12 June 2011

Waiting on the Holy Spirit in Balbriggan

Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’... a peaceful scene at the Harbour in Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

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

Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan, Co Dublin:

12 noon, Morning Prayer.

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.

So often we think the gift of the Holy Spirit is something to consider only at ordinations or confirmations, or as a gift only or Charismatic Evangelicals to talk about. 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 is the beginning, the birthday, of the Church. And this gift does not cease being effective after the Day of Pentecost. The gift of the Holy Spirit remains with the Church – for all times.

The Orthodox Church speaks of the Church as the realised or lived Pentecost, for Pentecost is about the gift of the Holy Spirit and is the Birthday of the Church, founded through the preaching of the Apostles and the baptism of the thousands that day who came to believe in the Good News of Christ.

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

When the people in Jerusalem heard this, they came to hear the Apostles, speaking in their own languages (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 the early Church for fellowship, the breaking of bread, and for prayer – just as we do at the Eucharist – and the Church grew in numbers each day (Acts 2: 42-47).

At Pentecost, we the promise of the Holy Spirit given by the Risen Christ in our Gospel reading is fulfilled. With that gift, the Church is brought together in diversity and sustained in unity.

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, yes, in Balbriggan too.

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

And yet I know if I 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, that gave us gifts at confirmation; but something or someone best not to talk about too much in case someone thinks 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 the meekly-bowed heads of people hiding together in the upper room.

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

But the Holy Spirit is not an added-on extra, or some sort of after-thought after the Resurrection and Ascension.

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

As a regular blogger, I post every day or two with my lecture notes, my sermons, or my walks on the beach, especially in Fingal, in north Co Dublin, about travelling, local history, music, architecture and poetry. But I seldom know whether those postings have any impact once they go out into cyberspace.

About three years ago, as I faced some personal difficulties and problems, I blogged some reflections on 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. In this she was reassured that – despite her 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. He had been moved by the Spirit.

Over the years, there were few 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 this person is, or where she lives. But if this was the only blog-post that I had a response to, if this was the only reader I had for the past three years, then all the other postings were 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 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 colleague told of a man who had turned up in his church that week for a quiet mid-day service. The man, now in his mid-40s, was visiting Ireland on business. 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. 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 the promise Christ gives the disciples, the whole church, in our Gospel reading. We need have no fears, for the Resurrection breaks through all the barriers of time and space.

And as a sign or a token of this, as a promise of this, Christ says in our Gospel: “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. 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 our thoughts, words and deeds 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.

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 Morning Prayer in Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan, Co Dublin, on the Day of Pentecost, 12 June 2011

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