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The Spirit of truth


15 May 2005 11:00 | Fr John Cullen

NT: Acts 2.1-11; Gospel: John 14.15-31a

One of the most significant and fulfilling aspects of my role here at St George's - after the weekly round of worship - is meeting the wide variety of people who come here for what we call the "occasional Offices": couples preparing for marriage, those enquiring about Baptism, and families or work colleagues arranging memorial services.

Frequently these encounters being with an embarrassed pause, as the people involved try to explain or justify why they haven't been to church for the last however many years. That inevitably opens up a fascinating discussion about what their experiences of church have been in the past - and sadly some of them have been pretty grim! So what might they be looking for if they choose to start coming to St George's Hanover Square? How often I wish the Churchwardens and members of the PCC could listen in on what I hear!!

It should not be insignificant to us, how people experience us as a gathering of the people of God. And that's not just about meeting other people's expectations, however legitimate - or extravagant! - they may be. It's more about what hallmarks of Christian life and faith do people experience when they walk through those front doors to discover what goes on in here…?

So I was intrigued to discover that we had been visited a few weeks ago in a Mystery Worshipper survey of 70 churches across London. The results now published on the internet make interesting reading. The sermon was timed - and rated! - as was the overall experience of the atmosphere of the place and its worship. The visit happened to be on our Patronal Festival day, so I'm not sure how much our visitor was influenced by the champagne and canapés afterwards. That was certainly picked up in a report in this week's Church of England Newspaper!

But what hallmarks of Christian life and faith do you value by your participation in the life of St George's? Are you brought in touch with God in this place?

Today we recall that defining moment in the life of Jesus' first followers when they experienced the coming upon them of the Holy Spirit as they were gathered together on the Jewish festival of Pentecost, when they traditionally gave thanks to God for the first fruits of the spring harvest. We might not expect to have that particular event repeated on this or any other Sunday at Hanover Square: the sound of a rushing mighty wind gusting through the place, nor everyone breaking out in a babble of foreign languages. But do you - or would any visitor here - expect to be caught up in a celebration of "the wonderful works of God"?

What would such a celebration introduce you to? The Collect for this Whitsunday speaks of the "light" of the Holy Spirit giving us a sense of "right judgement", and an awareness of the "comfort" of God's Spirit.

Those gifts of 'right judgement' and 'comfort' are spelled out in some detail in this morning's Gospel, which is taken from Jesus' long discourse with the twelve disciples in the Upper Room on the night of the Last Supper - his farewell speech before his death - an occasion of high emotion and attention.

There Jesus speaks of 'the Spirit' as "another Comforter", who will "abide with (them) forever, the Spirit of truth…". The word 'Comforter' (translating the Greek word pa?????t??) in that context does not mean a soothing or pacifying influence. It means rather 'one who stands beside, encourages, animates', one whose presence and companionship will compensate for the departure of Jesus. In that sense, it means one who strengthens and gives us that extra support to face up to the reality about ourselves and the world around us when it would be much easier - or less painful - to ignore or deny what is staring us in the face. So Jesus speaks of this encouraging presence as 'the Spirit of Truth', which is available to all who seek to be "in Christ". This Spirit, Jesus tells us "dwells with you, and shall be in you…. He will teach you all things and remind you of all that I have said to you. But he also warns us that this influence will not be something readily understood or accepted by those outside the 'community of faith' - those whom John's Gospel refers to as belonging to 'the world'. That's why many who may come into our midst will be puzzled or bemused, or indeed put off - because, as T S Eliot reminds us in his Four Quartets, "human kind cannot bear very much reality". But that gives us no cause for smugness or feelings of superiority.

It behoves us rather to show more clearly the quality of our life together as the people of God, the 'holy' people of God, a people in whom God's Spirit is obviously at work, making us more honest with ourselves and open to one another. Only so will we be able to acknowledge and offer to God those things in our lives that need healing, forgiving, cleansing, changing, transforming. God's Spirit of truth, like the surgeon's knife, may cut deep and lay bare, but only in order to heal and restore to fullness of life.

This process of being changed is what the Christian life is all about. "To live is to change, to become perfect is to have changed often", says Cardinal John Henry Newman. It is the gradual working in us and on us of the Christ Spirit that brings the change about, restoring each one of us to the image of God in which we are made. As St Paul puts it:
"Now the Lord is Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us… are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit." (2 Corinthians 3.18)

Each one of us who have been baptised in Christ has the capacity to change and be changed. On this day in the Christian calendar we are reminded that we have been given the Holy Spirit, by our Baptism and in our Confirmation, to bring that change about. And if it is by the Spirit of God that we are changed, then we can only be changed for the better, because we are being changed into the person he knows we have it in us to be. Then we will say with the Psalmist:
"… as for me, I will behold thy presence in righteousness; and when I awake up after thy likeness, I shall be satisfied with it." (Psalm 17.16)
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