Friday, 21 May 2010

Pentecost: The God who goes between us


Acts 2:1-21: The Coming of the Holy Spirit

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.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, 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 Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

John 14:8-17
Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask for anything, I will do it.
‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

I never believed in love at first sight. I simply didn’t believe that you could fall in love with someone until you had got to know them, and that it would grow gradually. I was a scientist and could see that it wasn’t logical to think of love like that and so I didn’t believe it, that is until it happened to me.

It’s back in 1988 and I’ve gone to the Christian Greenbelt festival on the August bank holiday with a group of people I don’t know terribly well. One of them is a young singer called Alison Eve who I’ve worked with a few times in the worship group of which I’m a part. She’s also asked me to play drums for her in a one off concert.

We have been there for about a day when I realise I have feelings for her. Over the course of about twenty four hours I realise that it’s more serious than that, and I want to spend the rest of my life with her. The rest, as they say, is history. Luckily she felt the same way and nine months later we were married. Now why, on Pentecost Sunday, am I telling you this story?

It’s because it poses a question which, if we can answer it, tells us something deeply exciting about the nature of the Holy Spirit, and also challenges us deeply about how we treat each other. Let me give you a little more background to the story I’ve just told you. It wasn’t as if Alison and I had never met or talked before Greenbelt that year.

We’d had a long conversation earlier in the year about putting a band together and decided that we were too far apart musically. We had enjoyed each other’s company in the pub as part of a group and we had sat in car chatting about feminism and discovered just how different our views were on a whole raft of things. I had even told a good friend that I liked her but wouldn’t have considered her as the kind of person I would want to date.

So what happened? Let me put it like this: Something between us commanded our attention to each other. Something made a connection between us. Something had gone between us and said, ‘Look, really look, and see who the other really is.’ Something, or someone: the One who goes between.

A name for the Holy Spirit coined by the late Bishop John V Taylor in his book by the same name is ‘The Go-Between God’, a book that has inspired much of what I am saying today and which I would recommend to anyone. The very name sums up this idea that the Holy Spirit is the One who goes between us and each other, making the connection. This is what I believe happened between Alison and I.

Our relationship, that connection, was made, and continues to be made, because of the Holy Spirit going between us; that divine inspiring stillness that makes the connection. Now why have I told you this? It is because it is always the Holy Spirit who makes the connection between us. In fact there is no mission without the Holy Spirit.

I believe that the meaningful encounters we have in our lives are set-up for us by the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes these encounters will be of the more radical type, such as my encounter with Alison. On other occasions they may be conversations at the bus stop, or outside the school, but always we know that moment when something clicks and we have made the connection, except what I’m telling you today is not that we have made the connection but that the Holy Spirit has made the connection.

Now if this all seems a little far fetched and airy-fairy to you, have a look again at what happens on the day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples and entered into them. There have been occasions in the Old Testament when this had happened to individuals for a specific reason and for a specific and limited amount of time, but here the breath of God, the wind of God, the Spirit of God is breathed into the disciples for the rest of their lives.

What is the very first thing that happens? They go outside and, speaking with the gift of tongues, they tell out the Gospel in the native languages of all those gathered there. Now at that time and in that place people tended to have their own languages and a common language. The language of commerce was Greek, much as English is today, but the list of visitors and their languages runs to fifteen different places.

Each of those present who had been filled with the Holy Spirit was speaking in the language of someone in the crowd that had gathered. Indeed we can suggest that the Holy Spirit had gathered the crowd together as well. In other words the Holy Spirit was making the connection between them. The Holy Spirit, the Go-Between God, was going between the disciples and those who had gathered and making communication happen.

This miracle opened the gateway for Peter to declare the good news. If you read on you find that the new church, on the day of its birth, grew by about three thousand people! The Holy Spirit made the connection. The Holy Spirit made the introductions. Mission is dependent on the Holy Spirit, which is why Jesus told the disciples to wait until the Holy Spirit came on them before starting their mission.

In fact you can see the same thing in Jesus’s own life. Thirty years he waited. The Son of God, divine yet human, did not act until his baptism at which time the Holy Spirit came upon him. According to Luke’s Gospel, after Jesus is baptised in the Holy Spirit he firstly goes into the wilderness and then when he returns the very first thing he reads before he preaches his first sermon is a reading from Isaiah with these words:
The Holy Spirit is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.

The Holy Spirit is the person of God who is vital for mission and indeed for all connections between people. This also ought to convince us that the Holy Spirit is not just a force or power. The Holy Spirit has a personality. A force cannot make introductions; that takes a person, and the Holy Spirit is personal. You can pray to the Holy Spirit.

So the main thing for us to take from this today is the sense that if we are serious about mission as a church, then we must also be serious about the Holy Spirit. You cannot have mission unless it is directed by the Holy Spirit. We don’t make the connection with other people; the Holy Spirit does. The Holy Spirit is the Go-Between God.

To be dependent on the Holy Spirit does not mean that we have to become some loopy fundamentalist church like the ones we sometimes see ridiculed on the TV. But we must recognise that we cannot grow as a church unless we are dependent on the Holy Spirit and unless we are inviting the Holy Spirit to fill us as individuals and as a church.

But there is one more thing which is important for us, and that is the nature of our communication with others. We depend on the Holy Spirit to make the connection, yet not all the communication we pass on is all that positive is it. I suspect that most, if not all of us, know that feeling when we realise that we are saying something unsavoury about someone.

Maybe to people who aren’t Christians, who do not have the Holy Spirit resident within them, being nasty about someone feels fun. But for us, do we not know that prick within our conscience when we start gossiping about someone? Why is that? It’s because the Holy Spirit, the Go-Between God, wants to make connections between us, but when we gossip we are working against the Holy Spirit.

That’s why we feel uneasy. Of course there are occasions when we need to pass information on, in confidence, to a third party to make them aware of difficult situations; that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s when we start passing on negative comments about people, allowing one person’s perception of another to be coloured by what we say about them, then we are actively working against the Holy Spirit of God.

That’s why gossiping feels wrong to a Christian; because the Holy Spirit is saying, ‘Please stop this; you are making it difficult for me to set up connections between that person and another. You are working against me.’

The Holy Spirit is the Go-Between God. The Holy Spirit is the One who connects us up with each other, showing us the other, mediating communication between us. Through the Holy Spirit we become friends or maybe lovers for life, and through the Holy Spirit the Good News about Jesus Christ is passed from one believer to another.

And so we should cherish this gift of communicating which comes from God, and we should honour all our conversations as taking place through one person in the Trinity, and we should take care of what we say, and we should be praying for more of God’s Holy Spirit to fill us and anoint us that our mission in this place may grow.

Nothing of any value in terms of mission can take place unless it takes place through the Holy Spirit. And every single person who we have reached and will reach, we reach through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Readings about the Holy Spirit of God
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was brooding over the waters. Genesis 1:2

The Spirit of the LORD began to stir him (Samuel)... Judges 13:25

...and the Spirit of the LORD rushed on him (Samuel)... Judges 15:14

(The words of David) ‘The Spirit of the LORD speaks through me... 2 Samuel 23:2

(Obadiah to Elijah) ‘the Spirit of the LORD will carry you I know not where...’ 1 Kings 18:12

‘You gave your good Spirit to instruct them...’ Nehemiah 9:20

‘For many years you were patient with them, and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets... Nehemiah 9:30

‘The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.’ Job 33:4

The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. Isaiah 11:2

But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit. Isaiah 63:10

And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. Mark 1:12

‘The Spirit/Wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit/Wind.’ (Jesus to Nicodemus) John 3:8

‘It is the Spirit that gives life...’ John 6:63

‘And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Helper to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive...’ John 14:16-17a

‘...the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all I have said to you.’ John 14:26

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God... Romans 8:14

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. Romans 8:26

...for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 1 Corinthians 2:10

...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Galatians 5:22

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for this Paul! It has just given me what I needed to bring my sermon to a more definite form. I am taking the contemporary talking point of a coalition party with God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but also how that coalition works within the context of a Christian community. beginning with the Early Christian Communities of Jews and Non- Jews suddenly finding themselves on an equal footing, journeying to the present day where, particularly on the mission field, denominational boundaries are overcome by our united and common faith and purpose in mission and faith in a Triune God.
    Your 'go-between' God has just pulled this lot together for me. Ta! Helen Symonds