Thursday, 23 May 2013

Pentecost and the ministry of the Holy Spirit

The following is a short talk given at our midweek Holy Communion service. I used the Collect for Pentecost   Sunday (a collect is a special prayer that is used to precede the readings and touches on the general theme of the readings. Some of them go back to the first 5-6 centuries but most to the time of the Reformation and are thoroughly Biblical and reformed in their theology.) The reading I referred to was from Acts 8:14-17.

Here is the collect:
God, who at this time did teach the hearts of thy faithful people, by sending to them the light of thy Holy Spirit: grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgement in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour, who lives and reigns with thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

The collect for today identifies three aspects of the Holy Spirit’s work and ministry.

The first is light or enlightenment
“God, who as at this time did teach the hearts of thy faithful people, by sending to them the light of thy Holy Spirit…”

In his last moments on earth Luke tells us that Jesus had to open the disciples’ minds to enable them to understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:45) Previous to that they struggled to see how the Old Testament spoke about Jesus and how Jesus was the fulfilment of all that was written about him “in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”(Luke 24:44)

We are no different to the disciples. Without God’s help we too will struggle to understand and grasp the spiritual truths about Jesus and how we are meant to live our lives as Christians. Now Jesus has returned to the Father we have the Holy Spirit whom God sent on the day of Pentecost. Jesus promised that it is he who will “lead you into all truth.” (John 16:13) No wonder the apostles were so keen to pray for the Samaritan converts to receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17). They knew how important he was in their growth as Christians.

The second is right judgement
“grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgement in all things”. 

Really this is a prayer for wisdom. There are basically two types of wisdom. One type—earthly wisdom—comes with age and is often a case of trial and error and then - hopefully - learning from our mistakes. Like putting your hand in the fire and finding that it burns so you avoid it next time or people who promise instant cures if you buy their medicine are not all they are cracked out to be! This wisdom can be passed down or take the form of Old Wives tales or parental teaching.

The other type is heavenly or godly wisdom. In the book of Proverbs we are told that: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10) What the writer is saying is that earthly wisdom is something we learn ourselves whereas godly wisdom is only found through knowing God. He will teach us right from wrong. He will help guide us when it comes to difficult decisions. He will teach us discernment and insight. All these things and more are available through the Holy Spirit whom Jesus describes as “helper” and “counsellor” and “advocate”.

Thirdly, holy comfort
“evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort.”
Another word Jesus use for the Holy Spirit is “the comforter”. We see the word ‘comfort’ mostly in terms of loss or sorrow. If someone is bereaved we go alongside to comfort or console them. But the word has a broader meaning for Jesus because it means “to help, to strengthen and to encourage”. We get an idea of this from a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings. In this scene we see the Norman soldiers moving forward towards the Saxons and behind them in William of Normandy with a spear poking them in the back. The words read underneath “William comforteth his soldiers”. In other words he is egging them on, encouraging them to keep moving forward and not turn back.

Catherine Marshall a devotional writer from the last century was once struck down with tuberculosis in 1943 for which there was no antibiotic treatment. She spent two years recovering from it, the initial period in a hospital bed. Left with so much time on her hands she became depressed but decided for some reason to look into the subject of the Holy Spirit whom she had heard mentioned in prayers or worship but did not know much about it. As she read more and more about him and studied what the Bible said, she experienced great joy and encouragement and went on to write a book called “The Helper” to be used during Lent which has since helped many others—including her minister husband—to experience the help and 'comfort' of the Holy Spirit.

So no wonder the Apostles made a point of leaving Jerusalem and travelling to Samaria to ensure that the new converts there should receive the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands. The question therefore is this. Have you received the Holy Spirit? I don’t necessarily mean at Confirmation—because how many of us understood or were aware of what we were about to receive from the Bishop. Personally I was looking beyond confirmation to finally being able to receive the bread and wine along with everyone else, so I was not able to understand the significance of what was meant to happen, and I suspect a whole lot of other folk were in the same boat! So how many were open to receive him? If you are not sure maybe now is the time to start thinking about it? You have nothing to lose and everything to gain: understanding, wisdom, encouragement and a whole lot more.

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