The renewing gift of the Holy Spirit – both feral and deeply personal
Peter Seal, 23 May 2021
Ezekiel 37: 1–14; Acts 2: 1–21; John 15: 26–27; 16: 4b–15
I want to begin by saying just a few words about our diocese and recent media reports that you may have come across. In summary, and to put it very briefly, we’re told that Bishop Tim has stepped down from his role as Bishop of Winchester for a period of six weeks for what is described as a period of reflection on the governance and future leadership of the diocese. Bishop David, our local Bishop, has also stepped back from his role. The diocese is currently being led by Bishop Debbie, Bishop of Southampton.
For a number of years now I’ve kept my distance from diocesan politics, so all this came as a complete surprise and shock. With you this morning, I wanted to acknowledge this very worrying, and also very sad, situation – primarily so that, during the coming weeks, we can pray for those most closely involved.
When things we care about seem to go wrong we can find ourselves very wobbled. This is true of the wider Church, of the media, of politics, of the places we work, etc., etc.; indeed, of almost anything big and public that we can think of.
Today, the feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes as a renewed and a renewing gift. This is good news. The Holy Spirit, at work every day and everywhere, is often symbolised as flowing water, as burning fire, as a great blowing wind and as a gentle dove. The natural forces of water, fire and wind are all wild and unruly. They are unpredictable, uncontainable, and unstoppable. The Holy Spirit isn’t cosy or safe – rather, it’s feral. It goes where it wants and it does as it will.
God the Holy Spirit is at the very same time deeply personal: always active, living in us, and between us, and through us. Today, even with such worrying news about the diocese, God remains God. God the Holy Spirit is right here, right now, in St Paul’s, in St Matthew’s, in your homes. There is nowhere that God is not.
Sometimes when things are tough, in whatever way and for whatever reason, people say, ‘Where is God in this?’ To be honest, I don’t find this a very helpful question, because the answer is obvious: God is everywhere. There’s nothing that God isn’t aware of, or alongside.
‘Where is God in this?’ ‘Alongside’ seems to me to be the crucial word.
‘Alongside’ seems to me to be the crucial word. When Jesus enters the world as a newborn baby we speak of God as Emmanuel: God with us. This feels really helpful. What it means is that in the midst of an ongoing, devastating, worldwide pandemic; in the aftermath of such terrible violence in the Middle East; in the context of our local diocesan challenges; and whenever in our personal lives we experience heart-rending sadnesses, God is with us. This is very good news indeed.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, can turn this good news into bad news. Together, over decades now, we are a mature group of Christians. Together we have lived all this out again and again in so many ways down our years.
When Julia and I were on holiday in Cornwall recently we heard a story which the local people love. You’ll see why!
Jesus met up with God and asked, ‘Where have you been these past few months?’ God replied, ‘I’ve been all around Cornwall’. Jesus was shocked … ‘There’s been a pandemic and you’ve been in Cornwall!! What were you doing there?’ God smiles and quietly replies, ‘Working from home, son, working from home’.
Here is a great truth. God makes his home with us, and he works through us, and between us. Our gospel challenge today is to renew this truth in the very depths of our lives, in the very core of our souls, in the inmost recesses of our hearts. God is nothing less than Emmanuel, God with us.
As humans one of the things we find hardest is when things are not going well. We cry out for reassurance, for inner peace, for certainty, and much more besides. Sometimes these reassuring gifts come quickly and easily. At other times they seem to be a long time coming; they feel elusive. We can even feel that God has deserted us, and our cry becomes, ‘God, where are you?’
In recent months I’ve been helped by the theme of transition. It’s a theme that makes sense whenever we find ourselves going through changes, either individually or as a group of people. The pandemic is a big example of a time of transition.
Typically there are three stages to any transition. I offer them to you because they seem to fit with today’s theme, and like me you may find them helpful. These stages are given different names, but perhaps the most accessible are, firstly, order; secondly, disorder; and thirdly, reorder.
So, with the pandemic as an example: before the pandemic we might describe as a time of order. The duration of the pandemic, which is where we are, feels like disorder. We long for what we call ‘normal’, by which we mean reorder.
Frequently in the Psalms we come across what is described as orientation, disorientation, reorientation – same sequence, just different words. My point is this: in many ways we are all in a stage of disorder, of disorientation.
And this is most important. It’s all part of the process; it’s inevitable. It’s horrid and it’s unsettling, and it makes us worried or frightened, and it even hurts. But we will come through and there will be better days. This, thank God, includes those world situations that make our lives look as though we’re living the dream.
To be practical, and powered by the Spirit, there’s something we can do right now to help bring about this reorder. It’s this: we can focus on small things and do them really well.
We can give generously of our time and our skills for the work of the local church. And to be specific, we can do this by offering to help or responding to requests. When we hear of a need we can put our hand up and say, ‘Yes, I’ll do that, of course I will. It will be my pleasure.’
And to give a concrete example, we can all in these next few months be engaged in what is simply called ‘team-building’. In these coming months I want us to build on all we already have and make it stronger. Just one example: at St Paul’s at our 9.30 service we need new people for our sound-operating team.
In conclusion, God the Holy Spirit is deeply personal: always active, living in us, and between us, and through us. Amen. Alleluia!