A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Picture Gaia, by Luke Jerram, was hanging in the Cathedral during the Salisbury International Arts Festival
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
For me, this day will forever smell of charred wood. That was the whiff in the air nineteen years ago when our parish celebrated Pentecost in the vicarage garden. Two days earlier, our church had burned down and under its blackened walls we sang the hymn to the Holy Spirit with which we began today, including that line, ‘O let it freely burn’. How we laughed.
We saw that day how there’s something uncontrollable about fire, especially if it’s combined with a second thing – wind – unless you get lots of a third thing, water. And that can do damage of its own. It is striking how the Acts of the Apostles uses these destructive forces as images of what it’s like when God’s Spirit comes: the Spirit comes on the friends of Jesus like a violent wind, it rests on each disciple like a tongue of fire, then Peter quotes the prophet Joel’s words about God’s spirit ‘poured out on all flesh’ – a global monsoon drenching every man and woman, every girl and boy.
As the earth turns above us, you can spot the regions where these forces have been at work just this year – fire in Australia and Canada; flood in Argentina; wind and flood in Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe; all three in the US – as this terrible trio establish themselves as regular characters in the drama of our climate’s breakdown.
Why use these terrible things to picture something which is supposed to be wonderful? First, because they are not always terrible: fire can warm you, wind can be cooling, water refreshing. Second, because these are images, not definitions. They do not resemble the thing they portray in every particular. If I call you ‘a total star’, that is an image of how you light up my life; it does not mean that you are also composed of luminous plasma. Listen during the anthem later, as George Herbert calls the Spirit-filled apostles ‘twelve suns’, outshining the one in the sky.
These images say to us: You know what fire is like, and wind and water, the power that is in them, how sometimes you just can’t control them? Well, the Spirit of God is like that – but with a difference. Fire, wind and water just burn and smash and drown whatever – whoever – is in their way. They treat everything the same. But the Spirit of God does the opposite. When the Spirit comes, the power that brought the universe into being comes upon you. But the Spirit does not devastate, it discriminates. In the Acts reading the writer says that, through the one Spirit, the Apostles are understood by people of different languages. St Paul will talk about how the one Spirit gives different gifts to different people – gifts of teaching, encouraging, and so on. Jesus in the gospel promises that the Spirt will live in his friends, and in today’s reading from Paul, he sees it: the Spirit dwelling in us, drawing us into a relationship with God like that of Jesus himself. We too can say ‘Abba, Father,’ the words Jesus used in the garden of Gethsemane, the night before he died. If the Spirit is within us, we can talk with that extraordinary intimacy to the One who brought the universe into being.
All this we ask for today. To what end? Two thoughts.
Since Ascension Day we have been part of the initiative Thy Kingdom Come; we are hosting an event at 7 o’clock this evening with the churches of Salisbury. At its heart, Thy Kingdom Come is an invitation, as its website puts it, ‘to pray for more people to come to know Jesus Christ’. For some, that prayer is as natural as breathing. For others, it is problematic: isn’t it presumptuous, even manipulative, to try and bring someone round to my point of view about God and Jesus and the meaning of life? But the invitation is simply to pray, and our prayer today is ‘Come, Holy Spirit’. That, says Pope Francis in his message for Thy Kingdom Come, is the cry of all Christians on this day of Pentecost, that the Holy Spirit come to ‘enlarge and widen our hearts’.
Come, Holy Spirit. Surely I can pray that for a non-believing friend or colleague, that they might know that intimate presence of God – something I can’t manipulate any more than I can command the wind, but which is so discriminating, which so generously honours each person, created in God’s image, in his or her glorious particularity.
That phrase, though, ‘Thy Kingdom come’, is a big phrase. It includes personal faith but also much more. It is about God’s whole purpose of healing and forgiveness and justice and love; and this great image of our world has been hovering over all our prayers and preaching this last fortnight, saying to us, Remember - God loves all this: don’t be trivial, don’t be small. Paul would agree. Straight after the reading we’ve heard today, he goes on to describe how the activity of the Spirit is not just a domestic matter for individual Christians but a cosmic thing, as a frustrated world struggles to bring something to birth. Those labour pains prompt my other thought.
I have here fifty surveys that you have filled in about your environmental habits. Lots of you have ticked boxes to say, Please tell me more about how I can help conserve our wildlife, or how I can work out my carbon footprint. We need more – keep them coming – but even so, I don’t think we would have responded on this scale even three years ago. What is going on here? And not just here but in many other places and among very different kinds of people? Certainly it’s people waking up to the crisis we are in, but – more than that – I think something is struggling to come to birth here. Might it be that the Spirit of God that moved over the waters of creation, is moving among us afresh when our small part of the creation is in such danger?
We are clever enough to solve lots of the problems thrown up by the climate crisis, but there is a bigger problem that will defeat our cleverness.
We all have a problem (says Pope Francis) and that is that our hearts tend to shrink, become smaller and close. We can’t solve that by ourselves. Only the Holy Spirit can solve it. Come, Holy Spirit. And, to Jesus, thy Kingdom come, the kingdom of the Father that you came to announce.