A couple of young mums, a retired council worker, a podiatrist, a couple of teachers, a musician, a job centre employee- just some of the people I interviewed a little while ago. And the one thing they all had in common was that each had put their heads above the parapet and said, “I just get the sense that God is calling me to ministry in His Church”.
It’s a great privilege to take part in these Bishop’s Advisory Panels where we advise the Bishop on whether someone should go forward for training. The inspiring thing for me is that whether or not these people are called to be Clergy, is the point that each have sensed the touch of God and acted on it. It could have been a single moment, a combination of events and circumstances or the comments of others but what they’ve been left with can be variously described as an itch, a nagging feeling that won’t go away- or even, as someone once put it to me, “I think God has a contract out on me”. But whatever words they use, they simply believe that something is going on and they’re looking to make some sense out of it.
The ‘what’s going on’ of course is what we call the work of the Holy Spirit; our God doing what he always does, leading us into life. For people such as these, what we celebrate today on this Pentecost Sunday matters a great deal because they were bold enough to imagine that the things we reflect on today are what real life is about. What we might call, ‘Practical’ God. God, up close and personal. But before we go any further, it does seem to me that if we’re going to engage, or perhaps more correctly, become receptive, to all that Jesus promises, my guess is that firstly, we’re going to have to set aside one or two easily recognisable barriers.
To begin with, those of us grew up using the older form of service which spoke of the ‘Holy Ghost’; need to get beyond assumptions that we’re talking about rather spooky and irrational things. Secondly, we have to confront years of poor teaching which has led many of us, even if unconsciously, to live with assumptions about Jesus where he has, as it were gone his way and left us to get on with it. He promised to “be with us always”.
And then thirdly, we have to dismiss all that talk of the Holy Spirit as the preserve of one part of the family whom we might, at best describe as a bit ‘quirky’ or at worst somewhat elitist; those who shall we say, flaunt their religious experience as a badge of superiority.
Because although the things described today might sound strange- (never forget the disciples were accused of being drunk!) at the end of the day we’re just talking normal, Christian stuff. The simple promises and teaching of Jesus which we’re called to say “yes”. I say ‘normal’ because right at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry John the Baptist told us very clearly what he would do. He said: “I Baptise you with water but he (that is, Jesus) will baptise you with the Holy Spirit”.
Now, when we remember how that word ‘Baptise’ means ‘drench’; or we recall a walk on the Lakeland fells in the rain we soon get the picture! In other words, we’re being told that one of the primary tasks of Jesus is to quite literally ‘soak’ us in the Holy Spirit…. Which means, the life and presence of God. So, this deepest communion with Jesus and with the Father is what he wants for us. This is what he promised. This is normal Christian life. And this is why we look to the Scriptures; to the experience of our forebears for teaching guidance and clues as to what this kind of life might look, feel and taste like.
So, what can we pray with today? Well, firstly listen to the tone of lavishness and generosity that’s already been struck by that word ‘baptise’ or drench. When we hear talk of the Holy Spirit remember that we’re talking about the life and presence of God being given to ALL of us; liberally and freely. We are included. This is the point of that quotation from the prophet Joel that we heard this morning: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams”.
Then notice, just in case you thought otherwise, there’s no age barrier to this. It doesn’t matter how superannuated you are! And for good measure he tells us that ALL who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. That is receive the life of God’s kingdom. Jesus strikes the same tone when he tells us that since we who are parents know how to give good things to our children “How much more will the Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him”. So, the first thing to get under our belt is this notion of the generosity of God who liberally pours out his life, his Spirit upon all who ask him.
Secondly, to take this a little further, when we hear talk of the Holy Spirit, we need to think of this as our birth-right. Just as Jesus told his disciples, I will not leave you ‘orphans’ (interesting word), so St. Paul tells the Church in Rome that the Spirit ‘bears witness’ or assures us that we are God’s children. What this means is that the direction of travel, the work of the Holy Spirit is going to be experienced and seen in everything that bolsters a sense that we’re on intimate terms with the Father. Anything which diminishes that comes from elsewhere.
So, contrary to what many people tell me, it’s not presumption to say, “I am a Christian”. I may be conscious of my frailty (and like St. Peter I have heard many a cock crow!) but I am Christian, for example, not because of my moral performance; or because of my achievements but because in Baptism (in that drenching moment!) the Lord has said, “you are mine”, “Abide in me as I abide in you”.
So, when we get these basic points under our skin; once we accept that the purpose and desire of the Lord is to be continually with us; AND RECOGNISABLY so(!) the next thing is to consider the “so what?” In other words, if I am in fact inwardly possessed by the Spirit of the Lord; then how will I come to recognise the signs of this presence and come to be guided by him?
After all, the conviction for the first Christians is that just as Jesus was present to the disciples; so now, he is present to us by the Spirit. Well, Jesus gave us signs to look for. So, we experience the Holy Spirit as what the Gospels call our Advocate (when you know someone is on your side!); we experience a sense of guidance; inspiration and encouragement. When the things that Jesus teaches come alive for us or when (perhaps in spite of myself!) I start to resemble Jesus and bring a blessing to others; there is the Holy Spirit!
We might say that the heart of it all 19revolves around how willing we are to stop, look and listen to ourselves and the circumstances of our lives and give our attention to life and its undercurrents. Yes, we have to take to heart what Jesus is says when he describes the Spirit as ‘the wind’; which is fundamentally beyond our control. But we do at least, experience the wind….. whether it’s a breeze or a gale(!) And this is the point- and our calling. To become conversant with the ways of the Spirit.
Very often people say to me that it’s only in hindsight that they perceive the hand of God at work. And perhaps over a long-ish period of time (through perhaps difficult circumstances and the like), we are able to make connections. We can point to coincidences (as we call them) and of course, the Christian word for this is ‘Providence’. But how about ‘noticing’ within the twenty-four hours of a given day? How about becoming more aware of your moods and your inner temperature as the day goes by? How about noticing those moments when you were perhaps unexpectedly patient or forgiving.
Or times when you felt encouraged or built up by a word of scripture or something someone said? How about noticing the inner wrestling and the times you feel in tension with some person or decision; or maybe admonished for something you had thought or done? This isn’t self-absorption; and no it’s not an exact science (far from it) but Pentecost calls us to look at the lives we lead and ‘name’ these moments for what they are: glimpses (and maybe little more than that) of the grace of God; the promises of Jesus being fulfilled here and now. Encouraging us to go forward with gratitude and wonder and humility.
Part of my offering this morning has included an oblique warning to those who feel they have a monopoly of the life of the Spirit. They are exception but that part of the family who are particularly fond of bringing before us the work of the Spirit in all his vitality are often called ‘Charismatics’. Now the word Charismatic means ‘gifted’ and such people rightly emphasise the gift and presence of Jesus among us by the Holy Spirit. God’s generous immediacy. But my simple point is this.
We always need to remember that there are no first and second-class Christians. In one sense we are ALL Charismatics- because by God’s generosity he chooses to be “Emmanuel” (God With Us), even now. Pentecost Sunday affirms that we are ALL gifted, inwardly and lavishly by God’s Spirit. We claim our true place as his much beloved (if frail) people. But each and every day needs to be a mini-Pentecost; a day in which we make a ‘yes’ to that wonderful gift. Our daily prayer is; “Come Holy Spirit”.