Our Sister The Spirit

Sunday 30th March 2008
Year A, The Second Sunday of Easter
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Holy Eucharist
Acts 2:14; 2:22-32
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

Considering that this is still Easter day, the Lectionary compilers have dealt us a rather mixed hand: part of Peter's affirmative Pentecost sermon; the wonderfully resonant opening of 1 Peter; and the somewhat miserable story of Thomas. It is almost as if we are not supposed to enjoy Easter to its full extent. On that basis, I simply want to ask one question about Thomas and leave it there. You already know the question but I am still going to ask it: would we have been any different?

What I am going to focus on is the importance of the sequence of the readings which gives me an opportunity to say something about Our Sister the Holy Spirit who, as the Sanctifier, is given pretty short shrift in the Church's year, having only the Sunday of Pentecost devoted to her.

Taken in chronological order, there is a remarkable transition from Thomas's quite understandable doubt on the day of the Resurrection, to Peter's assertion on the morning of Pentecost and then to the culmination in 1 Peter where the whole doctrinal span of Christianity is clearly set out. Our way of describing this transition is to attribute it to The Holy Spirit. Something happened between the doubt of Thomas and the doctrine of 1 Peter and the hinge was on Pentecost Day.

Because the idea of the Holy Spirit or Sanctifier is so amorphous, so difficult to grasp, she tends, as I have said, to be down graded as if her inclusion was simply to satisfy the Greek numerological requirement of having three entities rather than two in the Godhead. The Creator, after all, may be distant but the result is tangible; and the Incarnate Redeemer is uniquely tangible in the whole pantheon of deities; but the Sanctifier?

Whatever drove the Apostles to such great courage after the Resurrection of Jesus cannot have been purely historical. Jesus, after all, whatever his risen manifestation, was not like the Jesus they had known before the Crucifixion; but at least what he had said and what he was now saying were much clearer. Then he stopped appearing and they were left to wait for the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. And so, they might have reflected as they waited, in the space of weeks they had: been given the great farewell discourse in John (13-17), or something like it; they had been through the whole harrowing experience of betrayal and death; they had been shaken by the news of the empty tomb, bolstered by the appearances of Jesus and given more explanation; and now they had been left, to wait.

And then something stupendous happened which turned all those who felt it from equivocation, exemplified by Thomas, to confident assertion, exemplified by Peter's first sermon.

It is perhaps unfortunate that Luke's account of the Holy Spirit's manifestation confines it, implicitly but not explicitly, to a small number of people because the institutional church has tended to hijack the Holy Spirit as its own private property. Yes, of course, the Holy Spirit operates through the Church so that all may receive God's Grace; but that way of putting things has too easily degenerated into a view of the church as the male clerical establishment which is the monopoly supplier of Grace. The feminisation of the Spirit may sound strange but for some time yet it will be a necessary corrective until we forget our gender assignments for both the Creator and the Sanctifier.

Always beware the theology of the ecclesiological monopoly supplier. The Church is the active collaboration between all believers. We are corporate because Jesus said that we should gather together; and we are corporate because exercising our freedom to choose to be closer to God rather than further away requires mutual support; but we each bring our own way of believing in God to support each other. No matter how detailed and explicit our Christian Creeds and Confessions, no two people understand what they are affirming in an identical way. If we could do that there would be very little mystery in God and, indeed, whatever it was we were describing would probably not be God at all.

The Power of The Spirit, then, is infused throughout the believing community through the tentative but faithful contact we try to establish with God and through our contact with each other. What matters is not a measurable outcome, how close we think we have come to God, but the heroic process of listening and reaching, heroic because our quest is to reach across the unimaginable chasm between the Creator and the Created, made possible by the bridge of the Incarnate Christ whose meaning we see through the Power of the Spirit.

And that is the point; the followers of Jesus knew more about Him than any who followed; but they had not grasped the meaning of Incarnation, even when he was quite specific about it, until they were informed and then comforted by the Spirit. You might reasonably object that "meaning" is a rather cerebral, human, philosophical word but I do not mean it in the purely philosophical sense of ascribing a pattern to random events, although that must be part of what I mean because the followers of Jesus did discern a pattern in the Incarnation at Pentecost which they had not discerned earlier; but the other meaning of meaning is that what happened to them affected their personalities, their central core, their purpose for living, their understanding of dying, their hope, their eschatological horizon.

Once they had recognised God within them, the followers of Jesus were able to accept the responsibility which comes with reception. If we express our willingness, what we quite properly call "commitment", to receive God within us through the power of the Holy Spirit, we have to accept responsibility for the consequences, both in terms of our own personal commitment to the Holy Life and our equal commitment to mission. If we do not think that bringing people to a closer, more explicit, reciprocal relationship with God is important for their lives, we must question how important it is for ourselves.