13th May 2024

Come, Holy Spirit

A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham

Sunday 12 May 2024- 10:30

Acts 1: 15-17, 21-end 1-9 and John 17: 6-19

What’s in a name?  One of the things I love about the William Pye font in the Cathedral, at the North Porch Crossing, along with its combination of movement and stillness with its constantly overflowing water and calm mirror-like surface, is the text from the biblical book of Isaiah, chapter 43, that is inscribed on the sides.  “Do not fear for I have redeemed you.  I have called you by name, you are mine.”


These words are part of the Church’s baptism and confirmation services.  And they show that, far from being irrelevant or arbitrary, names are highly significant.  I’d imagine that most of the parents whose babies are baptised in that font will have thought long and hard about what to name their child.  Our names, including our nicknames too, at least in my family, are an incredibly important part of our identity, carrying deep personal, cultural, familial, and historical connections.  Names give us a sense of who we are, the communities in which we belong, and our place in the world.


Our Gospel reading this morning is part of a long prayer spoken by Jesus to God, who he calls his Father.  In this prayer, Jesus appeals to the “name” of God.  In the bible, God has many names- Rock, Shepherd, Fortress, Lord, King, Servant, Judge- to name but a few.  And just as our own names convey something of our nature and character, so the name- or names- of God reveals something important about Him, something of who God is.


Names were very important in ancient beliefs, just as they are now.  The Psalms stress the importance of knowing God’s name, which enables people to trust in him.  The place where God dwells, we learn in Deuteronomy, is the place where he has put his name.


Earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus has used the phrase “I am”- I am the bread, the light, the vine, and so on- not just to recall the great images of Judaism, but also to refer to the name of God as revealed to Moses in Exodus at the Burning Bush: “I am who I am”.  In using this phrase, Jesus not only shockingly revealed God’s name, which Jews considered it blasphemous to pronounce, but also in doing so revealed to the disciples something of the nature and character of God, so that by now, they “have come to know” that everything Jesus has is from God, and that Jesus has come from Him.


When Jesus prays that God will protect the disciples, in God’s name, what he’s really praying, in this bold and fervent prayer, is that they will continue to love and trust in God, that they will know the same closeness that he, Jesus, knows with his Father, even after he leaves them and goes to his death.  In this passage, Jesus is looking ahead to the time after his resurrection, the time we’re in now, of the Ascension, after he has gone back into heaven, when the disciples will be the ones to continue his work on earth.


While he’s been on earth, Jesus has protected the disciples in God’s name, which is a safe refuge.  But if we are to live for God in this world, without Jesus physically here with us, we, like the disciples, also will need protection.  This word “protect” means to “keep,” literally to “watch over” like a loving parent seeing their children about to launch into the world; they have to let them go, yet they’re concerned to watch over them and save them from harm.  And so, in this prayer, the Good Shepherd prays that none of us, none of his sheep, may be lost in the trials and tribulations that lie ahead.


Today is the Sunday between Ascension Day and Pentecost, a time of prayer and waiting on the Spirit.  It’s sometimes known as Expectancy Sunday, or Expectation Sunday.  According to the Cambridge dictionary, the definition of expectancy is “the feeling that something exciting or pleasant is going to happen.”  Despite the fact that he is about to leave them, the tone of Jesus’s prayer in our Gospel is confident.  And just as Jesus prays for the disciples in today’s Gospel with deep desire, asking that their joy may be made complete, so we are exhorted in this brief but highly significant time to pray expectantly- and to pray fervently, and confidently- for the gift of the Holy Spirit.


But what it is exactly that we are waiting and praying for, when we pray for the Holy Spirit?  It would have been all too easy for those first disciples to rush out and get on with doing the much work of building up God’s kingdom in the world around them, making new converts, appointing new leaders to lead their mission as we see them doing in today’s reading from Acts, and spreading the Gospel message of justice and peace.  Like the Walking Madonna outside the Cathedral, Mary striding off purposefully into the city, like countless newly baptised people since that first Pentecost, in the first rush of enthusiasm, they were ready to put their new-found faith into action.  But first, in the Upper Room, they’re instructed to wait, and to pray.


In our active and fast paced lives, waiting could seem pointless- especially when there’s always so much to do.  But sometimes this waiting is important.  When we wait on and pray for the Holy Spirit, we are asking God to renew us, and to give us all that we need to do his work.  In praying for the Holy Spirit, we are asking for God, by his Spirit, to transform our lives, and to renew the world and the Church.


This week, as well as Ascensiontide, we’re also celebrating the centenary of Charles Villiers Stanford, one of the most significant composers of church music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Stanford’s choral music has given inspiration to generations of those who have performed it as part of church, chapel or cathedral choirs as well as those who listen to it, from his settings of Mattins, the Eucharist and Evensong to the serene beauty and simplicity of today’s communion anthem, O for a closer walk with God.  To participate in or to listen to such music demands our attention, and our time.  Worship, like music, takes place in time.  It can’t be rushed.  In choosing to give giving our time to this, and not to whatever other tasks we’d be doing otherwise in this hour, we’re making an active choice, for this moment, to listen and to spiritually reflect on what we’re hearing.  St Augustine is reputed to have said, He who prays, sings twice.  I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it does seem to capture something of how the mystery of how music- a gift of the Spirit- whatever the religious inclinations of the composer, helps us, and aids our prayer.


To read the words around the sides of our font, that we are called by name, is a powerful reminder, especially at this time of the Church’s year, that each of us belongs, not just to our ourselves or to our families, but to God.  Each of us has work to do, a vocation in the world to fulfil.  But first we must pray, in words, music and silence, for the gift of the Spirit.


St Basil, writing in the 4th century in Cappadocia, has some powerful words to say on the Holy Spirit in this beautiful passage, which sums up what the Spirit is all about:


All who are in need of sanctification turn to the spirit; all those who seek him live by virtue, for his breath refreshes them and comes to their aid in the pursuit of their natural and proper end.  Capable of perfecting others, the Spirit himself lacks nothing.  He is not a being who needs to restore his strength, but himself supplies life… Souls in which the Spirit dwells, illuminated by the spirit, become themselves spiritual and send forth their grace to others.  From here comes knowledge of the future, understanding of mysteries, apprehension of what is hidden, the sharing of gifts of grace, heavenly citizenship, a place in the chorus of angels, joy without end, abiding in God, being made like God.


When we pray for the Spirit, then, we’re asking for a lot of different things!  Sanctification, virtue, knowledge- nothing less than a place in heaven and “being made like God.”  But Jesus promises, these things, and Jesus, who embodies in his very person the name of God, is trustworthy.


So then, may we use this week, the remaining time between Ascension and Pentecost, to pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit, perhaps by saying, each day, “Come Holy Spirit”, or in the words of the ancient hymn known as the Veni Creator:

Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire

and lighten with celestial fire,

thou the anointing spirit art

who does thy sevenfold gifts impart.  Amen.