|Minister's Sermon - 9th June 2019 9am|
|Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen|
|Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church|
Sunday 9th June 9am
Romans 8. 18-23, 26-27
John 14.8, 15-17, 25-27
As we celebrate the coming of the Spirit, there’s an expectation that services will be as noisy as the first day of Pentecost! The Book of Acts tells us it was a feast for the senses. A sound like the rush of a violent wind filled the house, they saw tongues of fire resting on each of them, and they spoke other, recognisable, languages. It was a powerful impetus for the early church. For witness, miracles and conversions. And maybe it’s not surprising that people long for church life to be like this again! But I’m a little suspicious of such expectations. Because when it’s the only event shaping our understanding of the Spirit. We can find ourselves looking through the lens of a mythic past, rather than living with today’s reality. And if we’re willing to look beyond the Luke’s dizzying story of Pentecost, and embrace the bigger picture of the Spirit’s work, we’ll find the other images and resources we need to live in today’s world and church.
It was a rather innocuous comment in one of my commentaries that focused this for me. When Jesus’ disciples found themselves separated from him - after his death, resurrection, or ascension - they responded in different ways. Some felt cheated and left. Others withdrew into silence. For some, his absence threatened to divide and destroy, the fragile community. While others returned to scripture and Jesus’ words, saw signs of his continued presence, and interpreted these as the gift of the Holy Spirit. They remembered the Spirit who brooded over the waters at creation. The spirit who animated the dry bones in Ezekiel’s prophecy. And inspired the passage Jesus read in the synagogue at Nazareth. So, in today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples they’d not be alone, the Advocate, the Spirit of truth would be with them. And in the Epistle, we hear Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome as he reminds them that they - are and will be – given the Spirit to help us in our weakness. And it’s in these, rather than the story of Pentecost, that I find a broader understanding of the Spirit that can help us face our every-day reality, now.
In his letter to Romans Paul says that, “The whole of creation has been groaning in labour pangs until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” This is about us. But not only us. It’s one of the few New Testament passages that insists we take creation seriously. It invites us to reflect on the earth’s groaning as soil, water and forests are poisoned, and our climate changed. It offers a different perspective on the devastation caused by natural disasters. And invites us to hear humanity’s cries within this wider context. Our news has been dominated these last days by the remembrance of D Day, but before that by President Trump’s visit, and the Tories leadership campaign, and all the while the cries of the world’s people continue. 65 million of the world’s people are displaced, having fled their homes as a result of war, persecution, poverty and natural disasters. Our news focuses on the few crossing the Channel, but 86%, live in soul-destroying camps in developing countries. We’ve heard cries closer to home. Of those affected by our increasing stretched care system. Maybe we’re also seeing a similar groaning in the church. I don’t buy the idea that Christians are persecuted. But I do think that being a declining church, is another aspect of the groaning of creation.
In the face of such groaning, Paul says believers have, the “first-fruits of the Spirit”. What he means is that we know now, what all creation will know, when the end-times come. The Spirit enables us to know, that the distress experienced now, is part of the renewal of creation. This image of the earth groaning in labour is challenging though. It is not the gentle breath of the Spirit. Or even the Spirit brooding over waters. Of course, birth is not normally an easy process, for parents or child. There is a struggle. Pain. And sometimes loss and death. There is disruption, which may be welcome after the long wait, but is nonetheless life-threatening. And yet - there is always transformation. No one comes out of birth the same. There are changed relationships, perspectives, a changed understanding of life and death and more. And transformations like this aren’t only the result of physical birth. They also result from the other forms of creation and humanity’s groaning. For just as birth pains are the interruption, the disruption that tell women birth is about to happen. So, it is possible - if we see them through the eyes of faith - to see all I’ve spoken of as disruptions as labour pains that invite us be transformed.
We’ve all had interrupting or disrupting personal experiences. Two significant ones for me have come from a pituitary cyst and chronic fatigue. I’ll save you the whole saga, but an operation on the cyst meant 4 months of work, and chronic fatigue completely rethinking the way I work. My life was interrupted, and out of the need to rethink, has come change. And I know that others whose lives have been more disrupted than mine say the same. But not lightly. And nor do I assume it for anyone else. It’s a conviction we have to own for ourselves, and that I’m sharing, because I think it’s what Paul means when he says the Spirit helps us when we groan together with creation. Paul doesn’t say that the Spirit empowers us to pray. But that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness [and] intercedes with inexpressible groanings”. God’s Spirit shares in the cries and the groaning of humanity and creation and enables us, even in our fragility, weakness and vulnerability, to experience the fullness of life that God promises believers - now.
Hold onto this sense of the Spirit helping us in our weakness as we move on. John’s Gospel was written near the end of the 1st century. Conflict and persecution had left the Jewish community and the first Christians feeling disillusioned, vulnerable and bewildered. But rather than uniting them, it tore them apart, as the Christians were thrown out of the synagogues. So, when Jesus speaks in John’s Gospel, he speaks to encourage this fragile, vulnerable community in the life of faith. The Spirit of truth will bridge the distance between the church and the world, expose non-believers to the error of their ways, and enable them to see God’s presence in the world. And the Advocate will help Jesus’ followers interpret his message for the world’s ever-changing situations and proclaim it. What I see here, is a small fragile community, being challenged with the support of the Spirit, to interrupt, to disrupt the world’s way of seeing and living. And I think it helps us understand the Spirit’s work now.
Wars, natural disasters, persecution, migrants, and poverty and more, face us with the truth of our humanity and the fragility of life. They challenge us as individuals, churches, and as a community of nations. And how we respond matters. It goes without saying, that Christians should be among those seeking practical ways of not only offering aid, but of working to change the root causes, and the attitudes that allow them to be sustained. So, we need people who are willing to disrupt business as usual attitudes, to challenge denials of racism, discrimination and climate change, and speak up for those experiencing injustice. In voices like these, I see the Spirit of truth, the Advocate at work. ‘Though I find found it harder to see how the Spirit is at work in war-torn nations and conflict-ridden situations. And I don’t have answers to all these big questions or a programme to help the church to change. But I am glad of those, in our declining churches, who continue to question the myths we spin about the poorest. Of those, who through foodbanks, winter night shelters, and by providing safe spaces for refugees and homeless people, offer oases to people whose lives have been disrupted. And of those who seek the help of the Spirit to help us in our weakness.
I’m convinced that when we recognise our weakness, and our spiritual poverty, the Spirit is best able to work in and through us. For as long as we assume we’re strong. As long as we’re convinced we have what others need for life. And as long as we see ourselves as having nothing to receive, the Spirit will not be able to help us in our weakness, and we will struggle to live and speak truth to the world. When we look back to the early church, dazzled by the power of the story of Pentecost, we forget how fragile the disciples were. And what we need today is an awareness of our fragility and weakness. That enables us to be open to the interruptions of God’s spirit, to the cries and groaning of God’s people, and allows God to disrupt our lives, transform them, and make us new. The Spirit has not abandoned us as we face decline, disruption, and creation and humanity’s groaning in labour pains. The Spirit invites us to recognise our weakness, our spiritual poverty, our fragility. To allow ourselves be disturbed, to have our lives interrupted by the events we find ourselves caught up in, and that we witness in the wider world. And to be open to receiving God’s promise that through them, God will transform us, and make us new. The question is, do we want the Spirit to help us in our weakness, do we want to say yes?
Sue Keegan von Allmen
9th June 2019