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Pentecost - Playing with Fire

Sermon Preached at St Augustine's, Whitton, 27/05/2007
Revd Sue Groom, Director of Deanery Licensed Ministers

Readings: Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21; John 14:8-17

When I was little my Mum used to warn me against playing with fire. Yet, when I was ordained (as at all ordinations including those for Deanery Licensed Ministry) we sang, ‘Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire...’

Archbishop William Temple gave this warning:

‘When we pray “Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire”, we had better know what we are about. He will not carry us to easy triumphs and gratifying successes, more probably He will set us some task for God in full intention that we should fail, so that others learning wisdom by our failure may carry the good cause forward. He may take us through loneliness, desertion by friends, apparent desertion even by God; that was the way Christ went to the Father. He may drive us into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He may lead us from the Mount of Transfiguration (if ever He lets us climb it) to the hill that is called the place of the skull. For if we invoke Him, it must be to help us in doing God’s will not ours. We cannot call upon the “Creator Spirit, by whose aid the world’s foundations first were laid” in order to use omnipotence for the supply of our futile pleasures or the success of our futile plans. If we invoke Him, we must be ready for the glorious pain of being caught by His power out of the petty orbit into the eternal purposes of the Almighty, in whose onward sweep our lives are as a speck of dust. The soul that is filled with the Spirit must have been purged of all pride or love of ease, all self-complacence and self-reliance; but that soul has found the only real dignity, the only lasting joy. Come then great Spirit come. Convict the world and convict my timid soul.’

Challenging words! It sounds like Archbishop Temple knew what he was talking about, that he was familiar with the refining fire of the Holy Spirit. With the Holy Spirit of God there can be no gathering together to build our own great city, our own tall tower to heaven, to make a name for ourselves. On the contrary, as God’s people we are to be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth, to burn with God’s love and to serve his purpose.

Having heard Luke’s description of the descent of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire at the Feast of Pentecost, we should not be surprised at Archbishop William Temple’s warning.... Or should we?

The atmosphere described by Luke in Acts is an extraordinary one, and one that is very unlike the average church service in Britain today: a group of believers gathered together expectantly, probably after several days of fasting and preparation, looking to God to visit them with a power that would change their lives and direct them to his work and – BANG! – there was a great overflowing of spiritual enthusiasm, one that still reverberates through history. We could call it the big bang theory of the origins of Christianity. After that explosion at the Feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem, the Christian movement was driven throughout the world and throughout history – unlike so much contemporary Christian experience, which to be honest seems more like a soft plop than a big bang.

I think that there are two lessons we could learn from this Pentecost story. One is that there is a streak of madness and extravagance in vital Christianity, and that where it is missing what is left seems thin, dull and lifeless in comparison. Christian history is full of stories of extravagant acts of love and self-sacrifice and spiritual experience. You only have to think about Saint Francis, Julian of Norwich, or Mother Theresa, for example. Our history is full of martyrs and mystics and great lovers of humanity. Perhaps we should try to find a place in our own life for something of that unpredictable and exciting possibility.

Then, related to that expectation is the second lesson we can learn: an acceptance and belief in the promise of Christ, who told Philip in the Gospel of John, that if people believed in him they would do the works that he did, and greater works than these, because he was going to the Father. Sadly most of us trap ourselves in mediocrity because we don’t believe in the power of God to rescue us from our own feebleness, either spiritual or moral. We don’t expect great things to be done to us, or through us. Yet here is Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God, promising that if we would only trust in him, believe his word, then we would do greater works than he did.

I have to say that at times I really struggle to believe this, and I fail to trust that promise. Like Augustine, when he was first sent by Pope Gregory to preach to the English, I question, ‘Are you sure? Me? I can’t do that. It’s too risky. Can’t you send someone else?’ Like Augustine, I need reassurance, a reminder that it is God whom I am serving, and sometimes simply to be told by those in authority over me!

Maybe my faith is in danger of becoming a dull thing, something I hang on to merely out of habit. Yet, here I read a promise that tells me if I will trust Christ, he will set me on fire with his love, fill me with powers beyond my own powers, and use me to do great works for his kingdom. That is exciting and worth holding on to. And that is why we have to hear again and again the great promise of Christ. That is why we have to look again and again at the experience of other Christians, both in our own times and in times long ago. That is also why people training for Deanery Licensed Ministry have to spend three years studying theology.

Brother Lawrence wrote that, ‘Those who have the gale of the Holy Spirit go forward even in sleep.’ Pentecost is a great time for dreaming dreams and seeing visions, for ourselves, for our church and for the world. I hope your dreams are enlarged today. I hope your expectations are high. I hope that some of you can say ‘Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire...’ knowing what that might entail, trusting in the promises of Christ, and with all your hearts.

If you want to learn more about serving God via Deanery Licensed Ministry then please come and talk to me after the service.

In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Acknowledgements and Bibliography
As with any sermon, various ideas come together over a period of time and it isn't always possible to retrace my steps to every source of inspiration. I am particularly indebted here, however, to Archbishop William Temple's Readings in St John's Gospel (Paternoster Press, 1998). I will gladly acknowledge any other sources if brought to my attention. Thank you.

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