In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
One of the distinctive things about the Christian faith is belief in the Holy Trinity. We tend to begin and end important things in church with an invocation of the Holy Trinity – “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”, and in various other forms. Most of us will rather take the idea of God the Father for granted. God the Son may seem to us reasonably easy to grasp, since we are thinking here about Jesus, someone tangible, even if trying to work out how Jesus can be both human and divine may sometimes get us into theological pickles. But I suspect that the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, is the one that gives us the most trouble, the one that we find hardest to pin down.
Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives us a good place to start. The Holy Spirit manifests itself at Pentecost in the gift of communication. The gospel is preached and understood, overcoming barriers of language and culture. And here we are immediately dealing with something that we can relate to. We all know about communication. Some of us are better at it than others, but in one way or another all of us do it. If we are looking for a way of beginning to understand the nature and role of the Holy Spirit, communication is a good place to start, because it is true to the biblical witness about the Holy Spirit, and because it is something that is easy to connect with ordinary human life as we know and live it.
In Western theology the Holy Spirit is understood as the mutual communication of love between the Father and the Son. That is why so many of our collects conclude with the words “in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever”.
Think of human communication at its best. Some of you may have experienced moments when you just “click” with someone, where ideas and thoughts and feelings flow naturally in conversation, where you experience the feeling of understanding and being understood, where perhaps you even have an uncanny sense of understanding and being understood without even necessarily saying anything. These moments are usually rare. Not everyone will experience them. But I think that the existence of these moments of deep and easy communication in our human experience provides us a step towards understanding the beauty and unity of divine communication in the Holy Spirit. If, in our best and most precious moments, we can experience a mutual sense of understanding and being understood, a mutual sympathy that is beyond words; if we, limited and imperfect as we are can catch some glimpse of this, how beautiful and wondrous must be the communication of mutual love between the Father and the Son? It is this communication, a communication so deep that it is in fact a unity, it is this that we call the Holy Spirit.
But the Holy Spirit is also active in the world. The perfect communication of love between the Father and the Son sweeps up others into its dialogue. The Holy Spirit is involved in the work of creation; in Genesis the Spirit or Breath of God is described as sweeping over the waters. The Holy Spirit inspires the prophets and the writers of the holy scriptures. It is the Holy Spirit that overshadows the Blessed Virgin Mary when she conceives Jesus, the Word of God, in her womb. And the Holy Spirit is poured out on the infant church, and we believe continues to inspire the church, uniting Christians with Jesus’ self-offering and intercession for the world. The Holy Spirit draws us into the perfect communication of love between the Father and the Son. It should not then be surprising that the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost takes the form of communication, as the preaching of the apostles transcends barriers of language and culture. And in our own day we should pray and look for the renewal of the gift of communication in the Church in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Most obviously we pray that the Holy Spirit would enable and inspire us to preach the gospel in ways that are readily understood, in ways that connect with the people around us and their lives and concerns. We pray that the Holy Spirit would enable our proclamation of the gospel in word and deed to transcend the various barriers that the world erects to separate one person from another, barriers of class and status and language and ethnicity and culture and so forth. If I am honest, I am not sure how well the Church of England has done as a church in these past weeks when it comes to articulating the hope that we have in Jesus in what for many has been a dark and difficult time. But this is not a time for gloomy introspection. It is a time to look forward in hope, not in our own strength but in the power of the Spirit.
But when we think about human communication at its best, we are thinking of something mutual, we are thinking of that almost uncanny sense of understanding and being understood. It is about clarity, both of speaking and of listening, and of discerning the meaning of that which is spoken and heard. And so when we think about the renewal of the gift of communication in the Church, in the power of the Spirit, it is not only a matter of the power of proclaiming the gospel, but also the power of listening and discerning: listening and discerning the needs of others, and listening and discerning the call of God.
And when we think about the renewal of the gift of communication in the Church, we are not only thinking about communication with those who we might think of as outside, communication with those who are not a part of our regular congregations, whether it be speaking or listening. There is also a huge job of communication to be done within the church. The crisis of Covid-19 has I think revealed some pretty deep problems within the Church of England. Some of them we already knew were there, some we perhaps didn’t, or at least have been brought into sharper focus at this time. The closure of churches has caused a great deal of distress; it seems that sport and shopping are to be given a higher priority than public worship when it comes to easing the lockdown; and there is I think a sense that those “in charge” in the church, whatever “in charge” really means in our context, do not always understand or value the things that are important to people on a ground level. On the other hand, it may be too that those of us operating at the ground level may not adequately understand the bigger picture which the bishops and those who support them are having to deal with. There will be difficult and important conversations to be had, but it will be hard for us to preach reconciliation to the world if we cannot find a path to healing, reconciliation and mutual understanding within our church life at every level.
We celebrate this joyful day of Pentecost in a time of weariness of what has come before, in a time of hope for an easing of restrictions and a slow return to a new kind of normal, and in a time of some considerable fear and anxiety for the future. But we can look on these times with hope and confidence and even with joy as we reflect on the many and varied crises through which the Holy Spirit has guided the Church through the ages. And so we pray in confidence for the gifts of the Holy Spirit in our day, praying that we would be empowered to proclaim the gospel afresh, to listen and discern the needs of others and the call of God, and to find healing and reconciliation and mutual understanding in our life as a Church, to the glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.