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The Spirit of Subtlety
Every year we celebrate Pentecost, and every year we make a big noise about it! I mean that literally, we have the reading from Acts talking of the Holy Spirit coming like a rushing wind, with tongues of fire – as if the divine special effects budget was blown on this one event, the birthday of the Church… Then there’s the babbling, the different languages, all the noise of people speaking before one voice shouts above them all to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the saviour, the one who was prophesied, and pouring out of God’s Spirit on all flesh.
In the letter to the Romans, Chapter 8 v 22-27 one of the alternative readings set for this morning we hear of creation ‘groaning in labour pains until now!’ In Ezekiel, one of the main passages we have offered as a reading for Pentecost but rarely read because the story in Acts takes precedent we have the vision of the valley of dry bones as the Spirit of God reassembles a whole host of skeletal remains – not a silent enterprise I expect.
And so Pentecost becomes mixed up with a lot of noise! And rightly so, we celebrate, at our main services we sing powerful hymns, we remember the great gust of the Holy Spirit that inspired St Peter to raise his voice to be heard above the crowd. The Spirit that drew 3000 to become part of the community of Jesus Christ, or ‘followers of the way’ as they were known. There’s plenty of noise in the story, there’s plenty to make a noise about.
But let us not confuse the noise and fury of this first Pentecost with the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. Or think that being filled with the Spirit of God makes us into noisy, outspoken Evangelists. Though the impact of the Holy Spirit on the life of any Christian is life changing, it isn’t always accompanied by fireworks and fanfares.
In the course of my ministry I meet people who describe themselves as having been Christians for as long as they remember, there was no single moment at which they accepted faith. In the Church I spent much of my time in as a young man this was frowned upon, and there was a suspicion of anyone who didn’t have a ‘conversion moment’. My experience since has shown me how faith can grow within a person as they become more and more aware of God’s presence and the calling of faith in their lives. It is as if faith awakens in them over time.
The Spirit works both ways! Sometimes our experience of God in our lives is explosive, miraculous, but for many of us the work of God in us is something that goes on quietly, day by day.
We shouldn’t expect God to work just one way. The danger of a faith which expects people to be a certain way because they are Christians is that we don’t catch the wonderful diversity that God has gifted the Church with. We aren’t all noisy, or musical, or dramatically inclined – and thank God for that! Nor does God, through His Holy Spirit, want us to conform to one pattern of what it means to be a Christian.
What is true for each one of us, core to our understanding of the working of the Holy Spirit, is that God wants to change us. We are called to be transformed, made new, through Christ. Our salvation is once and for all, the new life we are given in Christ happened because of Jesus’ death on the cross and the bursting from the tomb of that first Easter day. But salvation is not the end of the story for those of us who still try today to be ‘followers of the way’. We are called to be sanctified, which means to be made holy.
This is the work of the Holy Spirit. To make us more like Christ. In an excellent book I have been reading lately called ‘The Art of God’ I have been reminded that God is at work in us changing us, changing us as we worship together, as we share in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, as we pray, as we read scripture and allow Scripture to read us. We are transformed as we talk to fellow Christians about what is important in our faith, as we struggle with the issues which affect our world, as we live in faith and hope and love.
This is the Holy Spirit at work in us.
It isn’t always spectacular, it isn’t always obvious from day to day – but as I look back on the twenty six years since I became a Christian I can see where God, through His grace and by the working of the Holy Spirit, has changed me.I’m not claiming to be a super-spiritual superstar, nor would I expect you or any other Christians to think that God has made me loud, noisy and outspoken – God has been good enough to work in spite of that! But I can look back on my life and I know that God has prompted, me, challenged me, inspired me, at times broken me and rebuilt me through his grace.
I would hope that if you looked back on your life and reflected a little on where you have been in your faith and where you are now you would see something of where God, perhaps subtly, perhaps dramatically, perhaps over time, perhaps in an instant, has changed you. Looking back I would hope you would see evidence of the Holy Spirit in your life.The work of the Holy Spirit is to enliven, to awaken faith in us, whatever form that may take. And we see from the story in Acts chapter of the birth of the Church, the birthday we celebrate today, that the reason for this is that we will proclaim our faith. The changes wrought in us are that we may witness to the God who is at work in us. Jesus tells us in our reading from the Gospel of St John for today ‘…the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.’
He goes on to tell us in verse 13 of the John chapter 16 ‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…’ We are guided into a relationship with the one who is the way, the truth and the life, that we may share that way, truth and life with others.
If you are anything like me, you probably feel wholly inadequate to the task, unable to take on such a responsibility – but we can be reassured by the fact that God’s Spirit is the one who tells us what to say, and when we are open to his guidance then we are shown how to act, and when we pray we are guided by the Spirit who we are told will help us – as it says in the letter to the Romans, chapter 8 verses 26-28
‘Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the hear, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.’
May the Spirit of God dwell in us richly, that we may have the mind of Christ and glorify the one who is our God and is the father of all. Come Holy Spirit. Amen.