Sermons from St
Open to the Spirit
Fr Denis Smith, Sunday 2nd September, 2018
Words not from today’s Gospel but familiar words we pray together at the end of each Sunday Eucharist: “Send us out in the power of your Spirit, to live and work to your praise and glory.” The Bible opens with a lovely haunting image: that of God who is Spirit, inspiring his creation by breathing into the nostrils of Adam. St John’s Gospel closes with its counterpart: the risen Jesus inspiring the first members of the new creation by breathing on them and saying “Receive the Holy Spirit.” No sermon can match the power of those two images, but we can try to unpack them a little; In Latin, Greek and Hebrew there is a word that means both “breath” and “spirit”. And that makes sense, for to breathe is o live, to stop breathing is to die, and to speak of our spirits is to speak of the life within us. And there are people whose personality is infectious, whose spirit is so strong that it can be breathed into other lives, and we call such people inspiring.
There are even a few whose spirit lives after them, so that an imaginative performance of “The Tempest” or “The Magic Flute” will still excite people by conveying he spirit of Shakespeare or Mozart. What the great Feast of Pentecost proclaims is that the most highly contagious spirit of all, because it is literally of God and, therefore, life-changing, is the Holy Spirit, and that to follow Jesus Christ means to be open to that Spirit.
His followers quickly came to see that he was a man transparently open to God’s Spirit, literally inspired and therefore inspiring, the one around whom the new Spirit-filled community came into being. And his vision of what a true community might be has proved so contagious that ever since it has spoken to people of every age and of every nation under heaven. By all the laws of logic, the short life and death of a village carpenter in an obscure Roman province, even if they caused a temporary local stir, ought to have come to mean less and less to fewer and fewer people. Yet the reverse is true.
Nothing in the history of the world has proved as contagious as the Spirit of that man who claimed to be the truth, who claimed to show us, as Bishop John Robinson called it, “the human face of God.” That’s how God came once in history, in Christ as the Word made flesh; this is how he came into our lives now, in Christ as the Word made Spirit. And if we find the theology a little troubling, the mystery hard to understand, then let me put this truth in different terms.
There are those who by nature are profoundly suspicious of change. They feel secure with the familiar and are cautious of the new. “Leave us be”, they complain,” for we like it.” “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.” We may have great sympathy for that position. Often it is probably right to resist change, if we consider it to be simply change, for changes sake; and only time will tell if new movements are of God. But there is a strong possibility that to idolise the past, or to become complacent in our familiar lives, is to deny the Holy Spirit. What Pentecost says is that it is as vital to discern what God is now doing as to affirm what he has done And when we say “As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be”, the subject is not the Church, the nation or ourselves, but God, whose creative love is as challenging as it is unchanging.
When we say “Glory be to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”, we are affirming a God who was and is and is to come: who spoke in the past, speaks in the present and will speak in the future. There are truths that are unchanging, yet the Christian faith is not a game of “pass-the-parcel”, handing on a pre-packed body of truth from age to age, but a living relationship with the living God who has been found, time and time again to be unpredictable – “a God of surprises”, as the Jesuit priest and writer calls him, a God who we should expect to speak to us through the issues and challenges of our own times. Christianity isn’t a protectionist sect guarding some final deposit of truth that is fixed like flies in amber, as fundamentalists would like us to think. It’s a record of what God has done but also a dynamic movement in history, and the Church is made up of fallible men and women struggling in every age to be open to the Spirit of the living God, prepared to trust Jesus’ promise that the spirit will lead us into all truth. This lovely building of ours that some of us here have cherished ad loved for decades is not simply a museum of the past in which once, much larger numbers than now came to worship, it is a living church or it is nothing. And our task isn’t simply to be grateful fo what God once did but to be open to what he is doing, open to the Spirit; for history has proved that God has so often been found in what people didn’t yet know as well as in what they did.
The Word that was once made flesh is now made Spirit: God’s Holy Spirit, or he Spirit of Christ. I doesn’t much matter which words we use. What does matter is that we who claim to belong to the Spirit-filled community that was newly created at the first Pentecost are able to discern the Spirit of Christ in unexpected people and unexpected places, and that we find the language of love that he first spelled out no less contagious in its effect and universal in its application.