Wednesday, 10 August 2022

Holy Simplicity

Today’s reading (Luke12: 32-40) has a lot to say to us in our present circumstances.

Jesus understands that people are often selfish and greedy because they are anxious and afraid for the future. So he tells the disciples – and through them, us – that we should put aside such anxiety. God knows what we need, and God will give us all we need when we work for his kingdom – in other words, when we try to be the people God wants us to be, loving God and his wonderful creation, and loving our neighbours as ourselves. ‘Do not be afraid, little flock’, he says, ‘for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’.

God has given us all that we have so that that we may be generous with it, not hoard it. What we give away, to those who need it more than we do, is ‘an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys’. If we want to be good Christians we must focus on that kind of spiritual wealth, rather than accumulating material wealth, ‘for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’.

And we must be alert at all times for opportunities to respond generously, as and when God prompts us to do so. As Jesus puts it, ‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit’. We should not put off calls on our generosity, waiting perhaps for a better time or a more pressing need to come along. We are mortal – we do not know when God will knock on the door to call us out of this life. ‘You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’, says Jesus. And it would be shameful, shameful, when he does come knocking - as we know he will - to admit that we wasted the opportunities he gave us to act like the good people he created us to be.

Jesus calls his disciples to live lives of holy simplicity and generosity.

Jesus asks us to give attention to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field (Luke12:24-28). ‘Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither store-house nor barn, and yet God feeds them … Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field … how much more will he clothe you.’

As Christians we need to live like the birds and the lilies. That doesn’t mean that we should not work and plan for the future. Unlike the birds and lilies, we must sow and reap, build store-houses and barns, toil and spin, and we must do so as a community, because that is what it means to be human. That is how we have evolved to make our living, how God has made us to be - just as the birds and the lilies have evolved to make their different livings. But we must also recover a sense of what it is to have enough. We must resist the temptation always to seek more than we need, more than God has already given us. And we must cultivate a generous spirit.

Today’s globalised world is like an over-wound clockwork toy, in which the spring that drives it is ready to snap. We see signs of that all about us, don’t we. But our example of holy simplicity can show others how together we can release the tension, how we can return to a way of living which will enable everyone to continue to flourish in the wonderful world God has given us, alongside the birds and the lilies.

Holy simplicity is liberating, and our world needs liberating now as much as it has ever done. Let us live simply, so that others can simply live!


Sunday, 24 July 2022

Reflecting on the Lord's Prayer

May the words of my lips and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my strength and my redeemer. Amen

You may have found today’s 3rd reading (Luke11:1-13) both familiar and strangely different.

It begins with a translation from the Greek of St Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, set for today in the common lectionary, which is slightly different from St Matthew's version, and the version we have in the BCP. The prayer is deceptively simple, while at the same time encapsulating all that we ought to ask of God. I’m going to share with you some reflections upon it.

Jesus teaches his disciples to pray what we call the Lord’s prayer. We continue to do so whenever we come together as a Christian congregation. It is a prayer we are meant to say together publicly, not just on our own. We pray in the plural number, and Matthew’s version of it, records Jesus calling us to pray together to ‘our Father’, not individually to ‘my Father’.

But notice, there is nothing explicitly Christian about the prayer. It can be said in good conscience by anyone who believes in a loving, almighty God, including Muslims and Jews - both Jesus and his disciples were of course Jews.

When we pray ‘Father, hallowed be your name’, we express our reverence for the nature and character of God.

God is holy, God is good and God loves all his creatures, just as an ideal father of a household loves all the members of his household. That includes you and me, but others too. Not just Christians, but people of other faiths and none. And not just human beings, but all the wonderful diversity of living creatures we share our planet with, because God sees all his creation to be good.

When we pray ‘Your kingdom come’, what are we saying?

I believe that God’s kingdom is a state of peace and justice where we and all his creatures flourish. This is not the broken world that we see around us, beset with war, dangerous climate change, and collapsing biodiversity – that is the antithesis of God’s kingdom. But I also believe we can glimpse his kingdom, even enter into a small part of it, at any time and place where we do God’s will. Our prayer is saying that despite the brokenness, we look to the future in hope.

Jesus invites us to pray ‘Give us each day our daily bread’.

Notice he does not invite us to pray for more than our daily needs, and nor should we. If I greedily take all I desire, if I hoard it for the future, others will surely get less than they need. We are to share what we have so that all have enough. It is ok for us to ask God for what we devoutly wish for ourselves and for others – if we can’t ask God, who can we ask? But we ought always add as an afterthought, ‘Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done’, as Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane. The purpose of prayer is to align our wishes with God’s wishes, not to badger him into doing what we want.

‘And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us’.

Our sins are our failures to do God’s will, either by doing what we ought not to do, or by failing to do what we know we should. Very often these take the form of disobeying Jesus’s commandment to treat our neighbour as ourself. Every one of us has failed many times in our duty to God or to our neighbour. I ask God to forgive my failures, but the sting in the tail is this: that God will forgive my failures only in proportion to my forgiving the failures of others. We must forgive to be forgiven.

Finally, we pray ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial’.

Our time of trial may take many forms. Someone else, even someone I love, may seek to persuade me to do what I know is wrong, what is against God’s will. Or a character flaw in myself may give evil an opening it is hard to resist. Or cruel events may make me doubt the goodness and love of God. So we ask God to spare us such trials. But when we must face them, we need to seek God’s help to resist them, as Jesus did when Satan tempted him in the wilderness.

Evil is real. We see it all around us in the violence humankind does to this beautiful planet. We see it in the way people exploit other people for their own ends. And we see it in the death and destruction of war. We see it in the suffering not only of the people of Ukraine, but also of misled Russian soldiers, and of those whose lives are upended by shortages of food and energy as a result of sanctions. We are starting to feel the consequences here in Ireland as many struggle to pay the bills and fear food and energy poverty this coming winter. We surely need to pray that we may not be brought to the time of trial.

People often find it difficult to pray, to be intimate with God.

We may feel shy. We may find it hard to find the words to say what we want to say – I know I do. Or we may be ashamed of how unworthy we are and so try to avoid meeting God in prayer – we would much rather not think of our unworthiness. But Jesus reassures his disciples – and us - that it is always right to engage with God in intimate prayer:

‘So I say to you’, he says, ‘ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.’

Let us take Jesus’s words to heart and unreservedly open ourselves up to God, our loving Father. And when our own words fail us, Jesus has given us his own words to fall back on.

I shall finish with a Collect of the Word:

Father in heaven,

in your goodness

you pour out on your people all that they need,

and satisfy those who persist in prayer.

Make us bold in asking,

thankful in receiving,

tireless in seeking,

and joyful in finding,

that we may always proclaim your coming kingdom

and do your will on earth as in heaven. Amen

Tuesday, 12 July 2022

The Good Samaritan

 Reflection for Morning Worship with the Community of Brendan the Navigator on 12 July 2022



We have just heard the Good Samaritan story as Luke tells it (10:25-37).

The story was prompted by a lawyer, we’re told – a learned professional man – who asks Jesus ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ – in other words, how must I behave to be worthy of God’s favour. Jesus bounces the question back at him, saying ‘What does God’s law say?’ When the lawyer answers, ‘Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself’, Jesus agrees with him, saying ‘Do this and you will live.’ After all, as both Matthew (22:37-39) and Mark (12:31) tell us that Jesus had said as much himself when asked what the greatest commandment was.

But then the lawyer chances his arm again, asking Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ It is in reply to this that Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. In Jesus’s time Samaritans were despised and disliked by orthodox Jews. They were heretics who did not follow Jewish law, untrustworthy, outside the pale. We might compare them to Travellers or Muslims in our society.

The Samaritan in Jesus’s story acts as a good neighbour to the traveller who is robbed and left for dead, but neither the Jewish priest nor the Levite do. When Jesus asks which of the three was a good neighbour, the lawyer replies, ‘The one who helped’ – it seems he can’t bring himself even to utter the word Samaritan. Jesus tells him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

Jews of Jesus’s time understood very well their obligation to protect and care for their neighbours in need. ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’, is a quotation from the law given to Moses in Leviticus (19:18) – it is a command from God. But then as now, many people questioned who fell into the category of neighbour. To suggest that a Samaritan could be a neighbour, and a good one, would have shocked them. I can just hear them saying, ‘Surely God doesn’t expect us to love Samaritans! They aren’t good people like us, their beliefs are wrong and their habits disgusting. We don’t like them and they don’t like us’. Jesus must have sensed that the questioning lawyer was someone like that.

Jesus’s own view is quite clear. Through his story Jesus teaches the lawyer - and us too - that every human being is our neighbour – we must love them as we love ourselves, whoever and whatever they are. Even Samaritans. Loving God is not enough; God wants us to love our neighbours too. No doubt the priest and the Levite both loved God. But for whatever reason neither could bring himself to help the robbed man. They passed by on the other side - they did not behave like loving neighbours.

To follow Jesus means we must love every human being as ourselves. This truth has consequences for us today.

The Covid epidemic is still with us. Short-sighted policies have allowed a tragic housing crisis to develop over years. The evil attack by Russia on Ukraine has thrown the global economic system out of balance causing shortages of food and energy. The climate crisis is threatening lives and livelihoods across the world.

In our own country, many, many neighbours are falling into need. Thousands cannot find an affordable home. Tens of thousands of refugees who have lost everything seek safety among us. Hundreds of thousands will suffer fuel poverty and food poverty this winter. And there are the hundreds of millions in other countries in desperate need.

Neither you nor I can meet all their needs as individuals. But if each one of us reflects on what we can do, and we do what we can, however little, alongside millions of others, we will make an immense difference.

As Christians we cannot pass by on the other side of the road. Jesus calls us to practical action to relieve our neighbours’ distress to the best of our ability. He calls us to be Good Samaritans - ‘Go and do likewise’. What will you do? What will I do?

Sunday, 10 July 2022

Go and do likewise!

Address given on Sunday 10th July 2022, the 4th after Trinity, in St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan church.

Have you ever had your wallet stolen or your bag snatched?

I hope not, but most of us have at one time or another. If it has happened to you, you will understand my mixed feelings of foolishness, helplessness and fury, when I discovered my wallet had been stolen when I was on holiday once in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. I was angry with myself for allowing it to happen. I felt helpless, with no money, no plastic cards and no driving licence, in a foreign country where I couldn’t speak a word of the language. The restaurant manager, the police and our hotel staff were all very sympathetic and helpful - just as they would be in Ireland if the same thing happened to a visitor here, I’m sure. And I still had my passport, and Marty had her plastic cards so we could continue our holiday. Yet my fury with the thief only grew as I began to deal with all the hassle.

But I wasn’t mugged and left half-dead, like the man the Good Samaritan helped in today’s NT reading.

Let’s reflect a bit on the familiar Good Samaritan story told by Luke (10:25-37).

The story was prompted by a lawyer, we’re told – a learned professional man – who asks Jesus ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ – in other words, how must I behave to be worthy of God’s favour. Jesus bounces the question back at him, saying ‘What does God’s law say?’ When the lawyer answers, ‘Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself’, Jesus agrees with him, saying ‘Do this and you will live.’ After all, as both Matthew (22:37-39) and Mark (12:31) tell us, Jesus had said as much himself when asked what the greatest commandment was.

But then the lawyer chances his arm again, asking Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ It is in reply to this that Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.

The key to the story is that Jews despised Samaritans and did not associate with them. They were heretics who did not follow Jewish law, untrustworthy, outside the pale. We might compare them to Travellers or Muslims in our society. And Samaritans felt the same about Jews.

We all remember the bare bones of the story. A man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho is robbed and left for dead. A priest and a Levite travelling on the same road both pass by on the other side, ignoring his plight. (A Levite, by the way, was someone privileged to help the priests in the Temple – a bit like a Diocesan Reader, I suppose!) Then a Samaritan comes along. He stops and helps the traveller. He treats his wounds, and takes him to a safe place, even paying for him to be cared for. When Jesus asks which of the three was a good neighbour, the lawyer replies, ‘The one who helped’ – it seems the lawyer cannot bring himself to even speak the word Samaritan. Jesus tells him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

Jews of Jesus’s time understood very well their obligation to protect and care for their neighbours in need. ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’, is a quotation from the law given to Moses in Leviticus (19:18) – it is a command from God. But many people then as now questioned who fell into the category of neighbour.

To suggest that a Samaritan could be a neighbour, and a good one, would have shocked Jesus’s Jewish audience. I can just hear them saying, ‘Surely God doesn’t expect us to love Samaritans! They aren’t good people like us, their beliefs are wrong and their habits disgusting. We don’t like them, and they don’t like us’. Jesus must have sensed that the questioning lawyer was someone like that.

Jesus’s own view of the matter is perfectly clear. 

Through his story Jesus teaches the lawyer - and through him us too - that every human being is our neighbour – we must love them as we love ourselves, whoever and whatever they are. Even Samaritans. If a Samaritan can be a good neighbour to a Jew, so should a Jew be to a Samaritan.

Loving God is not enough; God wants us to love our neighbours too. No doubt the priest and the Levite both loved God. But for whatever reason neither could bring himself to help the robbed man. Perhaps they feared touching a man who might be dead would make them unclean according to Jewish law, or perhaps they just did not want to get involved. They passed by on the other side - they did not behave like loving neighbours.

It does not matter who we are or who our neighbour is, it is our response to their need that counts for God.

To follow Jesus means we must love our neighbours as ourselves, and every human being is our neighbour.

And this truth has consequences for us today.

We are emerging from the disruption of the Covid epidemic. Short-sighted government policies of all parties have allowed a tragic housing crisis to develop over years. And the evil attack by Russia on Ukraine has thrown the global economic system out of balance causing shortages of food and energy.

In our own country, many, many neighbours are falling into need. Thousands cannot find an affordable home. Tens of thousands of refugees who have lost everything seek safety among us. Hundreds of thousands will suffer fuel poverty and food poverty this winter.

And then there are the hundreds and hundreds of millions in other countries in desperate need, who are also our neighbours.

Neither you nor I as individuals can meet all their needs. But if each one of us reflects on what we can do, however little it is, and alongside millions of others we do what we can, we will make an immense difference. The kingdom of God will be brought closer.

As Christians we cannot pass by on the other side of the road. Jesus calls us to practical action to relieve our neighbours’ distress to the best of our ability. He calls us to be Good Samaritans - ‘Go and do likewise’. What will you do? What will I do?


Wednesday, 15 June 2022

The Trinity is not a mystery

 Reflection at Morning Worship with the Community of Brtendan the Navigator on Tuesday 14th June 2022

Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday, the day we celebrate our understanding that the God we worship is one God, but three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Jews and Muslims, our fellow monotheist ‘peoples of the book’, vehemently reject the idea of God as Trinity – they allege that Christians do not really believe in one God, but in three Gods. Even some Christians find it puzzling. How can one God possibly be divided into three persons? Surely 1 + 1 + 1 = 3?

Over the centuries Christian apologists have answered this question in different ways. We have all heard how St Patrick illustrated the Trinity with the trefoil-leaf of a shamrock – three leaflets within the one leaf. John Wesley said: ‘Tell me how it is that in this room there are three candles and but one light, and I will explain to you the mode of divine existence’. And it is true in mathematics that if you add three infinities the result is still infinity. But I personally don’t find such arguments helpful. The Catechism of the RC Church says that ‘God’s inmost being as Holy Trinity is a mystery that is inaccessible to reason alone’. But to leave it at that seems like a fudge to me.

Very early on Christians came to believe that the one God they worshipped was manifest in three different ways, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But they struggled to understand the relationships between their Lord Jesus Christ, the loving Creator whom Jesus addressed as ‘Father’, and the Spirit of truth whom Jesus asked the Father to send to his disciples.

By the 4th century the Church had captured the imperial Roman state. Amid power struggles in the church, dogmatic theologians were arguing bitterly over what the Trinity really meant. These disputes were eventually settled at a Council of Bishops, convened in Constantinople by the Emperor Theodosius in 381AD, which defined the doctrine of the Trinity in the words of a creed, which we still use in the Holy Communion service. Almost all Christians, including Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and the Anglican Communion maintain that this is still the best way to think about God.

It is not hard to understand the historical reasons why Christians came to believe in God as Trinity. But I do not think that our belief, that God is best understood as Trinity, should rest only on the words of scripture and the partisan arguments of Church Councils more than 1600 years ago. I believe that divine revelation did not cease when the last full stop was written in the last book of scripture. God continues to reveal himself in his creation. In the world around me I see signs of our Trinitarian God everywhere.

I see the Loving Father in the beauty of the universe he created. He has precisely tuned the fundamental physical constants to support the miraculous, evolving web of life on our planet. He has made it to be a place where you and I and all creatures can flourish and be fed, if we would only tend and care both for it and for our neighbours, as we ought.

I see the Saving Son in the widespread altruism that exists in the natural world. I see him in communities of living creatures, including ourselves, in which each part depends on others to flourish mutually. I see him in the worker bee’s dedication to raising a sister’s brood. I see him in the three-cornered dance of insects, fruit trees and seed dispersing animals. I see him in the cycles of death and resurrection that drive evolution. And I see him in our human capacity to love our neighbours as ourselves – even if we often fail to do so.

I see the Holy Spirit in the continual innovation of living creatures and ecosystems through evolution. I see him at work exploring new expressions of what is possible in the arts and the sciences. And I see him inspiring human beings, in all their variety, with their different gifts, to come together to make the world and their societies more like the kingdom of heaven.

We should not, I think, see the doctrine of the Trinity as very difficult or a great mystery, but rather as something very natural. It is very simple really – but also very profound.

 

 

Sunday, 12 June 2022

Understanding the Trinity

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan Church on Trinity Sunday, 12th June 2022

On this Trinity Sunday we celebrate our understanding that the God we worship is one God, but three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Jews and Muslims, our fellow monotheist ‘peoples of the book’, vehemently reject the idea of God as Trinity – they allege that Christians do not really believe in one God, but in three Gods. Even some Christians find it puzzling. How can one God possibly be divided into three persons? Surely 1 + 1 + 1 = 3? 

Over the centuries Christian apologists have answered this question in different ways. We have all heard how St Patrick illustrated the Trinity with the trefoil-leaf of a shamrock – three leaflets within the one leaf. John Wesley said: ‘Tell me how it is that in this room there are three candles and but one light, and I will explain to you the mode of divine existence’. And it is true in mathematics that if you add three infinities the result is still infinity. But I personally don’t find such arguments helpful. The Catechism of the RC Church says that ‘God’s inmost being as Holy Trinity is a mystery that is inaccessible to reason alone’. But to call it a mystery seems like a fudge to me.

So today let me reflect on how I as a Christian seek to understand the Trinity.

We must start, I think, with how the early Christians came to understand God.

First, the early Christians had their roots in the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament. There they learned that God created all that was and is and is to come, as reflected in today’s reading from Proverbs. And they also learned that God had created them in his own image. More than that, God had an intimate relationship with them, as a parent, as a father or a mother. Hence the OT stories where their God hears the cries of the people, brings them out of bondage, cares for them as a hen cares for her chicks. The first Christians did not see God as remote, but as a loving and gracious God, like a parent, like a Father. They followed Jesus’s lead by praying to their Father in heaven. And following St Peter and St Paul, they came to see him as a God for all people, Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free

Second, the early Christians also understood God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. From the apostles and disciples they heard the story of Jesus - how in Jesus God lived and acted in new and profound ways among people. Through them they encountered the risen Christ, and heard him promise, ‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’. They learned that God was made manifest in Jesus, that God was not just out there somewhere, but had also lived as one of them, as their brother, through his Son, Jesus, who had ascended to his Father and would come again. The stories were written down in the Gospels to show that God was not only their Creator, but also Jesus Christ their Saviour and Redeemer.

Third, the early Christians came to understand God as Holy Spirit. As we heard in today’s 3rd reading, Jesus promised that the Spirit of truth would come to them. That Spirit first came to them at Pentecost to the whole community, not just to a select few. It made them fearless. Responding to Jesus’s call, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations’, they proclaimed their faith to all who would listen, baptising and gathering around them people from every nation in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. And the same Spirit came to the gathered groups of new Christians, just as it had to the apostles and first disciples. The Acts of the Apostles reads like an adventure story as the Spirit spreads like a wildfire through the Roman Empire. And the Epistles reveal for us how the Spirit formed the self-understanding of the gathered groups that we can now call churches.

It is clear that very early on Christians came to believe that the one God they worshipped was manifest in three different ways, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

By the 4th century the Church had captured the imperial Roman state. Amid power struggles in the church, dogmatic theologians were arguing bitterly over what the Trinity really meant. These disputes were eventually settled at a Council of Bishops, convened in Constantinople by the Emperor Theodosius in 381AD, which settled the doctrine of the Trinity in the words of a creed, which we now know as the Nicene Creed, but more properly the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed, and still use in the Holy Communion service.

Almost all Christians, including Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and our own Anglican Communion maintain that this is still the best way to think about God.

It is not hard to understand the historical reasons why Christians came to believe in God as Trinity.

But I do not think that our belief should rest only on the words of scripture and the partisan arguments of Church Councils more than 1600 years ago. I believe that divine revelation did not cease when the last full stop was written in the last book of scripture. God continues to reveal himself in his creation. In the world around me, I see signs of our Trinitarian God everywhere.

I see the Loving Father in the beauty of the universe he created. He has precisely tuned the fundamental physical constants to support the miraculous, evolving web of life on our planet. He has made it to be a place where you and I and all creatures can flourish and be fed, if we would only tend and care both for it and for our neighbours, as we ought to do.

I see the Saving Son in the widespread altruism that exists in the natural world. I see him in communities of organisms, including ourselves, in which each part depends on others to flourish mutually. I see him in the worker bee’s dedication to raising a sister’s brood. I see him in the three-cornered dance of insects, fruit trees and seed dispersing animals. I see him in the cycles of death and resurrection that drive evolution. And I see him in our human capacity to love our neighbours as ourselves – even if we often fail to do so.

I see the Creative Spirit in the continual innovation of living creatures and ecosystems. I see him at work exploring new expressions of what is possible in the arts and the sciences. And I see him inspiring human beings, in all their variety, with their different gifts, to come together to make the world and their societies more like the kingdom of heaven.

We should not, I think, see the doctrine of the Trinity as very difficult or a great mystery, but rather as something very natural. It is very simple really – but also very profound.

Let me finish in prayer.

God of heaven and earth,
before the foundation of the universe
and the beginning of time
you are the triune God:
Author of creation,
eternal Word of salvation,
life-giving Spirit of wisdom.
Guide us to all truth by your Spirit,
that we may proclaim all that Christ has revealed
and rejoice in the glory he shares with us.
Glory and praise to you,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
now and for ever. Amen

Sunday, 5 June 2022

The Living Church

We’re moving into Summer and Spring is already behind us!

We all love the sense of new life burgeoning at this time of year. And it is right for us to rejoice in the changing of the seasons. It is the creative power of the Spirit of God at work: as today’s Psalm 104 puts it, When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.

This Sunday is Pentecost – what we used to call Whitsunday. For Christians it ranks alongside Christmas and Easter as one of the great festivals. It celebrates the day when the Holy Spirit filled Jesus’s followers, empowering them to begin the great task of making disciples of all nations. The first Pentecost was the spring-time of the Church, the day when the first green sprouts burst into the light of day, the day the Church was born.

The Lectionary readings are of course all about the Spirit. Let’s have a closer look at them.

In today’s Gospel (John 14:8-17,25-27), Jesus tells his disciples that he will ask the Father to send them the Holy Spirit.

For what we know as the Holy Spirit, the 3rd person of the Trinity, John uses a Greek word translated as ‘advocate’. Jesus is speaking on the night he was betrayed Jesus. Let us hear his words again:

‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth... You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you… The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’.

These are very important words. Jesus tells his first disciples that through loving him they will know the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father. The Spirit will stay with them and be in them. And the Spirit of truth will teach them, as well as remind them of Jesus’s teaching.

Surely the same applies to his disciples in every age, including ours. Jesus teaches us our faith must be open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit – it must be a living faith, open to development.

In the 2nd reading (Romans 8:14-17), St Paul tells the Roman church that this Holy Spirit is a spirit of adoption.

‘When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.’

When we pray, when we seek God’s forgiveness, it is the Holy Spirit, the Advocate whom Jesus asked his Father to send to those who love him, the Spirit of truth which abides within us, who reminds us that we are children of God and so joint inheritors with Christ of all that is good and true and beautiful in God. What a simply stunning thought that is.

In today’s 1st reading (Acts 2:1-21), Luke describes the events of that very first Pentecost.

7 weeks after Christ’s resurrection, 10 days after his ascension, something happened among his followers. Something that caught the attention of the crowd – citizens of Jerusalem and visitors from all over the Roman Empire, alike. Something that caused the crowd to stop and look and listen. What was it that happened?

The disciples suddenly experienced the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, in them and in their lives, as Jesus had promised them. The OT uses wind and fire as symbols of the presence of God. So it was natural for them to describe their extraordinary experience in terms of a rushing mighty wind and tongues of fire. And they were changed by it, changed utterly.

They began to speak in tongues – this is what first attracts the attention of the crowd – some people even thought they were drunk! Did they really speak in all manner of foreign languages? Or is Luke using this as a device to signify the Gospel message is universal, for every person, from every nation? Or was it just the disciples’ obvious enthusiasm and joy, bubbling forth, that impressed the crowd?

Then Peter comes forward. Peter the simple fisherman from Galilee, who just seven weeks before had been afraid to admit he knew Jesus. Peter as spokesman for the others starts to speak confidently to the crowd, quoting from the prophet Joel. And Peter goes on to declare his faith in the risen Christ, with such eloquence that we are told he convinced 3000 people that day to believe and be baptised. What a change in the man! So Christ’s Church is born.

No doubt in principle we could explain what happened with, say, the science of psychology. But I think it’s enough to use the same words Luke did – ‘All of them - the disciples - were filled with the Holy Spirit’, and they were changed by it. And this sense of receiving and being changed by the Holy Spirit has marked out and empowered Christians in every generation ever since.

Notice that the disciples were all together in one place when they received the Spirit.

It was a gift to the whole community who followed Jesus. I think that if Christians of different traditions were more often gathered together in one place, we would receive more of the Spirit.

I can be a Christian without going to Church, people sometimes say. Well, yes – a taste for singing hymns and listening to sermons is perhaps optional. But nobody can be a Christian alone – for as Christians we are those to whom God has given his Spirit, and the Spirit is a community Spirit. We are not given it for our individual salvation. We are given it to empower us to be the Church, the community of believers, so that we may pass on the good news to others, not necessarily by words but in our lives.

I believe that the Holy Spirit has inspired people since time immemorial. Long before Jesus’s patient sowing of the seed with the disciples, the Spirit was no doubt planting seeds in the minds of the ancient prophets of Israel as they, like us, struggled to understand their relationship with God. And who can say that the Spirit has not also inspired what is good in other religions?

But for us as Christians let us rejoice in Christ’s Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, a living organism, sprouting from the seed Jesus sowed, and constantly growing in new ways.

So to conclude:

As we rejoice in the glorious growth in nature around us, let us also rejoice in the gift of the Holy Spirit which abides in us, and reminds us we are children of God by adoption, and let us also rejoice in the Church as a living, developing organism, inspired and guided by that Holy Spirit.

In the churches of our parish union, in our new wider diocese, in the Church of Ireland, let us pray that God’s Holy Spirit will guide us to be a living church, changing and developing as God wants us to:

God the Holy Spirit,

come in power and bring new life to the Church;

renew us in love and service,

and enable us to be faithful

to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen

(BCP p149)