Sermon for Pentecost and Aldersgate Sunday – 24th May 2015
Come Holy Spirit, make yourself known in the breaking of the bread and in the preaching of the word, disturb our comfortable Christianity, awaken our souls, set our hearts ablaze – that we may burn with the fire of the Gospel and draw all people to yourself. Speak now, and help us to hear. Amen.
You know, the more I read the Gospel the more I realize just how complicated Our Blessed Lord is. No wonder the disciples couldn’t keep up with him.
Today, we think about the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the church, we think of John Wesley’s conversion when as a failed Anglican priest, he felt his heart strangely warmed and so we reflect on what, if anything, that means for us here – today – right now.
The priest and poet Malcolm Guite, whose poetry I adore, wrote a Pentecost poem simply called ‘Pentecost’ and I’d like to share it with you:
‘Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire, air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother-tongue is Love, in every nation.’
I could quite happily read that poem and sit back down again, say Amen and actually accept that Malcolm Guite has summed up the core of what I actually think Pentecost is about, but I’ll not do that…instead I’m hopefully going to help us get to grips with what this Holy Spirit thing is all about…
Well, for those in the drama of the Gospel…
There is this sense in which Jesus is constantly trying to help them (the disciples) understand, that he is the fullness of God, but not all that the Father is, he is always with them, but not actually always with them, they are seeing the fullness of the prophecy, but the prophecy is going to continue, in them, through them…and most importantly through the Holy Spirit who he is going to send to them.
But before that, before the Spirit comes, he must leave, physically, for quite a while, and they must continue by themselves – persevering – doing it all as though he were still there, because of course he is…and we celebrated the Ascension when we heard in scripture: “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
So, credit to the disciples, well most of them…for being able to live in this middle place – somewhere between heaven and earth, where the majesty and glory of God had dwelt among them, and walked with them, died and rose again in front of them, but which would still progress and develop in a new way, when the Spirit came upon them…and they held that ground as best they could.
The good thing, for us human beings, is that like us, the Holy Spirit likes to leave things to the last minute, and works best if you stand up unprepared and allow the Spirit to take over, but us in the UK are terrible at that…she isn’t bound to any blueprint, or itinerary and she doesn’t like to be called upon by untrusting people who fussily want to prepare several days in advance.
We call the Holy Spirit ‘the Comforter’ amongst other things, but when the Holy Spirit turns up, it’s usually to cause disturbance – to challenge the status quo – to remind the entire universe that it is God and God alone who is in control, despite how much we might think we are in charge here…and one of the reasons we struggle so hard to explain the trinity is usually because we don’t really know what box, or category, or gender, or mode of operation we ought to put the Holy Spirit in….
Ultimately, if you try to categorize the Spirit – the Spirit will almost always categorize you…as ignorant, foolish, and unwise. It can’t be held down, or described, or put into a box.
It has no one mode of working, nor any routine – the Spirit is the Spirit and the Spirit works according to the Spirits ways.
It might seem bizarre, but I sometimes think of my cat as being similar to the Holy Spirit.
Wherever I am in the house, she’s usually there – staring at me, watching what I’m doing with a look of curiosity and confusion….why are you going up the stairs so slowly, why are you sitting in the chair like that, why do you, leave food on your plate and then tell me off when I finish it?!
And there are times when I want to introduce her to visitors, and she refuses to appear – no matter how much I call her, and then all of a sudden, moments later, in her own time, according to her own schedule, she appears to greet the guests. And once she’s in the room you have to work damn hard to get her to leave!
She has the strength to cause a lot of pain and harm to people, but she never scratches or bites, and she has the ability, I see it when she puts up a good defense against other cats. And occasionally, just occasionally, I will arrive home and find that she has wreaked absolute havoc – toilet paper all over the place, plant pots on the floor, books destroyed and an innocent look of “welcome home, I’ve done all this for you, now as I roll over, stroke my tummy please!”
Of course you can only take an analogy so far…the major difference is that when the Holy Spirit turns up, there is usually a message or a conviction given to those amongst whom the Spirit makes herself known. And you can almost be sure, that not everyone will be happy with the outcome.
Three testimony services given by the three probationers going forward for ordination in the District in the past few days, and all of us I’m sure testified to that sense of struggle with our calling, of wrestling with God over it, and of finally accepting what we knew the Spirit was asking us to do.
Romans 8 speaks quite graphically about the work of the Spirit in terms of labour pains – that the Holy Spirit comes to us, like a midwife, and keeps us as God’s people – pushing on….always saying to us “Come on, you’re nearly there”. Just keep going.
‘Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.’
We have all of us I’m sure, sighed that kind of sigh.
The sigh that is too deep for words. When we experience something that cannot be articulated, for we do not have the words to express what we feel.
We are told, that the Holy Spirit knows how to interpret our anguish, and therefore the anguish of the world. Not just that, but that the Spirit will intercede for us, the saints, according to the will of God.
The Holy Spirit’s got it covered basically.
And I wonder if that’s not what John Wesley was experiencing, that day at St Paul’s Cathedral and down in Aldersgate Street – when he felt his heart strangely warmed, when he felt that he really did trust in Christ Jesus, and Him alone for salvation. When he knew deep within himself that what happened in Bethlehem, and on the Cross, and in the tomb, happened for him…and for the whole human family.
We read about Wesley’s experience and we hear:
‘No-one was demonstrating outside St Paul’s Cathedral when, on Wednesday 24 May 1738, at about five in the morning, John Wesley opened his Greek New Testament to these words: ‘Thus he has given us through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that . . . you may become participants in the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4). Just before he left his house, he read again: ‘You are not far from the Kingdom of God.’
That afternoon he was invited to go to the new St Paul’s Cathedral (still less than thirty years old). He listened carefully to the words as the choir sang the anthem, ‘Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice. O let thine ears consider well the voice of my complaint. If thou, O Lord, wilt be able to mark what is done amiss, O Lord, who may abide it? But there is mercy with thee; therefore thou shalt be feared . . . O Israel, trust in the Lord: For with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. And he shall redeem Israel from all his sins’ (Ps. 130:1–4, 7–8 BCP).’
So whenever the Spirit moves, the movement is never just for the immediate, personal, private, inner circle of individuals – it is for everyone. Everywhere. In every time and place and there is mercy and plenteous redemption with the Lord, who redeems Israel from all his sins. Isn’t that beautiful?!
The wonderful thing about John and Charles Wesley, was that they realized this – that just as when the Holy Spirit was outpoured on the disciples – they too, once they received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into their lives and ministries – had to take that Pentecostal hope into the world. And as I mentioned here (at St Andrew’s) on Tuesday night they did it boldly…
Just listen to this from the journals of the Wesley Brothers: ‘I preached at Newgate to the condemned felons, and visited one of them in his cell, sick of a fever: a poor black that had robbed his master. I told him of one who came down from heaven to save lost sinners, and him in particular, described the sufferings of the Son of God, his sorrows, agony, and death. He listened with all the signs of eager astonishment; the tears trickled down his cheeks while he cried, ‘What! Was it for me? Did God suffer all this for so poor a creature as me?’ I left him waiting for the salvation of God.
Tuesday 18th July, the Ordinary (that is the Bishop) read prayers and preached. I administered the sacrament to the black, and eight more, having first instructed them in the nature of it. I spake comfortably to them afterwards. At night, I was locked in one of the cells. We wrestled in mighty prayer. All the criminals were present, and all delightfully cheerful. The soldier, in particular, found his comfort and joy increase every moment. Another from the time he communicated, has been in perfect peace. Joy was visible in all their faces. We sang,
Behold the Saviour of mankind,
Nail’d to the shameful tree!
How vast the love that him inclined
To bleed and die for thee, & me.
It was one of the most triumphant hours I have ever known. That hour under the gallows, was the most blessed hour of my life.’
Through the outpouring of the Spirit onto John and Charles Wesley – countless souls were saved, and many others received the power, comfort , and confidence that the Spirit brings.
When the Spirit moves, the Spirit moves for everyone.
When the Spirit moves, the Spirit moves bountifully.
When the Spirit moves, the people of God are moved one step closer towards the Kingdom of God.
And we come to this place, to sigh with sighs too deep for words, to bring before God the burdens and blessings that we have experienced.
Bringing the needs of ourselves, the needs of the world, the needs of all those that we know, or have heard of – and the Spirit takes all that we are and all that we have, all that we cannot express…and intercedes for us.
In our Gospel reading, we see Jesus preparing his team, his first eleven and the rest of the squad, for the biggest game of their lives. I always think it’s helpful to imagine Jesus speaking, and seeing in your minds eye the twelve…but also remembering that behind rocks, and in bushes, and eavesdropping in the trees would be those who were following but who get no mention.
The scene is the Last Supper, Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet. Judas has already set off to betray him, so Jesus is left with eleven of the twelve, and then with the wider group of men and women whom John calls “the disciples”.
Now, although Jesus has trained his squad, and coached them if you like, for the important and tiring match that lies ahead, although he has encouraged their talents and their dedication and commitment…he’s not actually going to be with them on the pitch.
His job is almost done amongst them.
But he promises to send them a referee…and he promises to send someone who will help them interpret all that he has been teaching them, in any and every situation that they may find themselves in.
Jesus is returning to the Father, but he will send the Spirit of truth to guide his followers. And then Pentecost arrives, the Spirit descended upon all the disciples, just as Jesus had promised.
In those vivid scenes from Acts, Peter uses Joel’s prophecy to make sense of what he has seen: men and women, suddenly set ablaze, inspired to communicate with people of all nations, to tell the world about God’s mighty intervention in the life of human beings, through the crucified, risen and ascended Jesus Christ.
Referees are not always popular,
Players do not always agree with their decisions,
And in the world today, as you and I know well, people still resist the Spirit.
For the Spirit is not always a comfortable companion, the Spirit comes to jolt us out of our complacency, to challenge the world, to search the depths of our hearts – as John Wesley found!
Most of all, the Holy Spirit comes, to point us once more to Jesus,
To point us once more to the love,
Of Jesus Christ.
So that we may glorify him, and be like him, and grow in him.
That means that the good news, is that we are not the good news.
We don’t have to be perfect to receive the Holy Spirit, and if you think that any of those disciples or that the Wesley brothers were perfect – then think again!
We don’t have to be in a certain place or a certain time, or have everything sorted to have the Spirit come amongst us. Remember she doesn’t work according to any system, or blueprint, or timetable!
The good news is that Jesus Christ – God, Father Son and Holy Spirit are with us, in us, and able to work through us in our world no matter what the state of things may be.
The good news is that the Spirit is still moving in the Church today, and will continue to work in the Church today, no matter what we may be doing.
We need continually to ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our worship, in our meetings, in our working, and most importantly in our daily lives.
We need to cast aside our prejudices and assumptions and presuppositions and listen to the Spirit of truth, who speaks quietly and loudly, rarely and often, outwardly and inwardly, and who very regularly speaks that which we do not want to hear.
Today, is as good a day as any – to ask God to send his Holy Spirit down upon you, into all that you are, into the very centre of your being.
That you may join the winning team – play on the pitch boldly and courageously, be set free for Christ Jesus, set back on course, set ablaze for the Good News, – that your heart may be strangely warmed so that every human soul will look at you, and rather than seeing you, simply see the image of Christ, as you live out that Methodist scriptural simplicity in your daily life, and know – that Jesus Christ is Lord.
As the prophet Joel said:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
If we live in Christ, Christ will live in us,
If we die with Christ, we will rise with him, and he will in the Spirit give us the strength we need, to call on the name of Lord, and find that our hearts are made whole.
We have been promised the power of the Holy Spirit – and he who made the promise is trustworthy. Let us work in that trust, let us live in that trust, and let us die in that trust.
Come Holy Spirit, and set your people on holy fire.