A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 4 June 2017
Today is the Feast of Pentecost, the culmination of the Easter season, the birth of the Church! The function of the Holy Spirit that we are celebrating today, is to bring life, new life. What a stark contrast to what was seen on the streets of London last night and Manchester two weeks ago! And what a stark contrast last night’s events are to what we are doing here today – baptising Filemon – an act of life, love and new life!
Week by week when we recite the Creed we say very little about the Holy Spirit, but what we do say sums up the Church’s belief – the Holy Spirit, we say, is the Lord and giver of life. And that description of the Spirit’s work, as the Lord and giver of life, is all encompassing, able to embrace the extraordinary as well as the ordinary, the unusual as well as the routine. The clue as to whether the Spirit of God is at work or not, is simply whether it’s life giving 0 the terrorist offers only death.
In the story of Pentecost as told by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, it’s the unusual and flamboyant that predominates. Most of us will be familiar with that story with its tongues of fire, speaking in other languages and the sound like the rush of a violent wind. Is this truly the work of God’s Spirit or is it, as the bystanders mockingly suggested, because ‘they are filled with new wine’?
To answer that question you have to look at what the consequences were of what happened and ask yourself – did it bring life? Yes!
Because what flowed from this event was a new movement that spread like wild fire – lives were transformed, the Church had been born.
But this dramatic story of the birth of the Church with its extraordinary characteristics needs to be placed in a much wider and broader understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit.
For that work of the Holy Spirit, who is Lord and giver of life, is present throughout creation. The creation story itself speaks of the Spirit of God hovering over the surface of the waters. And so from this comes the conviction that the Holy Spirit animates and gives life not just to some small group of 12 disciples, but to the whole of creation.
Then as you read on in the Old Testament, creativity, wisdom, insight and goodness are all attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit. Its not just in spectacular events but people’s skills in weaving beautiful fabrics for the Jerusalem temple, or the king exercising good judgement.
In the New Testament too, the work of the Holy Spirit is often described in very down to earth ways. Paul lists the fruits of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These things are often quiet and unflashy, quite the opposite of the fire and fury of the first Pentecost. But they are all fruits of the Spirit, because they’re life giving. We’ve seen this Spirit, the Holy Spirit, at work too on the streets of London and Manchester, brining healing and hope in the face of death.
What this highlights is another feature of the work of the Holy Spirit – which is that it is self-effacing. The lack of a fuller description of the Holy Spirit in the Creed is a consequence of this. Why so? Because the very nature of the Holy Spirit is not to draw attention to itself but to point away from itself to Christ. It is the embodiment of humility and service, unlike the human spirit so often.
So if we follow the Holy Spirit’s lead and turn to Christ, what do we find?
In the gospel reading we heard Jesus using the image of rivers of living water flowing from the believer’s heart. There’s a kind of vibrancy that marks the working of the Holy Spirit, a freshness like the freshness of an early morning in May or June. It’s young! It opens up new possibilities!
In 2004 Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, began his Easter broadcast with these words:
‘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.’
So if we look at Christ as the one in whom this divine aliveness is fully present we can see something of the way that the Spirit works. For 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.
And most surprising of all is the fact that the fullness of Christ’s life does not cease to overflow at his death. It keeps on impacting on the lives of others with the Spirit kindled in them too, setting up a chain reaction, creating a community of the Spirit as Saint Paul described for us this morning, the body of believers, the Church.
To each, he wrote, is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. And after describing the different ways in which the Spirit brings a great variety of gifts to the Church’s life, Paul concludes: ‘For in the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Round the edge of the new font cover here at Church are these words:
‘If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation. The old has passed away. Behold the new is born.’
That’s the work of the Holy Spirit, down the centuries and throughout the world, here, now, today! And so in defiance of the forces of terror and death, we continue to acclaim the Church’s Easter faith:
Alleluia. Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!