Open Air Pentecost Service: Bishop John McDowell's sermon


When St. Paul first arrived in Ephesus he found there a group of believers who, as the text says "had not so much as heard of the Holy Spirit".

There are many who think that the Church in the 21st century is in the same sorry state. And to make matters worse each of the Christian traditions has been inclined to behave as though the Holy Spirit is their particular possession, and each has equated the Spirit with different things.

Those of the charismatic tradition of whatever denomination associate the Spirit with the extraordinary gifts of the Day of Pentecost - that Jewish Harvest Festival when the first fruits of the Spirit were indeed brought home.

There are many generalisations here, but those from the evangelical tradition of whatever denomination might be inclined to think of the Spirit as the One who takes the words of Scripture and applies them with conviction to the individual human heart. Who takes what for many are dead letters and turns them into living oracles that separate the bone from the marrow and return to God with anther soul written in ineffaceable letters in the Book of Life.

Those who identify themselves as of the Catholic tradition whether they be Catholics the Roman obedience or the Anglican obedience or the obedience of Geneva or Wittenberg, might associate the Spirit with the teaching office and the sacraments of the Church - maintaining the supernatural life of heaven here on earth, through many dangers and controversies, and also transforming material things like water, and bread and wine into instruments of our salvation.

And for those on the middle path in all our denominations, the Spirit is above all else the Spirit of peace and concord, somehow holding together all the contradictions of our beliefs and resisting the temptation to condemn, because we do not yet know as we are known.

It is a noble tradition; it acknowledges that peace and truth are not the same thing, but maintains that truth is best uncovered in an atmosphere of peace. It is perhaps the least spectacular of all traditions but tenacious holds that the Spirit enables men and women to become fully themselves (that is to become fully human) and to find themselves completed only in community; only when they come out from the shelter of all traditions and work together.

For them the Church should always look rather odd, especially to the world, because the Church is the place of God-given differences where the truth is arrived at together. Only the whole Church can know the whole truth.

Maybe we all need to put our hands up and admit that we are inclined to limit the Spirit according to the narrowness of our own ability to receive the Spirit, and to imprison her in the insights (often the best insights) of our own tradition.

But, in that famous conversation with Nicodemus, Our Lord assures us "the Spirit bloweth where it listeth and we hear not the sound thereof " that is until another barrier between us comes crashing down, although we had once thought it to be immovable.

We can receive the Holy Spirit only fitfully according to the capacity of our own vessels, but there is One who has received the Spirit without measure.

From before the world began, the Father loving the Son in the bond of the Spirit- the Eternal Father bestowing His life of holy love on the Eternal Son- the same holy love that hopes all things, believes all things and endures all things.

And the Son delights to receive everything from His Father, to receive what is good from the source of all goodness.

And here is the uniqueness of the Holy Spirit who is only real through being the completion of another's life.

A great German mystic once said:

"When the Father laughs with the Son and the Son laughs back to the Father that laughter gives pleasure, that pleasure gives joy, that joy gives love and that love is the Holy Spirit" . (Meister Eckhart)

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus who lays upon us His cross and raises us up with His resurrection, and carries us with him into the presence of the Father.

If we want the corners of our belief cut neat and square, then the Holy Sprit is not for us for the Holy Spirit will take us to places and show us things that we have never dreamed of before.

That is all a bit theological and high falutin. So maybe to finish on something more homely.

Where I grew up in the city, there were many of our neighbours who kept racing pigeons. On big race days I would travel with some of them as they brought the birds far away from home and let them go.

At first they would wheel about in the sky for such a long time that I would get tired of watching them. And as soon as I dropped my head they were gone. It was as though they had been flying around searching for a scent or a track in the air and as soon as they found it they were off back home.

And so God deals with us His spiritual creatures. By the dark secret of creation he expels us into space. By our births we are released from the warm home of the womb, and in our lives we wheel around our native sky looking for the invisible attraction of God's Spirit that will bring us home to Him.

And so we fly to Him by those various paths of love and suffering which distinguish us in His eyes from one another. But there the analogy fails, for the birds arrive and rest in the loft; whereas the spiritual creatures rest on the wing, upheld by God who draws them by His Spirit ever more deeply into the infinite heart of light.

Here, today many paths have crossed and we have rested together on our journey home to the Father - a flock of very varied plumage - for a brief hour or so together. And although we not have been aware of his wings, we have nevertheless been in the Spirit's presence on this his special day and I trust by our devotion we have delighted his heart.