A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on 23 May 2021.
We’re now drawing to the end of the Easter season at church. Tomorrow the Easter candle will be moved and the Alleluias will be packed away for another year. The Easter season draws to a conclusion with Ascension Day ten days ago and the Day of Pentecost today.
During this time after Easter we’ve heard how the risen Christ healed, restored and forgave his disciples, recalling them to their vocation as his witnesses. Now, Christ is no longer visible in the way that he had been. With the Ascension his time on earth comes to a conclusion and he ‘disappears from their sight’ as the story of the Ascension puts it.
One way of understanding this is as a process of interiorising, assimilating the spirit of the risen Christ, so that now the disciples don’t need Christ’s physical presence with them, nor do they need those appearances of the risen Christ. Rather the spirit of Christ lives on in their hearts and lives. Or, as we have come to know it, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth is now their guide.
There’s a parallel process that all of us as Christ’s disciples are invited to undergo, in which we make the Christian faith ours – not simply by reciting creeds or reading the scriptures as texts out there on a page or in a book – but interiorising them, assimilating them, ensuring that the spirit of Christ lives on in our hearts and lives.
William Law, a C17th English mystic, wrote:
It is the language of scripture that Christ in us is our hope of glory, that Christ formed in us, growing and raising his own life and spirit in us, is our only salvation.
So if we look to Christ as the one in whom this divine aliveness is fully present we can see something of the way that the Spirit works. Jesus was not only alive in himself, it was as if life overflowed from him and brought fullness of life to others.
Think of his healing miracles, when men and women found themselves made whole by a power that flowed from him.
Or when his disciples caught the infection of his spirit and were changed from a group of scared ineffectual characters into the men and women who launched the Christian Church and themselves had the power to communicate the life of the Spirit to others.
Or when even those who had been bitter enemies of the cause of Christ, such as Saul of Tarsus, were touched and converted by the spiritual outreach of the man whom crucifixion had failed to destroy.
We heard Peter in his sermon on the day of Pentecost say:
But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.
It’s astonishing that the fullness of Christ’s life didn’t cease at his death. It kept on and keeps on overflowing, impacting the lives of others, setting up a chain reaction, creating a community of the Spirit in which we each give new life and hope to the other.
So perhaps a better way of understanding the Holy Spirit is less as a thing or an object and more as an activity, a life or a quality of fullness and depth. And if so, then perhaps it’s better expressed by a verb rather than a noun!
And that’s exactly what we find from New Testament times onwards. In John’s Gospel our Lord promises the Holy Spirit to his disciples, telling them that this Spirit ‘comes’ or ‘proceeds’ from the Father.
The same verb is taken up in the Christian creeds, familiar to us from the Nicene Creed where we say:
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son….
The divine life does not remain shut up in itself. God’s very nature is to proceed or go out, to overflow the boundaries and reach out to others in self-giving love and joy.
To say that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds’ draws attention to the outgoing quality of this fuller and deeper life, the kind of aliveness that we see in Jesus and that has its ultimate source in God.
And the same is true for each of us. Our first reading tonight from the prophet Ezekiel talked of the heart of stone being removed from our bodies and instead being given a heart of flesh.
If we aim chiefly at self-preservation, at hoarding life and keeping it for ourselves, we become less and less truly human and begin to resemble an inanimate object such as a stone.
But the person who has learnt to proceed, to go out from themselves towards others, grows into a fuller human being. Their heart is a heart of flesh.
I referred earlier to a C17th English mystic, William Law. I want to end with a more recent English archbishop, Rowan Williams.
In 2004 he began his Easter broadcast:
If you believe that Jesus rose from the dead, you are not just believing an odd fact from 2,000 years ago; you are trusting that there is a kind of life, a kind of love and trust and joy that is the very essence of Jesus’ identity which is now coming to life in you…. You are alive with a fuller and deeper life than just your own.
This deeper, fuller aliveness that I’ve been trying to talk about is the Holy Spirit, overwhelming, overflowing, transforming, rejoicing.
So, for the last time this year, I say:
Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!