Saturday, 8 June 2019

Receive the Spirit - Keep my commandments

Acts 2.1-13; John 14.15-17, 25-27

Today we celebrate Pentecost - the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. Pentecost is sometimes called “the Birthday of the Church.” It’s the Holy Spirit coming upon ordinary men and women like us that makes the difference. The rest we might say is history. But also something to be lived now. On the first Easter Day the risen Christ had come to the disciples behind locked doors and breathed on them with the words, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Fifty days later, ten days after the Ascension of Jesus into the heavens, the Holy Spirit comes as if with tongues of fire - and it makes all the difference to those disciples. The Spirit is the very breath of God, the life of God breathing in us. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” St. Paul tells us. That means to each one of us - and to each one of us now! At a Confirmation the Bishop prays for those who are confirmed:

Let your Holy Spirit rest upon them:
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding;
the Spirit of counsel and inward strength;
the Spirit of knowledge and true godliness;
and let their delight be in the fear of the Lord.

That’s a prayer which asks of each of us who has already been confirmed: How can God’s Holy Spirit work in me? Am I ready for him to make a difference to the way I live? Am I ready to be delivered from despondency and the feeling that things can only wind down? Am I ready to allow the Spirit of God to breathe in me with his life? – to deliver me from staleness and direct me beyond my expectation?

“In the one Spirit we were all baptised into one Body…” writes St. Paul. That Body is Christ’s - and at the same time that Body is the Church. It’s a Church in which the Spirit breathes, which is called to look beyond its walls, which can have faith because each day it is given new life.

And there’s maybe some encouragement for us in this. These first Christians who met on the day of Pentecost seem to have nothing much going for them. They could have sat around and reminisced about the good old days with Jesus, but the memories would have faded. They could have gone on in the belief that the twelve apostles had some special understanding for others to admire, but the disciples themselves don’t seem to have been terribly admirable people – even their leader, Peter, keeps blowing hot and cold. 

The difference is made – not by any qualities that those first Christians had in themselves – but by the Holy Spirit. They were together… ‘and suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them... and all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.’

What can the Church offer people? - we sometimes ask. But Pentecost reminds us the real question is, what can God offer the Church? Or rather what can God offer the world, and will the Church go along with it or get in the way? These first Christians don’t have the time to ask questions like that. They rush out, it seems, to start telling the crowds what has happened. And what has happened is not just that they have had an experience which they recognise as the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. It’s that suddenly it all makes sense! Everything is coming together. Now they see the truth of what they had believed as Jews… that God is at work in the lives of his people, even when they wander from his ways, even when things don’t go well, even when they’re forced into exile by other nations. Now they understand where Jesus fits in – that his teaching, death and resurrection point to God’s work in their midst. And now they recognise that God will go on working through his Holy Spirit, poured out to give them a new boldness, to turn them from looking inwards to share their message urgently with everyone around them.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus tells the Disciples at the Last Supper that God will send his Holy Spirit upon them. And he reminds them: “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” What are the commandments? At their most simple there are just two - Love God; and love your neighbour as yourself. Receiving the Holy Spirit and keeping the commandments - putting love into practice - go together.

How can we work this out? 

We need to recognise our calling as Christians - to know what it is to be God’s people and to act upon it. How can we show that we are Christians? There are in traditional teaching “seven corporal works of mercy” – seven things you can do which will make a difference to the physical well-being of other people:

1. To feed the hungry.
2. To give drink to the thirsty.
3. To clothe the naked.
4. To shelter the homeless.
5. To visit the sick.
6. To visit the imprisoned.
7. To bury the dead.

They’re practical things – and a good place to start for any Christian. But there are also “seven spiritual works of mercy:”

1. To instruct the ignorant.
2. To counsel the doubtful.
3. To admonish sinners.
4. To bear wrongs patiently.
5. To forgive the offences of others.
6. To comfort the afflicted.
7. To pray for the living and the dead

Where can we make a start? – if we let God’s Holy Spirit move and direct our lives?

I love the story told by Mother Teresa of Calcutta of a visit she made to a lonely old man in Melbourne, Australia: ‘I saw his room in a terrible state, and I wanted to clean his house, his room, and he kept on saying, “I’m all right”. But I repeated the same words, “You will be more all right if you will allow me to clean your place”, and at the end he allowed me. And there in that room there was a beautiful lamp covered with the dirt of many years, and I asked him, “Why do you not light your lamp?” Then I asked him, “Will you light the lamp if the Sisters come to see you?” He said, “Yes, if I hear a human voice I will do it”. And the other day he sent me word, “Tell my friend the light she has lit in my life is still burning.”’

Will we discover that lamp, perhaps hidden away and dusty, which can burn for us? Will we clean it and let it give light? Can we help others to find that light? 

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