St Mary’s 9/6/19 Pentecost 8am, 9.30am, 10.45am
Acts 2.1-21 Romans 8.14-17 John 14.8-17
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ten days ago I received from the church architect a 95 page report on the quinquennial inspection of St Mary’s. That’s an inspection of the building, not the people. It’s full of photographs but nothing like the glossy guides we sell to visitors. Blocked gutters and drains, collapsed steps on the roof, pigeon fouling, leaking pipes, spalling stones. The point is to be brutally honest and itemise all the work to be done over the next five years. I held my breath and went straight to the last page which lists the recommendations and cost estimates. The total? Two hundred and ninety thousand pounds.
I was expecting worse. The building is generally in good shape. We need a good clear out on the roof, a clean-up of the pigeon mess and protection to keep them out, and most expensive by far, stone repairs on the north elevation and north transept.
I’m not saying all that to launch an appeal, though if you feel moved to help, any contribution will be gratefully received. I say it as an example of what it’s like to hear the truth, to be given a perspective that goes a bit deeper than what we see on the surface.
Today is the feast of Pentecost, and as we heard in the Gospel, one of the names of the Holy Spirit, whose coming we are celebrating, is the Spirit of truth. And again, a few verses on, Jesus says, ‘when he, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth’.
We’re familiar with those moments when we wait to be told the truth. At the dentist or the MOT test. Or more seriously at the doctors. And we know it’s only too human sometimes to prefer not to know. And we can look back in our lives and remember moments of self-awareness when we learnt some truth about ourselves. Or when we encountered truth about others which challenged our prejudices and shifted our opinions.
Being open to truth is often hard, but as Christians we should lead the way. It’s not that truth is never painful – far from it – but the alternative is denial or stubbornness or deceit or lies. God is truth, and he gives us the Spirit of truth, and to be open to truth is ultimately to be open to life.
The day of Pentecost was an explosion of truth. Suddenly thousands of people from all the nations were able to hear in their own tongue the news that God had raised Jesus and to hear the invitation to repent and be baptised. Suddenly women and men, young and old, were able to prophesy – and that simply means to speak the truth of God, the truth that needs to be heard now. And that breakdown of language barriers was a sign that this Church, this assembly being drawn together in Christ’s name, was to be a people who would speak to each other and listen to each other across all the divisions and borders of human society – male and female, rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Gentile. This would be a new people who believed that you could never know the truth without knowing each other. And what made the difference was being filled with the Holy Spirit of truth.
How do you feel about being filled with the Spirit? Does it sound exciting, just the kind of spiritual high you crave? Or do you want to run a mile from that kind of language, thinking, ‘Thank you, but I’ll just steadily say my prayers’?
The name ‘Spirit’ has its own difficulties. It’s a bit vague and we may worry that it sounds like being possessed or losing control. On the day of Pentecost, some thought that the disciples had imbibed a different kind of spirit and become drunk. The parallel is clear and it can feel an awful lot safer to talk about Jesus than to talk about the Holy Spirit.
Except that the disciples who were full of the Holy Spirit were not so much talking about the Holy Spirit. They were talking about Jesus. They were pointing people to him and that is exactly what the Spirit does. The Spirit of truth leads us to the truth who is Christ, and it’s there where we learn the truth of who we are.
It may help to use the old name found sometimes in the Prayer Book and the King James Bible – the Holy Ghost. You say, come on, that’s even more frightening. I don’t want to be indwelt by a ghost. But think of how we use the word when someone has died. We may say they have given up the ghost. And that’s simply saying that the life, the soul, the person, is no longer there. That’s what the word means at root. And when we speak of the gift of the Holy Spirit to us we’re talking about our true life, which is also the life of God who is the root and depth of who we are. The Spirit is not a force to possess or control us but the gift who makes us to be most truly ourselves.
And it’s in today’s epistle (10.45 – which we’ve not heard in this service) where we learn the truth of who we are. Says St Paul, ‘For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ’.
It’s important to understand the context of the language of slaves and children. In Roman families there were the slaves who were owned and controlled by the master. And there were the sons and daughters who were free. The point of calling us children is not to indicate that we are subordinate to our Father. It is to say we share in the very life of God. It’s not the case that the Father is God Senior, and his Son, Jesus Christ, is God Junior. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, without any ranking or order. And it is by the Spirit of Christ that we are drawn to share that life, as heirs of God.
There really is no seniority or ranking or master/servant relationship between us and God. I know that much of the language of our faith speaks in those terms and it can be helpful for our training and maturing. But the most developed and profound truth of who we are and who we are meant to be is that our life is not so much about us obeying commands, even less about us being controlled, but that we are most truly and uniquely ourselves when we live out God’s own life. By the Spirit we live in God and God lives in us.
I began by talking about the painful truths which we find difficult to hear. But we can be equally slow to hear the glorious truths about ourselves. I wonder how a quinquennial inspection of the people of St Mary’s would read? What would I find in the summary on the last page? It wouldn’t be a list of all that we need to pay for. It would be a list of all that has been paid for that we’re slow to receive. Forgiveness. Dignity. Gifts and talents. Opportunities to use our gifts and talents. Each other. Trust of each other. Opportunities to give and receive the ministry of each other. Freedom from fear. In short, the Spirit of truth.
And paradoxically, the more we are open to that, the easier St Mary’s will find it to pay its bills. We’ll have a Thanksgiving Sunday soon when we are invited to pledge our giving towards the regular work of St Mary’s for the coming year. Thanksgiving is a good name because it makes clear that it’s about our response. Today we celebrate God’s gift of his life to us, and at heart that life is about mutual giving and receiving. We love because God has first loved us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.