Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


The Holy Spirit
May 29, 2010, 9:29 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , ,

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, 23rd May 2010

“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

The Holy Spirit: I wonder what those words mean to each of us. I am sure we all know that the root meaning of “spirit” is wind or breath, one of the elementary forces of nature, and the characteristic of living creatures. In his account of Pentecost, St Luke gives us a picture based on the first of those images. As the Apostles are praying, they hear a sound like a mighty wind, filling the house. Only the sound, notice- Luke does not say that there were any other wind-like characteristics. Fiery tongues separate and rest on each of them, and they start to speak out. They are “filled with the Holy Spirit”. As they speak, of course, breath comes out of their mouths. The wind or breath of God is transformed into the breath and language of human beings.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, we read about the gifts and the fruits of the Spirit. These are particular powers given to believers by God, and the effects of those powers at work. Simply by naming them, we get an idea of what they do to us and in us: Wisdom and understanding, love joy and peace, and so on.

The Holy Spirit is, ultimately and simply, God. I have said again and again that as Christians we believe in one God. Father, Son and Spirit are not three beings, three gods; they are the three Personæ of one Divine Being. None of them can exist without the others, or be present without the others. The great Fathers of the Church have suggested ways in which we can at least try to make sense of this profound mystery. If the Father is the Origin, the Beginning or first Principle of all, the Son is the perfect Image of the Father, the full expression of his Being. The Spirit is then spoken of as Gift and as Bond, the Gift of Father to Son and Son to Father, and the Bond that unites them and makes them One. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, because the Spirit is the outpouring of God’s free, generous and utterly unbounded Love.

We only have human words with which to talk about the mysteries of God, and these are always inadequate; but one of the most useful words at our disposal in this regard is “love”. The best love we know between human beings is unselfish and generous, given freely and without reserve. In practice, our human love is often tinged with self-interest, often a little grudging: but in our best moments we recognise this, and at least aspire to love more perfectly. This love was seen in its fullness in Jesus: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” To give up everything one has, including life itself, what greater gift is possible? What greater love could be shown? And he did this not only for his friends, his amici, those who loved him. He followed out his own teaching that we should love even our inimici, our enemies, those who do not love us and even hate us. The love of Christ has no limits, no boundaries. It is offered to everyone without exception.

Two weeks ago I was talking about the presence of Christ with us. The presence of Jesus is also the presence of the Spirit, and vice versa. In the life of our Lord, recorded for us in the Gospels, we see what it is to be filled with the Spirit of God. Although the Gospels speak of the descent of the Spirit on Christ at his Baptism, this refers only to the manifestation of that reality to the disciples. Jesus did not lack the Spirit before that moment: the Spirit filled his humanity from the first instant of its existence. In a similar way, deriving from the incarnation, the blessed Virgin-Mother was filled with the Spirit from the first moment of her existence. To be full of grace is to be full of the Gift of God, which is to be full of the love which God inspires in us.

As Christians, baptised believers, we can be sure that we have received the Spirit. But clearly we are not as Christ-like, or as Mary-like, as we ought to be. Somehow the Spirit is inhibited in us. This is maybe because we are reluctant to let ourselves go under his influence. In order to swim, we must take our feet off the bottom of the pool and let the water support us. No! No! I’m going to drown! we cry. Intellectually we know the water will hold us up, but emotionally we panic when the moment comes to act on that belief. This is the crux of faith, of that trust whereby we abandon ourselves unreservedly to God’s care. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom; but human beings often do not cope well with freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, freedom involves risk. An obsession with safety is not necessarily the way to be safe. The Lord says that is the person who is ready to lose, or let go of their life who will save it. The person who entrusts him or herself into the hands of God.

Christian living is, at root, very simple. It is summed up in the double commandment to love God and to love one another. This is all the guidance we need for our spiritual life. We sometimes think that the mark of sanctity, of holiness, is the possession of extraordinary spiritual gifts- speaking in tongues, prophesying, working miracles. It is true that the Church, before enrolling someone in the list of saints, asks God to give some extraordinary sign that he wishes this to be done. But that sign is not essential to the holiness of the saint. Holiness is simply loving God to the full, and everyone and everything as God wants them loved. In the twelfth chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he lists all kinds of spiritual gifts. These are truly the result of the Holy Spirit working in us. The Church, the Body of Christ, needs them all. But none of them is essential to the holiness of the individual believer. There is something else, higher than all of them, that is the one thing necessary. That one thing is, of course, love or charity. Without love, all the rest- even faith- are useless.

Love- not possessive love, but the pure desire to serve and seek the welfare of others- is the mark of the Spirit. The saints are those who have loved with all their heart and soul. We are not saints, because our love falls short in so many ways: it is half-hearted, it is sporadic, it is mixed in motive. For the Jews, this great Feast of Pentecost commemorated the giving of the Law on Sinai, in earthquake, wind and fire. St Paul refers to this in this evening’s first lesson. Our Law, the New Law, is the Law of Love, written not on stone tablets but on our hearts. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. Today, we should ask our Lord simply that we may love him and one another more and better. Elijah stood on the mountain and understood that God is not found (or not most deeply found) in the earthquake, wind and fire, but in the still, small voice of calm. The Spirit of God is the Paraclete, the Advocate, the Comforter. The fruits of the Spirit, St Paul tells us, are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control. None of these are flashy or obtrusive qualities; but if we look for them, they are recognisable in the friends of God, and we should want them to be recognisable in us too.

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