What is the Holy Spirit doing today?
I mean, today, now?
If we take the doctrine of the Holy Trinity seriously, and the story of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit cannot simply be treated as some kind of icing on the Easter Cake, a sweet purveyor of eternal hope, goodness and truth. Over the years, some traditions in the church have virtually ignored the Holy Spirit, while others have, in some people’s opinion, elevated the Spirit to pole position. The way we see, appreciate or react to the Holy Spirit, undoubtedly says more about us, corporately and individually, that it does about the being and work of the Holy Spirit. People who are naturally reserved are not likely to warm to a perspective that is gushing, just as those who wear their emotions on their shoulders, are not often inspired by an understanding that is cool, calm and collected. No, they say, the Spirit is a rushing wind, loosening tongues, inspiring actions that are confident, daring and excited. The art, music and poetry of the Holy Spirit reflects this wide range of reaction.
What we may say, perhaps, is that none of it is false, the reactions are genuine, and the Spirit is far broader, deeper and wider than the measure of the human mind. The key thing about the gift of the Holy Spirit, is that while it can be located in an event, which some even call the birthday of the Church, it is not itself an event. The Creation of the World; the birth of Jesus, the crucifixion, even the resurrection, are events, dateable, even if we do not know their precise dates. Pentecost itself has a date – it was a Jewish festival that occurred 50 days after Passover, which, to us therefore means it is 50 days after Easter Day, resurrection-day. But these other events, Christmas, Good Friday, Ascension Day, Easter, these are events that happened once. Pentecost was a date, for sure, but Pentecost hasn’t finished. Pentecost was there and then in the Upper Room fifty days after Easter, and it is today, 31st May 2020. And this is not simply an anniversary of a great day on which something supernatural happened two millennia ago. It is that, of course, but what we must not ever forget is that every day in between is also Pentecost. Every day is Pentecost, on which the Holy Spirit visits us, dwells in us, inspires us, helps us. So the question, what is the Holy Spirit doing today, is a daily question. But on this, birthday of the Church, when we commemorate the breathing of the Holy Spirit into the disciples in that Upper Room in Jerusalem, today is a very good day indeed to ask the question.
And this time is also a very good time to be asking it. We are living in strange times, times of confusion, fear, impotence, grief, uncertainty, anger and frustration. Not unlike First Century Roman-occupied Jerusalem in fact. The time around Jesus’ crucifixion was a period of history in which we might say that at least some local residents would have seen the Roman occupying army as a virus the getting rid of which they not only looked forward to, but to which they would have been prepared to contribute effort, time and money. Part of the political background to Jesus’ message and ministry is the desire to expunge an enemy within. It wasn’t his literal message – he was more interested in evicting evil spirits, disease, ill-feeling and sin, than Roman soldiers, but he was misunderstood on that and his message upset a lot of people, albeit in different ways. Issues of corruption, integrity, cronyism, and a legal system that applied in different ways depending on who you are, were live then as they are now. Wherever there is power there is susceptibility to corruption, and wherever there is information there is susceptibility to misunderstanding and interpretation. Wherever there is truth, lies become possible.
This is where the Holy Spirit comes in, on an hourly basis. How can we interpret anything? How can we choose or decide how to act with integrity, honesty or conviction? What is the main influencer of our lives and words and deeds? Is it our upbringing, our circumstances, our bruisings and battles that have damaged us, the kind words of others, the guilt we bear within, unseen? Or is it the perceptions we have of ourselves, which can range from arrogant, self-assuredness to soul-destroying lack of self-esteem. We do not need deep psychological analysis to know that we may be wonderfully made, but we carry in ourselves every success and failure, the opinions of others, and the mental and emotional scars that we might just as well simply call ‘life’.
How on earth can we handle it?
How on earth can God help us handle it?
Because our live are varied, differentiated and so easily harmed – and healed – by the experiences we have, we need something – or someone - all-encompassing, flexible, forgiving, resilient and most of all, loving, to speak to us, in us and through us. We need look no further than the Holy Spirit.
First given to bereaved, terrified, emotionally wrecked, guilty, desperate men and women huddled in an upstairs hideout in a place that was already a warzone and has remained so ever since, the Holy Spirit has the Chemistry, Competence and Character to take on the job. And having been in post since the beginning of creation, we can say that the Holy Spirit knows what he, or she, is doing.
So, what is the Holy Spirit doing today?
You can answer that yourself, I hope.
Do ask yourself.
But what about in the world that we see on the news, and among our neighbours?
In the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost which forms our main reading today, it is cut short before we find this little passage about what the Holy Spirit inspired the followers of Jesus to do almost immediately:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
This, actually, is what the Holy Spirit has been doing in and what the church of Christ has been doing for two thousand consecutive years since its birth on the first Christian Pentecost. This is what the Church is, and it is what the Church does. You don’t need a building to do it – but it helps, and it is not about the building, even if you have one. The building expresses the desire to do these things, to the glory of God, and provides a base, but it is the fellowship, the praying, the communion, and the helping of the poor that defines the church. We have our ASK force – action, supplication and kindness, and we are not alone. We can see the Holy Spirit at work in so much of what is happening in Enfield at this time. There is a Coronavirus WhatsApp group, with around 80 people on, all of whom are leading, facilitating and co-ordinating acts of generosity, care and kindness in our Borough. The preparation and distribution of food is the main task, and being so well connected, if someone has something to distribute, others will step up and collect, prepare, deliver and so forth. It cuts waste and gets food and clothes too, where they are most needed, often within hours. It is a joy and a privilege to simply see what is going on behind the scenes, and how there are no barriers to kindness, no restraints to effort and no law against generosity. When I see what is being achieved, I see the work of the Holy Spirit, inspiring, helping, encouraging, enabling such a range of sacrificial, merciful intervention. It all makes any of our efforts pale in comparison, but the whole point is that the sum is greater than the parts. Churches are like that. It’s not simply that many hands make light work, or that we are stronger together, or some such, but that underlying and weaving through it is an energising compassion that enables and inspires. Not everyone sees it in this way, but will perhaps speak in terms of human goodness instead. Yet I would say that we have no goodness of our own, and therefore where we see goodness and kindness (and that is not hard), we see the work of the Holy Spirit, quietly, and powerfully.
I’m reminded of the two verses of Wesley’s great Pentecost hymn:
Jesus, confirm my heart's desire
to work, and speak, and think for thee;
still let me guard the holy fire,
and still stir up the gift in me.
Ready for all thy perfect will,
my acts of faith and love repeat;
till death thy endless mercies seal,
and make the sacrifice complete.
The Holy Spirit is very much at work today, in and around us, and if we cannot see it, we are not looking in the right place or wearing the right lenses. Of course there is evil and nastiness, and selfishness and sadness, and certainly grief and sorrow at this time. Recent news bulletins have brought this into our living rooms this week. Yet that sadness and sorrow provokes kindness and action and prayer. And that is the work of the Holy Spirit.
To whom, with the Father and the Son be all praise, power, and gratitude, at this strange time, and always. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 31/05/2020