27th Apr, 2003

Second Sunday Of Easter

rom St John’s Gospel, chapter 20;
Christ said to his disciples “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.”

We have our work cut out for us this morning because the subject is the Holy Spirit and it isn’t an easy subject to grasp. In the Fourth Gospel the Holy Spirit comes not at Pentecost, but in these days just after the Resurrection when the Risen Christ stands with his disciples.

We can appreciate or at least grasp something of who God the Father, Creator of Heaven and earth is, for we can see creation around us and wonder at its beauty. We can appreciate God the Son, people saw him and talked with him and even touched him, and his earthly life is recorded in the Gospels of the New Testament.

But the Holy Spirit is different, one cannot take hold of a Spirit, one cannot write a day to day biography of the Spirit’s personality. Even the compilers of the Apostles’ Creed were a little puzzled as well. They managed to write clauses about who the Father and the Son are, but when we get to the Holy Spirit it simply says, “I believe in the Holy Spirit”, full stop! The slightly fuller Nicene Creed, which we will say later on in our liturgy, slightly expands that statement with, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord the Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spake by the prophets.” This amplification does not really tell us who the Holy Spirit is, it certainly does tell us something of what the Spirit does, the function, the Spirit is the giver of life.

Life, inspiration, breath, presence, that is probably the best place to start to try and understand the Holy Spirit and its nature, what it might mean to believe in the Holy Spirit. Person…hmm.

Martin Luther preaching on the subject of the Holy Spirit in St John’s Gospel said

Mark well this text, how here Christ bindeth the Holy Ghost to His mouth and setteth Him His goal and measure that He go not beyond His own word… Therewith He sheweth that henceforth in Christianity naught else must be taught by the Holy Ghost that they, the apostles, heard from Christ (but did not yet understand) and were taught and reminded of by the Holy Ghost, that therefore it always pass out of Christ’s mouth from one mouth to the other yet remain Christ’s mouth, and the Holy Ghost is the schoolmaster, to teach and recall such.

The Holy Spirit is the one who brings to mind, into our present the words of life that Jesus himself uttered, the Word of God. “The idea of God remains uncompletable for humanity” we are not able of our frail nature to bridge the gap, to make that leap, but it is the Holy Spirit that brings all these things to us. The Spirit is the dynamic power and reality of God with us who is the guarantee, the presence that holds together time past with the contemporary, present world. It’s one of the strange features of theology that Spirit is so “powerful” that is the Spirit that stretches backwards from the future into our present.

Saints, people like you, are not holy because they triumph by will-power over chaos, frailty and guilt and lead flawless lives, but you are saints because that life shows the victory of God in the midst of disorder and imperfection. The Church is holy- and this congregation here present is holy- not because it is a gathering of the good and the well-behaved, but because it speaks of the triumph of grace in the coming together of strangers and sinners, who, miraculously, trust one another enough to join in common repentance and common praise in the Spirit and express a deep and elusive unity in Christ. Humanly speaking, holiness (the process of sanctification) and the Holy Spirit are always like this: God’s endurance in the middle of our refusal of him, his capacity to meet every refusal with the gift of himself, with the gifts of the Spirit.

The first Christians struggled with their language to express in terms that made sense of who the Holy Spirit is, they used words like breath, power, water, air, wind, fire and tongues of fire, all of them terms that belong to the world of nature yet do not have definite shape, but call to mind the idea of being invaded by a presence and of a deep and irresistible expansion.

I expect that that is why, for some Christians at least, the idea of the Holy Spirit as powerful, dynamic, almost visible in terms of the miraculous has been particularly attractive but also particularly dangerous in those individuals that see faith as utterly individualistic and based solely in private experience

The doctrine of the Holy Spirit has traditionally been tied to varieties of “enthusiasm” which have occurred in the history of the Church. Such enthusiasm has been expressed in visions, ‘speaking in tongues’, ecstatic prophecies, energetic behaviour, with sundry extraordinary psychic and physical phenomena, which have rather annoyed more sober Church people.

Faith, hope and love, with peace and joy and every good thing in the Church are also the work of the Spirit, one might wish that certain Christian groups would bear that as much in mind as prophecy and speaking in tongues.

In the Ordination Service for Bishops in the Church of England the Archbishop says to the Bishop to be ordained:

The Church of England is part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation. Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the ordering of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. In the declaration you are about to make, will you affirm your loyalty to this inheritance of faith as your inspiration and guidance under God in bringing the grace and truth of Christ to this generation and making him known to those in your care?

The work of the Holy Spirit is to make our faith alive and real, to inspire and sanctify us, to nurture us and draw us closer to one another and to God, to hold out to the world the eternal possibility of the divine. The work of the Spirit is one of God’s invitations to listen to one another. The opportunity of letting us know, in often tantalising ways, that God always lies just beyond our reach, forever ancient forever new.

But that is not simply on the subjective individualistic level; we are baptized into a community, we are called to witness together to the Living Lord, vocation is tested by the Church. Organization and committee’s are worthless unless there is, at the Church’s very root and foundation, the conviction that we are here to proclaim faith in God afresh in each generation led by the Holy Spirit. To put it in theological language, the life of the Church is one long epiclesis, one long invocation of the Holy Spirit.


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