12 June 2011

Waiting on the Holy Spirit in Skerries

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” ... looking across to the towers and spires of Holmpatrick from Skerries Mills (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 12 June 2011: The Day of Pentecost (Whit Sunday)

Holmpatrick Parish Church, Skerries, Co Dublin:

10.30 a.m., Holy Communion.

Acts 2: 1-21; Psalm 104: 26-36, 37b; I Corinthians 12: 3b-13; John 20: 19-23

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Quite often, we think the gift of the Holy Spirit is something to consider only at ordinations or confirmations, or merely as a gift for Charismatic Evangelicals. But the gift of the Holy Spirit does not stop being effective the day after confirmation, the day after ordination, or the day after hearing someone speaking in tongues.

The gift of the Holy Spirit marks the beginning, the birthday, of the Church. And this is a gift that does not cease to be effective after Pentecost Day. The gift of the Holy Spirit remains with the Church – for all times.

In the Orthodox Church, they speak of the Church as the realised or lived Pentecost, for Pentecost recalls the descent of the Holy Spirit and the Birthday of the Church, founded through the preaching of the Apostles and the baptism of the thousands on that day who came to believe in the Good News of Christ.

On that Pentecost morning, as we read this morning, the disciples were at first full of fear and hiding, when suddenly, a sound came from heaven like a rushing wind, tongues of fire appeared, one on each one of Apostles, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2: 1-4).

When the people in Jerusalem heard this and came to hear the Apostles speaking, each in their own language (Acts 2: 5-6), some even thought the Apostles were drunk (Acts 2: 7-13). But on that day, about 3,000 people were baptised.

The story goes on to tell us that the newly baptised continued daily to hear the Apostles’ teaching, joining in fellowship, the breaking of bread, and for prayer – just as we are doing at this Eucharist this morning – and the Lord added to new members to the Church each day (Acts 2: 42-47).

At Pentecost, we see the fulfilment of the promise of the Holy Spirit given by the Risen Christ in our Gospel reading. Because of that gift at Pentecost, the Church is brought together in diversity and sustained in unity through the presence and work of the Holy Spirit.

This is the Holy Spirit that is to guide the Church in our missionary endeavours – not just throughout the world, but here in this diocese, in this parish, in Skerries too.

This is the Holy Spirit that nurtures the Body of Christ, the Church, in truth and in love.

And yet, most people probably think of the Holy Spirit as some invisible appendix of God the Father and God the Son, something for Pentecost; perhaps, we think of the gifts given at confirmation. But not talk easily about the Holy Spirit; perhaps someone might think we are too enthusiastic about Christianity, about religion.

Thinking about the Holy Spirit is more difficult because of the images of the Holy Spirit in traditional Christian art: a dove in paintings and stained-glass windows that looks more like a homing pigeon; or tongues of fire dancing around meekly-bowed heads of people cowering and hiding in that upper room.

We think, perhaps, that it is best to leave thinking about the Holy Spirit to this day, the Day of Pentecost, or to a once-a-year Confirmation service, and let the rest of us get on for the rest of the year with God simply being God the Father or God the Son.

But the Holy Spirit is not something added on as an extra course, as an after-thought after the Resurrection and Ascension.

When it comes to the point in the Nicene Creed this morning where we say “We believe in the Holy Spirit,” do we really believe in the Holy Spirit as “the Lord, the giver of life,” in the Holy Spirit as the way in which God “has spoken through the prophets”?

As a blogger, I post on the internet, on average, every day, or every second day … my lecture notes, my sermons, my walks on the beach, especially here in Skerries, or about travel, local history, music, architecture and poetry. But I have almost no way of knowing whether these notes and ramblings have any impact once they go out into cyberspace.

About three years ago, when I faced up to some personal difficulties, I blogged on how my mind kept returning to those words from Dame Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

I wrote how Julian’s positive outlook does not come from ignoring suffering or being blind to it, but arises from the clarity she attained struggling with her own questions. This struggle gave her the ability to see beyond her own pain and suffering and to look into the compassionate face of God. Only this gazing could reassure her that – despite pain, and sorrow – in God’s own time, “all shall be well.”

Almost immediately, a former work colleague rang to know if I was all right. He offered a friendly ear, and his response was comforting and consoling. It was a response, I felt, prompted by the Holy Spirit.

Over the years, there have been some other responses to this posting. Then, last month, an anonymous reader posted, saying: “Thank you for this gift. [I r]eceived very difficult news this past week and kept looking for a silver lining – some way to give thanks to God for what has happened in my life … In reading the words ‘All shall be well . . .’ was a great reminder of the hope that Christ gives us and as well, that Christ is with us each second of the day. Thank you again for the reminder of ‘God with us’ no matter what.”

It was a response out of the blue. And after three years it put my own difficulties then in perspective. Three years later, someone else found comfort in my own reflections on my own sorrows.

I don’t know who she is or where she lives. But if this was the only blog-post I had a response to, if this was the only reader I had for the past three years, then all the other postings had been worth it. We cannot control, quantify or restrict the way in which the Holy Spirit uses or values our work, or uses us to work with others. And for most of the time, we’re better off not knowing.

When I shared this experience with some colleagues one evening recently, one of them was reminded of a saying in the Talmud – one of the sacred texts of Judaism: “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” [Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4: 1 (22a); Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a.]

It is a saying found throughout rabbinic literature, that is repeated in the Quran, and that inspired Oskar Schindler, the hero of the movie Schindler’s List.

As our conversation continued, one clerical colleague told of a man who turned up in his church that week for a quiet mid-day service. This man in his mid-40s was visiting Ireland on business, and had often visited churches and cathedrals. But had never before been so moved as he was by this mid-day Eucharist.

He approached my friend afterwards and asked for a quiet moment. He wanted to be baptised ... there and then. He had been moved by the Holy Spirit.

My friend asked him to wait, to come back in an hour or two. And he did. Two parishioners stood as sponsors or godparents. It was all over in 10 or 15 minutes. The man rang his wife full of joy. He felt he had arrived where he ought to be. Outwardly, he was full of joy. Inwardly, he had arrived, he was at home, he had found his peace with God.

What had happened? The Holy Spirit had moved, and he had responded.

“Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

God never leaves us alone. This is what Christ promises the disciples, the whole church, in our Gospel reading this morning. We need have no fears, for the Resurrection breaks through all the barriers of time and space.

And as a sign of this, Christ promises the gift of the Holy Spirit and says: “Peace be with you.”

If you have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift at your Confirmation, the gift that we all receive as the Church at Pentecost, how then do you let others know? How do I share that peace? Can I truly forgive others as Christ forgives me?

If the Holy Spirit is the Advocate and is living in me, then who am I an advocate for? Who do I speak up for when there is no-one else to speak up for them? Who am I, in my own small, quiet, un-dramatic way, an Oskar Schindler for?

I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit works in so many ways that we cannot understand how. And that the Holy Spirit works best and works most often in the quiet small ways rather than in the big dramatic ways.

Don’t put down or dismiss the small efforts to make this a better world. “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

Gandhi once said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” And he also said: “Only he who is foolish enough to believe that he can change the world, really changes it.”

And sometimes, even when it seems foolish, sometimes, even when it seems extravagant, it is worth being led by the Holy Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit may be leading us to surprising places, and leading others to be there too.

And so may all we think, say, and do, be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.


Almighty God,
who on the day of Pentecost
sent your Holy Spirit to the apostles
with the wind from heaven and in tongues of flame,
filling them with joy and boldness to preach the gospel:
By the power of the same Spirit
strengthen us to witness to your truth
and to draw everyone to the fire of your love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Post Communion Prayer:

Faithful God,
who fulfilled the promises of Easter
by sending us your Holy Spirit
and opening to every race and nation the way of life eternal:
Open our lips by your Spirit,
that every tongue may tell of your glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Parish Eucharist in Holmpatrick Parish Church, Skerries, Co Dublin, on the Day of Pentecost, 12 June 2011.

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