Part 3: God the Holy Spirit
Sermon by The Revd Dr Brutus Green
Based on readings: Genesis 2:4b-9, 15-25 Revelations 4, Luke 8:22-25
There’s a story behind the journey of everyone who’s made it here this morning. Ask yourself — for a moment — what’s brought you here? Perhaps your parents brought you to church as a child? Maybe the joy of singing? Memories of frosty mornings processing into school and college chapels; church has always felt like a part of who you are. Perhaps there was a moment it felt like Jesus, the Bible, the church opened up and let you in? An experience that altered the course of your life; perhaps it pulled you back from a brink; or brought a new joy. Perhaps it was curiosity? You had difficult questions and coming here gave voice to them, and the beginnings of answers. Perhaps your children dragged you here? The promise of free childcare, and a little cultural education for them. Or is it the enticement of a cup of tea and a chat? Perhaps the love of someone else for whom this matters more?
I first came to church as a child, carrying candles and singing with gusto; confirmed too young because it made sense to get all three boys done together. The story my parents love to tell is how the bishop disapproved mightily of my name, arguing that Brutus is a pagan name. He suggested that I take his name, David. Likely he would be equally disappointed by Rhiannon, a goddess queen, and our son, Oberon — a fairy. I was reminded of this at my licensing when among several names, the bishop called me by his own name! When I’m bishop I'll just call everyone “Brutus”.
But then, in a decade of teenage rebellion, which began early at 9 years old, I rejected religion, because on discovering the harder parts of life I found there were questions, which no one would answer. Despite that I went to university to study theology and realised that, amazingly, these questions had been discussed for thousands of years and actually if you can put aside your teenage angst the case is quite compelling. As it happens there was a girl I was studying with (cherchez la femme — as the French say). She was brought up on the mission-shaped flirt-to-convert strategy, and convinced me to go to church, although it was an odd church because there was a “popular music guitar band”, and the service stopped halfway through for donuts. But after the halftime break, I found myself overwhelmed by a sense of the presence of God like a vision.
I’ve doubted many things since. That church collapsed a few years later unable to cope with their pastor’s untimely death. I’ve seen a great deal of harmful theology, some manipulative prayer groups, more political divisions than the Labour Party, and at times I’ve found church very difficult. It was actually choral music that eventually brought me back years later. But I’ve never doubted that initial moment dividing a man walking into a church an atheist and stepping out a Christian, with a vocation to serve God.
This isn’t your story, and there’s more to mine. After all, it’s at least seven years since I was 19. But something has drawn you here today, either for the first or the thousandth time, and like Adam and Eve in our earlier reading, that story has been formed and shaped in some way by God.
Two weeks ago I began by suggesting that to believe in God is to acknowledge a creator, whom we call Father; and so to believe in God is to say there’s a design to life. The world has meaning.
Last week, I suggested that to believe in God the Son, is to say that this meaning is love. That the teaching of Jesus, the miracles, his passion and death are a demonstration in word, act and life that God is revealed in human solidarity. The resurrection, then, is the vindication and revelation that this love endures eternally. That the meaning of the world, that which will always remain, is love.
Today, I am suggesting that to believe in the Spirit is to say that this love is shaping the world, and where we allow it, this love is transforming our lives.
Now I’m not saying that the world’s getting better; though that’s an interesting question. The nineteenth-century was largely optimistic. Probably not if you worked in a factory, but in science and technology it was felt that humanity was mastering the world; that democracy, education and medicine were leading to a bright new future. The great Christian philosopher Hegel, described this as Geist, the unfolding Spirit that’s bringing us to a time of enlightenment. Unfortunately, the twentieth-century came as a bit of a disappointment. The post-war philosophy was existentialism, dominated by unhappy Frenchmen, who mostly thought the best course of action was checking yourself into Dignitas. I’m always pleased when the French win a 6 Nations game; they need a bit of cheering up. Interestingly, if you’ve come across Stephen Pinker, you’ll know that there are more people advocating optimism again. If current affairs are not already disappointing them, I suspect eventually history will.
But when I’m talking about love shaping the world, I don’t mean that the world’s improving. I mean that there’s a natural pressure of love; that if the universe has been created and revealed to have love as its meaning and calling, then, for all the forces at work there is a gravity towards compassion. It may at times be barely recognisable. We may see only nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ as Tennyson wrote; but the love at the centre of creation is always at work in the hearts of those whom it’s calling. And I think perhaps here we get to the core of what the Spirit is, as the shaping force of love in creation.
Christianity teaches that evil is always only a lack of, or imperfect love. So love of country is right and good. Love of your country that lacks any love of other countries and becomes a hatred, has become evil. Love of Fulham Football Club is good and as God intended; but if it pushes out love of other football clubs, such that their fans become the object of hatred and violence, then you’d better move to Millwall. But at the same time love does not work simply by abstractly deciding to love everyone. The worst crimes in history have been accomplished by socialists advocating total equality, but who found they could also sacrifice individuals to the greater collective good.
The Spirit asks us, like St Paul, to widen our hearts. We begin by loving our families, our community — but by widening this love to include an increasing circle we can expand our love indefinitely. If you can love the stranger pressed uncomfortably close to you on the tube, such that you take an interest in his pomeranian and wish him good luck as he steps off into Parson’s Green, you are winning at love.
Between the wars, a German philosopher called Martin Buber, wrote a short little book called ‘I and Thou’, which provides the simplest explanation. He argued that there are two types of relationship in the world: ‘I and it’ and ‘I and thou’. I—it relationships are where we relate to other people as objects to be used, negotiated, avoided or assisted. I—thou relationships are where we engage with people in a personal way — through friendship and love.
There’s a constant pressure to treat other people as objects; too little time to be mindful of others. We mostly don’t have the energy to empathise, especially if they’re driving in front of us, have irritating children, or have views which don’t match our own. At the point of irritation, we immediately make people an ‘it’. We lose interest in their well-being, stop caring and treat them, not necessarily unfairly, but with detachment.
With our close friends our relationship is I-thou. We empathise and have the imagination to see their viewpoint. We recognise that forces outside of them have created those rough edges; so we find it easier to forgive and to accept. It’s the work of love to find more people who are ‘thou’ and not ‘it’. It’s the work of the Spirit to enlighten us to see all creation in this relationship of attention, and not just as resources to be used and things in our way .
I began by talking about vocation, about the journey which has shaped us to be here at St Margaret’s today; how we’ve been drawn to church; to a belief-system built on developing love; to follow a person who in life and death taught the ideal of self-sacrificial love and exposed human politics for its instrumental unkindness. You will find in this journey, those moments, those relationships, which have taught you to love better; which lead you to recognise a world, a set of values, a meaning outside yourself, which draws you into relationships of love with creation, God and your neighbour. This is the transforming work of the Spirit.
To believe in God, the Father, is to acknowledge that the world has meaning.
To believe in God, the Son, is to know this meaning is love.
To believe in God, the Spirit, is to allow ourselves to be shaped by this love. Amen.