The Holy Spirit

Sermon preached by Fr Andrew Wilson
on Sunday 31st May 2020 (Day of Pentecost)
Acts 2.1–21; Psalm 104.26–36,37b; 1 Corinthians 12.3b–13; John 20.19–23 

This morning we are faced with two very different stories of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples. Most of us, I suspect, will have in mind something based on the images in Luke’s account of Pentecost early on in the second volume of his work. He paints the picture of the spread of the faith throughout the world, whilst reminding us that the roots of the faith were laid down in the saving history of the people of God, Israel; and that the Word of the Lord goes out from Jerusalem. Every last icon and painting we have probably seen depicts a very public event: the disciples rushing out of the Upper Room after nine days of waiting and prayer. Now the Spirit arrives as promised, and they set about proclaiming the arrival of the Kingdom of God in ecstasy, in many languages, their heads crowned with flame.

“When the day came – when the day was fulfilled…” Luke says. He uses exactly the same phrase which he used earlier to mark the birth of Jesus, the moment when the time has come for Jesus to set out on his final journey up to Jerusalem and his ‘passing over’ through death into glory. Luke wants us to understand that we have reached another momentous step in the story of salvation. Just as once the feast of Pentecost, fifty days after the Passover, celebrated the moment when Moses came down from Mount Sinai bearing the tablets of the Law, the Torah that he had received amidst flame and thunder, so now the Law of Love, and the power and energy of God’s reign has arrived to empower Jesus’ followers.

John, on the other hand, takes us back to the Upper Room on Easter evening. The small group of disciples hide in fear, shame and uncertainty. They are trying to make sense of the unnerving experiences of that morning. The tomb was found to be empty, and some of the women had even claimed that they have seen Jesus, the Master they had deserted, alive. It might seem confusing to realise that the Gospel of John has a very different take on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, huddling in a locked rented room at the end of a day filled with confusion.

The Church has always had problems when it has tried to reconcile these two different stories of the giving of the Spirit, one on Easter night in John and the other fifty days later in Luke. The fifth ecumenical council in Constantinople in AD 553 made a clumsy attempt to say that in the Gospel Jesus was only promising the disciples that the Spirit would arrive later on, but that of course is not what John says!!! We need to understand that Luke and John were trying to follow through their own unique exploration of who and what the Spirit is, and what the Spirit is about.

In John we are always firmly in the presence of Jesus as we discover the identity of, and discern the activity of, the Spirit, and in fact we are learning more and more about the Spirit from the beginning of the Gospel. John underlines that indissoluble bond that exists between the Holy Spirit, and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Word of God made flesh. They are inextricably bound up together.

So even at the moment of his death, or rather precisely at the moment of his death, we learn that Jesus “breathes out his spirit”.

We have just his cry “It is finished”, or more accurately “It is accomplished”. Jesus has obeyed and lived out his Father’s wishes to the uttermost. But John is deliberately hinting at the image of the first stirrings of creation in Genesis, when the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. He prepares the way for this morning’s Gospel passage where the risen Lord will breathe out his Spirit once more, but now on his disciples. John reveals that we are seeing the first stirrings of the new and glorious creation, an outcome which he has been hinting at, and paving the way for, since the opening pages of the Gospel.

John wants us to learn that the presence and power of the Spirit arrives in the place of confusion, doubt, fear and shame, to empower us to respond in obedience to the call and will of God in the challenges of everyday life. He tells us that this can only be achieved if we share in, and remain in, the life that Jesus opens out to us. Through baptism and the continued renewing and enabling of the community’s life in the Eucharist we can share in that bringing in of the new creation.

So while in Acts Luke wants to show us the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit after the resurrection, John has been working slowly throughout the Gospel to open out to us a profound understanding of the Spirit of God.

He begins by telling us how John Baptist sees the Spirit descend and rest upon Jesus at his baptism. This makes the Baptist realise that here is the Messiah, the Son of God. It is the Spirit who reveals Jesus’ true identity. But that realisation implies a commission to proclaim that truth. John, and we too by implication, are marked out as people who not only see that God has become Man, but we also announce his presence to the world. John Baptist assures us that Jesus not only speaks the word of God, but he also gives the Spirit “without measure”. There is no limit to the measure in which Jesus has been possessed by the Spirit, but also no limit to outpouring of that Spirit on a waiting world. As the Prologue to the Gospel reminds us, ”To all who believe he has given power to become the children of God”.

Then at the meeting with Nicodemus by night Jesus reveals that God is now going to cleanse the world from its sin and injustice by sharing out his Spirit with his people, as the prophets had foretold. Talking with the woman at the well in Samaria Jesus tells us that God is already searching for those who desire to worship him in spirit and in truth; and that this Spirit will “give us life in all its fullness”.  This will be a radically new quality of living; the gift of a new depth, direction and dimension to our living altogether. And this gift will spring up and from within us, bringing light and life to a darken and moribund world.

When Jesus bids farewell to the disciples at the supper he tells them that he has asked the Father to send that Spirit to them when he has returned home. He himself will continue for ever to intercede and plead for us, but now the Spirit will come to continue that pleading on their behalf, that “other Advocate”. This Spirit will protect us, and give us strength to persevere. The Spirit will witness to Jesus, and mean that we can do even greater things than Jesus could do in his limited time on earth. We will share in the Spirit’s work of ministering to those who do not yet believe, it will open out a deeply intimate relationship with God for us, and “convince the world of sin, righteousness and judgement”. This revealing of the world’s emptiness, brokenness and folly will be laid bare by our own lives of integrity and love. Those who learn from us and come to believe will discover with us peace, and joy, forgiveness and surer ways of living. We are promised that the Spirit will lead us into all that is true. So many gifts: we become children of God, receiving Christ’s farewell gift of peace, the “shalom” of compassion, forgiveness and encouragement with which the Lord meets his shame-faced disciples, giving us, and them, the peace that “the world cannot give”;  the joy that “no one will take from you”.

So the setting in which we learn of the coming of the Spirit from John today, tells us that it comes into a small and fearful community, hardly daring to look ahead. This speaks powerfully to our present circumstances. We are given a peace beyond description, a joy that cannot be diminished, a firm, guiding and protecting hand that will carry us forward, despite our anxiety.

In a beautiful re-working of the ancient hymn to the Holy Spirit, James Quinn SJ writes:

Keep far all those who wish us ill,
O Dove of Peace, be with us still.
in every danger at our side,
O Friend, befriend us, be our guide.

Reveal to us the Father’s love,
reveal his Son, who reigns above,
to truth, O Truth, make us all true;
in love, O Love, make all things new.

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