Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Day of Pentecost: Sunday 27 May 2012

27 May 2012 at 10:00 am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

A taxi driver said to me the other day that he quite liked religious buildings. They gave you something. He found it hard to describe it. Something numinous, he might have said; a sense of awe; a moment of peace. He did say it didn’t really affect him; he wasn’t religious. I was waiting for him to make the next claim, one I’ve heard so often, though in this case it never came: I may not be religious but I am spiritual.

‘I may not be religious but I am spiritual.’ Spirituality is an interesting word. If religion is seen as a little frightening, too contentious, rather divisive, perhaps even dangerous, definitely risky, the deep end, spirituality can be seen as a kiddies’ paddling pool, we might call the shallow end, warm and fuzzy, safe and unthreatening, that dampens you but won’t submerge you, and can’t drown you.

The claim to be spiritual but not religious: what does it mean? Where does it come from? It may appear that religious belief is now more complex and difficult than it has been in the past. As a result of changes in our society over the past fifty years, driving through almost any city in this country, we are likely to pass churches of many denominations, mosques, temples, synagogues, gurdwaras, shrines of various kinds. That is true of so many cities certainly in the western world. Our neighbours, our colleagues, our friends, members of our extended families, are likely to have had quite a different experience of the world from our own, quite a different faith journey. We are encouraged these days to learn about all the world faiths and to understand different points of view. It can be bewildering, even alarming. It is no surprise if encouraged to come to our own conclusions we shy away from religious commitment. But since we are equally reluctant to be seen or to see ourselves as purely materialistic, we call ourselves spiritual.

But until quite recently the word ‘spiritual’ was understood simply to mean ‘religious.’ The Church of England Bishops sitting in the House of Lords, as they have sat since the earliest days of parliaments in this land, are known as the Lords Spiritual. As part of the 1944 Education Act, William Temple, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, persuaded the Government of the day to include a statement of the purposes of education, defined as spiritual, moral, mental and physical development. The Archbishop intended spiritual and moral development to mean pupils’ Christian religious education.

Today the feast of Pentecost, when we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, places the word ‘spiritual’ at the very heart of the Christian faith and of our religion. And I think you will agree that ‘warm and fuzzy’ hardly does justice to the experience of the first Christian Pentecost.

The apostles, with the Lord’s Mother, his closest disciples, had at first been bewildered and frightened by the events of Easter and the succeeding forty days and had only slowly come to believe that their dead Master really was the living Lord. The final Resurrection appearance on Ascension Day left them uncertain – and incarcerated in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. The Twelve elected Matthias to take the place of the traitor Judas Iscariot. But what would they do next? They had no urge to tell anyone of the Resurrection. They sat and waited, safe and secure.

The gift of the Holy Spirit changed all that. ‘And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.’ A rushing, mighty wind filling the house and tongues of fire resting on their heads: that does not describe warm and fuzzy. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit was not in the modern sense a ‘spiritual experience.’ It did not simply move them; it changed them. Where before they had done everything possible to preserve their own lives, to stay away from danger, now they seemed to care nothing for their own safety or security and rushed out with such enthusiasm to tell everyone the Good News that the people thought them filled with new wine.

And it was no one day wonder; it carried on. Not just the Twelve but the other disciples who joined them in proclaiming the Good News suffered contempt and brutality, imprisonment, torture and death rather than deny their living Lord. St Paul becomes we might think a little too eloquent in describing his sufferings but there is no denying their reality or his pride in suffering with the Lord Jesus. ‘Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.’ All this in the power of the Spirit for the sake of the spread of the Good News of Jesus Christ: nothing warm and fuzzy, safe and unthreatening about that; no shallow end.

The Spirit changes us, drives us out, puts us at risk. The Spirit also enables us to endure, and supports us on our journey. The working of the Holy Spirit is not in any way limited. Like the wind, the Spirit blows where the Spirit chooses. [cf John 3: 8] The Spirit is everywhere powerful for good. Wherever there is wisdom and understanding, counsel and strength, knowledge and the fear of God, there is God the Holy Spirit. Wherever there is self-giving, generous, unstinting love – in and beyond the Church; in and beyond all religions – there is God the Holy Spirit.

We see the Spirit working in the life of our Lord himself. When Jesus was baptised in the river Jordan, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. St Luke tells us that ‘Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness. When he had returned to Galilee, he came to Nazareth and went to the synagogue, where he read from the prophet Isaiah, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me.’ [Luke 3: 18]

Above all, for us, it is the Spirit that constitutes the Church. The Church is formed through the outpouring of the Spirit not only on the Lord’s Mother and the Twelve gathered in the Upper Room but on the three thousand who, having heard St Peter preaching, repent and are baptised, those who ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ [Acts 2: 42] We are doing this morning what they did and shall be breaking bread in a few minutes much as they did on that day 2,000 years ago. The priest will ask God to grant ‘that by the power of your Holy Spirit and according to your holy will, the gifts of bread and wine may be to us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ The twin Gospel sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, the backbone of the Christian life, are occasioned and validated by the Holy Spirit.

These are vital spiritual gifts that keep us firmly members of the Church, the Body of Christ. In the second lesson, St Paul said we who follow the way of Christ have ‘the first fruits of the Spirit’ but still wait in hope for the fullness of the Spirit’s gifts. Let us pray today for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on us, on the Church, on all humanity, that we and all people might show in our lives the fruits of the Spirit: ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ [Galatians 5: 22-23] Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will not move us merely but change us, leading us from the shallow end and enabling us to risk the deep end.