. You see, when we speak of the Holy Spirit we are speaking of Jesus and we`re speaking of his continuing mission and ministry in and through the lives of his people. This gift, this active presence that we call the Holy Spirit doesn`t come apart from this task of revealing Him and drawing attention to Him. That`s why you need to have a care when you hear someone describe themselves as `spiritual`… The give-away is that invariably it`s all about THEM… rather than Jesus.
What I mean is that `Spiritual` is all too often a label people give to themselves so as to appear a bit `alternative`. And when you scratch beneath the surface their professed interest in `spiritual things`, (particularly words like the `power` of the Spirit) is all too often little more than a cover for their need to gain some kind of control over their life; or even over others. Basically, this `Spirit` (again they`ll talk in general terms rather than about Jesus) is some kind of fuel they can tap into at their own convenience.
Now, I`m not wishing to be unduly negative or cynical, I just think it needs pointing out that from the earliest days belief in the Holy Spirit has gone hand in hand with some pretty silly and dangerous notions. This is especially true today because as I`ve already hinted, the idea of some `generalised` spirit plays very well in our individualised culture. But the way we avoid this kind of pitfall is to look at the likes of our readings this morning. We could spend ages on this but let`s notice two things.
Firstly, in the Acts passage we heard about different languages; the experience of the wind and breath …….and a quotation from the Prophet Joel ……all of which point us in the direction of the Old Testament. These are the roots of our understanding of God the Holy Spirit. As ever, this is where our horizons are being expanded. We`re being reminded for example, about the Holy Spirit present both in the creation story and in the confusion of languages we learn about in the story of the Tower of Babel…. What I mean is that the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost is part of a much larger project than the sprucing up of my life; or of providing me with fuzzy or apparently holy feelings.
What`s at stake is the implementation of all that Christ did on the Cross- God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. So, what the disciples experienced… what WE experience- is a sense of being swept up in God`s recreating work. That first reading tells us that to receive the Holy Spirit (again) is to be caught up in God`s story…. His world narrative. And Jesus hammers it home in the Gospel where He tells the disciples: “As the Father sent me, so I send you”. We have a job to do. As our Gospel points out, there is a repentance (a turning around), forgiveness and reconciliation to be announced to a wayward world.
But then secondly, notice we`re not on our own. The Spirit creates the Church. God`s new humanity. Of course, it`s the Church that is the other casualty of this `fad` for being a supposedly `spiritual` person. Taking our cue from other philosophies and `isms` we define `spiritual` not just in rather ethereal and what we might call other-worldly terms… We think in individualised terms as well. So, God `however I wish to define him` becomes little more than a life-style choice; a reflection of my own need to hold things together or for a bit of peace and quiet.
In that sense, what we think of as `spiritual` has almost by definition to be set apart from our daily experience of tensions, disagreements and all the rest; and what need would I have for anyone else? Unless they are there to affirm my `spiritual` credentials!
“Body, Mind and Spirit” is the label the booksellers often use to display the vast range of writings encouraging us to adopt our own `spirituality`…. We pick and choose something that will enhance our uniqueness … “Because we`re worth it..!”
But tragically it`s all about creating illusions… and the casualties are many. Those who don`t give up (assuming they`ll never be `spiritual` enough) either persist in their isolation and their own `spiritual` trip or they`ll attempt to create their ideal `holy` club … which is frequently a conflict-free gathering of the like-minded. So how do we identify the real thing? Well, as someone said, “We come in search of a `spiritual experience` and we are perpetually surprised when we turn up here and all we are given is bread and wine and the messiness of human relationships in which for reasons we can`t fathom, God promises to be present”.
Again, because we`re surrounded by so many false and escapist notions of spirituality, that “Church” doesn`t much feel like the real thing. This is compounded by the way we associate the Spirit`s work far too much with our feelings and otherwise heightened states. But we`ve been duped. Forget these generalised notions of `spirituality`; spend some time in the company of St. John and in his Gospel you`ll hear Jesus teach you about who the Holy Spirit is and how you`ll see him at work.
Bread and wine- and the messiness of human relationships. Venture into this territory and you will see the Spirit at work… You`ll see `Jesus-shaped` things begin to happen.
So, where is the Holy Spirit? How will we recognise the Holy Spirit? Well, I say again, to speak of the Holy Spirit is to speak of God in the present tense. It means to speak (not, of fuzzy feelings) but of the continuing work and ministry of Jesus in the here and now; in and through his people. It means to speak of God`s great act of re-creating all things and bringing into being `a people for his praise`; a people called to lead creation in the worship of the creator.
So, to speak of the Holy Spirit, is to hold a great question mark over the world`s casual and general definitions of that word `spiritual` and to turn away from any attempts to use God for our purposes. Because, contrary to our many misconceptions, the Holy Spirit (the life and presence of God) is poured out `on all flesh` and into the messiness of human lives where the clear objective is to reveal a world under new management; the Kingdom of God.
Our God desires to create a community of people whose lives are distinctive; and characterised by `Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control` (Galatians 6.22-23) The things St. Paul refers to as the Fruit of the Spirit`. Yes, we learn to get used to our humility; our inability to live up to our high calling. -Each day we long to make a more consistent `Yes` to God. But we are here to let the life of Jesus shine in and through us; to bring forth the fruit of the Spirit; that the world may believe. Each day we learn to pray, `Come Holy Spirit`.