Pentecost: 40 days after Passover Jerusalem was again crowded for a festival. We might say ‘something came over the disciples’ who had until then been living rather fearfully with the knowledge that Jesus was alive after death yet not knowing what to make of it. They needed a spark to turn this experience into a gospel message for all those people. Then, in that upper room where Jesus had come back to them a few weeks earlier, they suddenly knew that he was there again – and how! More than a spark!
This is the Sunday on which we reflect on God the Holy Spirit, God who raised those first disciples into confident preachers, affirming the Resurrection of Jesus as Christ and inspiring their hearers to believe it too. Peter and the others go on to proclaim that this Holy Spirit is focused on God’s coming in Jesus, his love, his power and his life. And preachers have been doing so ever since.
The basic word ‘spiritual’ is often used, quite rightly, in a broader sense. Go into a bookshop like Waterstones and you will find a whole section on ‘spirituality’ with scarcely a book about Christianity. As spiritual beings, humans are special. For myself I am moved by music which others find ‘difficult’ and I am often left unmoved by other music which is very popular. The same applies to visual art or to books or whatever. These differences are splendid. It’s about our culture and upbringing, personal taste and appreciation. We are spiritual beings; no other animal, however intelligent, has this dimension.
Christian teaching affirms that human spiritual energy is God-given and like all of God’s gifts is meant to be used as God intends. A human life can be very spiritual, very sensitive, very aware. I believe it is best lived out as a life of faith in God. For a start there’s something in-built which wants to say a deep thank-you when we are deeply moved or when we rise above our animal nature (long before we get onto the specifics of Jesus). That deep thank-you, that extra awareness is often the key to belief in God across many cultures.
But the Bible and Christian teaching refer to the distinctively Holy Spirit which has something at its heart which prevents it becoming just vague waffle about beauty or love or meaning or whatever. And there is plenty of waffle out there, in Waterstones and most everywhere else. The spiritual can even be demonic. No, Christians have always felt and believed that the Holy Spirit was somehow the same as Jesus Christ, very focused and very wonderful.
Remember the closing words of Matthew’s gospel, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of time’; this is the promise of the Holy Spirit. Luke in his Gospel has several mentions of the Holy Spirit filling Jesus and flowing through him, anticipating what Luke would go on to write in the Acts of the Apostles. And John offers us a splendid mix of what the Church, centuries later, would turn into the Doctrine of the Trinity. John writes: ‘Jesus said, I will ask the Father and he will give you another Helper who will stay with you for ever’. A few verses later Jesus says ‘Whoever loves me will obey my teaching and my Father will love him; then my Father and I will come to him and live with him.’ This is the continuing presence of God within and alongside the believer. Paul puts it just as clearly in his letter to the Galatians: ‘It is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me.’ And, in a very moving personal affirmation, he continues: ‘The life I am now living I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.’ He is full of the Holy Spirit.
Charles Wesley writes in a hymn:
Away with our fears, our troubles and tears, the Spirit is come, the witness of Jesus returned to his home.
What we call the Holy Spirit is the Christ-like power and love of God at work in a person and in society too. Sometimes we pray for guidance and ask ‘what would Jesus do?’ – a question which has been discredited by the silly answers you can find on American Christian web sites. But it is a meaningful and helpful question; it is the same as asking for the Holy Spirit’s help.
We are not usually talking about mystical or ecstatic experiences; they can be rare depending on your personality, DNA, upbringing and lots more besides. In New Testament times the apostle Paul, who had himself experienced spiritual ‘highs’, nevertheless discounted such experiences unless they were interpreted for the benefit of others.
Christianity is a down-to-earth religion, not an other-worldly quest for a heavenly ‘spiritual’ experience. Heaven has come to earth, if by that we mean the presence of God, Emmanuel. If your Christianity doesn’t make a difference on Monday, there’s no point in practising it on Sunday. In daily life we are talking about personal spiritual support from God to guide us to make a choice or a decision. This help often comes through other people or it may come through something you see or hear or read, in the stillness of a prayer or in the bustle of a busy life. The key is: does a preferred course of action line up with the priorities of Jesus?
Now of course there are grave dangers here. Just think of all the misery that has been caused – and still is being caused – by people who are sure they are doing God’s will. You can find this in all religions; even peace-loving Sikhs can be violent and aggressive. Our own Christian history is guilty too, as during the crusades invading the Middle East in the 11th and 12th centuries, slaughtering and destroying everyone and everything. Those Christians were sure they had God on their side. But they certainly didn’t stop to ask ‘what would Jesus do?’! Like the so-called Islamists of our own time, those so-called Christians actually killed as many members of their own faith as of another one.
Such certainty is the opposite of faith, strange as that may sound. Faith is trust, it is confidence but it is not proven. Remember when Thomas met the risen Jesus, having said he would not believe till he had done so; Jesus comments ‘you have seen me – but blessed are those who have not seen but find faith’. For us, as for every Christian since then, the truth of the Resurrection is the way we live as if Jesus was alive – in the belief that he is. Like Jesus in his earthly lifetime, the Holy Spirit does not give us one-size-fits-all answers to life’s big questions. But, as when Jesus was there, you get clarity and support and of course love when you ask. Jesus would not ask you to do something which he would not do himself. That’s the clue to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Our life as Christians, our life as the Church, is in a real sense a continuation of the ministry of Jesus. So it can be demanding, absurdly generous and often costly, and it can be full of deep warm friendship with the reassurance of forgiveness. It can certainly be more than we could manage on our own.
Because we are not on our own. The Greek word (Paraclete) which John uses about the Holy Spirit is variously translated as Helper or Counsellor or Advocate or Comforter or simply ‘someone to stand by you’ (J B Phillips). This is the Holy Spirit, the witness of Jesus returned to his home, the offer of our generous God. As Paul puts it ‘God who did not withhold his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not with him also give us everything?’ – and Paul was very realistic about the highs and lows of the Christian life.
Our Christian faith is focused on a particular historical episode, the person of Jesus. But it has to be lived out in the here and now, however extraordinary. That is the good news for today, Whit Sunday, the Feast of Pentecost. Jesus is alive today. His message and example is as contemporary as ever: he still says ‘Follow me – let’s see this through together’.
Revd Peter Brain