21 May 2017

‘He himself gives to all mortals
life and breath and all things’

‘He himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things’ (Acts 17: 25) ... the steps up the Areopagus in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 21 May 2017: The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick,

9.45 a.m.: Morning Prayer.

Readings: Acts 17: 22-31; Psalm 66: 7-18; 1 Peter 3: 13-22; John 14: 15-21.

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

If the truth were to be told, many Christians find it difficult to live a life that is truly Trinitarian.

We may think we understand our relationship with God the Father, the Creator of Heaven and Earth.

We may think we have an even clearer understanding of our relationship with God the Son … after all, we know every last detail of his biography; his CV has been the subject of every Sunday School and Confirmation class we attended; his CV fills and shapes our Church Calendar and the stained glass windows in many of our parish churches.

But what about the Holy Spirit?

If we were to ask most people, they probably think of the Holy Spirit as some invisible appendix of God the Father and God the Son, ‘something’ or ‘someone’ that comes down at Pentecost. Perhaps, ‘something’ or ‘someone’ that gave us gifts at Confirmation. But that ‘something’ or ‘someone’ is best not talked about too much in case someone thinks we are too enthusiastic about Christianity, too enthusiastic about religion.

We become uncomfortable about the Holy Spirit when we think about enthusiastic and uncontrolled expressions of charismatic Pentecostalism.

Our access to thinking about God the Holy Spirit is made more difficult when we think about the images of the Holy Spirit provided in the traditions of Christian art: a dove that is shown in paintings and stained-glass windows that looks a lot like a homing pigeon; or tongues of fire dancing around the meekly-bowed heads of people cowering together as they hide in an upstairs room.

We think, perhaps, that it is best to leave sermons about the Holy Spirit to the Day of Pentecost – which is two weeks from today [4 June 2017] – or to a once-a-year Confirmation service, and we are having three confirmations in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, two weeks after Pentecost [18 June 2017], four weeks from today.

But we might be in danger of slipping into the idea that it is best to let the rest of us get on for the rest of the year with God being God the Father or God the Son.

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

We find it difficult to think of the pre-existence of Christ. What was he doing before the Annunciation? Sunday after Sunday, we confess in the Nicene Creed that ‘Through him all things were made.’ But we still find it difficult in our prayer and inner spirituality to think of the Eternal Christ.

And when it comes to saying, ‘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’?

I am a regular blogger. My sons worry that my friends may think I’m a bit of a ‘Geek.’

I post on the internet almost every day. But I really am not a geek. All I post is my lecture notes, my sermons, and some rambling thoughts about walking on the beach, or about travelling and local history, or about my love of music and poetry.

It takes very little extra work. I still need to write up my notes for these sermons or for those lectures. And I have very little way of knowing whether these notes and ramblings have any impact once they go out into cyberspace.

Some years ago, when I faced up to some personal difficulties and wrestled with them, I posted on my blog some reflections on how my mind kept returning to those reassuring 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 as she struggled 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.

Over the years, there have been some other responses to this posting. Then, some years after it was first posted, 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 it put my own difficulties then in perspective. Years later, someone else had found comfort in my own reflections on my own sorrows.

I do not know who this person is, or where she lives. All I know is that she is a chaplain.

But if this was the only blog-post that I had a response to, if this was the only reader I had all these years, then all the other blog-posts have 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 are better off not knowing.

‘Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world’ … the Oskar Schindler factory in Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

I was sharing this experience with some colleagues some time ago. And I was reminded of a saying in the Talmud – one of the most sacred texts of ancient 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, as I was reminded when I was in Kraków and Auschwitz six months ago, a saying that inspired Oskar Schindler, the hero of the movie Schindler’s List.

I was sharing this story over dinner one evening with some clerical colleagues and friends.

One colleague told me of a man who had turned up in his church for a quiet mid-day service. The man is now in his mid-40s, and was visiting Ireland on a business trip. He 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.

My colleague asked him to wait, to come back in an hour or two. And he did. Two parishioners stood as sponsors or godparents. The whole thing was 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.’

Acts 17: 22-31 ... the Apostle Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

God never leaves us alone.

This is what the Apostle Paul is saying at the Areopagus in Athens in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning (Acts 17: 22-31). The people who worshipped the unknown God on the slopes beneath the shadow of the Acropolis could be assured that God had heard their prayers, and they were now being invited to join in communion with this God through Saint Paul’s proclamation.

And, because the Resurrection breaks through all the barriers of time and space, the Apostle Peter tells us this morning that even in death Christ brought the good news to those who died before the Incarnation: ‘also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison’ (I Peter 3: 19).

God leaves no-one without the opportunity to be drawn into his infinite love, no-one, despite the barriers of time and space, the barriers of history or geography, the barriers of social or religious distinction.

And as a sign or a token of this, as a promise of this, Christ says in our Gospel reading this morning that he is asking ‘the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you’ (John 14: 16-17).

If you know the Spirit, and the Spirit abides in you, how would you let others know?

If the Holy Spirit is the Advocate and is living in you, then who are you an advocate for?

Who do you speak up for when there is no-one else to speak up for them?

Who are you, in your own small, quiet, undramatic way, a voice for, like Oskar Schindler?

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

Let us never 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.

The Holy Spirit descending as a dove ... part of a triptych in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


God our redeemer,
you have delivered us from the power of darkness
and brought us into the kingdom of your Son:
Grant, that as by his death he has recalled us to life,
so by his continual presence in us he may raise us to eternal joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

John 16: 5-16

<Ο Ιησούς είπε> 5 νῦν δὲ ὑπάγω πρὸς τὸν πέμψαντά με, καὶ οὐδεὶς ἐξ ὑμῶν ἐρωτᾷ με, Ποῦ ὑπάγεις; 6 ἀλλ' ὅτι ταῦτα λελάληκα ὑμῖν ἡ λύπη πεπλήρωκεν ὑμῶν τὴν καρδίαν. 7 ἀλλ' ἐγὼ τὴν ἀλήθειαν λέγω ὑμῖν, συμφέρει ὑμῖν ἵνα ἐγὼ ἀπέλθω. ἐὰν γὰρ μὴ ἀπέλθω, ὁ παράκλητος οὐκ ἐλεύσεται πρὸς ὑμᾶς: ἐὰν δὲ πορευθῶ, πέμψω αὐτὸν πρὸς ὑμᾶς. 8 καὶ ἐλθὼν ἐκεῖνος ἐλέγξει τὸν κόσμον περὶ ἁμαρτίας καὶ περὶ δικαιοσύνης καὶ περὶ κρίσεως: 9 περὶ ἁμαρτίας μέν, ὅτι οὐ πιστεύουσιν εἰς ἐμέ: 10 περὶ δικαιοσύνης δέ, ὅτι πρὸς τὸν πατέρα ὑπάγω καὶ οὐκέτι θεωρεῖτέ με: 11 περὶ δὲ κρίσεως, ὅτι ὁ ἄρχων τοῦ κόσμου τούτου κέκριται.

12 Ἔτι πολλὰ ἔχω ὑμῖν λέγειν, ἀλλ' οὐ δύνασθε βαστάζειν ἄρτι: 13 ὅταν δὲ ἔλθῃ ἐκεῖνος, τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς ἀληθείας, ὁδηγήσει ὑμᾶς ἐν τῇ ἀληθείᾳ πάσῃ: οὐ γὰρ λαλήσει ἀφ' ἑαυτοῦ, ἀλλ' ὅσα ἀκούσει λαλήσει, καὶ τὰ ἐρχόμενα ἀναγγελεῖ ὑμῖν. 14 ἐκεῖνος ἐμὲ δοξάσει, ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ ἐμοῦ λήμψεται καὶ ἀναγγελεῖ ὑμῖν. 15 πάντα ὅσα ἔχει ὁ πατὴρ ἐμά ἐστιν: διὰ τοῦτο εἶπον ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ ἐμοῦ λαμβάνει καὶ ἀναγγελεῖ ὑμῖν.

16 Μικρὸν καὶ οὐκέτι θεωρεῖτέ με, καὶ πάλιν μικρὸν καὶ ὄψεσθέ με.

Translation (NRSV):

[Jesus said:] ‘5 But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” 6 But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: 9 about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

12 ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

16 ‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.’

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is the Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for Sunday 21 May 2017.

No comments: