Saturday, 23 May 2015
SERMON PREACHED AT THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL
OF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST
NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND
FEAST OF PENTECOST
(24th May) 2015
There are some three hundred biblical mentions of the One who came to be known as the Holy Spirit and Third Person of the Trinity, running through both testaments. and particularly prevalent in that pneumatological book that we know as the Acts of the Apostles, but which might be called something like the Act of the Spirit in and through the Church. A year ago a handful of you shared something of your experience and understanding of the Spirit. Those tellings provided profound insight, and it would be lovely to hear more in another year or two. At the very least though we should have the idea that there are a myriad biblical and post-biblical experiences, now and in the span of biblical times, of the One we have come to know as Spirit, the ruarch or the pneuma of God. There are also many heresies, defined as such by the early Church, into which we can neatly fall if we try too hard to define who this Person of the Trinity. I shall probably embrace many if not all not only in the next few minutes of reflection but in the remaining years of my life.
Since this has been a chaotic week I shall permit myself a personal reflection, a story from the heart. As a convert to Christianity all those years ago I hold a privileged position, that glorious contrast between being and not-being. Because there is a day and an hour when for me the journey towards faith in the Risen Lord solidified in commitment there are memories of contrast, of the is and the was not. A psychologist could dismiss all my contrasts of experience in that quasi- or perhaps pseudo-rational language of the so-called social sciences. I have a suspicion that the language and world view of the social sciences is at least if not more irrational and unquantifiable as the weird and wonderful poetic language of faith.
So there I was, the morning after the evening when I surrendered my life to the God I had for several years refused to believe existed. There I was on the roadside, in a state no doubt of religious euphoria, with all sorts of psychological explanations possible, a state not unlike but far less chemically engineered than the states I had often sought to generate with illegal substances in the years leading up to that moment. There I was with my thumb out, hitching home to Palmerston North after coming to faith. Across the road as I waited foals frolicked in a paddock. Suddenly with all the force of an epiphany I realized that I was now in relationship with the Creator of those animals and their frolic. It was, yes, an epiphanous moment. It was not a rational or scientific moment.
But neither is the God of the Cross a rational or a scientific God. What I was experiencing that Sunday afternoon was the liberation of the soul, and yes the psyche too, that is in some circumstances an overwhelming human need. There are a myriad ways in which that moment can be psychoanalysed away, but what I was experiencing that Sunday afternoon was also the much needed liberating force of God’s Pneuma, God’s Ruarch. Choose your language, God’s Wairua, God’s Spirit.
The winds of change were blowing undeservedly through the life of this not particularly important individual, liberating him from God alone knows what incarcerations and restrictions and yes insecurities and failings too – and God alone knows plenty of insecurities and failings remain too because the work of transformation is, at least until the New Heavens and the New Earth, a work of the Spirit of God still in progress. It was though the work of initial liberation of a troubled soul, just as in the previous decade or so a wind of liberation had, as I noted over the last couple of weeks, blown through the institutionalised insecurities of Anglican ecclesiology, blowing us apart, never to be the same again.
For that had been the God-given gift of Charismatic renewal that had been blasting through the corridors of Anglicanism for nearly two decades before I caught that bus of faith and renewal. The old institutional mindset of salvation by propriety and of cleanliness next to godliness God knows needed blowing apart. I had caught the very tail end of a wind that had blown through the institution, and it blew through me and liberated me just as it had liberated many Anglican Christians.
Naturally, as is almost always the case, the first fires, the first flush of what St Paul cleverly refers to as enthusiasm settled down during the years after I watched those horses in a Whanganui paddock.
Psychologists would (rightly I suspect) suggest that the human being can only sustain so much ecstasy. I discovered new dimensions and new disciplines and new responsibilities attached to this Way of the Cross I had elected to follow. In some circles the liberation of the Spirit itself came to be corrupted, to that the ecstasy and the inanity became the Thing, rather than the aroha and the demanding commitment to justice and compassion that is the heart and soul of the Way of the Cross. In some circles sensationalism and the externalisation of infantile fantasies became the Thing and the voice of Jesus-the-compassionate was lost, cats were exorcised, normally intelligent people crawled around barking for Jesus, and much that was no more than charlatanism grew in the fertile soils of faith. Sometimes it’s enough to make me believe in a devil, though those same people were the ones who sensationalised the demonic to the extent that I decided it was wiser to re-mythologise evil in ways unknown to the biblical writers (though that perhaps is another theological discourse for another time altogether!).
Somehow by the grace of God I and others with whom I came into orbit found that the Spirit of Pentecost was always only ever leading us into relationship with and emulation of the Christ of the Cross. Somehow by the grace of God I and others with whom I came into orbit found that the Spirit of Pentecost was leading us into tough disciplines of social justice – not ever party politically based – and the sometimes if not often disciplines of cycles of prayer. It was not an easy journey and for this dissipated believer it took nearly two decades to even begin to learn the way of prayer shaped by the Christ-bringing Spirit of Pentecost.
I am far from “there”, wherever “there” is, yet. But slowly the Spirit of Pentecost shaped me in the belief that all experience of God must lead me and you and all of us towards the justice-proclaiming, compassion-exercising Jesus of the Cross of the gospels. Such justice-proclaiming, compassion-exercising participation in the work of the Jesus-presenting Spirit had and has sociological implications, often leading us to the wrong side of the tracks, had and has environmental dimensions, leading us to proclaim justice for the hurting species and peoples of the earth, had and has compassion dimension, often leading us to hold the hand and take the cause of the unlovely. If I do it at all I could never do it without the inflammation of the Pentecostal Spirit, for I am about as closeted, still, and as middle-class privileged as a white boy can get.
Yet in the ongoing surrender to this strange Spirit of the Cross, whose interconnections with Creator-Parent and Incarnate Child we shall explore more next week, there is the impetus to participate in, strive for the healing for and renewal of creation, even if I believe personally that this aim can be fulfilled only in the as yet unseen but coming new heaven and earth. In the ongoing surrender to this strange Spirit of the Cross is the renewal of the self, which though never complete this side of the grave nevertheless begins to prepare us for the encounter with the blinding light of the creating, judging God revealed in the beckoning Christ of the Cross. In the ongoing surrender to this strange Spirit of the Cross is the redemption that we sing of in our hymns and pray for in our prayers. May that Spirit continue to nudge on the journey.