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Sermon for Pentecost

Tuesday 20th June, 2017 @ 2:43 pm

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Sermon preached by Rev Christopher Harrison on Pentecost Sunday at St Mary’s Nottingham, 4th June 2017

Today is Whitsunday, or Pentecost.   Pentecost is the day when the Church celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first disciples, after Jesus had left this earth and returned to his heavenly Father. The word   ‘Pentecost’ comes from the Greek word for fifty, and this day is exactly fifty days after Easter (including the Sundays at the beginning of the period and at the end).   So Pentecost Sunday, depending as it does on the date of Easter, also changes its date from year to year.   In fact, Pentecost was a Jewish feast, which the Jews celebrated long before the first Christians adopted it - it was a feast of thanksgiving for the wheat harvest.   Whitsunday became the popular name for Pentecost in this country, because it was often a day on which baptisms took place - Whit meaning ‘white’, in old English, and referring to the white robes of baptism. 

So who or what is the Holy Spirit, whose coming we celebrate today?  Let’s try to build up a picture of the Holy Spirit, as he is seen at work in the New Testament.   The Holy Spirit assists with the conception of Jesus, through Jesus’ mother Mary; he is also with John the Baptist, from the time when he was still within his mother’s womb.   The Spirit, symbolised by a dove, is said to have descended on Jesus when he was baptised by John the Baptist. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah, saying that the ‘Spirit of the Lord is upon me, anointing me to bring good news to the afflicted’.   Jesus casts out demons in the power of the Spirit.  He also refers to the ‘Spirit of truth’, contrasting life in the Spirit to life as governed by one’s lower nature.  Jesus urges his followers to be born of spirit, not of human nature. He says that when people receive the Holy Spirit they are ‘clothed with the power from on high’.

At the Last Supper, as we hear in today’s gospel reading, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit to be with the disciples after he has left them.   He calls the Holy Spirit the ‘Counsellor’ - which is one translation of the original Greek word ‘paraclete’. The Holy Spirit, as ‘Counsellor’, will give the disciples guidance, inspiration, and the wisdom of God.   The word ‘paraclete’, however, has two more meanings.   One of these is that of ‘advocate’.   An advocate is a person who stands up for you, or defends you. So the Holy Spirit would speak through the disciples when they were persecuted.   The third meaning of the word ‘paraclete’ is ‘comforter’; which means that the Holy Spirit would also give the disciples strength and comfort in times of distress.   Jesus added that the Holy Spirit was the means whereby he would remain with the disciples after he had left this earth, saying that through the Spirit he would come back to them, and not leave them as orphans. Before ascending to heaven, he tells his disciples to go out to all nations and baptise people in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 

The first of today’s readings, from the book of the Acts of the Apostles, tells how Jesus promise to send the Holy Spirit upon the disciples was fulfilled on the day of the first Christian Pentecost. This is the famous account of the Spirit’s coming like a mighty wind, a description which is connected with the idea of the Spirit being the breath of God.  On that occasion the Holy Spirit was also experienced in the form of tongues of fire resting on each of the apostles.  The apostles were given the power to speak in languages other than their own, so that people from many different races could hear about Christ in their own language. 

 All these images of the Holy Spirit are not designed to be confusing - they are simply what we find in the Bible, and reveal how difficult it is to describe one who is beyond all description.   That being said, St. Paul is quite clear about what the Holy Spirit does:

- The Holy Spirit pours the love of God into our hearts

- The Spirit gives us new life:   ‘the harvest from the Spirit will be eternal life’ (Gal. 6.8)

- The Spirit helps us to pray, by praying through us when we cannot pray ourselves

- The Spirit sets us from the law of sin and death

- The Spirit brings saving justice, peace and joy. 

In 1 Corinthians 12 St. Paul describes the Spirit as giving gifts to believers, different gifts to different people:   the gift of wise speech; the gift of faith; the gift of healing; the working of miracles; the gift of prophecy; the gift of speaking in different tongues and of interpreting these tongues.  In his letter to the church in Galatia, he explains how the Spirit also enables those in whom he dwells to bear spiritual fruit; such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, truthfulness, gentleness and self-control.  

I’ve set out how the Holy Spirit is described in the New Testament.   But does the Spirit still work among us in the same way today?   The answer is yes - and there should be no great surprise about this. Jesus said to his disciples that he would be with them until the end of time - the Holy Spirit is the way in which he brings this about.   The Holy Spirit is in fact none other than God himself at work within us, both as individuals and as a society; forever trying to draw us closer to God, if we will open our hearts, our minds and our lives to God, fully, sincerely, genuinely, intent upon hearing the voice of the Spirit of God within us. This response need not be spectacular or dramatic;   it does not require the fervour and emotional intensity of a pentecostalist or charismatic service. In fact, the Spirit’s work is usually more lasting if we keep sight of the immense mystery which lies at the heart of God, and allow this to quieten our hearts and minds so that we can little by little see the Spirit active in our lives, and hear the voice of the Spirit deep in our hearts. This is the voice which takes us beyond narrow self interest, to things which will be of wider benefit to our neighbours, to our church and community and to our world.   This is the power of God which creates the water of life welling up within us when we live lives which are rooted in prayer, and centred on God. It is the power which gradually gives us the gifts which nourish the fruits of the spirit which I quoted earlier - particularly faith, hope and love - the greatest being love. 

I’d like also to say that over the years, I have come to see the Holy Spirit as being the way in which God helps, guides, encourages us to lead lives which are in accordance with his purpose for us.  One of our main tasks here on earth is to discern the purpose which God has for us – ie why we are here – and to fulfil that purpose to the best of our ability.  This applies to us from our childhood to our later years; the purpose God has planned for us may of course go through several phases over this period.  But essentially, God, through the Holy Spirit, invites us to consider what we are doing with our life; how we are doing it; and the people with whom we are endeavouring to fulfil God’s purpose for us.  What, how, and with whom.  Every so often it’s important for us to stand back, reflect, think, pray, and ask ourselves how we think we are doing in relation to God’s purpose for us.  Do we think we have found that purpose?  If not, take the first step in trying to discover it.  Are we doing the various things that our life involves in a way which is in line with the teachings of Jesus, as set out in the New Testament?  Only we – and God – can know for sure.  And have we found the right people to be alongside us on our journey towards what God desires of us?

On this Whit Sunday, we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles.   Their lives were dramatically transformed:  they became convinced of God’s purpose for them, and devoted their whole lives to God and were given the strength with which to do this.  Is this Whit Sunday a moment for you to think afresh, with the help of the Holy Spirit, about God’s purpose for you?  What, how and with whom?  Even though we are unlikely to experience a rushing wind or tongues of fire, the Holy Spirit is always present to those who desire and seek God; and, in our journey of purpose and faith, the breath of God will always be there as our advocate, our counsellor, and our strength.  Amen.

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