Saturday, 14 May 2016

Come Holy Spirit

Wide expanse of sea, Pembrokeshire coast.

Acts 2:1-4

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

There have been many attempts to describe the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead, and all are pretty much doomed to failure.
The Holy Spirit…
The power of God?
The presence of God?
The dove hovering over the waters of creation and settling on Jesus after his baptism?
How would you describe the Holy Spirit?

All attempts at describing the Holy Spirit are inadequate, because how on earth do you describe God?
But of course, it’s Pentecost Sunday, so that’s what we’re going to try and do.
So with the caveat that trying to describe the Holy Spirit is like a fish being asked to describe the sea it swims in, here are two insights that might help.

We’ll consider Being and Being Sent.

   1. Being
Describing the Holy Spirit is a bit like asking a fish to describe the sea it swims in.
Everything that makes that fish a fish is due to the sea.
The fish could not be a fish without the sea.
The sea surrounds, supports, feeds and carries the fish from life’s first gill movement, to the end.
The idea that God is all encompassing/all around us was something that even pre-dated Christ.
Ironically, it was one of the Greek poets, writing 100s of years before Christ, who wrote about God ‘in you we live and move and have our being’, a quotation which St Paul alluded to in his invitation to the Athenians to come and know the living God personally (Acts 17:28).

In God, we live, move and exist.
Three Greek words that imply different states of life, that is, everything that makes us human.
In God, we have our physical being, we have our emotional being (our passions and drivers) and we have our essential being.
We live, move and are, in God.
You could argue that when people find it hard to imagine God, or feel his presence, or even believe in his existence, it’s not because he’s too far away, but because he is too close, that we cannot focus properly.
Apparently cats cannot focus on things less than 25cm away from their faces, which could explain why my cat looks at me with slight incomprehension every time she comes up close for a cuddle.
She knows there’s something good there, but I’m so near, she can’t see me.

All week we’ve been focusing on the Lord’s Prayer in our daily prayer times in St Mary’s.
There’s a phrase in the Lord’s Prayer that takes on a different meaning if we think about the concept of God’s nearness.
Consider the phrase ‘Our Father, who art in heaven…’
‘…who art in heaven’
Where do you think God is?
If we take the Lord’s Prayer at face value, God is in heaven.
‘Our Father, who art in heaven’.
But what does this suggest?
That can suggest that God is up there and we are down here, and that there’s a great divide in between.
A divide that’s both physical and spiritual.
He’s up there, we’re down here and ne’er the twain shall meet.
But there’s a helpful insight, which I recall was quite revolutionary for me (and I still remember where I was when I was pondering this after reading a book about the Lord’s Prayer, and suddenly felt my mind shifting gear on this).
‘Heaven’ and ‘sky’ are basically the same word in Greek.
The sky isn’t ‘up there’; it’s as much all around, because it’s the air that I breathe.
Because sky and atmosphere are the same word too.
Our Father in the atmosphere…
It doesn’t sound as poetic but it contains a mind-boggling thought – God is so near, he’s in the air I breathe…
‘In him we live, and move and have our being’.
We have to be careful not to reduce God to the sky, of course; that would be pantheism; but if we take the immediacy of God seriously, it might help us to imagine that we are living and moving and breathing in God.

2. Being Sent.
Our Father in the atmosphere...
Even though we might really like the idea that in God we live and move and have our being, Pentecost tells us that’s not enough.
I say this because although it’s a great spiritual insight, it doesn’t necessarily mark out Christianity as distinctive.
The Greek poets knew God was all around.
‘In God we live and move and have our being’ is a good starting point, but what comes next?
Christianity is not a ‘sit around and feel good’ religion.
It’s a sending out movement.
Pentecost is our template for Christianity today.
The disciples were told to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father.
Really and truly, the disciples had no idea what they were asking for when Philip said ‘Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied’.
You can never be satisfied with God.
You can be fed, and feel satisfied for a while, but being fed will make you more hungry.
The more you feed on God, the hungrier you get.
And the ones God uses are the hungry ones.
The ones who are not hungering for more, are static.
Christianity is distinctive because it is not a static religion.
Because the Trinity is dynamic.
Philip could have no idea that the Holy Spirit was coming, except that Jesus does try to tell them:
‘I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate’.

Now I’m trespassing on next week’s theme (Trinity Sunday) but it’s difficult not to, because our God is a dynamic God.
God is not a static being who sits in the sky and directs the church from miles away, like a celestial traffic warden.
He’s active in the world, and he’s stirring us up by his Spirit.
And he sends us out like the disciples were sent.
That’s why Jesus said that his followers would do even greater things than he did, because the scope of the Spirit is universal - to work through every believer, so if you like, every Christian is a sign of Christ, going around in their daily lives pointing people to God.
With the Spirit within us, we can accomplish more than even Jesus was able to, when there was just him.

When the Spirit fell at Pentecost, the first thing that happened was proclamation – Peter and the others had tongues of fire on their heads and tongues of fire in their mouths.
Because how else can others be saved, if they don’t hear the message in their own language?
Christianity is a particular religion with a universal scope.
So our final thought is about sending.
We have our being in God, yes: but we are sent.

Being sent will mean everything.
Being sent will take all your energies, all your focus, all your imagination.

Being sent will lead to the opening up of musty and un-renovated rooms in the house that is your life, that you might prefer to keep firmly shut.

Being sent will mean letting your own positions be challenged by some very unlikely ‘others’ who are coming into the kingdom without any of the finesse that us Anglicans like to see in church on Sundays.

Being sent might mean taking on a public role, where your faith will no longer be just local, but be scrutinised more thoroughly than feels comfortable.

Rapeseed, Berkshire downs, from the train.
Being sent will probably, for most of us, not mean going very far – certainly not to the ends of the earth - perhaps to the person next door, or the person on the bus, or the person you work with, or the person whom you know so well, you’ve forgotten they don’t yet know the way of salvation.

Being sent might mean facing up to something difficult you don’t want to face, or enduring long past the strength you think you have to endure.

Whatever being sent means for you, all you need to do today, on Pentecost Sunday, is to say yes.


Come, Holy Spirit.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Guidance, Holy Spirit-style

Acts 16:9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’  

The post Easter Acts readings continue through this Easter season, and we're still between resurrection and Pentecost. In Acts 16, Paul and his companions are on their 2nd missionary journey.


It was absolutely axiomatic that the first believers would go out and spread the Good News, because Jesus had said to stay in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father – (we had that in our gospel last Sunday) i.e. the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
After the Spirit was given, the task was simple – go into all nations, make disciples and baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
But, the question was, where to go?
Vv 6-8 of Acts 16 (which the Lectionary compliers omit) suggest that Paul and his companion didn’t really have a plan, or if they did, they made it up as they went along, and sometimes it didn’t entirely work out:

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas (in modern day Turkey).

Their issue is how to fill in the gaps that God hasn’t quite spelled out.
Jesus has commissioned his believers with a task – but he hasn’t given the precise details all at once.
In addition, Paul’s journeys were not all sweetness and light – in the first journeys, Paul and Barnabas tried to preach in the synagogues, but they were shunned so they eventually recognised that God was calling them to the Gentiles.
Because of the uncompromising message, they were often persecuted – in one city Paul was stoned and left for dead.
Eventually his preaching brought controversy amongst the believers over whether Jewish circumcision should still be required of the new Christian converts.
So they had to have a meeting!
Eventually the Council of Jerusalem decreed that new converts did not have to accept Jewish traditions but that belief in Christ was enough.
On their second missionary journey, Barnabas and Paul had a disagreement and split; Barnabas took John Mark to Cyprus and Paul and Silas went on to Asia Minor.
Further journeys would bring shipwreck, hunger and beatings.
But for now, we take up the story at the start of the second missionary journey.

Trouble in the text

So, they’ve been ‘forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia’.
And when they attempted to go into Bythinia, ‘the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.’
We’re so used to being told we need to share the message of Jesus, it seems odd that in Paul and Silas's case, the Spirit seemed to have other ideas.
And it’s hard to imagine how this not being allowed, manifested itself.
Perhaps Paul and Silas sat up one night discussing mission plans (– all good parishes have a mission plan don’t they?)
Maybe Paul said, ‘I feel a huge burden for Asia; in fact, I feel sure that God has put this region on my heart – it seems that he is definitely leading us there.’
Maybe Silas, bedding down for the night after a long and tiring trek through the city (plumping his pillow - an old musty cloak - under his head for support) said, ‘yes, I’m sure you’re right; it’s amazing how things have worked out to lead us to Asia. God certainly loves Asia and must be preparing her people for the message of Christ.’
And then, we read they were ‘forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia’
How did that manifest itself?
It doesn’t say that the town council stopped them, or the religious leaders, or anyone else: simply that the Holy Spirit forbade it.
Perhaps Paul and Silas thought, well, we may have got it wrong with Asia, perhaps all along it was Bythinia where God was calling us.
Now you mention it, Bythinia is a very needy region; it must be that that’s where God wants us to go....
Maybe that night as they settled into bed in the Roman equivalent of the Premier Inn (without the super comfy King sized bed) they prayed ‘O Lord. We thank you for calling us to Bythinia, and for making your way known. Please guide us to these people who need to hear your message. For the sake of your name, Amen.'
And the next day, ‘when they attempted to go into Bythinia, the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them’.
How did this manifest itself?
Was it that one of them came down with a temperature that night and in the morning could not proceed?
Or their transport let them down?
Or the city was in uproar due to a skirmish breaking out?
Or was it that they woke up and felt a strong presentiment that it was not after all God’s will?
They must have wondered if they’d ever get their guidance right.
Was God with them directing their steps at all?
Did Jesus really send them out on this mission after all?

 Trouble for us/our world

How many times have you felt that the way ahead seems blocked and barred and you simply don’t know which way to turn?
You’ve made plans in good faith, but life takes you by surprise, your path takes a different course, and often you don’t understand why.
Why me?
Why all this hassle when I’m just trying to live a good life?
Why all this grief when I’m simply trying to follow God?
Why am I still ill, still here, still unemployed, still stuck with ……? (fill in the blanks)
When things do take us by surprise, we feel like saying, I didn’t bargain for this timing, this stalling, this incapacity, this illness, unemployment, relocation, bereavement, etc.
I thought life would be more straightforward than this.
And I prayed about it!

 Grace in the text

The great thing is that Paul and Silas do not give up.
They ‘pass by’ Misia and go down to Troas (vv. 6-8)
And then the exciting part of the story begins.
The story of God’s plan, God’s provision, and God’s surprises.

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to 
Macedonia and help us'. 
When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

God isn’t silent; it’s just that his timing is different to theirs.
His geography is different to theirs.
The story continues in the first person: We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.
Convinced that God is now in the plan, they wait to see what will happen next.
There is much wisdom in a wait, and God is never in a hurry.
After a few days they are led to go outside the city – they’re looking for a synagogue, or ‘place of prayer’, but the story suggests they couldn’t find one: On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer…
There was no formal place of prayer but there was a river and, like their Jewish ancestors in a strange land, there they sat down.
But not to weep.
To meet what new thing God was bringing towards them.
Jewish men, on fire with the new life of Christ, sit down by the river and strike up a conversation with the group of women there. 
We recall Jesus did something similar with the woman at the well - and that resulted in conversion and new life too.
This is how we know God is afoot – this would never have happened without the new dispensation of the Spirit.
God’s hand is everywhere in this meeting that he has ordained by the river.
He has brought exactly the right people to exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

And the right person in question is a woman named Lydia.

We are told she was a 'seller of purple' 
(as in the KJV: modern
translations add 'cloth').
Purple was the most expensive dye available, so we can assume she was a businesswoman to the elite, selling perhaps to royalty or at least to the very rich and powerful.
Purple might even symbolise Roman power, against which the Saviour himself had stood, defeating it through his humble
submitting to death on a cross.
In the person of Lydia, as someone has written,the battle between Roman power and the message of the gospel meet in the heart of a woman’ (

Because as Paul speaks, she listens intently.
This is no chance meeting – God has prepared her heart and the Spirit opens her heart to the message of salvation.
She and her whole family are baptized and she urges Paul and Silas to come to her home for hospitality.
She will become the lynchpin of the church in Philippi, the church that Paul will come to hold in deepest affection.

Grace for us/our world

So this story is about God’s plan, God’s provision, and God’s surprises.
Just like Paul and Silas, we can trust God does have all the seemingly untied loose ends of our lives and is weaving something beautiful out of them.
Guidance can be so difficult to pin down; we worry we'll 'get it wrong', but in God's economy,
dead ends turn out to be avenues of grace.
Even as we’re scurrying about, lost in the details of what we cannot yet see or understand, God is calling us via visions, dreams, hunches, circumstances and other people: ‘Come over to Macedonia to help us’…
God is able to fulfil his good purpose in us and will do it, for us as individuals and for us as a church as we seek to live out the call to go to all people with the message of the Good News.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (John 14:27)