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Comfort and Challenge – The Reverend Canon Victoria Johnson

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A sermon preached on the Day of Pentecost by Canon Victoria Johnson

On Sunday 23rd May, 2021 at the Solemn Eucharist

Readings: Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

‘Comfort and Challenge’.

What is the Holy Spirit saying to us on this, the day which some call the birth day of the church? Is the Holy Spirit whispering comfort, or provoking challenge? What is the Holy Spirit blowing away, what is the Holy Spirit disturbing? What is the Holy Spirit empowering?

It feels as if we are somehow, living in the midst of the birth pangs of a new beginning…some call it the new normal -it certainly feels as if our society, our church, and our world are experiencing a period of wrestling, of upheaval, of messy and sometimes painful emergence.

As we acknowledge the imperfections of the present time, perhaps the very thing we all want most is the past, and who can blame us- the past before all of this- the past when we could smile and be seen, and embrace, and sing and gather, the past when we were more certain of the future that lay before us.

These things will all return in their time but the world into which they return may look very different and we all know that the ‘rebuild’ is probably going to take time. It won’t be easy. The much promised ‘freedom day’ may not deliver everything for everyone on the twenty first of June, however much gloss we put on it.

This last year has also brought to light a past where we have not got everything right, it has shown up a way of living that was very far from the kingdom we pray will come amongst us. We have seen the widening gap between rich and poor, racism, nationalism, gender violence, we have seen effects on the environment, on the NHS, on mental health, on the lives of young people, their education and well-being. The impact of covid- will be felt for years and years to come.

In these moments of challenge and change, we might pray today for the comfort of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit who, in the words of a prayer of Erasmus ‘cheers those in sorrow’, bringing those in heaviness to the truth, kindling in those who are far away the fire of charity, for those who are cold knitting them together with the glue of peace. We call upon the advocate, the comforter, to salve and console us after these life-altering events for which none of us wished. We claim that comfort and life and fire of love today, for our world and for our church.

In scripture, the Holy Spirit is sometimes referred to as a breath- Christ breathed on his disciples the Holy Spirit, and from the book of Romans, the Spirit helps us in our weakness, and that same spirit intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for words.

The Holy Spirit we long for today, is that spirit imagined as a gentle breeze, the flickering candle, the shuffling of leaves, the sweetest dove, the consolation of silent prayer.

Come Holy Spirit!

But, there is another side of the same Holy Spirit.  We are told in the scriptures, that the Holy Spirit is also like a fiery whirlwind blowing through the lives of all believers: wonderful and terrifying, comforting and disturbing. We learn that those on whom the Spirit rested were thought to have drunk too much wine.

The Spirit brings portents and signs. The Holy Spirit is variously described as being like a mighty wind, like flame, rushing water, like a bird on the wing, it cannot be tamed, or trained, or captured.

TS Elliot writes in The Four Quartets.  “The dove descending breaks the air, with flame of incandescent terror” Are we ready for the incandescent terror of the same Holy Spirit? Are we ready for comfort and challenge?

We cannot domesticate or control the Holy Spirit. When we eventually sing ‘Come down O Love divine’ and ask the Holy Spirit to dwell in our hearts, consuming and burning our earthly passions-do we realise we are opening ourselves up to radical transformation and challenge as well as divine comfort?

Michael Ramsey in his reflections on the Holy Spirit, (The Holy Spirit, A Biblical Study) comments that the history of the church is shaped by the sacraments, by the apostolic ministry and teaching of the church, and the Holy Spirit uses this shape to reveal the works of God.

But, he notes, the Holy Spirit also acts in unpredictable ways, exposing, teaching, illuminating, judging, renewing. The Sprit he says, is still as it was and ever shall be, the unpredictable breath of God.

On this last day of the Easter Season, we again celebrate renewal and rebirth, it is yet another beginning in Christ- a re-creation. The unpredictable breath of God might be blowing through our lives at this moment-doing something new and we should be prepared for challenge, the unpredictable breath of God may be uncomfortable and even terrifying.  Our plans for ourselves may be overwhelmed by God’s plans for us. Things might have to change, heaven help us, we might have to change. That is the risk of standing before the living God and praying ‘Come Holy Spirit’.

We are at a turning point in the life of the church in this country. What is left of us when everything has been taken away? What are we really about?  What have we discovered about the church in the last year?

We have discovered that we can be incredibly agile- that we can gather on-line as well as in person, we have discovered that as an institution, we are racist and often exclusive and discriminatory on account of gender and sexuality and class, we have discovered that worship really matters to us, people are hungry for prayer and hungry to know more about Jesus, we have discovered that community matters, we have discovered that we are capable of great acts of generosity, but also massive failures in protecting the vulnerable from abuse, we have discovered that there are many people longing to meet God but they’re often disappointed by the church and it’s pettiness and lack of love, we have discovered that we are able to serve the community in many and various ways in humility and faithfulness, we have discovered that we like every other community have experienced loss and fracture and sorrow, we have discovered that we are at our best when we speak out against injustice and practice what we preach in the name of Jesus our Lord. It’s a mixed picture.

In the last year, the church has also been exposed in all of its fragility and failure and in all of its promise and purpose. What have we learnt? And where do we go from here? Can we face the future in hope? Are we, the church, brave enough to invoke the Holy Spirit that might disturb us further? Are we ready for the fire of incandescent terror, as well as calling upon the Holy Spirit that offers us comfort and consolation?

St Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: We do not know how to pray as we ought, but we do have to trust that the Spirit discerns what we need, according to the will of God. We long for the Holy Spirit to come and bring comfort, but we also need the Holy Spirit to come and disturb our comfortableness, and in her unpredictable way continue to expose us, teach us, illuminate us, judge us, renew us.

Come Holy Spirit, come to us, and come among us,           come as the wind, and cleanse us, come as the fire and burn, come as the dew, and refresh, convict, convert, and consecrate our hearts and lives to your greater glory, and this we ask for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen

(Prayer adapted from Eric Milner-White, 1884-1964)

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