Feast of Pentecost 2011

“For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…and we were made to drink of one Spirit.”
(1 Corinthians 12. 13)

Today, we have two very different images of Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit, one lively and the other unobtrusive. On one side, in Acts, the Holy Spirit comes in dramatic, loud fashion: a rushing wind and tongues of fire empowers and equips the followers of Jesus boldly to proclaim the Good News (Acts 2. 1-21). In our Gospel, on the other hand, it is the Risen Jesus himself who quietly gives the Spirit to the disciples: in the midst of fear, behind locked doors, Jesus gently breathes on his followers as a sign that He gives them the Holy Spirit (John 20. 19-23).

In light of these two different accounts of the giving of the Spirit, how do you experience and live in the Holy Spirit? Is it loud or quiet? Is it exuberant or modest? Is it bold or in the midst of fear? I suspect we have all experienced a mix of the two images of Pentecost described today, even if one of them feels more familiar and natural than the other. How, then, do we recognise God’s Spirit in one another and deepen our relationship with the Holy Spirit?

Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians gives us a good rule of thumb for how we might recognise the Holy Spirit in one another. Paul notes three things that we can recognise about how we experience the Holy Spirit. I want to take each of these in turn.

First, all who admit “Jesus is Lord” are already in relationship with God since it is the Holy Spirit who draws us into that relationship (1 Cor. 12. 3b). Note that Paul says nothing about whether or not we will like or agree with others who proclaim Jesus as Lord. We are called, however, to recognise all professing Christians as brothers and sisters united in the Holy Spirit.

Second, “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” and we are called to value all such gifts (1 Cor. 12.4). Some of these spiritual gifts are bold, even miraculous, and easy to see in public. Other spiritual gifts are quiet, hidden from view, but real and valuable nonetheless. Paul remains clear: we are not to see one gift as greater than another, or even as more desirable, because all gifts are “activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses” (1 Cor. 12. 11). We are called to recognise the power of the Holy Spirit at work in one another, sometimes dramatically and sometimes quietly.

Third, the Holy Spirit draws us together, with all of our difference, so that “though many, [we] are one body,” so that we are greater than the sum of our parts (1 Cor. 12. 12). We are finally called, then, to recognise our mutual need for one another as a community drawn together by the Holy Spirit.

Now that we have considered how we recognise the Holy Spirit, how might we deepen our ability to work with the Holy Spirit?  To put it simply, we must be open to the Spirit to deepen a relationship with the Spirit.  The three important aspects of how we recognise the Holy Spirit at work in one another take place in Paul’s Letter amidst division and uncertainty. Paul’s Letter perhaps warns us that we shouldn’t let our own preferences and opinions prevent us from seeing the Holy Spirit at work. The Corinthian Church is divided by quarrels about theology, worship, and public behaviour (1 Cor. 1. 10-17; 3. 1-23; 5-6). Such divisions sound rather like the Church of England today, maybe even this parish. Yet these quarrels make it hard for us as much as the Corinthians to recognise the Holy Spirit at work in one another.

Paul’s message directs the Corinthians to see and celebrate the Holy Spirit at work: “we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Cor. 12. 13) So too should we recognise the Holy Spirit in one another, in whatever ways that same Spirit is at work in us. Some of us may experience and show that Spirit in dramatic ways: we pray as the Spirit leads, we sing evangelical songs, we clap hands, we dance, we go to the New Wine festival, and we listen fervently to the latest teachings from the mega-churches. Others of us may experience and show the Spirit in quiet, interior ways: we love the simple dignity of formal worship, we develop our faith through familiar prayers, we are filled with the reverence of traditional hymns, and we let the Gospel flow through simple, daily acts of kindness. Rather than see one or the other experience of the Holy Spirit as better, Paul’s Letter shows us that we ought rather to recognise the variety and richness that the Spirit brings to our lives. Sometimes the Spirit may lead us to bold and dramatic worship or proclamation; at other times, the Spirit may gift us with quiet faith. Both loud and quiet ways are Spirit-filled.

The root of recognition and Christian growth is, for St. Paul, baptism. Paul declares that “in the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body,” and elsewhere that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (1 Cor. 12. 13; Ephesians 4.5). The Holy Spirit is formally given by God and recognised by the Christian community when someone is baptised as a member of God’s family. The gifts of the Spirit – whether loudly or quietly – are given by God so that an individual can grow into his or her particular likeness of Christ and so that the wider Christian community can be enriched. I pray that, whatever our differences and disagreements, Pentecost may remind us that “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12. 7). May we celebrate one another for the ways in which we show the variety of God’s love in whatever ways we live out our baptismal calling.

How do you experience and live, then, in the Holy Spirit? I am sure each individual will have his or her unique thoughts and gifts to share. As a community, however, there are two ways I would like to invite you to experience the Holy Spirit today. The first will be a communal act of dedication to let the Holy Spirit work in and through us. Just before the final blessing, we will use the words printed on the pew-sheet to affirm our commitment to recognise the Holy Spirit in one another and to co-operate with the work of the Spirit in our daily lives. Read over the words when we pause in a minute to reflect upon our Pentecost readings after this sermon. Affirm them with confident voices. The second way we can experience the Holy Spirit today is after the service. In the Lady Chapel, three of us will gather to offer to anyone who wants it both anointing and prayers for spiritual renewal. If you feel you want personal prayer as you re-dedicate yourself to the work of the Holy Spirit, simply come into the Lady Chapel immediately after the service and we will pray quietly over you. It is a powerful way to receive prayer and spiritual refreshment. All ages are of course welcome for this ministry.

In preparation for the prayers and anointing for spiritual renewal in the Lady chapel, I want to finish by praying over the oil to be used. The oil is a physical sign of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our lives, reminding us of the oil used at baptism. For some of you, it will build you up in boldness and joy; for others, it will affirm the quiet, trusting faith which God has gifted you. Whether or not you decide to receive this ministry today, let us now all join in prayer as we recognise God at work in one another and ask the Holy Spirit to work through this oil and in our lives:

Father, daily your Spirit renews the face of the earth,
bringing strength out of weakness,
hope out of despair
and life out of death.
By the power of your Spirit,
may your blessing rest upon those anointed
with this oil in your name.
Let it be for them
a sign of your acceptance and adoption,
your equipping and empowering.
Form in them the likeness of Christ,
that they may be witnesses of your astonishing love,
and fill them afresh with life in all its fullness. Amen.