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Sermon for Pentecost

Acts 2 1-21, John 14 8-27

There is nothing more insufferable than a person coming back and telling people about their holiday. But, sadly for you, today I am that person. In mitigation I tell you about this one, small event because it is a way into our understanding of the Holy Spirit which, according to our reading from Acts, is described as 'a sound like the rush of a violent wind.' I was on a small speed boat, off the coast of Wales, and as we rushed violently across the waves and into a broad horizon, there was that palpable thrill of excitement, of life transformed, which the disciples experienced to a much greater degree on that day.

But spiritual power is not, thankfully, about getting in and out of speed boats, or about rollercoasters. The experience of the Sprit is, among other things, about an expansion of vision. Peter beautifully quotes the prophet Joel, “God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.“ In these words from Joel we can sense something of what it might mean for us, for our society, to live with an indwelling experience of the Spirit. A re-enchantment of the sense of ourselves, and our surroundings, as spiritual realities rather than simply physical realities. On this holiday, and this is the last mention, there was quite a lot of walking through beautiful landscape, but often it was walking and talking rather than walking and stopping and sensing how the Holy Spirit courses through a landscape, just as it courses through us. We often walk and talk and don't notice the Spirit within, among, around, us.

Our sense then of the Spirit is a terribly dwindled-down sense. Our imaginations have, to a large extent, been needlessly captured by an exclusively material, rather than a spiritual, understanding of reality. One of the results of this is that we have viewed the natural world as a material resource to be plundered rather than a mysterious, spiritual reality to be revered. So today, Pentecost, is a good day to re-set the Spirit right at the centre of our humanity rather than the dreary materialism which has caused so many of us not to see visions and not to dream dreams.

Just because our sense of the Spirit has been dwindled-down though it does not mean it cannot be revived. One of the most wonderful symbols of the Spirit is of fire. 'Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.' I think our hearts are naturally fiery but we perhaps need the Spirit to re-ignite them. Jesus says, ''Whoever is near me is near fire.'' Now you may ask, in which Gospel does he say it? In the Gospel of Thomas which, in my view, is the greatest non-canonical Gospel, a Gospel sometimes termed 'Gnostic.' The Gnostic Gospels are Gospels which, for complex reasons, have been viewed with suspicion by parts of the Church. One aspect of that suspicion was that the Gnostic Gospels were considered excessively spiritual, disturbingly mystical. But perhaps what we need, more than anything else now, is a new sense of the Spirit, alive and fiery within us, transforming the apparently prosaic reality of our lives into lives where the Spirit is at play. Have we not been living in a grimly de-mystical reality and don't we need so much more mysticism than less?

When the Spirit is alive in us, love is alive in us. When we are close to Christ, we are close to the fire of love. 'Then perhaps God will… send out a beam of spiritual light… and show you some of his mysteries, of which human beings are not… able to speak. Then you will sense your feelings aflame with the fire of God's love.' These words are from the book The Cloud of Unknowing, a guide to prayer and to life in the Spirit. What the author gets so right is how we are all called to discover that God's Spirit dwells in us and that we can, in our limited and human way, sense something of God's love inflaming our own feelings and guiding our own action.

Spiritual action in the world is action where God's love is manifested but the crucial thing about action is where it springs from; if our hearts are cold or full of anger our actions will display a similar coldness, a similar anger. Acting out of the Spirit requires us to sense the depths of the Spirit alive in us. We are to delight in the Spirit. 'You know him (God),' Jesus says in today's Gospel, 'because he abides with you, and he will be in you.' To know and sense this divine interior closeness is intoxicating. It is why some, in our reading from Acts, sneer and say of the disciples, “They are filled with new wine.“ The new wine of the Spirit does bring a sober intoxication to our lives but, unlike other spirits, it does not take us out of the world, it takes us more deeply into the heart of the world.

If we sense something of the Spirit within us, fiery, or wine-like, we can find a new delight and direction in how we act and how we are with others, because we are no longer the victim of a materialist understanding of reality, where everything is without purpose, and we are making things up as we go along. If we live our life out of an understanding of spiritual reality we can see others, the world, through the eyes of an ever-renewing spiritual love. I end with a quote.

"Be it through contemplation, prayer… many have found the practice of quiet personal reflection surprisingly rewarding, even discovering greater spiritual depth to their lives… Reflection, meditation and prayer help us to renew ourselves in God's love, as we strive daily to become better people… this love is for everyone. There is no one beyond its reach.“

These last words were from the Queen's Christmas day broadcast in 2013. Remarkable, spirit-breathed words, nothing here about speed-boats, rather the work of the Spirit in the work of love and attention and contemplation, day by day.

Reverend Ben Brown

5th June 2022


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