Friday, 17 May 2013


The Holy Spirit came down upon them

In the middle of this month we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, and at the end of the month we have our Confirmation Service. Key to both these services is the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is that day when the Holy Spirit came, as Jesus promised it would, and entered into the lives of his disciples, likewise during the Confirmation service the Bishop calls on the Holy Spirit to enter into the lives of those being confirmed. There is no doubt in my mind that we as Christ’s followers today no more understand the power of the Holy Spirit than they did then, gathered once again in that room.

We know that the crowd to whom they then appeared did not understand the power of the Spirit, for they thought the disciples where drunk or under some form of possession, and yet as they started to listen to them they realised that each of them was speaking a different language, and that each language was known to the different groups of people in the crowd.

Jesus disciples, just like our confirmation candidates, came from many backgrounds but the brothers; James and John, Peter and Andrew were, we know, fishermen. They would have been proficient in their own language (Aramaic) and in enough of the other local languages as to get by in them, much as we often do today when on holiday. They would certainly not have been proficient enough to be able to proclaim the Good News.

Across the centuries there have been many examples of the outpourings of the Holy Spirit and in many cases these have been badly received by those in authority, both ecclesiastical and secular. The Old Testament prophets sent by God to the Jews of old were, as Jesus himself tells us, stoned to death. Those who since the time of Christ have claimed to be moved by the Spirit have often been regarded as mad or possessed and treated accordingly. Some like Joan of Ark have been killed for refusing to deny that the Spirit moved them.

Yet in all this God continues to talk to us, he encourages us to work for the good of the kingdom on earth and to be open to the power of the Holy Spirit that we might be the instruments of his service. So why does God do this? Where does this come from in our understanding?

A celebration for the giving of the Law to Moses was added in Old Testament times to the spring wheat harvest festival, for man cannot live on bread alone; He also needs more than rules to live by, so the original concept of Pentecost was of an outpouring of the spirit of God that his chosen people might not want either spiritually or physically. Thus, the people gathered to joyfully give thanks for their deliverance.

The opening words of the Old Testament tell us that the Spirit of God was there at the beginning, brooding over the face of the waters, bringing order out of chaos; he is always at work in his creation; and clearly rested on some special souls like Abram, Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah and Second Isaiah (Scholars now know that the Book of the Prophet Isaiah had at least two authors). He is most clearly and fully seen in Jesus.

What happened at that Pentecost after Jesus had ascended was that ordinary mortals like Andrew, Simon, Philip, James, or like you and me, were enabled to become like Jesus.Trying to describe what happened in his gospel Luke uses many intense symbols: noise and wind and fire and dove all represent the presence of God; tongues of fire are for a message to deliver, they rest on each because all share in the mission; many lands are represented there, in this antidote to the Tower of Babel, the message is for all the world; even though there are some who are always contemptuous of God's messengers. This despite the fact that they speak a universal language, which is the language of love.

This was an entirely new thing with a string of new consequences: a new community with new concerns and concepts, new characters and new compassion and new confidence, and new ways of communication. It was the birthday of the Church!

Birthday of the Church it may be, but many Christians are shy of Pentecost. Childhood talk of a Holy Ghost has made them uneasy across the centuries; it is why we started saying Holy Spirit instead of Holy Ghost. The disciples seem to have lost control of all inhibitions, and we are wary of that; and most of all, this is a new thing and we don't like change.

The Pentecost experience is one that is hot and strong and we prefer it soft and gentle: but that's on offer too. John later set the record straight: Christ breathing his Spirit on his disciples as in the upper room on Easter night. Like a driving wind or a gentle breath, there is no limit to how he comes. Nor are there any limits to the way he works.

Some in our time may imply that if your experience of God is not the same as theirs, you are not saved; without the gift of tongues, you are not Christ's; or they arrogantly claim their brand of faith is best. It may be best for them, but there are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God, and no limits to the way He works. Nor is he limited to the followers of Jesus; who else inspired Moses and Gotama, Mohammed, Confucius, Nanak? There are no limits to the Spirit of God in time or place or people or experience. There are only the limits that we, not God Impose and in so doing we deny the power of his Spirit in us!

The most famous detail of Michelangelo's painting on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel is the spark of life between the finger of God and the finger of man. That's what happened at Pentecost. If you dare to trust him enough, are not afraid of what he might do to you, and dare to reach out towards him as he reaches towards you, the sparks can fly.

We test the validity of his indwelling, not by feelings but by how loving we are, by how much we are like Jesus. Jesus was the one really Spirit-filled man, and those who are born of the Spirit grow to be like him. We have no idea how loving and patient and kind we could be, how really good and generous, reliable and reconciling, how gentle and gracious we can become, when the Spirit is working in our lives. We can be like him!

They needed time; until they were not surprised by his presence, or afraid of his guiding, or troubled by his demands; but sure of his presence, and longing for his Kingdom. When, like Simon, we know we are accepted, and really believe we are forgiven, we are free to let our responding love reach out to meet his incoming love; and they will fuse together, and we will be transformed by Love.

God Bless you all.

Fr. Martin

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