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Home » Sermon – 19th May 2024

Sermon – 19th May 2024

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    Readings: Acts 2: 1-21 and John 15: 26-27 and 16: 4b-15

    Today we celebrate that outpouring of the Holy Spirit onto the twelve apostles in Jerusalem, fifty days after the resurrection. At the Ascension, Jesus told them to wait, and they waited expectantly. A word we don’t often use comes into its own today – invocation. Today of all days, we ask God to come in the power of the Holy Spirit. “Come down, O love divine” – we sang in the first hymn.

    What exactly happened on the Day of Pentecost we don’t know, except that twelve simple men, no linguists, made themselves heard in that huge crowd gathered in Jerusalem for the festival. Luke says that people of different races heard the twelve speaking in their own languages. I was interested to read some words of the late Archbishop Michael Ramsey,  who suggests that the disciples spoke in tongues – that ecstatic kind of utterance which occurred and still occurs within the Church on occasions.  Ramsey says, “In the power of the Holy Spirit the disciples expressed themselves in words and songs of praise that weren’t any particular language at all, but were just a kind of outburst of sounds, partly speech and partly music, giving expression to their common intense joy in the Holy Spirit.”

    A little later in chapter 2 of Acts, Peter sees this outpouring of the Spirit as a fulfilment of old testament prophecy. It has come about through the death and resurrection of Jesus; and brings a new spiritual experience and the declaration of a new spiritual reality.

    In the ancient world, wind and fire were symbols of great power, and in the Old Testament wind, breath and fire were all linked together as signs of God’s Spirit. David Adam recently wrote that a leading ecologist has said that the energy crisis we face is not so much in energy supplies, but in our own thinking. The ecologist judges that there is enough energy in the ebb and flow of the tides, in the running of rivers, in the winds and the sun’s rays to supply our needs, if we would give the time and determination necessary to harnessing that power. He offered three observations about all this which could also apply to our spiritual lives and the life of the Church. Firstly: Many energy supplies are limited and will run out. Secondly: Wrong thinking and lack of proper attention makes us do nothing. And thirdly: All around there is power that we do not realise.

    Too often, says David Adam, the Church tries to go along in its own resources and strength, and it can be seen to be running out of supplies. Maybe we spend too much of our attention looking in the wrong direction. The power of God is here, for the Lord is here: his Spirit is with us. Much of what we glean about the Holy Spirit sounds attractive; the Spirit adds excitement to our spiritual lives, and is gender-neutral: very acceptable to modern thinking and the politically-correct. And Jesus uses various descriptions for the Spirit: some translations say ‘Comforter’, others ‘Advocate.’ And an ‘advocate’ in a court of law is a good thing to have: the advocate is your Counsel for Defence, and will stand by you however much you are threatened – so long as you have told the truth!

    A court of law should always be concerned with the truth, and the proof of innocence. But we learn that the Holy Spirit isn’t just an attractive force, because the Spirit will bring about a judgment; proving the world wrong, says Jesus, about sin and righteousness and judgment. This is the sort of writing we expect from the gospel-writer John, who often saw a great division between the thinking of the Church and the thinking of the world. So here we are told that the Spirit will prove that the world is in the wrong in not believing in Jesus; it is wrong in its notion of justice, in that it sent Jesus to the cross, and it is wrong in its eager judgment in condemning Jesus. And in Peter’s speech on the day of Pentecost, he is led to talk about judgment, too, recalling Joel’s prophecy about the great and terrible day of the Lord. The coming of the Holy Spirit emphasizes everything that God has done in Jesus. The way in which people react to Jesus, he says, seals their fate just as surely as if the world had come to an end ‘with portents in the heaven above and on the earth below.’ Wherever the Holy Spirit is, there is judgement, asking ‘Do you choose for or against God?”

    Bishop Tom Wright says that the Spirit makes God’s people sing out of tune with the rebellious and decaying world, but comes with renewal. The Spirit will lead us into all truth. Sometimes that will come with gifts of power; sometimes it will involve a complete surrender of human power. So what might all this theoretical stuff mean for us?

    I mentioned earlier how we invoke the Spirit to fill us with the grace and goodness of God. This might entail great change for us as we own up to the fact that the truth is not always in us. Our two hymns so far have included the imagery of burning fire, appropriate when we think of the flames of fire that alighted on the apostles’ head. Just now we sung ‘Kindle a flame of sacred love on the mean altar of my heart; there let it for thy glory burn; and ‘still let me guard the holy fire, and still stir up the gift in me.’ In the first hymn, ‘Come down, O love divine’ – an invocation if ever there was one – the imagery of fire is used as both a destructive and cleansing agent. “O Comforter, draw near; within my heart appear, and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing. O let it freely burn, till earthly passions turn to dust and ashes in its heat consuming.” Then comes one of the great verses of any hymn book, asking the Spirit that we be changed inwardly, so that we are better able to become the place where the Holy Spirit makes his dwelling. “Let holy charity / Mine outward vesture be, And lowliness become mine inner clothing. True lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part, and o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.”

    But lest we are tempted to focus on our own lives, one writer says, “We should be open to being surprised, and to be bowled over by God’s power; contemplate letting the Spirit knock you sideways, and sending you out in an entirely different direction.” Because this is what happened to the early disciples, or perhaps we should say, this is what those disciples opened themselves up to, by patiently waiting in expectancy. And they went out and changed the world. The Spirit is gift – a gift of God for his own good purposes. He may not use us in the same world-changing way that he used the first twelve apostles, because, as Jesus says “the Spirit blows where he wills.” But he may use us in other ways which we’re not anticipating. May we take time to be with Jesus in prayer and expectancy, and believe that he wishes to stir up the Spirit within us, so that we may be the better prepared to do his will and to lead others towards the truth.

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