SERMON BY THE ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY
11am 31 May 1998
Think back for a moment, if you can, to the days of Boy’s Own, the Famous Five and the Secret Seven. Inevitably at some stage in each story one of the characters would be faced by an impossible task. One requiring them to respond with bravery and determination. But, then, as they responded, they might well be encouraged by an onlooker with the cry ‘That’s the spirit’.
Today on this Pentecost Sunday we think not so much of the human spirit, but of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God. Indeed, we may well have come to this service asking the question – How can we recognise his activity in the World today? What does it look like? And how can we say with confidence ‘That’s the Spirit’?
Let me begin my search for an answer to those questions by offering you four stories from my own experience and leave you to decide which of them suggest that the Holy Spirit was present.
My first story comes from 1990 when as Bishop of Bath and Wells I visited the Glastonbury Pop Festival. I was told by dozens there of the power of crystals which could put me in touch with my real self and in communion with the universe. For these good natured people new age religion transcended materialism and offered peace and harmony. They believed passionately in the importance of spirituality for their lives and rejected materialism with equal passion. But, was this, I asked myself, in any sense the work of the Holy Spirit?
My second cameo is the 88 year old lady I met last year in the Salisbury diocese who following an Alpha Course opened her life to the Holy Spirit. The experience, she said, had totally changed her life. All before was second hand; now she lived an authentic Christian life. And certainly her friends said that she was a transformed person.
Or thirdly I remember meeting a couple, who after years of hard grind in the city had settled down in a market town. Out of nostalgia they had begun to go along to their parish Church. There was nothing particularly exciting or innovative about it. Its diet was plain C of E, the Book of Common Prayer and a robed choir. Yet it was in that quiet church they found authentic faith, a faith that led them both to baptism and to confirmation and in their own words ‘home to God’.
My fourth and last cameo comes from when I was with friends in Colston Hall, Bristol, some years ago just before Christmas as the Bristol Choral Society sang Handel’s Messiah. I still recall the profound sense of worship in that secular hall as silence fell after a most inspiring performance. It was the silence of reverence. Our friend, a tough minded scientist who had just lost his wife said: ‘My Christmas always begins with Handel’s Messiah. Somehow it says ‘All is well’.’
Now of which, of those four experiences would you say ‘That’s the Spirit!’ All of them? One or two of them? Or none of them?
Let’s dig a little deeper. Humankind is, I believe, incorrigibly spiritual. Not that we necessarily possess a natural urge to worship in Church Sunday by Sunday. That seems to be true for some but by no means for all. Rather what I mean is that there is an instinct deep within us as human beings to reverence things. To focus our love, our respect, our wonder, and our adoration on what Paul Tillich described years ago as: ‘The ground of our being’.
Of course such reverence may take false forms. It can take the false form of evils like the National Socialism of Hitler. He clearly had mesmeric and charismatic power to turn people from good to evil; from true worship to idolatry.
Less obvious perhaps is the fact that even harmless forms of entertainment sometimes have the power to divert people away from authentic forms of faith to mild forms of idolatry. As a supporter of football I recognise such propensity in it as devotion to the ‘beautiful game’ may border on religious devotion. Think of the enthusiasm as grown up men and women serenade their team with tunes from hymns, nursery rhymes and pop songs! Think of the money it costs to follow your team through bad times and good! Think of the time element as even a home game may require a time commitment of at least half a day.
Truly we can recognise religious devotion in such costly commitment and well did Martin Luther cry: ‘That to which your heart clings is your God’.
But if those lie on the questionable side where, more positively, can we find the Spirit of God today- whether in the Church or in the world. What are the signs we should be looking for that can lead us to exclaim ‘That’s the Spirit of God at work?’
My first question to ask is always ‘Who does the behaviour glorify?’ I notice from the teaching of the Bible and from authentic living in the Church that there is an uncanny identity between the Spirit of God and the person of Jesus Christ. The Spirit does not glorify himself but the person of the Lord and likewise the Spirit does not glorify the human agent. Think of the Spirit, if you like, like the great but mostly out of sight searchlights which light up great cathedrals like this when dusk falls. When anyone looks out on this great building lit up in all its splendour after dark, it would be very foolish if that person were to say: ‘what marvellous black boxes! Look at the shapes; consider the beauty of their lines’. No. We say: ‘What a fine building! What a tower; what a great testimony to the glory of God’. The more effective the lighting, the less aware we are of it. And the Spirit’s job is to elevate the Lord; to raise him high. And that is where we find the Spirit today. In the simple follower of Jesus Christ whose lives the Christian life uncomplainingly; in that priest or vicar who asks for no reward but that of seeking the glory of God; in that congregation which gets on with the job of worshipping God week in and week out; in that nurse, that teacher, that student, that policewoman and policeman who sees his Christian vocation in living authentically and humbly. And, drawing up my recent visit to Uganda, that heroic Bishop of Kitgum who despite the tragic death of his dear wife, killed by a landmine, carries on his devoted work to bring the love of God to his people. Here is behaviour that brings glory to God and is, therefore, authentically of the Spirit.
And my second question is no less personal: Does this behaviour or this activity build up others besides oneself? When our spirituality, no less than our commitment to whatever we are devoted to, is selfish and does not serve others, we must question if this belongs authentically to the Christian faith. I think back to the couple I spoke of earlier whose discovery of the Christian faith in a fairly humdrum parish church led them to throw themselves into the fellowship and to serve others. That, I believe, illustrated the quiet work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
And this takes us to another special mark of the Holy Spirit’s character- he is the community builder. Not for him the destruction of community or the destroyer of unity. He delights in those who build bridges of harmony, the peace makers and those who seek to bring divided communities and churches together. We may mark his passage in Northern Ireland in those who lead others to give up arms and silence the angry tones of violence. We may note his presence in churches where partisanship crumbles before bonds of friendship and understanding. In just two months we shall welcome here to Canterbury many bishops and their spouses from many different parts of the world. And, as we meet, so we shall be depending very much upon the Holy Spirit to draw us together into a much deeper fellowship in spite of a number of difficult and challenging issues we shall face.
My third question takes close to the heart of the Christian faith: is this spirituality fruitful? After all, it was our Lord himself who observed: By their fruits you shall know them. That is still the acid test of discipleship. The Spirit is the one who brings to those who follow Christ the fruits of love, joy, peace, long suffering, patience, kindness and so on. If they are not present in community life, in Church life, in our personal lives we may conclude the Spirit is being suppressed. But, gloriously, there is much evidence that the Spirit is present in our Church. I have little patience with the oft- repeated cry that the Church of England is dying. What nonsense people talk! This week I chaired the AGM of the Church Urban Fund; what a wonderful success that has been over ten years as it has established over 1200 projects in the inner cities. It is fruit of faith and of commitment and it has bubbled over into community building and active Christian witness, giving faith, hope and love to thousands.
But none of these answers will make much sense until we start to listen to the tug of the Spirit in our own lives; to the Spirit who delights as much in the things of earth as in the things of heaven, to the laughter of children as much the laughter of the angels. In the words of Thomas Traherne: ‘Your enjoyment of the world is never right, till you esteem it that everything in it is more your treasure than a king’s exchequer full of gold and silver… you never enjoy the world aright till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world’.
Traherne, the great mystic, is reminding us that the spiritual life is not a rejection of the world around us but a joyful and loving acceptance of its joys and sorrows, its loveliness and ugliness, its loves and its hates. And conversely, only those who are spiritual – who love God- can fully understand and appreciate the world in which God has placed us. So it is that as God gives us the eyes to see Christ in others, his action in caring for the suffering and sick and his love for our world, we, too, are able to say ‘That’s the Spirit!’ Here, in Christ and in his world and people, we find him.
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