Sunday 11 May 2008

The Fruitful Spirit

1. I suppose we’re now moving into Summer and Spring is already behind us!

But I feel it’s like a 2nd Spring, when the sun shines, the trees burst into leaf, the flowers start to bloom, and the seeds start to sprout – like my beans and peas and potatoes, delayed both by the cold & wet, and by my own sloth in not planting them earlier.

We are right to rejoice in the coming of Summer! 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. May the glory of the Lord endure for ever; may the Lord rejoice in his works.”

But we shouldn’t want the sun always to be shining, nor the plants to be blooming. The plants need rain as well as sunlight to flourish. And the purpose of the flower is to produce the fruit. We cannot be on perpetual holiday, and we too are meant to produce fruit.

This Sunday is Pentecost – what we used to call Whitsunday. For Christians everywhere, for almost 2000 years now, it has been one of the greatest festivals ranking alongside Easter and Christmas. 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. It is the birthday of the Church.

The Lectionary readings are of course all about the Spirit. Let’s have a closer look at them, and see what they can tell us.

2. In the first reading today (Acts 2:1-21), Luke describes the spring-time of the Church.

That is what Pentecost was. It was the day when the first green sprouts of the Church burst into the light of day.

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 OT uses wind – ruah in Hebrew – and fire – as in the burning bush - as symbols of the presence of God. Jesus had told the disciples they would receive the Spirit, and on the day of Pentecost they became certain that they had been filled with God’s Holy Spirit. So they naturally described their experience in the OT terms of a rushing mighty wind, and tongues as of fire. And they were changed, changed utterly by it.

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 was it just their 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!

And Christ’s Church is born.

No doubt in principle we could explain what happened with, say, the science of psychology; but I don’t think that would get us very far forward. I think it’s enough to say in Luke’s words – and we might as well use the same - that the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, and that it changed them. 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 we Christians 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 often say. Well, yes – a taste for singing hymns and listening to sermons is perhaps optional! But nobody can be a Christian alone – for we Christians 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 of Jesus to others, not necessarily by words but in our lives, infecting others with the light of Christ, just as many candles can be lit from one small taper.

I believe that the Holy Spirit has inspired people since time immemorial. Long before Jesus’s patient sowing of the seed with the disciples, no doubt the Spirit was 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 it is the sudden sprouting of the Church from the seed sown by Jesus which matters.

3. In the second reading (1Cor 12:3b-13), St Paul too writes about the Spirit to the Church in Corinth

But he uses a very different analogy to that used by the author of Acts – he sees the Spirit not as wind and fire but as that which organises and binds all Christians together to form the body of Christ, which is the Church. The Spring is passing, Summer is coming, and the Church is developing and growing.

Each one of us started as a single fertilised egg cell, but the cell divided and divided and divided again, and differentiated to make the many different kinds of cell which form our tissues: some nerves, some bone, some muscles, some blood, and some even more highly specialised to allow us to see and to think and to feel. We are in fact complex organisms made up of many parts. This is what Paul is saying in other words to the Corinthians. He didn’t study modern biology, but he knew the facts of life!

Jesus, born of Mary, who grew up in Palestine, who was crucified, died and was buried – and who as Christians we believe was raised from the dead – Jesus had just such a human body. A complex organism, of specialised parts, growing together into a person, according to a pattern carried in his DNA and modulated by his environment, enlivened by God’s creative Spirit.

In just the same way, Paul is saying, the society in which we Christians are to live and move and have our being must be complex too. We are not all the same, and we all have different jobs to do. The Church according to Paul is like a body – the body of Christ. We are the cells and tissues that make up that body. The Spirit assigns different gifts to each one of us is to exercise for the common good. And just like Jesus’s human body, the Church will grow and develop as it interacts with the world about it, and just like Jesus's body it is enlivened by the Spirit. The Church is not meant to be just an assembly of clones as like as peas in a pod, and it is meant to change and to develop.

I wonder if we shouldn’t extend Paul’s analogy even further. Is it possible that God intends that in his Church there should be different varieties of Christians, who differ in their beliefs? High Church folk and Low Church folk, Conservatives and Progressives, Evangelicals and Liberals. Roman Catholics and Orthodox and Anglicans and Lutherans and Calvinists, and all the other varieties of denominations into which the Church is divided. Does the Holy Spirit lead different people in different directions?

I’m inclined to think so.

If that is what God intends, and the Holy Spirit really is at work in the whole glorious variety of denominations, then surely we should try to be more respectful of Christians whose beliefs differ from ours. In particular we should be careful not to let the differences within our Anglican communion become like an auto-immune disease, or grow like a cancer, to disfigure the body of Christ.

4. So to conclude:

Let us recall St Paul’s wise words:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Let us pray that we may recognise, each one of us, what gifts the Spirit is calling us to exercise, as interdependent parts of Christ’s Church.

And let us pray that together we may be fruitful parts of the body of Christ.