When they are at full throttle – and they usually are at full throttle – their manifestations of the Holy Spirit often include: beating on bongo drums, waving of flags, speaking in tongues, uttering prophetic words, sometimes leaping up and down on trampolines, and literally rolling in the aisles.
These activities are such a contrast from the home life of our own dear St Matthews that I sometimes find myself in charismatic settings feeling more than a little sympathetic to those bemused onlookers on the first day of Pentecost
When at 9 o’clock in the morning said of the suddenly multi-lingual disciples “What does this mean?…..These men must be filled with new wine.”
Today’s Gospel reminds us that there is more to the Holy Spirit than joyful exuberance.
Our two readings reflect two different teachings and traditions on the work of the Holy Spirit.
Acts, Chapter 2 presents the Spirit as the one who brings about new steps taken by the church in a new community of believers.
Steps which can sometimes be validated by ecstatic experiences.
But John’s teaching, more reflectively theological, places the Spirit in a Trinitarian perspective.
Just as by his Incarnation the Son reveals the Father by doing his work, so on the eve of his departure from the world Jesus is saying that he will send, from the Father, this new Spirit of Truth, who will continue and intensify the Father’s work by witnessing to Jesus as the truth and proving the world wrong about its sinfulness.
The complexities here can be challenging.
There’s an amusing story about a church in Northern Ireland whose congregation still regularly says the Athanasian Creed from the Book of Common Prayer.
On one occasion when the faithful were reciting the Athanasian Creed words:
I believe in the Father incomprehensible
the Son incomprehensible
the Holy Ghost incomprehensible
One irreverent Ulsterman was heard to mutter sotto voce:
“If you ask me the whole bally thing’s incomprehensible.”
Perhaps many of us have had one or two incomprehending moments about this aspect of Christian doctrine.
Some of you know that after I came out of prison, my next career move was to go to the only institution in Britain which served worse food than, and had worse plumbing than a prison.
This was an Anglican Theological College, Wycliffe Hall Oxford.
Evangelical in outlook it devoted much academic energy to teaching about the third person of God.
So several of my student essays were devoted to the Holy Spirit and to the doctrine of the Trinity.
Yet for all the scholarly tomes I read and lectures I attended at Oxford, nothing revealed the Holy Spirit in its rightful setting of the Trinity so clearly to me as did my human experiences of praying in a prison prayer group.
Usually we prisoners prayed aloud together, and it was noticeable that different members of the group addressed God in different ways.
Some of us prayed to God the Father, beginning in familiar ways such as Our Father, or Heavenly Father.
Sometimes those prayers seemed particularly poignant because so many of my fellow prisoners had never really had a father or even knew who their fathers were. So they prayed with deep longing to the God who would be for them a rock of paternal love and trust.
Others prayed to God the Son – perhaps because they longed for the things that Jesus stands for: – love mercy, healing, compassion and the forgiveness of sinners.
But sometimes the most powerful prayers were addressed to God the Holy Spirit – why? Because he was the Divine presence Jesus and the Father together sent here after the Ascension to be our Guide, Advocate, Comforter and Paracletos.
That word Paracletos perhaps best translates as the one who comes alongside us when we call. He is the one who empowers us to change our lives.
But how does the Holy Spirit do this? Our Gospel reading says that He will prove the world wrong about sin. Some versions of the Bible say that he will convict us of sin.
Of course its not only prisoners who know about convictions and being faced with the proof of their sins.
Up the road at HMP House of Commons, these days there are quite a few inmates who must be feeling convicted and judged.
But don’t let’s cast the first stone at them.
Because there are turning points in many people’s spiritual journeys towards Jesus when we feel convicted of our sins, and stirred towards a penitent longing for a deeper faith. This can be a painful process, but it is also a cleansing process, a necessary process, and ultimately a joyful process.
In his sermon last Sunday, Father Peter quoted Archbishop William Temple, of Blessed Memory.
In his commentary on today’s passage Temple refers to the ancient hymn of Pentecost known as Veni Creator and continues:
“When we pray
‘Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire
And lighten with celestial fire”
we had better know what we are about says Temple.
He will not carry us to easy triumphs and gratifying successes…..He may take us through loneliness, desertion by friends, apparent desertion even by God for that was the way Christ went to the Father. He may drive us into the Wilderness…. He may even lead us to the hill that is called the “Place of the Skull”.
Archbishop Temple’s warnings are certainly taking us a long way from bongo drums, waving flags and trampolines.
So there is a paradox here.
How can we reconcile this painful, purging, personally testing view of the work of the Holy Spirit with the joyful supernatural energy of wind, fire, and visions which Peter invoked to the crowd on the first day of Pentecost?
If we had been able to read on for a few more verses in Acts 2, we would have reached the climax of Peter’s speech when he says to the crowd, “Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that you sins may be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”.
Expressed in a different way this is the same work described by John who tells us in today’s Gospel that the Holy Spirit is coming to prove worldly people wrong about their sin.
This convicting work of the Holy Spirit is both cleansing and loving. It is designed to make men and women of the world recognise their need, guide them to the truth and bring them to Jesus. It is a profound and life changing process.
We need to be careful here of some superficial schools of thought which seems to believe that the Holy Spirit is a sort of instant spiritual elixir that can be produced in a convenient, worldly sort of way rather like James Bond ordering a dry martini with the request “Stirred but not shaken”. Not so. To rebut that easy believers’ concept may I go back to that prison prayer group for a final moment.
My witness to the work of the Holy Spirit when I was a prisoner and as someone who does prison ministry is that it is not just a stirring experience. It is a shaking experience and sometimes an utterly shattering experience.
Those who feel convicted of sin and then start to travel on the road of spiritual change from self centeredness to God centeredness are being divinely inspired and empowered.
The process inside their hearts and souls may not be as outwardly dramatic as mighty rushing winds and tongues of fire.
But I know that when you listen to the prayers of young prisoners asking for the Holy Spirit to come in and change their sinful lives and then you watch and pray them over the weeks and months, and you see them stopping swearing, throwing away porn magazines, breaking with their drug habits and turning to God in prayer and penitence and growing into new changed lives
Then you know that the power of the Holy Spirit can still today be as inspiring and strong as it was on that first day of Pentecost.
Let me end with two last thoughts.
The transforming power of the Holy Spirit is a gift from God the Father and God the Son. It comes mysteriously. As Jesus said when explaining the Holy City to Nicodemus in John III “The wind blows when it chooses and you hear the sound of it but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes”.
Here today in Westminster, we do know that winds of change blowing through individual lives and through the institutional lives of our Parliament and government.
So let us pray on this day of Pentecost that this may be the transforming power of the Holy Spirit at work in our nation.
© Jonathan Aitken