Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Day of Pentecost 2016
Start Date 15th May 2016 10:30am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Twenty years or so ago, I lived for a few years in the North West of England, in Lancashire, and encountered for the first time Whit Walks. These Whit Walks are processions of witness for the churches in a community through the streets of the village, town or city. A Salvation Army or town band leads the procession. Each church has its great banner held aloft by successions of men and supported by ribbons or strings held by surrounding groups of children. The clergy and choirs and servers are in their cassocks and surplices and led by a processional cross. The children and adults are in their best clothes, children traditionally dressed in white. Crowds are on the streets to witness the spectacle. A great deal of pride is invested in these popular events.

A Whit Walk celebrates Whitsun, the traditional name in this country for the feast of Pentecost, which we celebrate today. The Whit Walk sometimes takes place on the Friday after Whitsunday, or on the day itself, or, at one time, on Whitmonday, when it was a public holiday.

These traditions point to the value placed on today's feast. Easter is the queen of feasts, when we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Christmas is the most popular feast, with elaborate traditions and high expectations. After that comes Whitsun, Pentecost, when we give thanks for the transforming gift of the Holy Spirit, poured out on the apostles with the sound of a rushing mighty wind and tongues of flame, and the birth of the Church, witnessed by the conversion and baptism of thousands of people that very day through St Peter's preaching.

The immediate appeal of Christmas is obvious. A new-born baby is an attraction for everyone. The beauty of Easter is its promise that life is not bounded by this world; death is not the final conqueror; there is new life to be enjoyed.

But what of Pentecost? Here too there is something wonderful and revelatory, but how exactly should we think of it and speak of it? Though we like birthdays, somehow to celebrate Pentecost as the birthday of the Church seems to be elevating instrumentality over agency. If the Church is the Body of Christ, as we believe it to be, then it existed before Pentecost. And what really matters is following Christ, imitating Christ, living in Christ.

But here precisely is the point. We cannot follow Christ, we cannot imitate Christ, we cannot live in Christ on our own, in our own power, by our own virtue, but only by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit of God, by the direction of the Holy Spirit in our lives, in and through the Church.

But the very idea of the Holy Spirit of God is difficult for us to grasp. This is at least in part because the nouns, pronouns and adjectives, the naming and describing words, for the Holy Spirit are complex. Although the Holy Spirit is one of the Persons of the Holy Trinity, God being three Persons in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and although we generally use the male personal pronoun 'he' for God the Father, though some resist, and for God the Son, there is no coherence about the use of a personal pronoun for the Holy Spirit. Is the Holy Spirit he, she or it? It seems completely wrong to call a person of the Holy Trinity 'it', although Christian art regularly depicts the Holy Spirit as a dove. Is 'he' or 'she' any better? Some people are happy to settle for using the pronoun 'she' for the Holy Spirit, referring perhaps to the Greek word in the New Testament 'pneuma', which is feminine, as is the word 'sophia' or Wisdom. In practice, we generally avoid the issue, and that makes conceptualising or talking about the Holy Spirit correspondingly difficult.

And perhaps this is compounded by the changing ways in which the biblical words themselves, the names, are translated. In the farewell discourses in St John's Gospel, Jesus promised his disciples that he would not leave them orphaned, alone or comfortless. 'If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.' And then later, 'The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.'

That is the New Revised Standard Translation of the Bible. The Greek word translated Advocate there is 'paracletos', which is transliterated in English as Paraclete, a name not easy to understand. But it is worth a try.

The King James Bible translates the same terms as the 'Holy Ghost, the Comforter'. Other translations of the passage use the terms Helper, Intercessor, Counsellor, Strengthener or Standby.

It may be that the words helper and standby, although inelegant and weak, are closest to the original meaning of the word 'paracletos'. 'Paracletos' comes from two Greek words, 'para', meaning broadly 'together', and 'kaleo', which gives us the English word 'call'. So the Paraclete means the one who calls us together. The Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, calls us together with almighty God, draws us to almighty God, and calls us together with one another. We might add that the Holy Spirit advises, assists and stands by us, and speaks to our inner conscience.

The Holy Spirit is the personal and intimate expression to every Christian believer and every Christian pilgrim of the care and protection and love of almighty God for each of us, for our life, for our soul. Although the term Comforter has fallen out of use on account of its dramatic emasculation in the years from the King James Bible until now, if only we could recover its strong ancient sense, it would serve us well. The Bayeux tapestry in Normandy in a series of images tells the tale of the Norman invasion in 1066, when Duke William of Normandy claimed his right to the English throne. It depicts Edward the Confessor's abbey church and the battle of Hastings. There is an image of Bishop Odo, the Duke's half-brother, wielding a club with the caption, Hic Odo ep[iscopu]s baculu[m] tenens confortat pueros, literally 'Here Bishop Odo holding a club comforts the boys', meaning the troops. If you hold a club in your hand, comfort does not imply easing but strengthening, as the Latin root of the word implies.

Putting all this together, the Holy Spirit convenes us, draws us towards God and together with one another, and comforts, that is strengthens and emboldens us, in our Christian life, our Christian pilgrimage.

What more can we say? There is so much more. But staying with the farewell discourses, our Lord's final words to the apostles in the Upper Room, we hear the Lord say this, 'I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.'

What this means is that the Holy Spirit leads, directs and guides the Church into all the truth which Jesus Christ has been offering his disciples. Everything that the Church 'cannot bear now', the Holy Spirit will reveal to us. Here is something of vital importance for the Church of every age and of our own day.

The Holy Spirit of God, who brooded over the face of the waters at the Creation, who inspired the prophets of old time, who sent the vital force of God Most High into the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Annunciation, who danced in tongues of flame on the heads of the apostles at Pentecost and dances on the heads of their successors through the history of the Church, who reveals the truth to the Church as far as it is able to bear it, will continue to comfort and strengthen the pilgrim through the blessing of the sacraments and in other ways, and will renew, inspire and enable the Church to discover the truth at every time that God chooses to reveal to us.

The life of the Christian, the life of the Church, is not solely an exercise in archaeology, uncovering what was and seeking to re-energise it, but is a constantly dynamic process of being led by the Holy Spirit into all truth. This means that development, even change, is possible in response to evolving behaviours and understandings. It is difficult and demanding, remaining true to what has been received and also open to what is to come.

But the Church of God does not live for itself, but for almighty God and for the universe, for the world God makes through the power of the Holy Spirit and seeks to bring to perfection. The manifold gifts of the Holy Spirit will lead us into truth and bring us at the last to eternal glory.

We cannot understand, comprehend, grasp God the Holy Spirit. Thank God that the Holy Spirit grasps us and draws us to almighty God himself.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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