Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, 23rd May 2021
Readings: Acts 2:1-11; Galatians 5:16-25; John 15:26-27,16:12-15
‘Everything continues in a state of rest unless it is compelled to change by forces impressed upon it’, wrote Sir Isaac Newton in his first law of motion. Change often comes as a result of a crisis: after the First World War, council housing was introduced to create ‘homes fit for heroes’; after the Second World War, the national health service was founded; one wonders what momentous changes will come as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Holy Spirit came at Pentecost following the crisis of the crucifixion of Jesus, and would could have been reckoned as the crisis of his leaving this world. However the Holy Spirit transformed the apostles, for the Spirit is the transforming power of God, the means by which the Christian can be challenged, inspired and enabled to change.
At life-changing moments such as confirmation and ordination the Spirit is invoked: as the bishop lays on hands he requests the Spirit to confirm and consecrate. In the Eucharistic Prayer the Holy Spirit is invoked to change the bread and wine so that they become for us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. That important moment, which we call the epiclesis is marked by the first ringing of the bell in our Mass.
When the prophet Samuel anointed Saul he said that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon him and he would be changed into a different person. Saul was from the least significant clan of the smallest tribe of Israel, the tribe of Benjamin, but he was raised up to do great things in the power of the sprit. However Saul did not keep the commands of God, and so David was raised up to replace him.
Isaiah speaks of the Spirit of the Lord resting upon the Messiah: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and power, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. Jesus himself proclaimed that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him in the Nazareth synagogue, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah to the fury of his neighbours.
The Holy Spirit is in us, among us and around us all. But we have to open our souls for him to transform us. St Hilary of Poitiers wrote that the Spirit is always available and given freely to all, however it is given in proportion to each person’s will to receive the Spirit. If we are not open to the Spirit, what the Spirit can do with us is limited.
There is a chorus which says ‘Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me, melt me, mould me, fill me, use me.’ I had that played at my induction at Hemsby, before the Bishop of Norwich laid his hands on me. Unfortunately he didn’t know that Vera the organist had been told to play it three times, so twice his attempts to lay on hands were thwarted by Vera with full tremolo! The chorus sums up how the power of the Spirit works most effectively if we throw off our selfish desires and abandon ourselves to the Spirit, to be melted, moulded, filled and used. In order to be filled by the Spirit we need first to empty ourselves.
As human beings we are filled with worldly preoccupations, but the Holy Spirit which God enshrines in us helps us to aspire to be more, to be better, holier people. St Paul in his letter to the Galatians talks about the Spirit and self-indulgence being at odds with one another. We may have good intentions but because we are weak, we give way to sin. But he says that we must stand firm and nail those self-indulgent passions and crucify them. What a vivid image that is, that we rid ourselves of our sins by nailing them to the cross.
Though we may like the idea of progress, we may not like having to change. The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy wrote that ‘everyone thinks of changing the world but no one thinks of changing himself.’ We may perceive faults and failings all around us, but fail to recognize our own personal need to change. And even if we do, we may find all sorts of reasons and excuses not to change. Mahatma Gandhi recommended that we should be the change we want to see in the world. None of us is completely without influence.
St Paul says that if we are governed by the Holy Spirit then we will receive the gifts of the Spirit and grow in holiness and bear fruit. It is not always easy to be good or holy, it takes effort and persistence and we cannot do it through our strength alone but if we will let him in, the Spirit can help to change us, to transform us into the Lord’s likeness with ever-increasing glory.