All Saints Margaret Street | Pentecost High Mass Sunday 15 May 2016

Sermon for Pentecost High Mass Sunday 15 May 2016

Readings:  Acts 2.1-21; Romans 8.14-17; John 14.8-17

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place.

In the days between Ascension and Pentecost, members of the Church of England, and other Christians with them, have in a variety of ways been responding to the call issued by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to been engage in prayer for mission, for the evangelization of our country.

This time of prayer was not a whim of the archbishops but inspired by that period between Ascension and Pentecost when Acts tells us the apostles with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the Mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. (Acts 1. 12-14)

And when the promised gift of the Spirit comes, they are all together still. The Spirit is given to them together

The link between praying for the Spirit and praying for mission which the Archbishops have called us to is not an accidental one. It is at the heart of what Scripture teaches us and what the Church believes about the Holy Spirit and our relationship with the Spirit. We never receive the Spirit for ourselves alone, to be our own private possession.  The Holy Spirit is always the Spirit of mission.

To call something or someone, some place or practice, “holy” means they belong or relate to God.  Thus the Holy Spirit is that which belongs to God or that which pertains to God’s will.  The will of God, as we learn from the ministry and mission of Jesus, as we are taught by the Spirit of truth, the Spirit who reminds us of what Jesus has said and done, the Spirit who leads us into all truth, is the radical and total transformation of our world.  So “holiness” is that which belongs to this transformation, that which manifests and enables it. This is the character of the Holy Spirit.

In the biblical accounts the Spirit of God is given to people to make them capable of performing tasks or missions that relate to the community or society as a whole.  So, in the scriptures of the Old Testament, we read that:

  • When Samson received the Spirit, he received the capacity to do what God wanted – to defend and liberate the people.
  • When David received the Spirit, it was to undertake the public responsibility of leadership and kingship.
  • When the prophets were given the Spirit, it was not for their own spiritual enlightenment, but to enable them to speak clearly and forcefully to the public life of the society which had forgotten God’s will; confronting the social, economic and political realities with the word of God.

So, the Holy Spirit is never separated from public responsibility, and therefore, from mission.  We never hear of the gift of the Spirit as concerned primarily with the interior and private lives of individuals.  This is of special importance today, for all too often in the Church, people speak of the Spirit only or primarily in connection with the interior life, with the personal and the private. The idea is so prevalent that we can think of the spiritual life as that life which is separated from the world.  The spiritual is opposed to the material and the aim of spirituality is to escape from the material; to rise to a higher plane. But this is an idea that completely foreign the biblical standpoint.

Preaching at Evensong, recently, I spoke about the tendency which has arisen in Europe and North America in the last half-century or so, for people to speak of themselves as ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious.’  ‘Spiritual’ is seen as good and positive, that which liberates our inner selves, while ‘religious’ represents the bad and negative, that which cramps and inhibits our development.

Being ‘spiritual’ allows us to take a ‘pick-and-mix’ approach to religious traditions and practices; using what works for us. Now I do not want to say that the Holy Spirit is only at work in the religion we belong to and totally absent in others; so that nothing they have or do can be of any interest or value. The Spirit, as Jesus says in John’s Gospel, blows where it wills (John 3. 8).  Jesus is himself the true light that enlightens every one (John 1.9).  But if spiritual practices are severed from their theological roots, they lose touch with their inspiration and meaning and also with reality; and they will eventually wither and die.

Rupert Shortt, in his recent and excellent book “God Is No Thing,” discusses this trend.

“Though not necessarily to be dismissed lightly – some people are put off church with good reason  –  it is perhaps undeservedly popular all the same.”

(One of the Spirit’s roles in Scripture is to recall people to the true nature of God and belief in him and its consequences; to remind us that God is greater than we are and that he is not our possession). 

Shortt goes on:  “Sharper Christian commentators remind us that spirituality wasn’t a word much heard before the 1960s.  Since then, ‘spiritual but not religious’ has entrenched itself as a way of describing those who lay claim to the comfy feelings that accompany religious belief, without having to get into the nitty-gritty or compromises of ‘organised religion’. 

Spirituality should be about more than this. Rather than occupying a little department of our lives marked heightened emotions, it should involve a concerted journey towards God.  This is why contrasting ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ is a false dichotomy.  It is not, as some liberal Christians thought, the horse of individual experience which pulls the cart of ecclesiastical structures. Many would now reverse this and say that it is the community represented by the Church which draws out and brings to fulfilment capacities that are latent within us. In other words, without community, ‘spirituality’ can become sentimental and inward-looking.  Christians are thus taught to pray corporately as well as individually.”

I am not suggesting that there is no place for feeling, for our emotions, in our religion. We are not disembodied spirits, we are not computers but persons who sense as well as think.  That is why we have music and ceremony, lights and incense. But our emotions need to be directed aright by the Spirit. 

‘Religion,’ as I said in that sermon, takes its meaning from that which binds us together. In the case of Christianity, it binds us together as God’s children, brothers and sisters of Jesus who are enabled to share his relationship of loving communion with the Father through the Holy Spirit.  It binds us together with all sorts of people who are not like us, rather than just with the ‘like-minded.’  If we seek out only those who agree with us on everything, we will soon find ourselves in a huddle of one.

We see this quite clearly in two accounts of the reception of the Spirit.  In Acts 2, that reception is manifested as the disciples proclaim the gospel to all those around them who, in spite of differences of culture and language, each hear that gospel proclaimed in their own language.  The reception of the Spirit is what makes it possible for us to testify to Jesus in spite of differences of culture, nation and language.

Something similar occurs in the Gospel of John (20.19-123).  The disciples receive the Spirit in order to be able to fulfill their commission. As the Father sent me, so I send you.  In order to be able to fulfil their mission, they are given the Spirit.  This is further expressed in the authority and responsibility to forgive sins; to bring about reconciliation. 

So, it is no accident that when Paul speaks of the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12, to a Christian community some of whose members are clearly rather too pleased with their own spiritual gifts that they have become a source not of unity but of division, he emphasizes that these gifts are related to tasks, to concrete service of the neighbour and real responsibilities in representing the lordship of Christ.

The Spirit that is the Holy Spirit is not a spirit that leads us away from the world, but rather one that leads us and guides us into the world; it is not a spirit that leads us to escape into the heavens or into an inner world of “spirituality,”  but rather that which empowers us to fulfill the ascension commission of Jesus to continue his mission: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all I have commanded you; an lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age (Matthew 28.19-20). It is the Spirit of Jesus Christ who came into the world, not to condemn the world but to save it.

The Spirit of God is, in the New Testament, associated with the Church. It is the Church which is commissioned to engage in the mission for which the Spirit empowers it. And this Church is a community in which divisions are overcome; and which works and prays to overcome those divisions, both within itself and in the world.  The community entrusted with this mission and characterized by this reconciliation is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.