This is the day – Pentecost – when the Holy Spirit takes centre stage. This great feast in the Christian Year, when we celebrate the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples on the Jewish Festival of Pentecost, which came seven weeks after Passover and celebrated both the wheat harvest and the giving of the Torah, the Law, on Mount Sinai. It was one of three pilgrimage festivals when Jews came to the Temple in Jerusalem – Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles – in Hebrew Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. Pentecost is the Greek word for this feast and is derived from the Greek word for 50 – the feast of 50 days – seven weeks after Passover, and for us 50 days after Easter. For me using my seven times table it comes to 49, but if we count Easter Sunday as Day 1 then you will find that this is Day 50 after Easter! I know some of you like to know this sort of thing.
The importance of it being one of the great pilgrimage feasts of Judaism is that people were gathered in Jerusalem from all the places of the Jewish diaspora – there were Jewish communities all over what we now know as the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. So the reading from Acts this morning says “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” Other translations say “staying” in Jerusalem. Either they were Jews from all over the known world who had come to live in Jerusalem, or they were visiting for the Feast – the important bit is that they spoke many different languages. And with the tongues of fire came the gift of tongues, so that each of these pilgrims in Jerusalem heard the Galilean disciples of Jesus speak in their own language. It was dramatic.
The Holy Spirit still sometimes comes dramatically. Fr Jerry and I were at the NEC in Birmingham sometime in the 1980’s for a gathering led by John Wimber, an American pastor of the Vineyard churches. At that gathering the Holy Spirit came dramatically and in power. John Wimber had been invited to the UK by Anglican and Baptist churches and had a great influence on churches here in that decade. What I remember of that day is the sound. John Wimber asked in a very quiet way for the Holy Spirit to come. The gathering was hushed, silent, and then across the auditorium came the sound of wind, a kind of roaring that seemed to come from the left and move across that great space of the NEC. It was to quote Acts “a sound like the rush of a violent wind”. There followed a time of ministry as people collapsed or cried. It never felt out of control, just a great release for people and a time of prayer.
Now I sometimes wonder if I really did hear that wind, but I know others heard it. Sometimes I wonder if it was some recording that was put on back stage, but John Wimber was never accused of that sort of manipulation. No, I heard it. Fr Jerry heard it. The wind of the Holy Spirit. But I’ve never heard it again.
The rushing wind and the tongues of fire are two manifestations of the Holy Spirit. But we have so many other descriptions, images, of the Holy Spirit. It seems that God, the Holy Spirit can come in power and might – the wind and flame, but also comes gentle as a dove and as the still small voice.
Describing the Holy Spirit and the work of the Spirit is done with images because how else can we describe the work of this third person of the Trinity? Roaring gales, gentle breath, tongues of flame, life giving streams, descending as a dove, oil of gladness. Throughout the Bible – both Old and New Testaments – are those hints of the Spirit. The very second verse of the Bible says “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”. There from the beginning.
But it is as if the hints – the still small voice that Elijah experienced on the mountain for instance – it’s as if the hints became explicit at Pentecost and would from then on be available to all who believed in Jesus – look at our gospel reading this morning, “I will ask the Father to send you an 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.” Now we could unpack lots of words here – what does the writer of John’s Gospel mean by “Advocate” or “the World”? That unpacking could be whole other sermons, so let’s just focus on the last words “he abides with you and he will be in you.” “He abides with you and he will be in you.”
There is a part of faith that is utterly personal to us, the stirrings of God within us – the sense of awe or wonder we might sometimes experience, a deep sense of peace that might come over us, the agitation of a calling we are trying to resist. This is the Holy Spirit, God abiding with us, living with us, being beside us. This is the Holy Spirit, God within us, at the centre of our very being, like a God pulse beating within us. Some people go through life never attuning themselves to that inner beat of God within. As Christians we know the Holy Spirit is with us and within us, and through prayer and worship and reading the Bible and talking to others we can become more and more attuned to the Spirit within, the beating pulse of God within us. How we describe that will be different for each one of us because the Holy Spirit gives us each an experience of the divine that is just for us.
I came across a new image for The Holy Spirit this week that really appealed to me. It was from the writings of St Basil the Great, a 4th Century Bishop and Theologian, who wrote a book called “On the Holy Spirit”. A passage from this book was set for the Office of Readings on Tuesday. I quote: Like the sunshine, which permeates all the atmosphere, spreading over land and sea, and yet is enjoyed by each person as though it were for him alone, so the Spirit pours forth his grace in full measure, sufficient for all, and yet present as though exclusively to everyone who can receive him.
I don’t think I am ever going to lie on a sunbed again without thinking of this. I know that feeling when I am lying in the sun and close my eyes, and even if I surrounded by others doing the same, it is as if I am in my own little world, with the sun beating down just on me, bathing me in warmth, renewing my very being. This is an image of the Spirit that works for me. Thank you, St Basil, writing 17 centuries ago for giving it to me.
In a sense we each have to find our own image from our experience of the Holy Spirit. As St Basil said the Holy Spirit is there over everything, but the Holy Spirit is intensely personal, giving an experience that is exclusive to us. We will each experience the Spirit differently and will find the descriptive image that works for us.
The challenge for us is to be open to the experience of that Spirit, have faith in the words of Jesus that he has asked the Father to send us that Advocate who will abide with us and be in us. Let us be open to the promptings of that Spirit. Rejoice in the moments of awe and wonder and recognise them as God the Holy Spirit giving us a gift. Don’t ignore the voice that comes in the night or the flutter in the tummy that seems to be telling us to do something for God. Trust in the leading of the Holy Spirit as you pray. Even in the next half hour, in this service, the Holy Spirit is there like the sunshine spreading over land and sea but waiting to be enjoyed by each one of us, as if for us alone. The Holy Spirit in the next half hour, in this place, in this service can give each of us an experience that is for us alone. Be open to it, rejoice in it and respond to it.