I suppose the Holy Spirit is the least understood person of the Trinity, and the most misused. Long ago I attended the World Council of Churches 7th Assembly in Canberra, Australia. Christians of almost all denominations and from almost everywhere in the world gathered for 2 weeks to talk about the Holy Spirit. I can remember the proceedings grinding to a halt as the body of people there struggled to come to any agreement about the nature of the Holy Spirit. If I learned anything it was the the Spirit is wild and free and intends to remain that way.
The place of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity was also the cause of a major split in the church – this is where the Eastern Church split from the Western Church. The result was the division between the Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic and Protest churches which still exists today. And it all depends on whether you believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son or whether you believe the Spirit and the Son both proceed from the Father. No doubt there’ll be more to hear about this next week on Trinity Sunday.
If I asked everyone in Church to describe the Holy Spirit, I suppose we would get a lot of different answers. The Bible describes the Spirit as being like a gale – a very powerful blowing wind. Or as a burning fire, or as a dove. The fact that these are all quite different things shows us that the Spirit may be quite impossible to describe fully – we only see aspects, small parts of the whole.
When the Spirit came to the disciples all those years ago, the effect was very noticeable. Here were men, and probably women too, quaking in terror, hiding away out of fear of meeting the same end as Jesus. They were keeping quiet, avoiding drawing attention to themselves, confused and lost.
Then, suddenly they were out on the street, making so much noise people thought they were drunken louts. They shouted out the good news in different languages, fearless and bold. This single moment transformed everything. The rest of the lives of these people was spent spreading the Good News over Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa. By the end of the 1st Century Christianity arrived here.
This explosion of Christianity across the globe was a huge undertaking – cars and aeroplanes, maps and satnavs weren’t options then. These first Pentecost people struggled on foot, in ships, maybe on camels or donkeys to take their message to remote and unknown places. They must have said goodbye to friends and family and disappeared into the unknown, some of them never to return. Many of them died for their faith. Without the Spirit exploding in the lives of those present on that day we would not be here, so we owe them a debt of gratitude.
The Bible talks of many gifts of the Spirit, and everyone has one of these gifts. Some are called to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, some teachers, some are given great wisdom or knowledge, some are healers.
In other words, we are all different, and we all have different gifts and abilities. The Spirit does not make us clones, but sets us free within ourselves to reach the potential of the unique gifts which God placed within us when he made us.
Sometimes the church gives the impression that only evangelists have anything to give, but we need a more balanced approach if we are to take the Spirit seriously. At the same time, we have to remember that, no matter what our gifts, they are to be used in the service of God to help people to find faith, a solid foundation for life.
How rootless our society and culture feel these days – it feels as if our foundation has failed or that we’ve lost our way. It’s not our job to stand somewhere on the edge and bemoan the fact that things are not what they were. The Spirit calls us out into the fray, to work for healing and inclusion – the work that Jesus did. And also to help people locate faith amidst all the stuff that our consumer society throws at us.
No matter how we take the good news out of the walls of church buildings, I believe it’s more important right now than at any point for at least the last 1600 years. This is because in society we all feel so lost, but it’s also because the church is now so out of kilter with where people are at in terms of values and priorities. So, negatively, it’s no longer good enough for the establishment of our Church to evade questions relating to child abuse. But, positively, the church does have something to say about the true meaning of life, how it’s not all about ‘me’, about how we have to live in the light of eternity, and about how our planet is God-given and so needs to be treated with care and love.
Another problem is our language – we might be very comfortable talking about sin, intercession, creeds, Eucharists, Holy Communion, the Lamb of God and the Holy Spirit, but most people around us have absolutely no idea what we’re talking about. In many ways we’ve become exactly the opposite of Pentecost. We’ve moved from everyone hearing the Word of God in their own language, to us talking words which are completely incomprehensible anyone who might be listening. This is why the new initiative – Church in the Hall, is so important. Here is a stepping stone that helps people to find their way to faith.
So let’s remember that balance. If you’re good at talking to people about their faith – good – do it. If you’re better at expressing your faith in practical words – good – do it. If you prefer to make your contribution as a teacher (either at work or in our Sunday School) – good do it. If you are a miracle worker you can become the church treasurer. If you’re a behind the scenes person you can always count money, serve tea or mow the lawn. All these things need to be done for the Church to grow and thrive!
Where none of us are excused is in the department of the fruits of the Spirit. For we know ‘by their fruits shall ye know them’. And the fruits of the Spirit are ‘love, joy, peace patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.’
We all know which of these gifts we’re personally short of – which all goes to show how we need seek the Spirit day by day until people are able to see Christ in us. For although we are not all evangelists, we are all witnesses – and if our lives reflect God’s presence then people will notice. If our lives fail to reflect what we claim to believe, people will notice that too. If we give the Spirit a home in our lives and in the life of our church we are transformed bit by bit until we become like Jesus himself and people will notice – the church will be full of life once more!