THE PUBS AREN'T OPEN YET.......................
(a sermon preached at S.LUKE’S QUEEN’S PARK BRIGHTON on 9th June 2019, the feast of PENTECOST)
In today’s gospel, Jesus tells His disciples He will ask the Father to give them another advocate - the Holy Spirit, and He says this Spirit will teach them everything or, as it is usually translated lead them into all truth. I cannot emphasise enough the vital importance of this idea to our faith.
The Spirit He is talking about is of course that same Spirit which guided and inspired His own life: He was conceived by the Spirit; the Spirit descended on Him at His baptism; He was led by the Spirit in and out of the wilderness; He began His ministry by saying “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”.
And in the Acts of the Apostles we hear of the wild scenes on the day of Pentecost - rushing wind, tongues of fire and all that speaking in strange languages, some of the onlookers saying the disciples must be drunk and Peter replying that they can’t be because it’s only 9 o’clock in the morning i.e. the pubs are not open yet. There aren’t many jokes in the bible and that’s one of my favourite ones!
So much great material to preach on! Almost too much to choose from, so I’ll go off at a tangent and take you instead verse by verse through the finest hymn ever written about the Holy Spirit and the individual soul.
Because, you know, occasionally a hymn writer’s own poetry captures the truths and depths of scripture in a nutshell. One example would be There’s a wideness in God’s mercy. But the one I’m interested in today is Come down O love divine.
Come down O love divine, seek thou this soul of mine and visit it with thine own ardour glowing.
These and all the lines take the form of an intimate, personal prayer.
Nine times out of ten when I get up in a pulpit, I bang on about the need for Christians to be a community, about the importance of coming to church to share our worship.
But banging on is never going to do the trick - at least by itself. These things can’t happen without the help of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit can’t get to work on the whole body of Christ until it is allowed inside each individual heart.
You see, deep down in every human child there is a holy spark which is there because we are made in the image of God. And, as one spiritual writer rather over-poetically put it, “pierced hands are clasped round that spark to save its little life, so that, if and when it is safe for it to do so, the Holy Spirit will breathe on the spark and make it into a flame.”
But for the Holy Spirit to consider it safe and timely to breathe the spark into flame, the heart must offer an invitation.
O comforter draw near, within my heart appear and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.
So far so good. But now a word of warning.
If you are seriously willing to invite the Spirit in, be aware of what you’re letting yourself in for. Making friends with the Holy Spirit can be a dangerous business, said the monk Thomas Merton. It can knock you for six. Remember the rushing winds and tongues of flame in the Acts of the Apostles?
But you see “wind” and “fire” are two of the things which, in the material world, are called “perils” that we take out insurance policies against!
I wonder if, in our religious lives too, we have grown accustomed to taking out an ecclesiastical insurance policy against an attack of the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps we like to pay a modest annual premium (with a no claims bonus) to guarantee a respectable, middle-of-the-road Christian practice - nothing to offend social convention, nothing too shocking or extrovert, a comfortable, smug routine to damp down the holy fire.
How boring. “How lukewarm” - that scathing word we encountered last Sunday in the church of Laodicea’s end of term report. What, I wonder, would the author of the book of Revelation be told to write to the angel of Brighton deanery…………..
God doesn’t want a damp squib. He wants a passionate flame.
O let it freely burn, til earthly passions turn to dust and ashes in its heat consuming.
And not only earthly passions but earthly inhibitions as well. We British are terribly keen on being “sensible”. But what we need in our religion are ideals.
And the trouble is that common sense can be the enemy of ideals, just as the good is sometimes the enemy of the best.
God dares each of us to “go for it”, not to settle for the common sense good, but aim higher for a mad, self-sacrificing best. And this has got to mean being prepared to take risks.
I had to take a risk when I offered myself for ordination as a priest. Old friends looked at me suspiciously, searching my eyes for the brainwashed “born again” look. I was fearful of being rejected by the church. I wasn’t. But it still cost me, among other things, my first marriage.
And some risk attaches to all of us, lay or ordained, male or female, old or young, rich or poor.
Because what I am talking about is something inside, something personal, an affair of the heart.
It’s not enough to settle for the Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit” I dare say I do, you do. But belief is dry and feeble. What we need is a tangible experience of the Spirit, a divine relationship.
If we take the risk, accept the challenge, abandon ourselves to God, we will find that the flame has been fanned and we are bathed in God’s own brightness.
And let thy glorious light shine ever on my sight and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.
But even when we have taken the leap and found that we have landed safely, there are still dangers.
We must never allow God’s glorious light to dazzle us into spiritual pride and blind us to our own faults. The first step towards real spiritual growth is to discover how other people see us and that can be a very sobering and painful experience!
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.
Once we have each got rid of our masks and our false images of ourselves, the Holy Spirit can get to work on us. We become raw material. Why not let the Holy Spirit get cracking here and now?
Any time is the right time but Pentecost is the best time. Pentecoste in Greek means 50th. It was a Jewish celebration marking the 50th day since the Feast of Passover. The disciples (who of course in 33ad had not yet broken away from Judaism) were attending this Festival in Jerusalem, but suddenly they were diverted by the invasion of Christ’s Holy Spirit.
Now it was of course precisely at the time of the previous Feast of Passover that Christ was crucified.
That is why we Christians say that Christ is our Passover and we celebrate the coming of the Spirit 50 days after the death and resurrection of Our Lord.
Ever since the first Pentecost, it has been the duty and the joy of Christians to spread the faith in the power of the spirit and we can do it - we have Our Lord’s word for it in today’s gospel:
Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.
But first things first. Let the spark of the Holy Spirit burst into flames inside you. It doesn’t just happen. It needs serious prayer and risk-taking.
But when that fire is well and truly alight, you know that something very very special has happened to you:
And so the yearning strong with which the soul will long shall far outpass the power of human telling;
for none can guess its grace til he become the place wherein the Holy Spirit makes its dwelling.