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

May 28, 2012, 8:12 am
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday May 27th, 2012

Cemetery chapel, Alhaurin el Grande

“Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts and minds of thy faithful people, and kindle in them the fire of thy love.”

What do we understand by the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit? The Bible and the Liturgy offer us various images and analogies, but what lies behind and beyond them? At the beginning of Creation we are told that the Spirit of God “brooded”, or “hovered” over the waters. The image suggests a Mind pondering what to do with this chaotic mass, before commanding, “Let there be light!” Alternatively, the Hebrew may mean primarily that a “wind of God”, a “rushing, mighty wind”, was moving across the waters: the image then would be of a stormy sea, tossed about by the gale. At the Baptism of the Lord, we read that the Spirit of God descended on him “like a dove”, an image of gentleness. At Pentecost, there was a sound of a mighty wind blowing through the house, causing it to shake.

You may remember how, once, the prophet Elijah stood at the mouth of a cave on mount Sinai and experienced the earthquake, wind and fire: but the Lord was not in the earthquake, wind or fire, but in a “still, small voice”, the “rustle of a gentle breeze”, as other translations have it. I wonder if this tells us something about the Spirit of the Lord? On the stormy sea of Galilee Christ stilled the wind and the waves with a word, and there was a great calm, in which the disciples felt the presence of God with them in the boat.

The ancient Hebrews had only one word for the wind, the breath of a living creature, and for what we would call the “spirit”. In an unsophisticated culture, no great distinction need be made between the moving air around us, that seems to have a life of its own, the moving air that we breathe in and out to maintain our life, and the principle of life itself. The living God himself, the giver of life, is “Spirit”. “When thou sendest forth thy spirit (or breath), they are created,” sings the Psalmist. “The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being,” says the author of Genesis. A wonderful picture: our life is the very breath of God!

At the Last Supper, according to St John, our Lord promised his friends that, though he himself was returning to the Father, he would send another “Paraclete”. The word is hard to translate, sometimes “Advocate”, sometimes “Counsellor”, sometimes “Comforter.” But the word used certainly denotes a Person rather than a thing, “He” rather than “It”. Our Lord calls him “the Spirit of Truth, who proceeds from the Father.” “He will bear witness to me,” our Lord goes on. He will convince- or perhaps correct- the world- put it right- about sin and righteousness and judgement. The Spirit of God is first, then, one who enables us to see clearly what is right and what is wrong, to make proper judgements about these matters. He is the Spirit of Truth, and most particularly of Moral Truth, the way we should live, not simply of academic or theoretical truth.

It is interesting that it is in the context of his discussion of sin and righteousness, in the Letter to the Romans, that St Paul introduces the topic of the Spirit of God, or Spirit of Christ. The Spirit “dwells” in us, helping us not only to perceive what is right and wrong, but to do what is right and resist what is wrong. He is “the Spirit of life”, not just physical life, but the Life of God within us, enabling us to recognise God as our Father. Even when we do not know how to express our need, the Spirit is praying within us, and God who can see into our hearts perceives his own Spirit in us, and understands what it is we are trying to say.

Later theologians speak of the Spirit as the “Nexus”, the connecting or binding-together Spirit. They develop the idea of the Spirit as the Love which binds Father and Son together, and which Father and Son then send out into the world to bind men and women together with God and with one another.

LOVE of the Father, love of God the Son,
From whom all came, in whom was all begun;
Who formest heavenly beauty out of strife,
Creation’s whole desire and breath of life.

Thou the all-holy, thou supreme in might,
Thou dost give peace, thy presence maketh right;
Thou with thy favour all things dost enfold,
With thine all-kindness free from harm wilt hold.

The Spirit of God is, pre-eminently, God’s Love, not just an attribute of God, not just an activity of God, but constitutive of his very Nature, one of the three Divine Personae (if I may use a term taken from psychology). The “Persons” of God are not three distinct Beings, three Gods as it were. There are more like three sides of one and the same Being. The Spirit is God, one and the same God as is the Father and the Son. The “grace” of the Holy Spirit is that same God, giving himself to us in order to enable us to give ourselves to him. On our side we may say that it is our relationship to God, to the Father as to our Origin, to the Son as to our Exemplar and Model, to the Spirit Himself as to the bond of love uniting us to God and to one another.

When two persons love one another, with a totally pure, disinterested love, not self-seeking in any way, but concerned only for the welfare and happiness of the other, there is the Holy Spirit.

Hope of all comfort, splendour of all aid,
That dost not fail nor leave the heart afraid:
To all that cry thou dost all help accord,
The Angels’ armour, and the Saints’ reward,

Purest and highest, wisest and most just,
There is no truth save only in thy trust;
Thou dost the mind from earthly dreams recall,
And bring through Christ to him for whom are all.

Eternal glory, all men thee adore,
Who art and shalt be worshipped evermore:
Us whom thou madest, comfort with thy might,
And lead us to enjoy thy heavenly light.


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