notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
The Power of the Spirit
Good Shepherd 15/05/2005 (Pentecost Communion Service)
Acts 2:1-21, John 20:19-23
I'd like us to think this morning about those times when we feel God's Spirit has come to us.
Today's readings from Acts and the Gospel of John present two dramatically different accounts of the bestowal of the Holy Spirit upon the gathered church, which is what Pentecost is about. In Acts we have the big public event, with lots of people and dramatic special effects.
The event takes place on the Day of Pentecost, fifty days after Passover in the Jewish calendar, and after Easter for Christians. The risen Jesus has ascended into heaven on the fortieth day, and the disciples have been praying for the promised gift of Holy Spirit. They were "all together in one place [when] suddenly there came from heaven 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" (Acts 2:1-4).
The Spirit was for everyone that day - spoke all their languages - and the Spirit forced the first disciples out into the street with the dangerous message of the Gospel for very different people than they expected.
Sometimes in our experience God's Spirit comes on big occasions. I felt that on my ordination service in 2001:
In the massive central space of Liverpool Cathedral, surrounded by tens of hundreds of people, at the heart of Service of Ordination of Priests, a lone, unaccompanied voice sang out in supplication:
"Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire..."
It was the voice of Bishop James; but it might have been the voice of the tiniest child for its smallness, its vulnerability, its tiny cry to a great God.
It sang for me, and for the other sixteen folk kneeling at the altar rail awaiting the laying-on of hands to mark our mysterious transformation into priests, a substantial moment in our faith journey. It sang for us because we were feeling quite awed by the occasion; by a sense of our smallness in that vast place; feeling exposed with all those eyes on our backs; feeling alone in the crowd, separated out from the rest of the congregation for a particular sort of ministry; dazzled by the awesome responsibility and glory of it all.
The next moment moved me deeply; because following that lonely plaintive voice the great organ struck up and the whole assembly, from the far end of the cathedral to the pews beyond the choir, all full to bursting, followed through with the next lines:
"... And lighten our celestial fire;
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
Who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart."
We all sang out those words, meaningful in their mystery, calling on the Holy Spirit to bring light and fire and the gifts of God to enable us to serve our creator in clearer, purer, better ways. For me, these moments summed up the ordination to the priesthood. The tiny voice stirring and then being wrapped up in the great voice of the whole of God's people, together summoning the Holy Spirit for help and inspiration. That's what it's about, I felt then, and think now.
We were on our knees for about forty minutes, us seventeen. It hurt. We each had the Bishop lay hands on our head, surrounded by supportive clergy in a kind of 'holy huddle'. When Bishop James prayed "Send down the Holy Spirit upon your servant John for the office and work of a priest in your Church," he was using words that bishops have repeated at Ordination services throughout the centuries way back to the early church. These words give priests the authority to preach and minister the sacraments, authority from God through the power and influence of the Holy Spirit, with the blessing of God's people. They show how the priest has to depend constantly on God to do their work well; they're words which humble and affirm them.
When we got up from the rail, knees creaking, backs aching, it was to turn and go back into the congregation, sharing the peace just as we all do at each communion service.
And this was meaningful too. Because our congregations are where we belong; it's through their Christian leaders and teachers and friends that priests hear the call to ordained ministry. Their calling is to be "set among" the people of God, "to offer with them spiritual sacrifices acceptable in God's sight". Priests are part of the people; called through the people to a key role in the life and work of the people.
Thinking about this made me realise that God's holy Spirit comes to us in small ways too.
John's version of the gift of the Holy Spirit is dramatically different from the picture seen in Acts, but makes the same point. It happens on Easter Day, in the evening, not 50 days afterward, and the disciples have still not understood the resurrection, because Jesus must show them the wounds in his hands and his side.
They are not a confident group ready to proclaim good news, but a dispirited bunch, in hiding behind locked doors "for fear of the Jews" (John 20:19). Jesus gave his gift of peace to them and "breathed on them" to commission them: "as the Father has sent me, so I send you" (John 20:21).
On that occasion at the Cathedral I shared the peace with people who in small ways I'd shared in the life of God's Holy Spirit over the years.
I shared the peace with members of my family who have encouraged me in my emerging ministry for many years; with friends from the Iona Community which has been a source of energy and deep fellowship for me over the past decade. I shook hands with folk I've worked alongside running kids' clubs in Toxteth and prayer courses in Crosby, with my Sunday School teacher from 25 years ago at Waterloo Baptist Church, with Holy Trinity folk who have been greatly supportive and friendly to me since my arrival there the year before.
I greeted people I've campaigned with in anti-poverty work in Liverpool, and exchanged hugs with friends who've put up with my foibles and stuck with me through my struggles while I came to terms with the calling to ordained ministry. I thought as I walked the length of the Cathedral looking for them, all these people share in the priestly ministry I've just accepted, because I came to it through them, and will carry on working it out with them as I go on from here.
When I was a community worker at St Gabriel's I wrote a poem called 'Weak'. It was about the enormity of the task of serving God in a place which had so many obvious needs. It asked: "How can the Spirit help us, Weak as we are?"
Being a priest feels no different to being a community worker in that respect. It's all about being part of the people of God, struggling in the face of the vast forces of the world to maintain our hope and celebrate God's resurrection life. It's about calling out weakly, in dependent faith, to our God, for help and strength.
Priests are asked to be the ones who start off the singing, to prompt God's people in praying. But priests are not called to be separate or alone in their tasks. It's when the great voice of the whole of God's people join in, summoning the Holy Spirit for help and inspiration, that the meaning of 'Church' becomes whole.
The Holy Spirit comes to the church in big ways and in small ways. But both of them speak the same message of the Spirit's power to triumph over death and sin, and the church's commission to proclaim the Gospel of new life and forgiveness to the world.
This mighty Word of God was spoken from the margins of the Roman Empire. We who live at the centre of another Empire, in a world of war and greed and arrogance, hear the same message when we allow the Spirit of God's risen Messiah to take control of our lives.
Whether it's in a big dramatic event, like the thousands who will rally in Edinburgh in July to ask the world's governments to put an end to poverty, or in a small gathering of people in a more intimate setting bringing hope and prayer and small acts of faithfulness into their neighbourhood, the Spirit we receive, the Spirit who empowers us, is the Spirit of life and peace, forgiveness and salvation. The Spirit who helps us share in the life of The Father and the Crucified and Risen Christ.
Based largely on my piece, On Ordination; and utilising passages from Emmett Jarrett, TSSF, The Power of the Spirit, Witness magazine Lectionary Reflections, 9 May 2005