Pentecost - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons



The Fellowship of the Holy Spirit: a Falmer Pentecost – Sue Barnes, St Laurence Church, Falmer

There are two large panels in St Laurence church in Falmer, where I used to live, that depict members of the congregation in prayer with flames of the spirit alighting on them. They were painted by Sue Barnes, a church warden and an accomplished artist.

I've found myself imagining the interior of the church and those panels in the past week.  I find them to be inspiring images but if I'm honest they also stimulate some discomfort.  Whilst some scriptural metaphors for the gift of the Holy Spirit are altogether agreeable, like the rivers of living water, referred to in our Gospel reading this morning, fire is more equivocal.

St Laurence, like our own church, it is one blessed with a strong appreciation of tradition. This is an enormous strength as long as those traditions don't constrain new life.  Our first instinct might be to dowse those flames but these are images that remind us that the Spirit is available to us today as it was to those first disciples.

The uneasiness is understandable.  Lucy Winkett, The Rector of St James, Piccadilly reminds us, the Holy Spirit exposes us to risk.  She says that one of the most daring actions we undertake as a church is to sing the 9th century invocation "Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire".  It is a call to return to the deepest love, the purest courage, and the renewing creativity of the living God. If the story of Pentecost is to be digested by communities of believers, then these movements of the Spirit will get us into trouble, and will take us to the courts, not only of the legal variety, but those of public opinion and church authority.  

We heard in our reading from Acts how this works, it told of those who seeing the disciples on that first Pentecost sneered and concluded 'they are filled with new wine.'

Pentecost, the birthday of the church, encourages us to ask where the spirit is leading us individually and collectively and these questions are particularly significant this year as the usual routines of our lives have been disrupted beyond what we imagined possible just a few months ago and the ministry of the church is no exception.  Without an openness to new possibilities, there can be no living faith and worship would become nothing more than reproduction. As we seek to make sense of the experience of Coronavirus and what the spirit might be prompting in us we require the capacity to dream and also discernment to identify what comes from God.  

Being prevented from gathering together as a community has been, and remains, painful.  We miss each other's presence and the fellowship that we share.  Nevertheless, the experience has held some valuable lessons.  For example, one of the clear blessing of these days has been our online worship.  A particular point of reflection for me has been a recognition of the importance of imagination.  Whilst many churches have streamed video of their services during this time, as Alison has helpfully reminded us - the pictures are always best on radio.  There is a wisdom in those words that many of us had lost.  I've realised in our online worship how easy it is, if I close my eyes, to be present in our beautiful church.  The acoustics of a recording carry so much that we may instantly feel ourselves transported to a peopled St Bride's.  There is also a powerful sense of 'gathering' in a service that involves visiting the homes of some of our brothers and sisters as they read our lessons from scripture and intercessions.  As we have previously noted, these services connect us not only across space, but also time, as we realise that we hear again the voices of some of our number who no longer walk this earthly realm with us.  It is a reminder that we share in a communion of saints. 

Barnabas Palfrey, a tutor at St Augustine's College, where I trained for ministry says - our imagination left to itself can sometimes fill our mind with fear and anxiety. And yet, with the Spirit's help our imagination can lead us into life-giving vision that enables us to act with purpose and with love. We call this vision 'hope' - a gift of the Spirit. Hope is not wishful thinking. Wishful thinking wants to escape reality. Hope faces the muddle of how things are and sees possibilities. The obstacles and difficulties are real - yet God is in this place, working creatively to make all things new. 

The significance of imagination can easily be overlooked, particularly outside of the creative arts.  It  has a crucial role for example in leading scientists to the exploration of new discoveries.  It can be crucial also in human relationships, such as in helping to reconcile hostilities where the parties show the humility and bravery to step back and imagine perspectives that differ from their own.  The demonization of other groups often seeks to employ the imagination to opposite effect, creating divisions.  Imagination is also important in the life of faith, it can help us become more present to the scriptures and it can help us to prayerfully envisage new possibilities. 

As we reflect on our discipleship and the mission of our community, scripture points us to some particular characteristics of mission.  It will be just and inclusive, it will expect and accept the gifts of all, it will be characterised by thanksgiving and joy; and will recognise, welcome and support the work of the spirit in all areas of human endeavour. 

The scriptures were opened to the disciples as to Cephas and his friend on the road to Emmaus.  They were able to transcend their narrow expectations of a messiah that would dispel the Roman authorities of the day.  The vision of a New Jerusalem began to take shape.  The gift of the Holy Spirit brought them the capacity to dream and it enlivened them to pursue their charge to proclaim the Lord's victory to the ends of the earth.  It can do miraculous things for us too, in our age. 

Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, and light us with celestial fire; thou the anointing spirit art, who does thy sevenfold gifts impart.


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