A sermon preached by Canon Dr Tom Clammer, Precentor
Alleluia! Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
There is nothing that causes anxiety and confusion amongst Christians like discussion of the Holy Spirit. Well, actually, probably the use of incense is up there in terms of controversial and divisive topics. And maybe removing the pews! I remember an incumbent wryly remarking to me in the early days of my first incumbency, “you touch the pews; they break your face!”
But talking about the Holy Spirit is up there in terms of potential for confusion and weirdness. On the one hand there is the service of Evensong in which we are taking part now, and in which we refer pretty consistently to the Holy Ghost. Now that’s pretty odd language, and for someone wandering in off the street to the service they might be mistaken for wondering why we are talking about a ghost at all, and what characteristics make this particular spook or spectre ‘holy’. This derives partly from a translation problem where some of the words in Hebrew and indeed in Greek for ghost, spirit, wind and breath are fairly interchangeable.
Then of course there is language of the Holy Spirit which appears highly evangelical and charismatic. Those of you coming back for the service at 7:30pm in this place, the Thy Kingdom Come celebration - one of many happening across the country and the Anglican Communion over these few days - will similarly hear a lot of language of the Holy Spirit, but this time the language is likely to be about being open to being “filled with the spirit”, or prayers inviting the Holy Spirit to “come down upon us”. Closely associated with that sort of language is the language of “being born again”. Indeed, one of our modern translations rephrases the line from St John’s Gospel “you must be born again” with “you must be born from above”.
I can imagine how both of these sets of language could be quite unsettling to someone not steeped in the tradition. Why is the church talking about ghosts? Who or what is the Holy Spirit and why do I need to be filled with him, or it, or her?
At its worst, language of the Holy Spirit leaves us either thinking that the Holy Spirit is a bit like the web that Spiderman shoots out of his wrists: a kind of power or force that God uses to do stuff in the world. Either that, or the Holy Spirit is indeed a ghost, something spectral and macabre, covered with a white sheet and lurking around in the aisles at Book of Common Prayer services.
And of course part of the problem is that language always runs out when we try to talk about God. When we try to talk about how God interacts with our heart, with our life, language gets very inadequate very quickly.
One of the best descriptions of the Holy Spirit I ever heard was “the breath and the kiss of God within us.” You might think that’s a bit flowery. But it comes very close indeed to reaching for a description that rescues us from Spiderman’s web and the clanking chains. The Holy Spirit is no more and no less than God’s presence in our lives and in our hearts. When we are motivated to pray, when we are challenged, when we are indignant for justice’ sake, that is the Holy Spirit, that is the voice, is the presence, the breath and the kiss of God so close to us, to remind us that above all what God seeks with us is relationship. Is, as Michael Curry appropriately fierily put it yesterday, is love. Because in the end only relationship can change our hearts. Only love can love us into being the people that we are called to be.
To thee, O Christ, O King exalted, we offer up our due praise and unfeigned hearty thanks for that thou hast sent down and dispersed abroad thine own Holy Spirit to restore and renew the spirit of men, to be the first dedication of thy Catholic Church on earth, and the first publishing of the gospel to all lands, the bond of unity, and giver of light and life; to whom with the Father and thee, one blessed Trinity, be ascribed all might, majesty, dominion, and praise, now and for ever.
O God, we pray thee for thy Church which is set today amid the perplexities of a changing order, and is face to face with a new task. Fill us all afresh with the Spirit of Pentecost. Help us to proclaim boldly the coming of thy kingdom. And do thou hasten the time when the knowledge of thyself shall fill the earth as the waters cover the sea. We ask it in the name and for the sake of Christ our Lord.
your ascended Son has sent us into the world
to preach the good news of your kingdom:
inspire us with your Spirit
and fill our hearts with the fire of your love,
that all who hear your Word
may be drawn to you,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.