A Sermon from Sherborne
Come, Holy Spirit
A sermon for the Parish Eucharist preached in Sherborne Abbey at Pentecost, 20th May 2018 by The Reverend Jane Craw
The Saturday before last I went to Salisbury for my college reunion. There I met up with friends with whom I had trained to be a teacher way back in the 1970s. The College was a Church College and I was privileged to stay in the Close in Salisbury during my training. The Cathedral was my place of worship and so to return there with so many old friends for the service in the afternoon was especially moving. Bishop Karen preached beautifully on the ruby anniversary of the college’s closure but I have a confession to make. I did not hear all the words she spoke because my attention was caught upwards. I do not mean into some lofty spiritual realm but up to the beautiful art installation of 2,500 doves made from paper and they floated serenely in the Cathedral’s space between the roof and the floor of the nave. This installation was a work by Michael Pendry to symbolise the coming of peace, especially relevant to Salisbury following the attack with the nerve agent on Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
But for me it was more than that. With the coming of Pentecost so close and the symbol of the dove, I was transported into the domain of the Holy Spirit. The doves do not stand in isolation to each other, dotted about the Cathedral, but instead form a flowing movement and some of these creatures ‘fly’ towards the altar at the crossing. It is a flock in flight. Some are moving, others are completely motionless and then with a little draught others still are caught up in the dance. It is quite beautiful. What I noticed most was that there were fewer doves at the head of the flock and these remained almost stationary and seemed to be held in place by being attuned in silence to the creator of this spectacle. There were lessons galore to be found in this work of art, but how does this image fit with the reading of the coming of the Holy Spirit which we heard from the Book of Acts today?
The doves suspended in the Cathedral remind us of the disciples waiting, on Jesus’ instruction to stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit had come in power. They also reflected that great sense of unity conveyed in the first verse of today’s Epistle: They were altogether in one place.’ Each person had come with a sense of expectation and they had gathered together resting on the promise which Jesus had given.
As we have seen, the Cathedral doves of origami shifted as the gentle breeze moved through the space of that great building. The Holy Spirit is often associated with breath, breathing and gentleness. It is immersed in that onomatopoeic Hebrew word ruach which was present at the beginning of creation. But on that first day of Pentecost that gentle breeze billows into a wind with great power: ‘a sound like the rush of a violent wind’ was heard and felt. The Holy Spirit had come in audible terms. The tongues of flame demonstrated the visible purifying presence of the Spirit of God and the speaking in other languages showed that the barriers of language and culture were being broken down. God was doing a new thing, showing a new way. This dramatic occurrence marked the birth of the Church. There was no going back. God had once more broken into human history.
But was that moment in history for that time only or can we in the twenty-first century experience something of the work of the Holy Spirit? We need not be afraid. The Holy Spirit will only come as we seek him. He will never impose himself on us and he comes as we repent and look for his revitalising to renew our lives. The ‘dry bones’ of Ezekiel found life as the Spirit of God breathed on them. Sometimes we as Christians have become a little dry ourselves and need this revivification. The movements of the Holy Spirit at the end of the twentieth century have led to transformation in Christ and a profound sense of belonging to the Body of Christ. A friend of mine who experienced a new infilling of the Holy Spirit spoke of the joy of his encounter but also said: ‘You could feel the love of God bouncing off the walls.’ This renewal, however, is not given just to make us feel good but it is given for service so that God’s work can be done. It is that gift which brings life, mission and unity to our Church.
The Holy Spirit is not an ‘add-on’ which we can choose to embrace or not. He is an essential, integral part of the Church’s life. These wonderful words were spoken by a bishop of an Eastern rite at an ecumenical assembly:
Without the Holy Spirit:
God is far away,
Christ stays in the past,
The Gospel is a dead letter,
The Church is simply an organisation,
Authority a matter of denomination,
Mission a matter of propaganda,
Liturgy no more than an evocation,
Christian living a slave morality.
But with the Holy Spirit:
The cosmos is resurrected and groans with the birth-pangs of the Kingdom,
The risen Christ is there,
The Gospel is the power of life,
The Church shows forth the life of the Trinity,
Authority is a liberating service,
Mission is a Pentecost,
The liturgy is both memorial and anticipation,
Human action is deified.
So, for a moment let us remind ourselves of that flight of doves in Salisbury Cathedral. They were united in purpose and action; none was out of step with the other. The brilliance of the creator of this installation allowed them to dance before our eyes. And that is what God wants us to do for him, to dance in the delight of his love. Those doves were carried by the wind. Do we hear echoes of being swept along in the movement of God’s love?
I have entitled this sermon: Come, Holy Spirit. We all long for others to come to our Lord Jesus and for his churches to be full once again, so that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are worshipped and glorified. Perhaps for this to happen we have to seek a renewal of our own relationship with God, to seek that experience of the Holy Spirit so that Pentecost has fully come in our own encounter with God, enabling our hearts to be set free to dance before him. As we receive our Holy Communion today let us recommit ourselves to his service and ask for his Holy Spirit to take charge of us, change us and make us instruments of his service, immersed in his love. For that and all God’s good gifts to us . . . thanks be to God. Amen.