Sermon given on the Day of Pentecost

‘I am in the Father and the Father is in me.’ And he said, ‘I am going to the Father.’

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster

Sunday, 9th June 2019 at 12.00 PM

On the eve of Jesus’ arrest, when he had eaten with his closest disciples, the twelve apostles, he spent some time with them, as described by St John in his Gospel, preparing them for what was to come, for his death and his resurrection and for the future of his mission, which would now be their mission in him.

We have heard something of what Jesus said in the Gospel reading this morning, trying to explain to Philip the nature of his relationship with God the Father. ‘I am in the Father and the Father is in me.’ And he said, ‘I am going to the Father.’ But he also instructed his disciples, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’ But above all he spoke of the way in which they would continue to be supported. ‘I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you for ever; this is the Spirit of truth.’ And he spoke of what the Advocate would do for the disciples. He would teach them and remind them of everything they had learnt from Jesus himself.

The word Advocate is one of several different translations in modern language, interpreting the word Paraclete in the original Greek. Another word is Comforter, found in the Authorised, the King James, Version of the Bible from 1611. So, we hear Jesus in that version say to his disciples, ‘I will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you.’ Another translation of that text, and perhaps more accurate, is ‘I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.’

I like the idea of the Holy Spirit as a Comforter. An Advocate is a lawyer, someone who speaks for the accused, we might call the Defence Counsel. The place of an Advocate is in a law court. Now that may be worth thinking about. We shall stand before the judgement seat of God; we believe we shall be judged. How have we followed the commands of God? How far have we tried to love God and to do his will? Judgement will come.

But the idea of the Holy Spirit as a Comforter is more intimate, more homely. On the other hand, we must not imagine the idea of a Comforter in terms of comfy slippers, a seat by the fire, a glass of wine and a good book or television programme. The modern word comfort has much less power than its original meaning, which is about strength, being strong with someone or something.

Take one of the images from the Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidered cloth 70 metres or 230 feet long and 50 centimetres or 20 inches tall, depicting events leading up to the Norman Conquest of this country. The abbey built by St Edward the Confessor, consecrated on 28th December 1065, the predecessor of this current 13th century church, features in the tapestry, as does the Confessor himself and of course William the Conqueror, William I, who was crowned here on Christmas Day 1066. The tapestry was commissioned in the 11th century by William of Normandy’s half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux. The individual scenes of the tapestry each have their own description in Latin. Bishop Odo was with the Conqueror in the battle at Hastings, wielding not a sword or spear but a mace or club. That was capable of doing quite a deal of damage but not piercing the skin. The Latin inscription for his image is Hic Odo Episcopus baculum tenens confortat pueros. Here Bishop Odo holding a club comforts the boys, literally, presumably, the troops. Now obviously holding a club is not very comforting in the way that we now use the word comfort. A better version translates the Latin more accurately: gives strength to the troops.

So, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, gives us strength; this is not about consolation, calming us down, but encouraging us, geeing us up, putting fire into our bellies. Perhaps we should find another word to describe the Paraclete, the one who both calls us and stands beside us, who encourages us. Perhaps a better word is Strengthener, someone who strengthens us, challenges us, drives us on when we are fading, enables us to achieve something greater than we ever thought possible.

We all need strength if we are to fulfil our potential as Christians. We are not to be faint-hearted, casual, occasional, but committed, dedicated, full-on, and up-for-it.

A few days ago, there was a big ceremony at Southsea near Portsmouth, marking the eve of the beginning of the D-Day landings in Normandy 75 years ago in 1944. The Queen was there with the Prince of Wales, and President Trump at the end of his State Visit to Her Majesty; the president of the French Republic was there too, President Macron, and representatives of the countries involved in that extraordinary, courageous and successful enterprise led by General Dwight D Eisenhower, the largest ever invasion of a foreign country.

President Macron read part of a letter written by a 16-year old member of the French resistance, Henri Fertet, awaiting his execution by a Nazi firing squad. He wrote to his parents in brave terms. This is my own translation. ‘My letter is going to cause you a great pain, but I do not doubt that you are full of courage, which you will wish to preserve, if only for love of me. During these 27 days in a solitary cell I have missed your love. I want a free France and a happy France. The soldiers are coming looking for me. I am not afraid of death. I die voluntarily for my country. Adieu. Farewell. Death calls me. I do not wish to be blind-folded or tied to a stake. I kiss you all. Even so it is hard to die. A thousand kisses.’ As I heard this letter read, I thought how easy and comfortable are our lives today. How hard it is for most of us to imagine the suffering and deprivation of those caught up in war or violence. We must both be grateful for our comparative peace and ease of life and deeply aware of the pain and grief carried by so many people.

So, we need to be strengthened. We need to be given the courage to serve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labour and not to ask for any reward save that of knowing that we do God’s will. Only the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, can be our Advocate, our Comforter, our Paraclete, can give us the strength we need to live truly and clearly as Christians. After all, our world finds faith strange and unusual. Too many people, certainly in this country know little of faith. They have not so much rejected Christian faith as never having really tested it at all.

When the Holy Spirit came down on the apostles, who had been afraid and hidden away for fifty days since the death and resurrection of our Lord, they had new strength. They came out of hiding to proclaim to all who would hear them the wonderful truth of God’s love revealed in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. They were no longer afraid. They were bold and completely careless of what they might suffer. The Roman authorities put most of them to death, but still the message went out and has gone on going out ever since.

May we be given by the Holy Spirit of God strength fearlessly to proclaim the wonderful truth of God’s power and love.

Listen to the Sermon (audio file on an external website)