Sermon for All Saints’, Ryde
Pentecost, 16th May 2021
Readings: Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

It’s a great moment in the year, the festival of Pentecost,
the church’s birthday, the coming of the Holy Spirit for all
peoples. Pentecost is originally the Jewish Festival kept on
the 50th day after the Passover – our Maundy Thursday – a
major celebration of the encounter with the LORD in the
Sinai desert and the giving of the Law to Israel.
For us as Christians, this is the festival of the coming of the
Holy Spirit, shown in these ancient symbols of the dove,
the wind, and the fire. (And in John’s gospel, the water).
So what is the experience of the Holy Spirit LIKE? – well it’s
in our language isn’t it in phrases such as ‘feeling the
breeze’, ‘hearts burning’, offering an ‘olive branch’, and
‘inspired’, from the Latin ‘to breathe’.
It’s in moments when we get it, glimpse or recognise
something new, in another person, in ourselves, or in the
world – and this is an awareness common to all humanity.
Sometimes we feel it’s a gale and sometimes a gentle
breeze. Often, perhaps, we instinctively mistrust it or
disbelieve it, because it is mysterious and we are not in
control. The Spirit calls us on to the heavenly world where
we are in our proper places, giving glory to God not overreaching ourselves in pride and control – which is what the
Genesis story of the tower of Babel is about. And our pride
and our control do often make it very difficult to
communicate well, don’t they, even with those we share a
language with?
The coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts reverses the
confusion of Babel. The Holy Spirit is poured out on all
flesh, not just on one chosen race of people – be they
Jews, priests, or Manchester City players – but on
everyone, on all humanity, and the Spirit enables them –
enables us – to see visions and dream dreams.
Not everyone gets it. Some think these people are drunk. I
had an urgent email from my Uncle Mike when my mum
told him I was going to train for ordained ministry. ‘James’,
he said, ‘isn’t that a bit extreme!’ He had hoped I would
continue with law in the city, which is absolutely the right
call for some people, but wasn’t for me – and he didn’t get
it.
Some of us might today feel inadequate, that the Spirit has
been poured out, but we might feel we have somehow
missed out. Thank God, some clearly Spirit-filled people
have been beset by a feeling of God’s absence. A famous
example of this is Mother Teresa, who for over fifty years
experienced what St. John of the Cross calls the ‘dark
night of the soul’. This doesn’t mean that she thought God
was absent – she knew that he was present, but she just
couldn’t feel that presence. ‘If I ever become a saint,’ she
wrote, ‘I will surely be one of “darkness”. I will continually
be absent from heaven – to light the light of those in
darkness on earth.’ Not for Mother Teresa the comfortable,
tidy images of a controllable God.
She knew that God is uncontrollable, and vaster than our
imaginations can hope to understand, but she also knew
intimately the crucifixion of Jesus, who felt abandoned on
the Cross. And she knew the great paradox that through
the work of the Spirit, as she put it, ‘…[I]f we love until it
hurts, God will give us his peace and his joy.’
Sometimes, the flame of the Spirit is hidden for many
years, or expressed in humble service, but still present – as
in the strange and wonderful film, Babette’s Feast, in which
Babette’s long, simple humdrum service finally has the
chance to blossom magnificently in the final feast. As well
as being an incomparable culinary delight, the generosity
and love and joy poured into the meal and its guests also
makes possible a spiritual awakening and reconciliation in
which old wounds and grudges are softened and healed.
The Spirit is unpredictable like that, often not as we expect.
In both the Hebrew of the Old Testament, and the Greek of
the New Testament, the word for ‘Spirit’ is also the word for
‘wind’, and ‘breath.’ I’m not sure if and when I will bring my
saxophone over but the wind and breath there has always
been one of my little badges for the Spirit – as in this poem
by Steve Turner, ‘Spiritus’:
I used to think of you
As a symphony
Neatly structured
Full of no surprises.
Now I see you as a
Saxophone solo
Blowing wildly
Into the night,
A tongue of fire,
Flicking in unrepeated patterns.
But let’s remember too that the work of the Spirit is not
primarily individualist. The work of the Spirit is not only to
be the Comforter, but also to confront and challenge a
world that has lost its way in issues of sin and grace,
righteousness, judgement and compassion.
These are the spirit’s concerns, not, as John Pridmore
vividly put it, ‘self-absorbed ecstasies in overheated
services or the inner calm produced by sitting for a long
time with your legs around your neck’ [Church Times]
What might this mean all for us today and in the coming
year at All Saints’ and for all the people of our parish in
Ryde whom we serve? In the midst of our individual
journeys and callings, can we unite in the power of the
Spirit?
I remember a funny story from Steve, who came as an
experienced Vicar new to a big charismatic church in the
Deanery where I was Curate. He said he had five different
visitors in his first week, each with messages from the Holy
Spirit – and they said some quite different things! I
remember him saying, ‘they can’t all be right!.’
Perhaps a better place for us to start is knowing our need
of this life-giving Spirit, each one of us, in the trust and
hope that, as we hear from Acts: ‘Everyone who calls on
the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ We each bring our
own gifts to the life and witness of the church, which feeds
us to be people of God wherever we are called to be in our
everyday lives, to recognise and join in with the Spirit ‘out
there’ too.
To sing in prayer ‘Come Down O Love divine’ is to offer
ourselves as a channel for the spirit for the sake of the
world. In our homes and workplaces, in our souls and in
our churches.
From the prophecy of Joel that Peter shares, when your
sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and the young see
visions, and the old dream dreams, they are to prove the
world wrong, not for merely private salvation but for the
fruit of faith in all creation.
So may we today offer ourselves afresh to play our part in
the work of God’s Holy Spirit – and to find ourselves
blessed in it.
Amen.
Revd James Percival
Interim Priest in Charge

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