Sermon for Pentecost.
I wonder if you’ve noticed how swimming pools have changed. When I was a child, they were fairly quiet places. Maybe the fact that a lot of them were in the open air had something to do with it: only the hardy went swimming in them, unless it was as warm as it’s been the last week. It was fairly easy to find a time when you could swim out into the centre of the pool, and just relax, let the water hold you up, and drift with its support.
Modern swimming pools are quite different. The great draws nowadays are wave machines, flumes or water chutes, and swimming pools are places of noise and activity, screams and rushing water. Even if they don’t have all these extras, you will usually find lanes marked out for different speeds of swimming, as people go there to keep fit. If you tried to float quietly in the middle of most modern pools, you wouldn’t be very popular!
This contrast came into my mind recently when I was reading some words of John Wesley, describing the experience of the Holy Spirit, in a letter to Mary Cooke (1785) She was worried that she didn’t have an overwhelming experience of the Holy Spirit at her conversion, as others had.
Wesley said “There is an irreconcilable variability in the operations of the Holy Spirit on the souls of men, more especially as to the manner of justification. Many find him rushing upon them like a torrent, when they experience ‘the overwhelming power of saving grace’… This has been the experience of many. But in others he works in a very different way: ‘He deigns his influence to infuse, sweet refreshing as the dews’ and it is not improbable he will continue working in a gentle, almost insensible manner.”
Anyone hearing the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit from the Book of Acts, as we did this morning, could be forgiven for thinking that her activity is always full of noise and action, like a modern swimming pool. The commentary in Friday’s Church Times spoke about ‘God’s noisy life bursting on the scene’. But if you read about the Holy Spirit in other parts of the New Testament, and particularly in the Gospel of John, as we also did this morning, then another picture of the Spirit’s action emerges – one in which her activity is much more like the calm supporting strength of my quiet swimming pool.
Christian history has shown that the Spirit has continued to reveal herself in both forms – as an overwhelming force, which turns everything upside down; and as the quiet, sustaining strength, giving invisible support. But, as with swimming pools, sometimes one sort of action of the Holy Spirit is more fashionable than the other.
For a long time, the quiet, supporting mode of the Holy Spirit was in favour, especially with those who ran the churches, for they could then claim that they controlled, or were the channel for such activity. You could only receive the Holy Spirit through the sacraments of the church, particularly baptism, confirmation and ordination.
Nowadays, the wheel of fashion has turned, and we live in world where activity is favoured over passivity, and individuality over organisations. Now, some people seem to be claiming that the only authentic activity of the Holy Spirit is the dramatic form, which results in speaking in tongues, miraculous healing, prophecies, words of knowledge, sudden conversion, and all those experiences which go under the general label of ‘charismatic’. Sometimes, people who haven’t had such a dramatic experience of the Holy Spirit seem to be regarded as ‘not proper Christians’.
We need to beware of having our ideas restricted by fashion, in the church even more so than in the secular world. The Holy Spirit, the ‘bird of heaven’ as Sidney Carter referred to him in his less well-known hymn, is not to be confined to one mode of operation. As John Wesley concluded his letter: “Let him take his own way. He is wiser than you; he will do all things well. Do not reason against him, but let the prayer of your heart be ‘Mould as thou wilt thy passive clay’.
It may be that our characters make us more receptive to one mode of influence by the Holy Spirit than another. Or that our experience demands either a gentle growth or a sudden transformation as her way of converting us to a deeper faith.
It is not up to us to judge, nor to demand that the Holy Spirit works in us in one way rather than another. What we do have to judge, however, iswhether the spiritual influences we obey come from the Holy Spirit, or from somewhere else.
Jean Pierre de Caussade (who wrote ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment’) gave a simple rule of thumb for such judgements:
“The masters of the spiritual life lay down this principle to distinguish the true inspirations of God from those that emanate from the devil; that the former are always sweet and peaceful, inducing to confidence and humility, while the latter are intense, restless and violent, leading to discouragement and mistrust, or else to presumption and self-will”.
We all pray, especially at this season of Pentecost, for the Holy Spirit to come upon us in greater power, to inspire us, to strengthen us and to renew us. But even when we think our prayer has been answered, we still need to exercise the discernment of which de Caussade spoke, and to check constantly that what we do and say in the name of the Holy Spirit does indeed bring forth the fruits of the Spirit in love and joy, peace and long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, fidelity, meekness and self control.
For whether the water comes upon you as a rushing torrent, or as a gentle flow, its effects in cleansing and nurturing the inner life should be the same: to produce in us the image of God, revealed to us in the life and death of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
Melt me, mould me, fill me, use me,
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.