Feast of Pentecost: John 15: 26-27; 16: 4b-15
It sometimes strikes me that the Holy Spirit falling on the disciples today (and on us) can be a bit of a Cinderella. And that’s not a totally crazy comparison because the Holy Spirit (characterised as feminine in the Old Testament – she – the Spirit of Wisdom) can be like the uninvited, disruptive guest at the ball. In other words, something of a whirlwind.
And the Church hasn’t always known what to do with this Spirit, because historically the Church has wanted things nailed down, closely defined, in other words under control. And you can almost hear Jesus saying, well, good luck with that, because that’s not how it goes with the Spirit.
Like Jesus tells the elderly, respected pharisee, Nicodemus, who comes to him by night: “the Spirit blows where it wills and you don’t know where it’s come from or where it’s going.” I’m reminded of the film, “Chocolat,” where the heroine, the mysterious Vianne, is blown into town by the mischievous north wind to turn everyone’s life upside down and do it in Lent no less. And the pious, controlling mayor and the local priest can only watch as love and chocolate transform their lives and the lives of everyone around them. This Spirit blows where it wills.
So this power promised by Jesus, which is going to be the energy of his continuing presence among us, falls on the disciples. And people think they’re drunk at nine o’clock in the morning.
The disciples had been in hiding, with the doors locked, for fear. But there’s no fear in them now. And the Acts of the Apostles – which some people say should be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit – really begins now, with this uncontrollable burst of energy from on high.
So again and again in Acts we’ll read that it’s the Spirit that sends, empowers, spreads the Church everywhere. And apostles like Paul were in no doubt that the Spirit was vital. When Paul reaches Ephesus, he meets Christians there and he asks if they’ve received the Holy Spirit, to which they answer: “No, we were never told there even was such a thing as the Holy Spirit.” And Paul baptises them at once and lays hands on them and immediately these new believers are transformed.
So there’s a risk, both for the Church as a whole and for individual Christians like us, that we live as if we were never told, as if we never knew there was a Holy Spirit. When we’re confirmed, when priests are ordained, we make our promises of commitment before the Bishop, saying, “With the help of God I will.” And then we invoke the power of the Spirit to make possible the life to which we’ve committed ourselves. And the Bishop prays: “Creator Spirit, rekindle in your people your gifts of grace, to love and serve as disciples of Christ. Renew their life in Christ and bring to completion all that your calling has begun.” So what the Church is saying is that we don’t even hope to fulfil the commitments we make, without the Holy Spirit.
This really important day, the Birthday of the Church, reminds us that there is a Holy Spirit, that there’s a source of energy and power which we’re not meant to forget. But rather we’re invited to consciously open ourselves to this source of life, to open the doors and the windows of our lives, of our very deepest selves to let that breeze of the Holy Spirit blow through us and change us and disturb us – and comfort and strengthen us – and maybe take us places we never planned on going. The Acts of the Apostles, the Acts of the Holy Spirit is an unfinished book because we’re still writing it. And the Holy Spirit is writing it through us.
I love those stories of the Celtic saints who would get into their coracles, their little boats and unfurl the sail to catch the wind and just let themselves be blown across the sea to wherever – Columba bringing faith to Iona and Scotland, St Brendan landing in America long before Christopher Columbus, if you believe the legend.
Jesus’s promise of the Holy Spirit is the promise of an energy which makes his life real and active in this world right now, today. It’s the Spirit that makes Jesus live in you and in me, it’s the Spirit that puts life and breath into every living thing. Someone pointed out to me just yesterday that it’s the Spirit that’s inspiring a new generation to care for creation with urgency. It’s the Spirit that renews the Church generation after generation, it’s the Spirit that makes Jesus real in bread and wine and it’s the Spirit that blows on the embers of our faith and hope and love and lifts us back into life again.
So can we let ourselves go – because this is a promise of power, not an insurance policy against all risks – and can we live, all of us, as apostles, as people who are sent? That will mean different things for all of us, but for all of us it will mean trust. So can I unfurl my sail and let the wind catch it, and like Jesus told Nicodemus, let the Spirit blow us where God wills. Amen.