Scripture Readings: Acts 2:1-21
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
I’m tempted to start today with a poll, and ask you all what you watched on TV yesterday. Did you watch the royal wedding, or the FA cup final? Or did you sit at your computer and watch the live feed from Edinburgh of the opening day of the Church of Scotland General Assembly? Or maybe you read a book, or took a walk in the countryside? (It was my day off yesterday, so as my son, Daniel, was a guard on a steam train on the Strathspey Railway, so I took a trip with him!).
So there is a lot going on this weekend. But this weekend, the most important thing happening in the Ferguson family is the baptism of Fraser, first child of Donald and Rachel. We celebrate with them the gift of new life which God has given-a new life which has disrupted and changed their lives, but which will bring great joy his parents and the wider family. And in baptism, we are all reminded of God’s love for us all, and the great promises of the Christian faith- of the possibility of renewal of life, of God’s presence with us throughout our lives, of the forgiveness of sin.
And one other aspect of baptism which sometimes we forget. We baptise people ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’: and that last one, the Holy Spirit, is something we are celebrating today. For this is Pentecost- a major festival in the Church, the day on which we celebrate the Holy Spirit.
The word Pentecost means ‘the fiftieth day’: for it is now fifty days after Easter. In our first reading today we hear of what happened to the first Christians fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus:
When the day of Pentecost came, all the believers were gathered together in one place. Suddenly there was a noise from the sky which sounded like a strong wind blowing, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire which spread out and touched each person there. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other languages, as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
We often tell children that Pentecost, is the birthday of the Church. Jesus had promised that his followers would receive the Holy Spirit after he himself had been raised to life. Saint Luke in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives us a very vivid account of that moment, when the Spirit descended on the first Christians. He speaks of wind, fire, and the believers suddenly finding their voice- they go out into the street and begin to take the message of Jesus, his death and resurrection, to people from all over the world.
But all this talk of the Holy Spirit sometimes makes us uncomfortable. There is actually a children’s hymn in our new Church Hymnary about the Holy Spirit which begins, ‘Is it spooky, is it weird?’ (CH4 602). When I was a wee boy, we used to hear more about ‘the Holy Ghost’, and for a youngster, well, that is just weird and spooky. Churches have quite often rather neglected the Spirit, who is, after all, the third person of the Trinity. I have heard it said that for Protestants, the Trinity is God the Father, God the Son and the Bible; for Catholics it is God the Father, God the Son and the Virgin Mary.
Yet the fastest-growing branch of Christianity today is Pentecostalism, a movement which started in the early part of the twentieth century in America and which is now to be found all over the world in various forms, and which takes very seriously the presence of the Spirit of God in the church. Pentecostalism seems a long way from our Presbyterian brand of Christianity; yet often if offers hope to some of the poorest people in the world.
But we rational, unemotional, Presbyterian Scots- what does the Holy Spirit mean for us? We’re not really expecting to see people come to church as if they had fire on their heads. If there is a strong wind blowing, it’s probably because we left the door open. But talk of wind and fire are ways of putting into words what as clearly a intense experience which happened on the first Pentecost. Pentecost is the church’s birthday, because it was the day the disciples first felt the power of God among them. In our Gospel reading, Jesus promised his followers that, once he had gone, he would leave them what he called ‘a Helper’. Pentecost was when the disciples really felt the Helper among them- a Helper so powerful, they used words like fire and wind to describe the experience.
In baptising Fraser today, we have all been reminded of the Holy Spirit. And in baptism, we symbolise that the God promises his Spirit to all who believe. But what is this Spirit?
I think we can understand the Spirit very simply if we think of it as God at work within each of us, and at work in the world. Thinking about the Spirit reminds us that God is involved in the world today.
Our culture is still influenced by the eighteenth century movement known as the Enlightenment. This was a reaction to the wars of religion which had spread over Europe since the Reformation, and an attempt to use science and rationality as a way of understanding the world, instead of more traditional religion. It’s a movement in which Scots played a big part- men like David Hume and Adam Smith. David Hume was, at the end of his life, an atheist, but many of his friends and colleagues among the literati of Edinburgh did believe in God, and indeed some of them were Ministers and members of the Kirk.
One way they attempted to understand God was to imagine that God had set up the world like a great machine which God had set in action, and left to run on its own. The world, they said was governed by unchangeable scientific laws, and so while there was room for a Creator, there was no need for him to get involved. So God was a bit like a watchmaker, who creates his timepieces, winds them up, and then leaves them alone. But if God has made the world, and left it to run like clockwork, there is no need for the Holy Spirit.
But the Christian faith is that God is at work in the world. God came into the world in a human body in Jesus Christ. And the Spirit of God is still at work in the world.
The Holy Spirit is, simply, God at work in the world. The first verses of Genesis speak of the Spirit creating the world ‘in the beginning’- but really God continues to create. Above all, God speaks to people, leads them in new ways, stirs them up to serve him. Above all, one man, Jesus of Nazareth, is so full of the Spirit of God that it cannot be denied that through him, God is doing something very new indeed. The Spirit which created the world, the Spirit which was in Jesus, is still at work today. A world which just ran like clockwork would be a boring world. But God is at work in the world, the Spirit of God is at work in the world, constantly surprising us and doing new things. And the Spirit works through people.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul says of the Holy Spirit:
the Spirit’s presence is shown in some way in each person for the good of all (1 Corinthians 12.7)
The Corinthians had written to Paul to ask him about the Holy Spirit, and the way it seems to affect different people in different ways. And so Paul writes back to them, and one the things he says to them- is ‘the Spirit’s presence is shown in some way in each person for the good of all’.
You know, you don’t have to be a genius to be ‘gifted’. I know people who are gifted listeners. I’ve met parents who seemed to me to be gifted in the way they brought up their children. I know people whose gift is the care and compassion they give to an elderly or disabled person whom they care for. I know people whose gift is how they look after those whom they have to manage at work. In all these people, the Spirit is present, for the good of all.
Each person, says Paul, has the Spirit of God present within them- the Spirit is present in each person, in each of us, in each of you. And that is shown in the fact that each of us has different gifts. Some of us are better at some things than others. We have different abilities, and different capabilities. There are different skills needed for the work of the Church, but God has given them. There are different gifts, and they are available in different people.
The great inventor Thomas Edison- a gifted man if ever there was one- famously quipped that ‘genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration’- and he should have known. The child prodigy Mozart would never have produced his magnificent music if he hadn’t worked at it. And that’s true of us all. Unless we use the talents and gifts God gives, us, there are no use. How can I use my talents, my skills, my interests, to make my contribution building up the Kingdom? If we would each of us ensure that our gifts were being used for God’s work, then the Church and the world would be changed and renewed beyond our dreams. For ‘the Spirit’s presence is shown in some way in each person for the good of all’.
And there’s another gift which the Spirit brings, which comes out in today’s reading from John’s Gospel. Here, Jesus is speaking to his disciples just before his arrest and execution. ‘I’m leaving you now’, he’s saying to them, ‘but I’m not leaving you bereft. You’ll still have a Helper when I’ve gone’. He says:
The Helper will come- the Spirit, who reveals the truth about God and who comes from the Father. I will send him to you from the Father, and he will speak about me.
Christians believe that the Spirit helps us to understand ‘the truth about God’. We do not always get it right- in fact, we are often wrong. But I can’t see how we can continue to believe unless we think that God is at work, helping us to live as Christians, and also to believe as Christians.
Today, as I mentioned, our church’s General Assembly is meeting. Much of what the Assembly does is somewhat dull, and routine. But sometimes is has to deal with issues of truth- what is the Church to believe about some controversial matter? Is it time to change the way we do things, perhaps quite radically? Sometimes we answer those questions correctly, and sometimes we are wrong.
But Christ promises that in it all, there is a Helper at work. Christ promises that somehow, God’s voice is struggling to be heard- in General Assembly, in the life of local congregations, and also in the life of individual Christians. For we have not been left alone, for the Spirit is among us, willing and able to guide us in the truth about God:
When [says Jesus] the Spirit comes, who reveals the truth about God, he will lead you into all the truth.
Jesus was famously once asked what the greatest commandment of the Jewish law was. And he replied that it was to love God with all our heart and all our mind and all our soul. But then he added that there was another: to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.
And ever since he said that, Christians have understood the truth about genuine religion: that love of God and love of neighbour go together. Just last Sunday, thinking about Christian Aid Week, we read this, from the First Letter of John:
[O]ur love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action.
We baptise children and adults, and hope and pray that they will discover the joys of Christian faith for themselves. But Christianity is a big ask. We need to learn about God, and we need to what God wants of us. It’s not just enough to know Christian doctrine- we need to put our faith into action. Love and God and love your neighbour- put your words into actions of love.
But on this Pentecost Sunday, we recognise that we are not left alone to get on with it. The waters of baptism remind us also of the fire of Pentecost. We have not been left alone. We have Helper, who helps us know the truth (and the greatest truth is that there is a God who loves us). And that Helper- the Spirit of Christ at work in the world- helps us put our faith into action. For the Spirit of truth- who helps us know God- also offers us gifts to enable us to serve God and our neighbour in practical ways.
So on this Pentecost Sunday, let’s give thanks for the Spirit of truth- God still at work in the world, in the Church, and in each of us.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2018 Peter W Nimmo
 1 John 3.18