Suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind!
As if on cue this past week – there was a full day of strong winds all over Northern Europe and the UK last Friday. As one preparing a sermon and perhaps for the rest of you preparing for this weekend, it brought to mind this phrase from our reading from Acts – there came…a mighty rushing wind. During that storm, our tallest tree in the church garden fell under one of the mighty gusts. Don’t worry, it could not have fallen in a better, safer, way – it avoided the street and all buildings and is simply resting in the other trees.
At Pentecost God’s Spirit came upon the Church for the first time and when it comes upon us it changes the landscape of our souls – God the Holy Spirit is described as a mighty rushing wind, and elsewhere as a consuming fire – it is why churches around the world are clothed in red this morning.
But God is not chaotic – rather, God brings order and life out of chaos and darkness. The disciples heard the sound like a mighty rushing wind, and saw, flames of fire, but they were not blown around the room! It was an experience exhilarating and full of wonder, but for them there was calm – it says that “divided tongues, as of fire, appeared to them and rested on each of them.” There was an ecstatic element – they spoke in other languages. But the Spirit did not leave them frenetic, out of their minds, but brought them a unity of purpose and meaning to all that they had experienced in the presence of Jesus both, before and after His Resurrection until His Ascension. Peter stood up and spoke with profound clarity of mind and with authority for the first time in his life. People in Jerusalem that day were not heading for cover, terrified of the sound or of a physical disturbance, but rather were drawn by curiosity and no doubt by an unseen mysterious pull in their hearts, drawn by the manifestations of Love in their midst. It was completely unusual, but it was by no means chaotic. God brings order and life, out of chaos and darkness, as He did in the beginning when He created the world. Three thousands souls in Jerusalem that day who heard Peter, chose to receive baptism – that’s how convincing he was, that’s how clarifying and motivating was the message they heard.
Jesus through his Cross and Resurrection and Ascension has entered into heaven and opened the doors for us. There can now be an exchange between heaven and earth – an exchange promised to the disciples and to the whole Church in today’s Gospel reading. But remember in an earlier passage in John’s Gospel, when Nathaniel heard from Jesus that before he met Jesus, Jesus had seen him sitting under a fig tree, and he was amazed. But Jesus said to him, “You shall see greater things than these…truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of man.”
What Jacob saw in a vision, in Genesis, a ladder stretching between heaven and earth, has become a reality – Jesus is that ladder – and we have access to the grace of heaven when we look to Him.
Jesus says in the Gospel today:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
Jesus is describing the interaction between God and the soul as a kind of dance of love. Our response of love, shown when we truly follow Jesus’ commandments, makes God’s love grow in us. And as we know and experience this love, we desire and have the ability to respond more with obedience to love, and God’s love in us grows even more. There is a spiralling ascent into the life of God.
Jesus says this new life with God is not seen by the world but is hidden – known to us each inwardly only. “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Our souls become the home of the Triune God.
Again, the Spirit doesn’t bring chaos to the soul, but ever growing clarity and peace:
But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you…Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, gave Peter clarity and sharpness of mind, remembrance of what Jesus had said, and unity and purpose and meaning to all the diverse sayings of Jesus. Peter stands and speaks that first day of Pentecost, with clearness of thought and with a peace inwardly that did not leave him. He no doubt still had fears, but was also given courage to act despite his fears, he was motivated by love into action!
And we can expect the same.
How do we know that our individual experience of God’s Spirit in our hearts is not simply some subjective experience, a pretending, a misreading of the inward impulses arising from our own desires – not pure, but manifestations of or desires clouded by pride or some other passion?
Austin Farrer, an Anglican theologian from the last century, writes about this beautifully, bringing clarity and correction to my own preaching. Here is from his book Saving Belief [pp. 121,122]:
“The Holy Spirit is not a feeling, or a finite psychological force. He could not conceivably feature in a psychological explanation alongside other forces or components of the human mind. He is God, and God is the universal underlying Cause, not any created or particular cause. He does not inject anything into us, called charity or inspiration. He continues the creation of our being out of its existing materials, and these are earthly enough. In particular, he creates that union of surface desire with profound intention, which psychology describes.
“But the crucial point has still to be mentioned. The sanctifying action of the Holy Spirit is no mere name for any unification of the self which may have the sort of effect we have roughly depicted. The self may be pulled together by any object, interest or pursuit which is capable of drawing our deep instinctive urges in the direction of conscious purpose. The action of the Holy Spirit unites us about a centre which lies outside ourselves, in the heart of God.“
Farrer is saying two things: One is that the Spirit is not some sort of add on to us, like a drug that might help us with depression. The Spirit takes all of who we are already and finishes that work of creation that was begun by our birth into this world and brings it to completion – making us into the image and likeness of God.
And second, he says there are many things that can unify our soul – people become single minded around many things – a passion to succeed financially can unify the purpose of our soul, but that would not lead us to true life. Another unifying experience, and closer to what is being described by Farrer as God’s unifying work, is when we fall in love with another person. There is a unifying of the aspects of our soul in the direction of a single purpose – the consummation of our love in life-long marriage. When we are in love, we feel more ourselves than ever before.
In the case of love of God, the Holy Spirit provides or unites all of the diverse aspects of who we are around a centre which lies outside of ourselves, in the heart of God. The Spirit points us continually to Jesus, the Centre around which we now we want to orbit.
How can we see if the Holy Spirit is truly at work in us?
One of the signs that the Holy Spirit is truly moving us, is if we find ourselves drawn into the life of the Universal Church. The new perspective, the new unifying experience of the Spirit does not lead us off on our own private journey – me and the Spirit! But rather the Spirit’s work moves us to journey with others who are also catching glimpses and being united personally to the same Universal Truth. On the day of Pentecost – though the experience was profound and individually unifying for the people who heard Peter, it led them to take a very common action – three thousand were baptised and they were further united around the apostles’ teaching & fellowship, the breaking of bread & the prayers. [Acts 2:42]
Contrary to an increasingly divisive identity politics of the new Left, dividing us into ever smaller and smaller groups, defined by our distinctive human features, even our wandering desires, fighting one another for power – trying to create some Satanic mock of unity, uniting people in tiny groups by their hatred of others – emphasizing our differences, and each group becoming more shrill in their demands for justice and retribution – contrary to this, on that day of Pentecost, there were Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians— people of different cultures and races and backgrounds all drawn to rejoice and to be baptised into the one faith in Jesus Christ, seeing more and more our common humanity, and its image and likeness to the one true God.
So our experience of God’s Spirit is authentic if it draws us together and especially to rejoice with others who are different from us.
And on an individual level, our experience of the Spirit is authentic if more and more aspects of our life are happily brought under orbit of this new Centre beyond ourselves, God. In that orbit, and looking to that uniting Cause of all things, we will be experiencing a unity of purpose and strengthening, because we are fighting less and less within ourselves. And we will see a growing in fruitfulness – like a big oak tree with more and more acorns as we get older.
This morning we celebrate this great feast of Pentecost, the birth of the Church. And two thousand years later, we celebrate that the work of the Spirit continues growing the Church around the world, and individually in our hearts leading us to greater maturity this morning.
Let us prepare ourselves now, through repentance and faith, to celebrate Pentecost through this great Sacrament of unity, instituted by our Lord Himself – and receive, together, the Bread which comes down from heaven and brings life in earth.