Today we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, and we rejoice at that great outpouring of the Holy Spirit into the lives of the first followers of Jesus. An event which is often referred to as the church’s birthday.
But for reasons which will soon become obvious, I’m going to begin by taking you back to the Feast of the Ascension; a Feast which we celebrated just over a week ago.
Now, I don’t know how you picture the Ascension. Perhaps you take it as a literal rising up from the grave followed by a kind of “take off” up to heaven. In which case you’ll understand just how scared a particular gentleman was, in a story which my brother in law, Alan, loves to repeat.
Alan used to live quite close to a church yard in Bristol which adjoined a fairly busy main road and whose surface was a few feet above the pavement. A bit like the church yard which belongs to the Anglican parish church in Sidmouth.
As dusk was approaching on a particular autumn afternoon, a grave digger who’d almost completed his task, climbed up out of the freshly dug grave and spoke to a passer- by on the other side of the wall. “Excuse me, mate,” he said “Do you know what the time is?”
Well, I don’t think the passer by stopped to give the grave digger an answer!
Maybe he had a very literal understanding of resurrection and ascension, but, you see, perhaps one of the most important things about the Ascension is not whether it’s literally true, but rather that it teaches us something new about heaven. It teaches us that because Jesus took it there, our human nature is always in the presence of God
And now, as a result of Pentecost, as a result of the coming of the Holy Spirit in this new way, God’s life is also made permanently present through human life. So you see, Ascension and Pentecost actually go together. They link the human with the divine; in both directions, so to speak.
This means that being religious, or knowing Jesus, can have nothing to do with escaping from being human. You may think you know Jesus because you come to church, have warm feelings and act in a very pious way. But if you also live your life by behaving badly to other people, then I’m afraid your behaviour shows you to be sadly mistaken, because you’re actually living a lie.
It was the departure of Jesus that made possible the coming of the Holy Spirit; and what the Holy Spirit makes present is done on an entirely human level. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit that was in Christ, constantly makes Jesus present to each of us and continues Christ’s work through us.
Think about this for a moment; we’re agents of the Holy Spirit. He channels the words and actions of Jesus, through us; but they originate in Jesus.
So the real work of Christian witness is the task of the Holy Spirit. In a very real sense when a Christian person is moved to Christian action, this is the Holy Spirit at work. Christ walks into hospitals, homes and prisons today, wearing your skin and talking with your voice. Everything that Christ did for his disciples the Holy Spirit will do for us.
Just as Christ taught, corrected and encouraged his disciples, so the Holy Spirit teaches, strengthens and corrects us.
We know the Holy Spirit, we know Jesus, as a result of the way in which he changes our lives. The Holy Spirit becomes joined to us in a very real way, so that through us Christ continues his work.
Now, much of what we hear about the Holy Spirit has to do with dramatic things. Signs and wonders. Tongues of fire and ecstatic experiences, and I don’t want to suggest that these aren’t important.
You may or you may not be blessed in this way. This may be one way in which the Holy Spirit shows Himself in your life. But please don’t worry if this isn’t your experience, because it’s more important to be able to recognise the Holy Spirit who brings Christ, by the effects that take place in your life.
Do you remember Jesus said something very similar about the Holy Spirit in a conversation which he had with Nicodemus? He made the point that we learned things about the wind by looking at the results of a storm. He was also making the point that we should recognise the activity of the Spirit by the results of his work.
And the way in which the Spirit works is by using all of those ordinary things which are available to us. Our powers of reasoning, for example, which include the ability which we’ve been given to listen and to learn.
He’ll also use other Christian men and women by giving them gifts of teaching and preaching and advice. Some people are used by the Spirit as channels through which He’ll draw us closer to Him through music or art or loving concern. But again and again his communications with us are through other human beings.
I’ve laboured this point because it’s very common for us to want to think that religious experiences are all about getting away from the ordinary things of every -day life, and soaring into the heavenly realms to be close to the Lord and away from all the dreary common stuff.
The tragedy is that this is actually a mistake, because it’s quite easy to be religious without necessarily being a Christian.
But think for a moment. God’s most amazing revelation of Himself was through the humanity of Jesus. Wouldn’t it therefore be quite likely that He’d use the Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, within the ordinary bits of His creation. Bits like me and you?
And so, don’t worry if you don’t speak in tongues , or if when people ask you whether you’ve been born again, you feel that you don’t really understand them.
The thing to worry about is when any warm feelings you might have about knowing Jesus become a substitute for his work. Work which will always bring you closer to the common and messy things of everyday life; the sick, the suffering, the poor and those on the margins. Worry when the most important thing about your Christian life is the way in which you worship rather than the way in which you treat other people.
God will keep His promises made through Jesus about the presence and the work of The Holy Spirit. My prayer is that our eyes and our ears may be opened to His presence and work all around us and through us; for that is where he is and what he does.
He can even work through the retelling of a silly story about a grave digger!