Holy Spirit: Disrupting fountain and well

IMG_1027I don’t know if you watched the service from St Paul’s Cathedral to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee on Friday. A number of things stood out for me. One was the young people challenging the congregation of leaders and diplomats, royalty and clerics, with an Act of Commitment. There is something about the challenge from the young, which gives the words more power and force. This is the future, which will judge the present for how it tackles or fails to tackle the big issues of our day and they came quick and fast: care for the world and the environment, honouring life in its richness and diversity, peace and justice, seeking out and nurturing all that is good. 

That was also reflected in the second reading, given to the Prime Minister. ‘Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, just, pure, commendable… think about these things, keep doing these things, and the God of peace will be with you’ (Philippians 4:4-9). St David’s final words echo these with his ‘be joyful, keep your faith and do the little things you have seen and heard in me’.

And it was the Queen’s faith that was really the whole theme and purpose of the service. Not that you would know that if you only saw the report on the BBC news, which could only mention the Archbishop of York’s reference to horse racing. Airbrushed out was the importance, the central importance of the Queen’s faith for her life. I was in a little exchange with our new Archdeacon, Stella Bailey, about this, and she observed that if you are steeped in the faith you spot the references to it, but if you are not all you hear is the horse racing. May be there is a BBC that is also frightened about speaking about these things, which might be another dynamic at work here, but it is a reminder of the missionary context that we are speaking into, people who don’t hear faith, they hear horse racing. And our reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:1-21) gave a similar mix up; we had disciples speaking in the power of the Spirit and what people heard was they’re all drunk. With that always strikes me as a humorous moment, they can’t be it’s only 9 o’clock in the morning – well believe me I’ve known people who could be drunk at 9 o’clock in the morning. They don’t hear it.

The Archbishop was at pains to point out that the faith of the Queen is the “fountain and the well” of her life. From this she draws her inspiration and her sustenance, the grace she needs to fulfil the role she has to play and has played for 70 years. A life of service, inspired by faith and guided, strengthened in the grace of God.

Today is Pentecost Sunday, or you may prefer in Imperial measures – Whit Sunday, when we remember and celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit. This came to disciples who had been locked up in fear and dread, afraid to sing the praises out loud and to declare the hope they had in Jesus Christ. Following the Ascension, they prayed together, they opened their hearts and on the Day of Pentecost in poured the life changing, disrupting, enabling Holy Spirit. In their diversity, different languages sang the same song and these scared people found the courage to go out and proclaim to the world the saving love of Christ. That’s the miracle of Pentecost. It’s also the challenge for us.

And I was also struck by a stark contrast between watching the congregation in St Paul’s on Friday and watching this service online last weekend, in my precautionary Covid confinement at home. The hymn singing in St Paul’s seemed pretty lacklustre. Mouths barely moving. Contrast that with the wholehearted sound which came over the internet from here, on a week when the choir was on its half term break too so you all had to do the work, this was very striking. It is very striking and powerful when we get to the great ‘Amen’ at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer each week, the moment when we assert whatever we believe to take place in that prayer has happened. We join with the angels and sing the ‘Amen’ of heaven. It’s a sign of the Holy Spirit working in our hearts and voices, to open the voice and let the song out – whether you can sing well or not, that’s not the point. The song is in the heart and out it comes. We will hear it again this afternoon, after what I think is a very dull National Anthem for Great Britain, we will sing the Welsh one and, oh my, as an Englishman coming into Wales it’s quite a sound when you get a congregation of Welsh people singing it. You can’t beat it.

St Augustine famously said that the one who sings prays twice. I think there is something much deeper in that. It is the one who is open to the life changing power and love of God, to the movement of the Holy Spirit, who prays twice in their singing. There is a well which bubbles up and bursts forth as a fountain to change lives and then change the world, which is expressed in the song of the double praying.

The Holy Spirit is no mere comforter, like a child’s cuddly toy. That’s a misunderstanding of that word comfort. There is a wonderful bit in the Bayeux Tapestry which has someone is prodding the troops in the backside with a sharp spear and the caption underneath says ‘Harold comforts his troops’. Prods them, stirs them on. It may of course calm them, give them the ability to do what would otherwise not be possible – and many of us in various roles and responsibilities know that we just would not be able to do what we do without it. I couldn’t even contemplate this role without the grace and extra strengthening, the boost that can only come from God’s Spirit. It is prayed at ordinations with the words, remember you cannot do this in your own strength, you need God’s Spirit to guide you and equip you. And, oh my goodness, over the years, approaching three decades, I’ve learnt just how much that is needed. Sometimes even wondered if I could carry on but found that somehow enough is given, perhaps so much more is given, to overcome that sense of inability and at times collapse. It was a telling moment when Stephen Cottrell stood in the pulpit in St Paul’s Cathedral before his sermon, he was still and silent for a moment, actually what felt quite a long moment, before beginning what he earlier described as a slightly terrifying prospect. I think he prayed and allowed the Holy Spirit to enter in.

The Holy Spirit is far more than a becalmer; it’s a disrupter and it changes things. The first disciples were disrupted from the safety and comfort of their locked room and sent into unknown places, with unknown people – some of whom were hostile and life-threatening, but there are always those who bring life in a new way and blessings, and they found that too. Give thanks for them, because they remind us of the joy that is to come through the song we sing and that song will drive away the paralysis that comes with the fear, just as it drove away the paralysis of the disciples locked in their rooms who went out to sing, to preach, to pray, to proclaim. When we come to the Cathedral to pray, don’t make the mistake of thinking this is just a comfortable moment – remember the word comfort is not as comfortable as it might sound – one which will enable you to stay as you are. It is not. It is a disrupter and it will change you and enable the change which God requires of us to live the life of the Spirit. I don’t think, even those of us who say these words, we have a clue half the time what this means, but over time it comes.

We are going to find this with climate change and today is also World Environment Day. Big changes will be required of us and so some big disrupting is going to be required to reset the health and balance of the planet. The image of Prince Louis with his hands over his ears and pulling faces on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with the roar of the fly pasts has been used in quite a few memes over the past few days. But one I saw put the parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere for the year of their birth above the heads of the Queen, the Duchess of Cambridge, his sister Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis himself, and his was the highest number even in such a relatively short time, especially between his sister and himself it had changed dramatically in that short time. If we pray to God for the care of the environment, do not be surprised when God’s Holy Spirit disrupts and challenges, brings change. It has to.

The Spirit’s gifts to us, expressed in song, enable us to pray twice and that prayer comes from a heart that is open and allows the Spirit to enter in so that it can disrupt and, in its disrupting, become the fountain and the well as we live the life of Christ to the glory of God.

Sermon for Pentecost, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 5th June 2022

About Ian Black

Ian is an Anglican priest and Dean of Newport Cathedral in the Church in Wales. He was previously Vicar of Peterborough and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral in the Church of England Diocese of Peterborough. He served as Rural Dean of Peterborough for 5 years. Prior to moving to Peterborough, Ian was in Leeds for 10 years, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes in Faversham. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury in partnership with the Diocese of Rochester. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian was born and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and is a former head chorister at Shakespeare’s Church – Holy Trinity. He studied in Canterbury, Lincoln Theological College and has a Master of Divinity degree from Nottingham University. He is married with two sons. Publications include three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His most recent book, Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus, was published by Sacristy Press on 1st July 2017. There is also a hymn based on this – Christ the Saviour. Other online writings can be found under the Books & Publications tab above. He has been writing online since the mid 1990s and was a contributing blogger to the ReJesus website. Ian is a keen photographer and these frequently appear in his Facebook and Twitter posts.
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