St Bride's: Sermons

Pentecost

John 20: 19-23

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19 Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.

20 And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.

21 Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.

22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost:

23 Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.

The quirky and rather weird novel by James Robertson entitled The Testament of Gideon Mack, published in 2006, contains a fascinating little paragraph on the subject of sermons.  The central character, Gideon Mack, has followed his father into the ministry of the Church of Scotland, and he here describes his late father's understanding of the true nature of preaching (and, more significantly for our purposes today, the role of divine inspiration).  He says this:

... until quite recently the written sermon was scorned in Scotland, seen as a kind of soft English aberration, a sign of feeble character and suspect faith.  My father preferred to rely on divine inspiration: if God so willed it, holy words would pour from the mouth of his servant.'

Now I stand before you guilty of the soft English aberration of writing my sermons, and thus open to the charges of being both of feeble character and suspect faith.  And yet, I have always regarded the careful thought and prayerful preparation that one puts into a sermon as a mark of how seriously one takes the task.  The notion that I should simply open my mouth and see what comes out seems to me to be to be a pretty spectacular cop-out. 

Moreover, as a preacher, it seems to me to be rather important that there is always something of myself in every sermon that I preach - otherwise I would simply be talking at you, rather than sharing reflections with you - and that, too, requires preparation and self-examination on my part.  Is that a sign of my lack of faith?  Am I corrupting the 'pure' word of God by intervening in the process in that way?  I wonder.

In one of my previous churches, I inherited a lay reader whose preaching was so dire that a retired cathedral provost who used to worship with us occasionally was once observed sitting with his head in his hands, muttering 'Stop her!  Somebody please stop her!'  Just like Gideon Mack's father, that lay reader refused to prepare her sermons in advance because she 'wanted to leave it all up to the Holy Spirit'.  It was wryly observed by some members of that congregation that the Holy Spirit did seem to have some surprisingly 'off' days, most of which, oddly enough, coincided with her preaching slots.

In similar vein, the story is told of a rather pious clergyman strolling through his parish, who paused to admire a wonderfully ordered and well-stocked allotment being lovingly tended by its owner.  'Isn't it marvellous what man can achieve with God's help', he said.  Unimpressed, the gardener leaned on his spade and said - 'You should have seen this allotment when God had it all to himself.'

All of which raises some interesting questions about how we understand the Holy Spirit to work in the world, and what place human rationality, and human involvement, might have within that.  As Christians is it our role to wait for the Holy Spirit to blast into our lives delivering solutions and parcels of divine wisdom that it is simply our job to receive and unwrap?  Or does the Spirit work in us and through us, and through those around us, broken and fallible human vessels though we are?

Here it is worth reflecting on our biblical readings today.  The incident described in our first reading from Acts would certainly seem to support the first of these two models: it is real 'Cecil B. DeMille' stuff.  The disciples are together, minding their own business, when suddenly there is a noise like the rush of a violent wind, and tongues of fire descend upon them.  And the disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, are suddenly able to achieve the impossible - to speak in languages of which they have no personal knowledge.  In that sense they are mere channels of the divine power.  This, if you like, is the model of divine inspiration embraced wholeheartedly by Gideon Mack's father.

Now, I should add at this point, that after almost thirty years of ordained ministry, I am by no means sceptical about the miraculous and the inexplicable where the things of God are concerned.  I have seen unremarkable people achieve remarkable things in the most impossible of situations.  I have seen utterly intractable situations resolved with astonishing results; I have seen the deepest and most profound healing take place in circumstances where the sheer depth of human hatred and hurt should have rendered that utterly unthinkable.  And I never, ever, underestimate the power, and the wonder and the majesty, and the glorious unpredictability of God.

But alongside that, today's Gospel reading gives us a rather different kind of picture.  The Risen Christ appears to the disciples who are utterly terrified and in hiding.  He breathes upon them and says: 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'  There is no rushing wind here, but rather the gentleness of breath.  There is no sudden and dramatic power imposed on the disciples from outside, but instead a quiet authority that is quietly entrusted to them, which they will exercise from within: 'If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any they are retained.'  And it is worth remembering that, in this Gospel, when the Risen Christ appears to his followers, he does so with his wounds still visible.  His risen body still bears the scars of his broken human flesh, even as he administers the Spirit to his followers.  A vessel broken, but redeemed, as we are.

The truth is, of course, that the Holy Spirit works in a whole range of different ways.  Sometimes the Spirit works through us, sometimes outside us.  The Spirit brings order out of chaos (as in Creation) - but also brings chaos into overly tidy and pious lives - which is why the Pharisees hate Jesus for the turmoil he creates around them.

I see the work of the Holy Spirit in all great preachers, whether they happen to script their sermons or not.  I see the Holy Spirit at work in the reconciliation between an estranged father and his son.  I see the Holy Spirit at work in the young child who befriends the isolated girl on the school playground; I see the Holy Spirit at work in those moments of courage and compassion glimpsed in the midst of appalling events such as those on London Bridge and in Borough Market last night, and in other recent terrorist atrocities, where the most ordinary of people - whether in the emergency services, or simply passers-by - undertake the most heroic of actions - including tending to the needs of total strangers, who are injured or traumatised, or at risk.

Indeed, what worries me most is when I hear Christians (often, ironically, precisely those who define themselves as Spirit-filled), who are so fixed in their views about what the Spirit does, and how the Spirit does it, that (like Gideon Mack's father), they are completely unable to recognise the glorious, liberating dance that the Spirit of God is weaving all around them, which they are in fact doing their very best to block.

And can we - or should we - strive to contribute to the work of the Holy Spirit?  Here I shall leave the final word with St Teresa of Avila, who wrote this:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours;
no hands but yours; no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world
Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.

 

May the power of God's Holy Spirit fill our lives anew this Pentecost, that we may indeed become worthy vessels of Christ's love in this precious and fragile world.

Amen

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