Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Day of Pentecost 2018

Let us pray that the Holy Spirit of God will uplift us and transform us.

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster

Sunday, 20th May 2018 at 10.30 AM

It was summer. August in Milan would have been very hot, but he was not in Milan but staying with a friend called Alypius in a villa they were renting in the country not far from there. The year was AD 386 and the man in question was 31. He was in turmoil. A brilliant philosopher and teacher, he had moved from Thagaste and then Carthage in North Africa to Rome and, now in Milan, he was influenced by another great teacher, Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. He knew he had to make a major decision but it was tough. For much of his adult life, he had lived with a woman not his wife, and they had a son. His family had thought he should marry, but not this woman; she was not of his class. He had sent her away and kept his son, by now a teenager, whose name was ‘given by God.’  His need for physical relations had led him to take another woman to live with him. But now things were changing.

He was the son of a Christian mother and pagan father and had dabbled in various religious practices. For some years he had been an adherent of Manichaeism. This new and vigorous religion held that Spirit was good and Matter evil and that the believer must free him or herself from the dangers of the material world. Our hero had become dissatisfied with these religious practices and begun to be fascinated with Catholic Christianity. But he could not free himself from his obsession with the flesh and with earthly position.

One day, he was reading with Alypius a bound copy of the letters of St Paul. The struggle in him was so great that he moved to a remote part of the garden and wept. He had recently heard the story of the conversion of St Antony of Egypt that had taken place not many years earlier. Antony had gone into a church and heard there the account of Jesus telling the rich young man to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. Antony found that the story was addressed to himself and did what he had been commanded.

Now, in the garden, our 31-year-old heard a child in a neighbouring garden chanting some words. He racked his brains to know whether this was a familiar nursery rhyme but was sure it was somehow special. The child, he wasn’t sure whether it was a boy or a girl, was chanting in Latin tolle, lege: pick it up and read. He found in it a message for himself from God.

He rushed to Alypius and opened the volume of St Paul’s letters and read the words his eyes first fell on. They came from the second lesson we heard this morning, ‘Let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.’

You may have recognised that our hero’s name was Augustine. He and his son Adeodatus were baptised by Ambrose during the Easter Vigil on the night of 24th-25th April 387 and Augustine was ordained a priest in Hippo, in what is now Algeria, in the year 391. Four years later he was a bishop and he spent 35 years as bishop of Hippo, dying on 28th August 430. St Augustine remains one of the most influential theologians in the history of the Church, and much of what he wrote we can still read. His monumental work The City of God was written following the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in the year 410 and contrasted the earthly city and the heavenly city.

St Augustine wrote the account of his early life and his conversion, this turmoil and its resolution, in his Confessions at the end of the 4th century. His entire intention was to speak of God’s direct and deliberate intervention not only in his own life but in the life of his friends and colleagues. He wrote of the false arrest of his friend Alypius for theft, ‘I can think of no reason, Lord God, why you would have allowed this, but that you wanted this young man, who was destined for greatness, to learn at an early age that in the process of law a person should never be deemed guilty through the hasty credulity of another.’ Of himself he wrote, also in the Confessions, ‘And then Lord, little by little, with a gentle, compassionate hand, you worked on my heart and set it right.’ At another point he wrote, ‘You knew, my God, the real reason why I left Carthage and went to Rome, but you did not reveal it to me. Nor did you reveal it to my mother.’

So we see that St Augustine firmly and clearly believed that God almighty, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit can and does have a plan or at least an ambition for our lives. He trusted and firmly believed that God does what it is possible to do, often against our own wilfulness, to steer us in the right direction, to enable us to find him and be found by him, to love him as we are loved by him, and finally to come to him.

Can we, do we, believe that almighty God really cares for us as individuals, is in reality interested and active in our own lives, our story, that he cares enough for each one of us to influence us, to lead and guide us, to draw us to himself?

The feast of Pentecost we celebrate today encourages us to believe and trust that God does have a direct as well as an indirect influence in our lives, that God’s love and beauty and goodness working through the power of the Holy Spirit can change us, as St Augustine was changed.

See how St Peter and all the eleven apostles were changed. They knew of Jesus’ death, and feared for themselves. They had come to believe that Jesus Christ had been raised from the dead and was alive. They had been with him before he was taken in the cloud and disappeared from their sight. They had accepted his promise that he would empower them. They remembered the words of Jesus the night before he died, words we heard in the Gospel reading just now, ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.’ Even so, they still cowered in the Upper Room in Jerusalem for fear of the authorities, terrified that what had happened to their Master and Lord might happen to them.

What changed them? St Luke is clear what changed them. It was the gift of the Holy Spirit of God, coming to them in a rushing, mighty wind and anointing them with power from on high, divided flames of fire dancing on each of their heads. ‘All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.’ Now they were equipped and driven out to preach to all the people thronging Jerusalem at the festival. All could hear them in their own language. And now they were inspired, at last unafraid, so full of confidence, so enthusiastic about what they were saying, that, even though it was only 9 o’clock in the morning, people thought them drunk, filled with new wine. They were indeed filled with new wine, inebriated we might say with the Spirit of God.

The bible tells the story of the inspiration of the people of God, of God’s often gentle, sometimes stronger, provoking, goading, guiding, leading, correcting of his people, in order that they can follow his way and obey his direction, and live in his love.

We might find it hard for all kinds of reasons to suppose that God can have a direct interest and direction in our own lives. Our whole formation and education trains us to be free from intellectual constraint, to come to our own view, to make our own decisions in life, to choose and direct our own way, to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals, standing on our own two feet. If we choose to believe in God, then we think of ourselves as having made that choice freely and independently. We are, to use an old term, ‘people come of age.’

But on this beautiful Whitsunday, we should ponder for a moment the possibility that God does intimately and personally care for us, that the Holy Spirit of God does act within our own lives, does lead and direct, provoke, goad, guide and correct, that God is with us in the darkness and in the light, in the pain and sorrow as well as in the joy and celebration.

This Pentecost let us pray that the Holy Spirit of God will uplift us and transform us, that we may grow ever more faithful and joyful in the love of God.

Come, Holy Ghost our souls inspire,
and lighten with celestial fire.
Teach us to know the Father, Son,
and thee of both to be but one,
that through the ages all along,
this may be our endless song:
Praise to thy eternal merit,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.