Starting Points: the Spirit in Me
Holy Communion Service for the Festival of Pentecost, led by Revd Jennifer Millington
This sermon is taken from Acts 2, verses 1-21; 1 Corinthians 12, verses 1-11
Power in Me
Adrian Plass kept a diary of what it was like to be a Christian in modern Britain. One of his entries tells of the morning when his prayer time was so deep, so meaningful to him that he felt filled to the brim with the Holy Spirit – the power and presence of God. He felt so uplifted that he believed his face must be shining, just as Moses’ face was said to have shone with light when he came down the mountain after meeting with God. Adrian fully expected his wife and son to gaze at him in awe, saying, “he has been with God.”
What actually happened was that his wife looked over her shoulder at him and said, “the cat’s been sick behind the sofa. Can you clear it up please because I am in hurry?”
This was typical of Adrian’s experiences. He keeps trying to prove to his wife, his son, his neighbours, his work colleagues and his fellow church members that he is filled with the Holy Spirit but they just do not seem to get it! They either poke fun, ask awkward questions or start talking about their own concerns.
And when he secretly tries to work little miracles just to prove to himself that he really is filled with the Spirit, they never seem to work either. Adrian’s diaries are full of self-doubt- am I really an effective Christian or am I a waste of space in God’s kingdom?
He is not alone in asking that question. The thousands of people who have read, laughed and cried over his diaries proves that. And right from the start of the Christian church, people were having problems with the Holy Spirit. Paul was writing this letter to the church in Corinth only a few years after its founding. The congregation in Corinth were a diverse group from many different backgrounds and, as with any diverse group of people, they all had different gifts and skills which could be offered to the building up of the faith community. The trouble was, that first, they could not agree on which gifts were of the Holy Spirit and which were not. There was a real fear in that society of evil spirits, which could get inside a person and destroy them, so if a person demonstrated extraordinary gifts in certain directions, how were they to know which were from the Holy Spirit and which were malevolent and demonic?
And then, second, of those gifts which were of the Holy Spirit- like preaching, praying in public, healing, this mysterious “speaking in tongues”- which were the most important? There seemed to be a certain rivalry- my spiritual gift is more holy than your spiritual gift. And then what of those Christians who were not public worship leaders or theologians- were they not gifted with the Holy Spirit at all? The order of deacons- to deal with pastoral care- was established in the church quite early on but it was centuries before playing the organ or arranging flowers were recognised as even being within sniffing distance of the Holy Spirit. Some prominent church leaders were even inclined to place them on the “demonic” side. It is no wonder, is it, that so many Christians have identified with Adrian Plass’ self-doubt- Where is the power of the Holy Spirit in me? Am I just a waste of space in God’s kingdom?
What IS the Holy Spirit all about? In the Old Testament, the Spirit of God is a vast creative, energetic, inspirational, renewing power in the world. It is said to “fall upon” men and women, gifting them with awesome prophecies, mighty strength in battle, kingship over the nation, wisdom and understanding of the holy scriptures.
Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit, promising this gift of comfort and inspiration to his followers after he had gone. The Holy Spirit would restore him as a living presence in their lives. Then, on the Day of Pentecost, as we heard, the Spirit appeared to have descended dramatically on those followers. Wind and fire were symbols of God’s presence. And the effect on the disciples was astonishing – they went out into the street, speaking in such a way that people of all nationalities could understand them and Peter claimed this as the sign of the Spirit that God had promised to pour out on his people. The conviction, energy and passion of those disciples spread through the crowds like yet more wind and fire and the Christian church came into being as a vibrant kingdom of faith to change the world.
We do have a reasonably coherent doctrine of the Holy Spirit, do not we? It all fits together. The Spirit of God as described in the Old Testament, the promise of Jesus, the experience of the first disciples all sounds like the same Spirit.
To me, the problems tend to arise with the question as to whether the human race is therefore divided into those who have received the gifts of the Holy Spirit and those who have not?
You see, once we start dividing the world in this way, organised religion or certain groups within organised religion will start to claim a monopoly. “We are the people who are blessed with the Holy Spirit and therefore only we can understand God and receive God’s word.”
This understanding was what led to a lot of argument and divisions within the Christian church. It has also pushed Christians into a tight ghetto because if they are the only people gifted with the Holy Spirit then there is no need for them to listen to anyone not of their number. Converts are welcome but only as converts- believing and doing exactly what we believe and do.
There is then little or no engagement with the outside world. People who devote their lives to science or music or political leadership or social justice or saving the planet are irrelevant to the church because their gifts are not “of the Spirit.”
When Galileo worked out the awesome truth that it was not the sun that moved around the earth but the earth that moved around the sun, he was excommunicated from the church. Much the same attitude was taken to Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. There was no suggestion that men of genius such as these might be gifted with the Holy Spirit in discovering great and awesome truths about the universe.
And the worst possible outcome in religion of taking the view that we have the Spirit and the rest of the world does not lies in the breeding of religious terrorists. “The rest of the world is not gifted with the spirit of God and so we are justified in blowing it up.”
More than once in the Old Testament, we are told that every human being has the breath of God, the Spirit of God within them. It is this that makes us human, able to think, create, love, laugh and take responsibility for the world. It is this spirit that makes us reach out to something greater than ourselves, even if we hardly know who or what that “something” is. It is this Spirit that enables David to become a great King; the craftsmen to create an awesome temple; the Levites to work out a complex set of guidelines for everyday living. When the Spirit is said to “fall upon” Moses or Joshua or Samson it sounds as though something in them is being fired up to enable the Spirit of God to release in them the power to deal with the practical, political or religious crisis they were facing.
There are people out there today with the most extraordinary gifts for music, art, literature, sport, science, political leadership to name but a few. And extraordinary gifts need a lot of very careful nurture. How many brilliant and famous celebrities die from addictions? How many wonderfully gifted artists become seriously depressed, cynical and impossible to live with? How many scientists lose all reverence for life and humanity in their passion for knowledge? How many brilliant political leaders have become brutal dictators? It was Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes who said, “when a clever man turns to evil, things look dark indeed.” With a great gift comes great responsibility and this can all be a heavy burden for an ordinary human person to bear.
But because the Christian church has tended not to acknowledge the gifts of God’s Spirit in “non-religious” activity, gifted people have tended to drift away from the church.
They are not taught that a gift is exactly that-a gift- for which they are accountable and that only by using that gift in humility before God and in line with God’s great purposes for the world, will they stand a chance of allowing it to be the making of them rather than their destruction.
St Paul offered two basic tests to see if a gift really was of the Holy Spirit:
(1) You cannot curse Jesus and this is not just about words but about whether you are living and speaking as a follower of Christ or whether you are denying his teaching.
(2) All gifts of the Holy Spirit should be for the building up of community and not purely for your own advantage.
It is perfectly possible for artistic, scientific, political, sporting gifts to pass both tests. So how often do we pray for them, encourage them, support them? How often do we examine the gifts and abilities we have been given and ask how we are using and developing them in line with the teaching of Christ and for the good of community? Or do we conclude that gifts used outside the church are not really any of God’s business?
Coming back to Adrian Plass, it is clear from his diaries that he has some wonderful spiritual gifts. He just finds it difficult to recognise them. He thinks that the Holy Spirit should descend upon him dramatically so that he is instantly changed into a better and far more noticeable person. He wants to do things that stand out, like miraculous healing, fiery preaching, speaking in tongues. It takes him a long time to recognise that sharing his faith struggles honestly and openly; admitting his failures; listening sympathetically to other people who feel like failures; making people laugh; faithfully supporting the work and worship of his local church are equally authentic gifts of the Holy Spirit. Do you know, after the story of the Day of Pentecost, there are only two other equally dramatic “Holy Spirit” stories in the whole book of Acts. A total of three dramatic stories but innumerable others of quiet conversations, gentle encouragement, courage in the face of danger, steadfastness in the face of ridicule, healing, helping, calming, taking risks, going to new places and doing new things- all of which were recognised as the work of the Holy Spirit in human men and women, bringing to birth the Christian church and a huge culture change.
I said that it was a long time before playing the organ or arranging flowers were acknowledged as having anything at all to do with the Holy Spirit. But now we acknowledge a ministry of music and a ministry of flowers. There is a ministry in making coffee to share after worship, a ministry in looking out for people on their own in The Link who need someone to talk to; a ministry in taking care of church premises even if it only remembering to switch the lights off and make sure the doors are locked when you leave the building. There is a ministry in being a good parent and in being a good friend or neighbour. There is a ministry in doing your professional work or practising your skills with integrity.
The self-help movement teaches us that “you can do anything you want if you put your mind to it.” That is not true. Even if I had longed with all my heart to become a professional footballer, it would not have happened because my body is just not made for it.
But believing in the gift of the Holy Spirit in each one us teaches us that we all have something unique, precious and God-given to bring to the world. And it is our responsibility to acknowledge God as the source of all gifts and to acknowledge and his right to ask that we use them for Him, that is, for the good of the world.
At the end of the day it is not others we need to convince that we have the Holy Spirit. It is ourselves. There is an episode of Inspector Morse, when he meets up with Emma Pickford, who is hoping to become a priest in the Church of England. He comments that she has an unusual vocation for a young woman at that time. Emma tells him that her vocation grew out of the pain of her husband’s early death. She had found this inexplicable source of strength there for her when she needed it.
Cynics like me, says Morse, would say that the strength was always there in you.
It is in all of us, replies Emma. The trick lies in allowing it to present itself.
This is not far from what Jesus said about men and women needing to be “born of the Spirit.” He did not say that the Spirit was not there already. During his ministry, Jesus was very affirming of people who showed faith almost without being aware of it and who lived in or very near to the kingdom of God despite hardly knowing who God was. He spoke of the Spirit coming to life in us, working in us, making God real to us. There is a “power in me” that is in some way connected to the power of God.
“The trick lies in allowing it to present itself.”
It may be strength that comes in a time of crisis. It may be glorious joy at something you achieve that you never thought you could. It may be recognising a need and taking up some new form of service. It may be in the love you give and receive. It may be the moment when you realise exactly what you were put on this earth for. The Holy Spirit is there- God’s gift to every one of us. Trust in the promise; believe in the power in you; open your lives to the love of God and never, for one moment, believe that you are a waste of space in God’s kingdom.