I took the liberty this morning of changing the Gospel reading that was set for today, simply because I wanted us to reflect on these words spoken by John the Baptist: “John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3.16)
I suppose, it occurred to me that if you were to ask people what they might tell you about Jesus; the thought that he would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” might not be the first thing that would occur to them. But this is what John wants us to know about Jesus, the Christ. And it`s THIS, perhaps, sense of discontinuity between what we might usually assume about Christ and this actual expectation which I want us to explore for a moment.
I find this quite an interesting notion. Is this what you would expect from Christ? That he will Baptise; the word literally means `drench`; that he will baptise you in the life of God? Is that what you would expect or deeply desire from him? More importantly, what would your life look like if you did? I think it`s important to hold this in mind if only to make sense of that first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. (Acts 2.1-21) Because what happened that day was not some aberration; an example of a prayer meeting that got out of hand. It was entirely consistent with what John was talking about; and what the Prophet Joel at least had foretold. When John locates the gift of the Holy Spirit as one of the primary things Jesus wishes to bestow on us he prevents us from getting a lop-sided view of him and of the faith.
I know many of us who`ve worshipped practically all of our lives find talk of the Holy Spirit totally alien (and that`s just how the Devil wants it) and at best we dismiss such talk as the preserve of the `nutty` fringe of the Church. And too often, as one of my colleagues says, “Excited talk of the Holy Spirit and the events of Pentecost often give the distinct impression that the Lord is only interested in giving folk the spiritual equivalent of a trip to Disneyland!” But, of course, there`s far more going on than that. No, John holds things together for us. He tells us that Jesus will, “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
So, what might this mean? Well, to say that we believe in the Holy Spirit, firstly means that we are bearers of Good News. A `Good News` not of our own making. What`s the content of that Good News?
Well, we are here to announce that on the Cross Christ has defeated death and sin and reconciled us to the Father. His new reign has begun and we are commissioned (in the strength of the Spirit) to make the announcement and to draw others into his friendship. Put it this way… the Holy Spirit makes you a disciple… and a maker of disciples. It`s not an optional activity for those who are in to that sort of thing it just goes with the territory.
And then let`s just for a moment refer to that other word John the Baptist uses: “Fire”. He will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Let`s just register that there is no room here for sentimentality, half measures or what laughingly passes for `spirituality` these days. The fire is about purification, cleansing, holiness, and goodness. A work of transformation and change. As the Letter to Hebrews says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10.31) In other words, it is a good thing to pray, “Come Holy Spirit” but don`t imagine for a minute that it is an easy ride. Which underlines why Jesus says “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15.5) We just make things worse when we imagine we can live the Christian life without reference to the Spirit… the grace he provides, or indeed the Church that the Spirit creates.
Because, this is the second thing. To say that we believe in the Holy Spirit means that we believe in a Church that is not of our own making. And what`s more; gathering of people who are not of our own choosing. Why is the Holy Spirit significant in the life of the Church? Well, let`s consider two words. The first is `Gathering`.
The Book of Revelation praises Christ who by his “blood (has) ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Revelation 5.9) We need to grasp the enormity of this. Because it`s THIS great work that is celebrated in the great gathering of diverse people on that day of Pentecost. It`s THIS which was the hallmark of the early Church… A people who had nothing in common other than their being `in Christ`. A being `in Christ` which broke down all the usual cultural and social barriers and expectations. Slaves worshipping with Masters; Male, Female, Gentile, Jew and so on.
It`s by no means an excuse but you see part of the reason why the Church is often so dysfunctional is that this is such hard work! And why unity is so important to us. As I`ve often said… The easy part is creating a Church of like-minded people with similar income and social background. The easy thing is to gather a bunch of people who are `just like us`… who fit in…. After all, “we met them at bridge the other night”, and `birds of a feather flock together` don`t they? And all too often this is the line we have taken.
But it`s salutary to reflect that the one thing not reported in recent accounts of what were called the `Windrush Generation` is the frankly appalling reception many from the Caribbean received in our Churches; back in the 1950`s and 1960`s. They came with a right to expect warm and welcoming fellowship but because of their colour they were systematically frozen out and forced to form their own Churches. This is a sign, a very blatant sign of a Church that didn`t take the work of the Holy Spirit seriously.
Then Secondly, as well as `gathering` the work of the Holy Spirit is to Enable; to enable us to be God`s people. This is the startling bit. The promise is that we, ordinary mortals that we are, might in some small measure be Jesus in the world, in the here and now. In some small way a living example of what God`s future world looks like. A means of God`s Kingdom going forwards.
In other words, to say that we believe in the Holy Spirit is to say that we believe God takes our lives very seriously. This is what we call holiness. For example, it means quitting all those nonsense conversations, bemoaning `the way the world is going`…. No, we know all about that but we are a people of hope. A people who know that God does not quit …..but on the contrary, sends his Holy Spirit that his unstoppable work may continue in and through us.
Friends, in the end this is why we are here….. It`s not about us but about what the Lord wishes to do in and through us individually and as a Church. We are gathered to be sent out. So, pray to be `Baptised with the Holy Spirit and fire`; drenched and purified.
The trick, I would suggest, is learning to look and to listen. Look and listen, maybe not for the mighty rushing wind; though don`t rule it out. Just look and listen for the little things that might seem little more than intuitions at the time but which lead you to do obedient things you`ve not done before; kingdom things you didn`t know you had in you; neighbourly, open and generous things with a spontaneity that took you by surprise. Take the Lord at his word; and let him surprise you. Pray: Come Holy Spirit.