Thought for the Week – 30th May 2021
Pentecost Part 2
So what does the Pentecost reading tell us about our response to the Holy Spirit? Well, I do not think it is an invitation to go around talking in tongues – and I know St. Paul would agree with me here. What strikes me is the whole thing about language – that suddenly people found they could understand and be understood by others from whom previously they had been cut off. Language does this – it is not only that your languages may be limited to rusty schooldays French or Latin, meaning that you struggle with anything apart from holiday phrases in anything else, but as soon as someone starts to speak we start to make judgments about them – which part of the world they come from, what class they are from, how well educated, how interesting they are… But here, as people join in praising God, the Holy Spirit breaks down these barriers that we ourselves place that prevent us from seeing people as they are rather than as we might want them to be.
There are certainly occasions when language is not needed for communication. When you see on the news a mother grieving for a child killed in Gaza or the horrifyingly numerous other places of conflict in the world; when you see anger and defiance on the streets of Burma; when you hear profound meditation in a Buddhist temple rite – then it does not matter that we do not have the words; we have the essential meaning. This quality of empathy to me is a God-given work of the Holy Spirit – it means that we can relate to the feelings of others in a way that God relates to us. Without it, we could not love God with our whole hearts, or our neighbours as ourselves.
Another way in which language can be superfluous, something dear to the hearts of me, and (I know) Steve and Julie and Danny is in music. You begin with the words on the printed page, but when you begin singing them, the Spirit gives life to them; you can be swept away by the feelings they evoke; you may have the profound joy of sharing this feeling with those with whom you are singing and those who are hearing; and while the “flesh” is preoccupied in counting the bars and following Steve’s beat, the “spirit” is liberated and exalted. And in some music there are no words or the words do not matter: when, for example, I hear the last chorus in the Bach B minor Mass, I hear the heavens opening as the trumpets sound; in the last movement of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony I hear the muffled drumbeats of death followed by music of sadness, acceptance and ineffable beauty. It is not for nothing that so many of our images of God’s kingdom are taken from music. If Jesus is the Lord of the Dance, then the Holy Spirit is the Lord of the Song.
The Holy Spirit does not get much of a mention in the Church of England Creeds, just the credit for having “spoken through the prophets”. I think this needs special consideration. Try, as I did for last week’s “thought”, just dipping into – say – the book of Ezekiel. You soon realise that his prophecy is not like the weather forecast or racing tips or Gypsy Gladys telling your fortune at the church bazaar. The language is obscure at times – deliberately so, I would say – yet the message is often hard to miss. The prophet is putting the behaviour of people and rulers into the context of God’s teachings and values: where they have fallen short, what God promises them; why good or bad things have happened; what they need to do to put themselves right again with God. For all that Ezekiel covers issues clearly prominent at the time, his words still resonate with us because through them we too tap into the nature of God. Are there prophets today who speak with that kind of resonance? I would say that whenever we hear a fine sermon, the same thing happens: the Spirit moves us. Which is why good preaching is so important in a church: through it, God moves in a way that makes plain his mysteries; without it, we are delivered to the spiritual Dead Letters Office.
Another of the problems with the Holy Spirit that I alluded to last week is what Jesus says about him (or her – I do like to think she reflects the “feminine” side of God) is the actual word he uses – variously translated as “helper”, “comforter”, “counsellor” “advocate” and (would you believe?) “redeemer of the accursed”. They all fall down in some ways because they attempt to define divinity through quite specific human concepts. To me, the idea of “advocate” has a depth that the others lack. Among other things that an advocate does, he or she will clarify your thoughts; will help you formulate your case in a way that will convince other people; will guide and advise you through the court action; will always (for a fee!) be there for you, on your side, seeing the best in you; and at the end, will plead your cause before the judge. To me, the Holy Spirit does all of those things – if we allow it to happen. So the closer we draw to God, the more the Spirit helps us in our struggles to be Godly, and when we ask for his mercy ((another legal concept) for our shortcomings, insofar as we have been on the side of God, he will be on our side in granting it.
Which leads me to a possibly controversial question. If the fruits of the Spirit are, as Paul tells the Galatians, love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control, are those whose lives show these fruits following the way of the Spirit even if they do not sign up to all – or any – of the Christian doctrines? Are goodness and godliness one and the same?
I pray that the Holy Spirit will guide you in the way of all truth.
We thank you for the
Gift of the Holy Spirit.
Help us always to be
Guided by that same spirit
Throughout all our lives,
In Jesus name.