Readings: Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This week is Pentecost Sunday, and next week is Trinity Sunday, and those two weeks together ought to remind us, loud and clear, that there is much more to God then we can possibly imagine.
Actually, why don’t we try that for a moment. Close your eyes and imagine God.
And now come back to Earth for a moment.
Focusing our minds on God in this way is doubtless a good thing, and it may be a first step to moving us deeper into contemplative prayer, but here is the thing: whatever we imagine God is like, is wrong. The theologian Anselm said that the God we can imagine is never the real God because, if we tried a little bit harder, we could probably imagine a greater God. Whatever image came to mind a moment ago I am sure, if you tried again, you could imagine something bigger and older and more loving.
If we struggle to remember the name of that nice person we met yesterday or which Christmas it was that Auntie Bertha dropped the Christmas pudding, then let’s not kid ourselves that we can truly imagine the fullness of the God who spoke the whole universe into being, who upholds it from moment to moment, and who knows the beginning and end of all things.
The wholeness of God is beyond our human imaginings. But that doesn’t matter and should not cause us any consternation, because we were not created to understand God, as if he were an equation or a text book, but to enter into a relationship of love and worship towards him. And if you think that love needs understanding then I can tell you that I don’t understand my wife and children most of the time, but I still love them. And sometimes worship them, but not in an idolatrous sense.
God is not simply a creator who stands apart from his creation, like a watchmaker observing the cogs, but that he continually reaches out to it, and participates in it. We see that primarily through the incarnation of Jesus but, because of the events of Pentecost we are reminded that God continues to reaches out to the world through his Holy Spirit.
I once heard a preacher say that the Holy Spirit came into being at Pentecost, but of course that is nonsense – the church as we know it came into being at Pentecost, but the Holy Spirit had been with God and been part of God since the beginning – in Genesis 1:1 we encounter the Spirit of God hovering over the waters. The Holy Spirit is evident throughout the Old Testament, primarily in the lives of the prophets. But the New Testament is full of the Holy Spirit, and much of that before Pentecost. The obvious example is the Holy Spirit ‘overshadowing’ Mary at the Annunciation but the Spirit is also present in the story of John the Baptist, with Simeon and Anna at the Temple and at the Baptism of Jesus.
Prior to his Ascension Jesus promised his followers that he would not leave them comfortless, and we heard those words of promise in our Gospel reading this morning – Jesus would send his followers an advocate. When I was a lawyer I often acted as an advocate and, as such, one steps into the shoes of the client and speaks on their behalf, saying the things they would say if they had the knowledge and vocabulary so to do. But the job of the advocate is not just to represent their client’s case to the court, it is also to explain to the client how the system works and what is happening. So the advocate is not just a mouthpiece but is better understood as an interpreter – translating client speak into court speak and vice versa.
Jesus says that the ‘Spirit of Truth’ will testify on his behalf and will prove the world wrong about sin, and righteousness and judgement. So the Spirit will stand in the shoes of Jesus and continue to speak into the world. But the Spirit doesn’t just speak into the world – Jesus says that the Spirit will also speak what he hears and declare it to the followers of Jesus, because they are not able to bear everything now. So, in that sense, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit is representing God to the world and to the church. But we also believe that in our baptisms each of us becomes recipients and dwelling places of the Holy Spirit and as that Spirit leads us into truth we hope also that he acts as our Advocate to God, saying what we would say if only we had the knowledge and vocabulary.
In our reading from Acts we saw the events of the first Pentecost, and we also learnt an important lesson. God the Holy Spirit doesn’t just exist ethereally or in the abstract, rather the Holy Spirit is made manifest in the body of the church – on their own wind and flames are unintelligible and unknowable but when they land on the church and people start to speak as they hear from the spirit, then barriers are broken down and individuals become a church. In a very real sense, if Jesus is the incarnation of God the Son then the Church is the incarnation of God the Holy Spirit.
Whilst we celebrate and remember Pentecost as the Holy Spirit giving birth to the church we should also remember that this was not a once and for all occasion. Only a couple of weeks ago I spoke about the Pentecost of the Gentiles, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on Cornelius and his family in Joppa, I have already mentioned the work of the Holy Spirt throughout the Old and New Testament, in John’s Gospel Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on his followers even before the Ascension and we believe that the Holy Spirit continues to be poured into the church, which, of course, also does not exist ethereally or in the abstract, but only exists through each and every one of us.
The God who created the universe is not just ‘up there’ but is also in here and in each of you and, therefore, in us collectively. As Christians we are not just called to be nice to one another but to remember that we are filled with the fullness of God.
God is vaster than we can ever imagine, but he also looks at the world through your eyes and cares for the world through your hands, because the Holy Spirit dwells amongst us and within us.
When you imagined God a moment ago did that picture also include Jesus who took our humanity into heaven? Did it include the Holy Spirit who fills each of us right now?
Our homework for this week, as we prepare for Trinity Sunday, is not to constrain God by the limits of our imagination but to allow the fullness of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to help us enter into proper relationship with him, with ourselves and with one another.