A sermon for the Eucharist on Pentecost, preached in Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 23 May 2021 by the Revd. Christopher Huitson. (Acts 2: 1 – 21; John 15: 26 – 27; 16: 4b – 15.)
This story concerns a curate who arrived in the pulpit full of apology. “I’ve been really busy this week,” he said “and not been able to prepare a sermon properly – so I will have to rely on the Holy Spirit. However, I’m sure my sermon next week will be much better”.
It is clear from the record in the Acts of the Apostles that the first Pentecost was a mind-blowing experience for the disciples. Already, with the Ascension of Christ they saw how Jesus was able to be present with them in a new and more complete way now that he was no longer limited to a physical appearing. The gift of the Holy Spirit completed this as they perceived the Spirit guiding and helping them. The strict time that is measured in a detailed chronology became less important. St. Luke writes of the resurrection appearances as taking place over 40 days followed by the Ascension and then 10 days later by the gift of the Holy spirit. But St. John writes as though the resurrection, ascension and gift of the Holy Spirit all took place over one day.
For us too time and space are made more flexible. It is a great temptation for us to dwell too much on the past or try to anticipate the future and so we dissipate our energies in wasteful activity. It should be the present upon which we concentrate. Indeed, the person who seems to have a special side to his personality we speak of as having “presence”. Often what we mean is that they give great concentration on the matter in hand or the person they are speaking to. We lesser mortals are thinking about what has already happened, wishing that we had done or said things differently. Or we project ourselves into the future, imagining a hundred things which might happen. 99 of course won’t happen and many would have been excluded by other possibilities.
The eternal meets us in the present. So it is that in the Absolution we ask God to keep us in eternal life. The Spirit links the present and the eternal together so that we are already in eternal life while we are alive in this mortal life. And what he does for time he also does for space. We are already in God’s kingdom. “The kingdom of God is within you” Jesus said. And he told his listeners that it had already come; it was already breaking in on the world.
It is easy for us to think of the Holy Spirit in rather comforting ways. And yet there is in the Bible a strand which says forbidding things about the Spirit. St. Mark’s gospel tells us that the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness to undergo a series of temptations. It is St. Mark also who warns us against slandering the Holy Spirit – this was in response to the scribes suggesting that Jesus was possessed by an unclean spirit and it was this that enabled him to heal the sick. Turning darkness into light and light into darkness was fraught with danger. We are warned not to grieve the Spirit; we must not quench the Spirit nor to take the Spirit for granted – because we cannot control the Spirit for he is as uncontrollable as the wind or as raging fire – two symbols of the Spirit which were perceived by the disciples at Pentecost.
We are also told that the Holy Spirit has gifts to give to people. Sometimes people tell me that the Spirit found them a parking place or made sure the traffic light was green just when they needed it. I can’t help thinking of all the cars going in the other direction who were faced with an unhelpful red light. We must beware turning the Spirit into a magician or wanting him to give us special treatment. The gifts of the Spirit are often seen as spectacular – miracles, special healing powers or words of prophecy. But in Jesus we see a tendency to avoid the spectacular. He took people away from the crowd to give them healing and the prophetic words he spoke, for instance about the fall of Jerusalem, he gave to his inner group of disciples
The gifts of the Spirit are more often quiet, simple things but ones which can affect for good so many people. If you were asked to make list of the spirit’s gifts, what would you include, I wonder. Here is one of St. Paul’s lists: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, self-control.
All who preach sermons will seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit to give authenticity to what they say which is perhaps what my unfortunate curate was seeking to say in my opening story. They will be inspired by words of Jesus in today’s gospel: “When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” May we all find that guidance and that truth.