The Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church

Life in my household has been overtaken by the birthdays over the last few days, and it isn’t over yet. Malachi celebrated his seventh birthday on Friday, and Isaac will celebrate his ninth birthday on Tuesday, and between them (with their two other younger brothers in full agreement) they have managed to hatch a plan to ensure that their combined birthdays last for a whole week! As we have been celebrating these birthdays, I have been thinking back to the wonderful beginnings when they were welcomed (as babies) into the world and into the family.

I know that many of us here, know what it is like to experience the indescribable joy of becoming a parent, and perhaps a grandparent, and maybe even a great grandparent as well. But for me the excitement of the birth of each of my boys was followed fairly quickly by an overwhelming sense of terror as I came to realise that there was no instruction manual that described what I was supposed to do next.

It was Lewis Carroll (the Anglican Deacon who created Alice in Wonderland) who gave the advice that the best way to proceed with life is to “begin at the beginning and go on until you come to the end; and then stop.” But only the most superficial descriptions of the rich life that we share – each one of us – as inhabitants of this wonderful world, would record only one beginning and one end for each of us.

As I look back at the short but full lives so far, of my two boys who are celebrating their birthdays, I can remember a whole number of new beginnings for each of them, and for me as their father along the way; because the truth is that we are always somewhere between a beginning, and an ending, and a new beginning. As Christians we know that more than most of the people who live around us, because of the new beginning which each one of us has been offered to share in the life and the love of Christ, and therefore in the life of his body, the Church.

In this liturgy Sunday by Sunday, we are reminded again and again that we have been made new – that we have started a new beginning once again – as we hear the assurance that God loves us and has forgiven our sins, and as we gather around God’s Holy Table to receive his body and blood, and in doing so to make clear to each other that we intend to live as a community here in which new beginnings of reconciliation and forgiveness are constant hallmarks of the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Beginnings, and endings, and new beginnings.

In the life of this congregation, we join with millions of other Christians around the world as we participate with them in a cycle of living, (week by week, month by month, year by year) that reminds us of the various beginnings and endings of the Christian story that bind us together in the name of Christ. Just as the four seasons of secular time mark out – year after year – the changes in our weather patterns and landscape, so the Christian year through its own seasons helps us to focus on the great themes of our tradition. Advent, Christmas, Lent, Eastertide, Pentecost… and when we come to the end of this Christian year, at the end of November, we will begin to prepare ourselves to start the whole cycle all over again. As it was last year, as it has been this year, so it will be next year, and on and on into the future.

Over the last weeks in these fifty great days of Easter, stretching out from Easter Day, we have been caught up with the disciples in the wonderment of the resurrection of Christ, and we have been reminded of the transformation in those ordinary men and women, from being people who were hidden away in fear in an upper room, to being people who knew that they had been called and sent out as messengers of the good news that all that Jesus had said and done, had been proved to be true through his resurrection from the dead.

As we began Easter just a few weeks ago, so we now prepare ourselves for the ending of this season in the calendar of the Church’s year, and the beginning of another – the season of Pentecost – the season of the Holy Spirit. The Gospel reading that we have heard this morning, (which draws together fragments and memories of Jesus’ teaching to his disciples before his death and resurrection), sets the scene for what is to be ahead for us in this calendar of the Christian year in the coming days.

Jesus tells his disciples that he will ask the Father to send the Holy Spirit – and this Spirit, this Spirit of Jesus, will abide with them in such a way that they will know that he himself remains with them. On Thursday of this week, on the fortieth day of Eastertide, Christians around the world will gather to remember and celebrate the ascension of Christ, and then ten days later (in two Sunday time) we will gather again to celebrate that we have not been left alone as we remember the dramatic effect of the coming of his Spirit upon the first disciples at Pentecost. Beginnings, and endings, and new beginnings.

So who is this Spirit of new beginnings that Jesus promises, in our Gospel reading this morning, that he will ask his father to send? Christians throughout the ages have used a number of words to describe the third person of the Godhead, (of the Trinity).

Sometimes the Holy Spirit has been called the advocate: like the advocate in a law court who stands to speak before the judge in defence of his client.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit has been called the helper: the one who is amongst us in the life of the Church to give assistance to us as we seek to do all that Jesus has commanded – living lives that evidently exhibit our love for God, our love for our neighbours, and our obedience to the task of sharing the good news of Jesus and making disciples. Doing those three things is, after all, according to Jesus’ words in our Gospel reading, what marks out a person who loves Jesus, and who is loved by him in return. God truly knows that we need the help of the Holy Spirit, and each other, in this community of Jesus, to keep us on track with what we have been called to do.

Sometimes the Holy Spirit has been called the comforter: which I always thought sounded like a very soft and cuddly way of understanding God’s presence with us, until I saw an exhibition of the Bayeux Tapestry, which is a long woven series of visual depictions of the events that led up to the Norman conquest of the British Isles in 1066. In one of the scenes, King Harold (the English King) is shown standing behind his troops, prodding his sword at the backsides of his reluctant soldiers at the Battle of Hastings. The text underneath the picture simply states “Harold comforted his people” – which is a rather less cosy understanding of what the Holy Spirit of Jesus may be doing amongst us.

In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus teaches his disciples that whilst things will be different, he will be present with them, to help them to accomplish all that he has already called them to do, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Beginnings, and endings, and new beginnings.

That promise of Jesus to his first disciples, is a promise for us as well. That challenge, that those who love Jesus are the ones who work towards keeping his commandments – who understand the calling that he has given to them – is a challenge for us too as we gather here week by week. But the reality is that one of the problems that Christians face (wherever they are), in simply trying to be communities of the church in which we work these things out together, is that every Christian experiences the presence of the Holy Spirit, and indeed the love of God and the hope of the Gospel in very different ways.

We all have very different ideas about the best ways of experiencing the Holy Spirit in our lives, and in going about the work that Jesus has called us to do. Christians who learn through reading cannot understand why everyone does not experience the resurrected Jesus the way that they do when they read the scriptures. Christians who are stimulated through listening cannot understand why everyone does not experience the resurrected Jesus at work in the music that they hear. Christians who learn through doing things with their hands and their bodies, cannot understand why everyone does not experience the tangible presence of the resurrected Jesus through holding candles, and mowing lawns. Extroverts experience the risen Christ in the noise of a community, introverts experience him in the silence of a seemingly empty room.

I know for myself how puzzling it is to me that everyone doesn’t want to live out their Christian life the way that I do! Sometimes I might talk excitedly about something that I am experiencing, or an idea that I have, and it doesn’t take long for me to realise that it is making no connections for the Christian people that I am talking to. Indeed, at other times, people speak excitedly to me about their experience of living the Christian life, and ways of worshipping and being the Church, that I simply do not know how to relate to.

I think that it would be broadly true that across the Diocese, and around the world, some Christians are constantly trying to understand why the other members of their Church don’t do things in exactly the same way that they do.

In our life together here we have gone through beginnings, and endings, and new beginnings throughout the history of this parish. Change is nothing new for us, but the kinds of changes that we have exploring and participating in over the last few years have excited some of us, and disappointed others of us.

The truth is that there are some Christians who – by their very nature – are willing to give any new idea a go, whether it is a good idea or not; and there are other Christians who are never willing to accept change at any level about anything. And there are other Christians who are willing to test something new, to see if it is from God, but only after other people have done it first. In this respect, those of us who gather as the Church here and in the other congregations around the Diocese are simply reflections of the rest of the population.

So it should be a great relief to us that Jesus did not leave us alone to try and sort all of this out by ourselves! In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus promises us, “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 forever.”

This week we celebrate the ascension of Christ into heaven, but we hold on to his promise to us that he is with us by the power of his Spirit to strengthen us to be his body, and to do what he has commanded us to do. It is in hope this morning, and every Sunday morning, that we gather around God’s altar of grace, remembering his love for us, which ensured that we have not been left alone, and that his Spirit is with us every time that we gather in his name.