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The Experience of the Holy Spirit

Pentecost Sunday, May 19, 2002
The Most Revd Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Wales

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

Archbp Williams at St Peter's St John in his Gospel always seems to have a different story to tell. In the other Gospels the Holy Spirit comes down upon Jesus at his baptism and enables his mighty works, and in St Luke's Gospel especially, when Jesus ascends into heaven, it's as if the Holy Spirit is not around for a while and the disciples must await for the gift to be given again at Pentecost. But St John puts it rather differently. All through his Gospel there is a sense of anticipation. The great gift, the outpouring, has yet to be given. Jesus said this about the Holy Spirit, we read in Chapter 7, that the Holy Spirit had not yet been given because Jesus had not yet been glorified. I will ask the Father, says Jesus at the Last Supper, and he will send you another comforter who will be with you forever – the spirit of truth. And so it is, that when St John gets to the great climactic moment of the Resurrection, the secret is broken open and the Holy Spirit is given at once. Jesus bursts through the locked doors where his friends are and instantly gives them the Holy Spirit. No hanging around until Whitsun there.

So what's going on in these two versions of this story? Perhaps it's something like this. St John agrees that the Holy Spirit is at work in Jesus, who is born from the Spirit. Just as much as St Matthew, St John believes that this spirit makes Jesus able to say great things and do great deeds. But it is only on the far side of the Cross and the Resurrection that the Spirit is given, shared. It's only when Jesus is glorified, that is, when his body has been broken and lifted up on the Cross, that the Spirit is free to stream out and flood the lives of those around him, flood those lives so intensely that, as Jesus says, out of our bellies will flow streams of living water – one of those amazingly powerful and crude images that tasteful translations of the Bible try to spare you. And surely that's why, when Jesus comes to his friends in the locked room, he begins by showing them his hands and his side. It's because my body has been broken and lifted up, he says, that I can now breathe the Spirit upon you. Without that breaking, without that darkness, without that terror and failure, the Spirit would not be shared.

Now that gives us some very hard thinking to do about the Holy Spirit. It's very easy to stay with the perspective which suggests that the Holy Spirit is first and foremost given to us so that we may say great things and do great deeds. The Spirit is given us so that we may lead extraordinary lives. Well, maybe. But how is the Spirit shared and how does the Spirit become the bond of community? Not just an extra top-up that makes us more special than ever as individuals? Clearly, if we read St John's Gospel rightly, the Spirit is shared and the Spirit becomes the lifeblood of community when our experience of the Spirit is brought to the Cross. The Holy Spirit which simply made each one of us individually able to do great things might be spectacular and impressive, but it would not be the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ, nor would it be the Spirit which binds us together in a community where we can understand each other's language by the miraculous grace of God and belong with one another so deeply that we feel each other's wounds and each other's joys. It's as if the surface of our achievement, our specialness, our spectacular performance, has to be broken before the Spirit really be the Spirit of communion. And so one of the paradoxes of our faith is that we experience the Holy Spirit most deeply not in moments, in examples, of great and spectacular achievement, but in and through moments of loss, of being out of our depth, yes even of failure. When our expectations are broken open, when our words are shattered, when our images break down, in that silence, through those wounds, comes the Holy Spirit.

Now that's not, I hope, just a roundabout way of saying, in order to succeed you have to fail. Nor is it saying, the Holy Spirit is experienced in bad moments rather than good ones. It is to say, rather, that the Holy Spirit is what happens in the moments of extremity. It may be a joy that we can't find words for, just as much as a pain we can't find shape for. It may be being projected into the glories and terrors of a new relationship of love, just as it may be in the pain and loss of a bereavement. It may be in our inability to say what it is that moves us about God when we feel joyful, just as much as in the moments when we don't know what to say about God because He seems so remote and mysterious. But those wounds, those breakages in the smooth surface of life, and even in the spectacular surface of achievement, those so it seems St John is telling us, those are the moments when the Spirit is breathed in a way in which we won't experience or know otherwise. And that's not to say that the Holy Spirit can't be discerned in strange events, in events of speaking with tongues, or of healing, or any of the other mighty works associated with the Spirit, but it is to say that we will know these things as the work of the Spirit of Jesus only when they are understood from the perspective of the far side of Cross and Resurrection. For the Spirit to be free in us, our expectations of possession and understanding and control need to go. Our expectations of being in charge have to go, and any experience whether grievous or joyful that begins to break our hold of control, any such experience is the beginning of an opening to the Holy Spirit. And surely that is why the Holy Spirit is the spirit that interprets us to one another. As the reading from the Acts of the Apostles suggests, when our version of reality, our little world, is broken into, then perhaps we begin to be able to listen at a new depth to one another and to speak to another in ways we didn't know we were capable of.

What happened on that first Pentecost? Who knows, but somehow the friends of Jesus who had seen him crucified and met him risen, knew how to speak to strangers so as to be understood. They had seen the wounded hands and side that he showed them after the Resurrection; they had had their expectations and their certainties crushed and remade in the Easter event; they had felt the breath of the risen Jesus upon them, telling them that they could proclaim sins forgiven; and, out of all that strange experience, they were able to stand up on the morning of Pentecost and make sense to strangers.

We as a church are not brilliantly good at making sense to strangers and that's perhaps partly because we have not quite felt what the disciples felt and we haven't been so close to the Cross and the Resurrection, and we haven't looked so intently at the wounded hands and feet and side of the risen Christ, and perhaps that means too we haven't known what an extraordinary thing it is to believe in the forgiveness of sins, in the new beginning of God's grace. And so perhaps it is not entirely surprising that if we spill out into the streets this morning speaking of God, not everybody will react with quite the same enthusiasm as the crowds in Jerusalem on the first Pentecost. For us as believers, to speak of God in Christ with conviction, we have to receive the Holy Spirit in the way that the disciples received it, allowing our expectations of our own lives, our clear images of ourselves, our comfortable pictures of God to be blown away by the gale of the Spirit's coming. Only in a kind of stammering, in a kind of amazement, will we speak truthfully, and speak so as to make sense.

The coming of the Spirit in that story in Acts, is the coming of a power to speak compellingly, but sometimes we speak most compellingly when we say in wonder, love and praise, I don't know what to say. I can't tell you how grateful I am, we say, meaning this is how I tell you how grateful I am. I don't know what to say of God, we say, meaning this is the most important thing I can say about God, that I don't know what to say of God. I don't know how to persuade you of the overpowering love of Jesus Christ, we say, and so we speak persuasively, it may be, by God's grace and by the gift of the Spirit.

During the Eucharist we pray that the Holy Spirit will come down upon the bread and the wine that we offer, and the lives we offer with them, so that in that material reality the life of God in Jesus Christ may be alive fully and without qualification. But the bread on which we invoke the Holy Spirit is broken before it is shared, as if when the priest breaks the host, the priest says, receive the Holy Spirit. We don't invoke the Holy Spirit to make some magic thing, we invoke the Holy Spirit to come to us through broken bread and spilled wine into our lives, into the gaps, the failures, the inarticulacies of our lives, so that the Spirit shared with us may stream from our bellies as living water to meet the thirst of others, as meaning to meet the need of others, the sense and hope, as love to meet the darkness of the world. St John's story is not so silly after all. The whole of Jesus' life, lived under the sign of the Spirit, in the power of the Spirit, moves towards that exalted and terrible moment when, in the language of St John, the son of man is glorified and his broken body is lifted up. What more natural then, that the first thing he should do when he meets his friends after his resurrection is, in one action, to show the wounds and to breathe the Spirit? What more natural, at this Eucharist, when the body is broken we should come to receive the Spirit? And those who receive the Spirit, from them something overflows, creating in that overflow not only the community that is the church, but creating wherever it goes moments of understanding, of shared sense, moments when without realizing it we speak in a way that makes sense to someone else, we make a bridge into the loneliness of someone else. From this celebration of the Spirit, given through the broken body, it is for us to go and overflow, for us in words and actions, not spectacular words and mighty actions, but the ordinary acts of listening and compassion, for us to go and create community wherever we are, to make a bridge into the meaninglessness and the darkness of other lives, because our own lives have been broken open by God, in joy and in grief.

So, to be as crude as the Gospel is, we take Christ into our bellies and from our bellies flow the rivers of living water which will make growth across the face of the earth, that will build community, which will give us a language to share as human beings. In that shared language we finally discover together, by the Spirit's grace how to find words to praise the God who has saved us, the God who has been among us in the crucified and risen Jesus and the God who now today breathes upon us saying, receive the Holy Spirit, overflow in abundance of love, proclaim to the world the forgiveness that it can't believe in, be sent by Jesus as he is sent by his Father.


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