Sermon 23rd May 2021
It is so inspiring to hear how the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Christian church was born. Over 2000 years and still here! Over the last 11 days, between Ascension and Pentecost, we have been encouraged to engage with the international prayer movement ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ and much of this talk is based on my reflections during this period. As well as the booklet, there have been videos for all ages, a song written in partnership with the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (who produced the Fruitfulness on the Frontlines resources we used at the start of lockdown) and a partnership with the 24/7 prayer app resource Lectio 365 producing a daily reflection. Seeing all these organisations working together has been inspirational, especially as we begin to explore what partnerships God is calling us to develop as we move forward with the vision for Holy Trinity. There is a real sense that God is on the move in Warrington, like Aslan in the Narnia stories; that there are great opportunities to serve God here and to reflect the love of Christ in our town. But none of it will be possible, nothing will succeed without the Holy Spirit.
Thy Kingdom Come 2021 has acknowledged the difficult and challenging season we have all been through and from which we are now, God willing, emerging. But such a season leaves its mark on us individually and as a church, we all come out of this season changed. So, what happens next…
Throughout the second half of John’s gospel, Jesus is preparing his disciples for what will happen, his death and resurrection, but they don’t really understand what he is saying until afterwards. The description of Jesus’ ascension in Matthew’s gospel says that ‘When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted’ (28:17). I found the note in TKC about this reference to doubt really helpful; the theologian R T France explained that this word ‘doubt’ is not translated as unbelief but as a sense of uncertainty, of hesitancy. They know Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah and their saviour, but they didn’t know what would happen next, what did all this mean for them moving forward. Jesus promises them the Holy Spirit, and that while they won’t see him any longer, he will be with them to the very end of the age. And He is also with us by His Holy Spirit.
It is sometimes hard to get a grasp of the Holy Spirit - I think that’s kind of the point, it is a wonderful mystery. The more I read and learn in ordination training, the more I am struck by how limited we are by our language and understanding. Proverbs 3:5&6 says ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your understanding in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight’. I don’t believe that means we are not meant to think or study or try to develop our minds but to acknowledge we are limited compared to our limitless God. In Isaiah 55:8&9, the Lord says ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways…As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’. Laura Mixon Story and Jesse Reeves wrote the wonderful song Indescribable which reflects that God is indescribable, uncontainable, all powerful, untameable, incomparable, unchangeable – our amazing God. It is sometimes hard to think that God would want to use us, or that the Holy Spirit could work in our lives? But the Bible shows us he does.
The medieval theologian Stephen Langton wrote a hymn which describes something of the role of the Spirit in recreating, renewing, healing and redirecting human nature, he called on the Spirit to:
Wash what is dirty; refresh what is dry; heal what is wounded; bend what is stubborn; melt what is frozen; direct what is wandering.
Wash what is dirty
The Holy Spirit helps us to recognise where we are not what we should be, where we have made mistakes, and works within us to be what God purposed for us, what he created us for. The Spirit convicts us of our sin and works in us to be more like Jesus. God knows we are but dust; that while we live this earthly life we will, inevitably get things wrong. But God so loved the world, loved us that he sent the remedy – his only Son Jesus Christ, and when Jesus’ sacrificial, saving work was done, he sent the Holy Spirit to help us live in line with his will. As Christians we strive to walk the line, however imperfectly. Psalm 51 cries out ‘Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.’ The image of the Holy Spirit as a fire reflects the power of God to purify and refine our hearts, an ongoing process. It is like those T-shirts that were popular a while back – ‘God is not finished with me yet’! We are a work in progress.
Refresh what is dry:
In John chapter 7 Jesus stands before a crowd and says, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’ John then explains ‘By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.’ The image of water, of being refreshed and renewed runs throughout the Bible. In a land where there were deserts, and water was a precious resource this made a lot of sense. But I think we can all relate to times when we have felt dry, spent, running on empty. Where do we turn when we feel like this? Jesus says ‘Come to me’. We can also find times of refreshing together as the church. The purpose of the Sabbath, a Sunday, is our coming together to worship and spend time with God, to find rest, to be renewed and refreshed. TKC points out that ‘It is hard to be a Christian on your own. You cut yourself off from this food and drink’ by which they mean the gathering together to share communion - the bread and wine but also, I think, the spiritual food of hearing God’s word. This is what the first disciples understood. They were together in the room, praying together. The early church was rooted in community, gathering together daily. TKC highlights that ‘faith is not a private thing, but a way of life lived in community…we need to nurture this life in celebration with each other.’ This is the church. We who are one body share his risen life together (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).
Heal what is wounded:
In any community there are weaknesses and strengths. Individual weaknesses and strengths as well as corporate weaknesses and strengths. The church is made up of imperfect people who acknowledge their great need for the forgiveness, mercy and grace of God. The Holy Spirit builds and sustains our fellowship – disciples growing together despite our weakness and complimenting one another’s strengths and giftings. Even great Christians like Corrie ten Boom recognised her need of the Spirit’s help when she later met the prison guard from the Nazi concentration camp in which her sister died. It was only with the Spirit’s help that she could shake his hand and forgive him. From that heartfelt experience, she became a powerful speaker on the importance of forgiveness to others.
While the Holy Spirit can and does play a part in physical healing, it is our spiritual brokenness, our wounded hearts and relationships, the way we wound the image of God in our lives, that the Spirit heals.
Bend what is stubborn:
The great hymn ‘Tell out my soul’ talks about how ‘Proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight’ in light of God’s greatness. Human beings have a tendency to ‘proud hearts and stubborn wills’ – I certainly recognise that tendency in myself, striving to be in control and trying to do things in my own strength like a stubborn toddler, this can often end badly! Jesus calls us to be like children; not so much stubborn toddlers but rather to be completely dependent on Him. Staying close to God and surrendering our will to His, seeking to be guided by the Holy Spirit, is a far better way to go. In Acts 4, after Peter’s speech at Pentecost, and his subsequent healing of a lame beggar, he is hauled before the Sanhedrin and told to stop talking about Jesus. Despite the threats, Peter prays with the other disciples that God will ‘enable your servant to speak your word with great boldness’ and they are refilled with the Holy Spirit. Throughout Acts we see how the church grows because the disciples are rooted in prayer and submit to God’s will. By submitting to God, we are better able to align our hearts and wills with His, and be used by the Holy Spirit for His purposes.
Melt what is frozen:
We are not to have hard hearts - Jesus commands us to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ And ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Adoration and worship should characterise our lives as Christians, responding to the great love of God, shown in Jesus and experienced though the Holy Spirit. The word adore comes from the Latin ‘ad’ and ‘ōrãre’ which means to ask/pray. Jeremiah 29:11-13 ‘For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.’ We are called to love one another and share the love of God with those we live alongside – those on our frontlines. ‘God so loved the world that he sent his only Son’ so that all people could be restored and reconciled to Him. TKC states that being his followers, being his church ‘means being part of this great love affair. We become God’s agents of change, God’s ambassadors for love in the world’. CS Lewis wrote ‘I was born to adore and obey’ and we are called to follow Jesus and use our gifts, everything he has placed into our hands, to serve and point to him. We are not all great writers like C S lewis, but our lives can be the love story people read, our lives, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can point to Him.
Direct what is wandering:
After Jesus’ death, some of his disciples left Jerusalem. Scared, confused, full of grief and unsure of how these things could have happened. Jesus joins them on the road to Emmaus, although they don’t recognise him at first and, on that journey, he opens up the scriptures, helping them to understand these things had to happen. When they recognise it is Jesus, they rush back to Jerusalem to share the good news of his resurrection. Jesus walks beside us by his Spirit as we try to make sense of things, drawing us back to the scriptures and guiding us on our journey. As a teacher, I know the importance of overlearning, of cycling back to what we learnt earlier, revisiting, refreshing and building on our understanding. The Spirit acts as a teacher – In John 14:25-26, Jesus says ‘But the Holy Spirit, whom my Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.’ Spiritual overlearning is so important as we grow together in faith.
Not only that, but the Spirit equips us. Throughout the Bible the Spirit gifts and equips God’s people to the glory of God. In the OT it tended to be individual people at a specific time for a particular reason. But in the NT Peter recalls the OT prophecy in Joel – that the Holy Spirit is for all people. ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.’ 1 Peter 4:10 says ‘Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others as fruitful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms’ – there is great variety in the gifts of God for his great purposes and we all have a part to play.
On the day of Pentecost, the people heard Peter’s message and cried out ‘what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” He calls to us all, but we have a choice whether to respond.
Are our hearts yearning for the Spirit to ‘Wash what is dirty; refresh what is dry; heal what is wounded; bend what is stubborn; melt what is frozen; direct what is wandering’? It can be a challenge in our hectic world to set aside time to think and pray about this.
In his reflection for Thy Kingdom Come, Archbishop Angaelos reflected on the way the world can consume us and the importance of ringfencing time and space every day to be silent, to be still, and reconnect with the presence of God, to be filled and refilled with the Holy Spirit. He said, ‘I love ministry, I love people and I love serving but if I don’t get filled first, how do I help others…Solitude, silence gives us time to retreat from the world for a little while and be with God…While the Spirit is that mighty rushing wind of Pentecost it is also the one who brings peace and stillness and the presence of God.’ I find this a real challenge. So, we are going to spend a little time now in stillness and silence to enter God’s presence and ask for his Holy Spirit to fill us afresh.
A prayer from Lectio 365 ‘Father in our waiting, give us hope. Jesus in our wanting, give us strength. And Spirit, in our longing, give us the truth of God’s promises written over our lives. Help us to embrace the silence which precedes and invites the rushing wind and fire of your presence. In stillness, we wait for you, O Lord.’