“Listen to what the Spirit is saying”
ACYF FORMATION EVENING, Chapter Hall
It’s a strange and portentous book, the last one in the Bible, theApocalypse of St John or Book of Revelation. It opens as a letter from John, the beloved young friend of Jesus, who is all grown up now and writing to the seven Christian communities in what is Turkey today. He has a message of challenge and encouragement for each church, and he ends each message with the same line: “Whoever can hear, let them listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev 2:7,11,17,29; 3:6,13,22). But who is this Holy Spirit guy young Jonno thinks we should hear?
The Christian God, we know, is a Trinity: one God in three persons. We describe the three with all sorts of metaphors in our Scriptures and Tradition. One we call ‘First’, ‘Father’, ‘Creator’, ‘Begetter’, ‘the Ancient of Days’. Another we know as ‘Second’, ‘Son’, ‘Only-Begotten’, ‘Word’, ‘Redeemer’, ‘Jesus Christ’. But there’s yet another who has a veritable litany of names and metaphors: ‘Third Person’, ‘the Spirit’, ‘Holy Spirit’ or ‘Spirit of God’,[i] ‘Light’ or ‘Fire’ (Isa 4:4; Acts ch 2), ‘Grace’ or ‘Gift’,[ii] ‘Glory’ (1Pet 4:14), ‘Giver of Life’ (Jn 6:63; Rom 8:2; Rev 11:11; Nicene Creed), ‘Breath of God’ or ‘Inspirer’,[iii] ‘Love’,[iv] ‘Peace’, ‘Indweller’ or ‘Presence’ (Ps 51:11; Rom 8:9-11; 1Cor 6:19; Eph 2:21-2), ‘Intercessor’ (Rom 8:26-7), ‘Sanctifier’ (1Cor 6:11; 2Cor 3:18; Rom 1:4), ‘the Spirit of truth’, ‘Revealer’, ‘Wisdom’ or ‘Guide’,[v] ‘Witness’ (Rom 8:16; Heb 2:4; 10:15), ‘Empowerer’ (Isa 11:2; Acts 1:8; Rom 15:13), ‘Seal’ (2Cor 1:22; 5:5; Eph 1:13-4) and more. St John calls Him ‘Helper’, ‘Comforter’, ‘Counsellor’, ‘Advocate’ or ‘Paraclete’,[vi] which many young Aussies mishear as ‘Parakeet’, a multi-coloured Australian version of the dove that descended upon Jesus’ head at His baptism in the Jordan (Mt 3:16; Lk 3:22).
Why so many names? One reason might be that no name, no human word, can adequately capture or fully describe God. By using many words and images we build up a fuller picture.
But there’s another reason too: God comes to many different people, each with their own personalities and works in them in very particular ways. Both St Peter and St Paul in their letters said there are a variety of spiritual gifts, given to different people, so each may find their own way to reverence God, give witness to Christ, serve humanity and build up the Church.[vii] The Holy Spirit is God evident in the persons, lives and works of Christians and is thus as diverse as those Christians are themselves. Tonight you might ask yourself in what ways is the spirit evident in you and how would you like Him to express Himself in you in the years ahead…
Shut up and listen. “Listen to what the Spirit is saying,” Jonno says tonight. The Spirit can be so gentle, so quiet, that if you don’t attend carefully to him you’ll miss Him. From the beginning of the Bible the Spirit is associated with a soft breath, a gentle breeze, the sound of silence(e.g. Gen 3:8; Dt 32:2; 1Kgs 19:11-12; Job 4:16; 33:4; Ps 62:5; Wis 18:14; cf. Mt 11:29; 2Cor 10:1; 1Pet 3:4; Rev 8:1). He is God’s life-breath, breathed into every man and woman, giving life, passion, wisdom, freedom, creativity (Gen 1:30; 2:7; Lam 4:20; Job 27:3; 34:14; 2Macc 7:22-23; Acts 17:25. In due course, in God’s good time, that same life-breath is taken away – we die. But as Ezekiel prophesies, God can return His life-giving spirit even to dry bones to reassemble them and raise them to new life in the Resurrection (Ezek ch. 37). And the Resurrection of the Body goes to the very heart of Christian faith.
But it’s not only the body that the Spirit renews. When a person’s spirit is troubled, crushed, exhausted, God can lend His healing Spirit to revive the soul (e.g. Ps 119:25; Isa 57:15). Many young people today experience depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem or body-image. Drugs and counselling can only do so much: they also need meaning, inspiration, and a greater-than-human power of healing and hope.
Not only can God’s Spirit revitalise a person, we also see Him renovating whole populations and renewing the face of the earth. Sometimes He does so spectacularly, as when he restocked the earth with life after the great flood and led Israel out of slavery through the Red Sea. But more often spiritual progress comes in quiet, unobtrusive ways. When Elijah sought the word of the Lord, he found that it was not in the mighty wind that rent the mountains, nor in the earthquake that broke open the earth, nor in the bushfire that scalded the land, but in “a still small voice” of a gentle breeze (1Kgs 19:11-13). It was only when Elijah quietened himself and attended carefully that he heard the voice of God.
So, too, at times in the New Testament. When Jesus appears to His terrified disciples after His death and resurrection, He doesn’t conduct a rousing Alleluia chorus as well He might. Instead He says quietly, “Shalom! Peace! Quiet now!” and then He breathes on them, breathes God’s life into them once more, calming their fears, forgiving their sins, giving them ‘new heart’, inspiring them for the future. This gentle breath and healing balm is the Holy Spirit, the softening power of God. He enters into situations of anger, anxiety and division and brings calm, reconciliation and peace. Those who receive Him in turn take harmony and mercy to others. So it is that when Peter and the others stand up at Pentecost they speak words not of condemnation of a world that has just crucified its Creator and Redeemer; no, they utter words of forgiveness, salvation, unity. As sin divided humanity into the tribalism, incomprehension and rivalry of the many tongues at Babel, so the Spirit of love drew humanity back together at Pentecost. So too the Holy Spirit enters not just into divided groups but into divided hearts and quietens them, tames them, reconciles them. In the beautiful Sequence for Pentecost we sing:
Thou of all consolers best,
Thou the soul’s delightful guest,
dost refreshing peace bestow.
Thou in toil art comfort sweet,
pleasant coolness in the heat,
solace in the midst of woe.
So as you attend all the events of music, dialogue, service, prayer, leadership, worship and pilgrimage at ACYF in Perth, one very important thing God and the Church will be offering you is a chance to quiet with the Lord, for listening to the Holy Spirit, for recollection and contemplation; a chance to hear the sounds of silence and to experience the breath of God breathing within you. It is a chance for those who are hurting to experience some healing. Those who are dry as desert to receive new life. Those who are anxious, to know some peace. Through renewing you the Spirit of God can gently renew a whole generation, renewing the face of the earth. But nemo dat quod non habet: you can’t give what you ain’t got! If you are to be channels of God’s Holy Spirit to the world, you must first let Him into your hearts, personalities, plans, lives. And if you are to hear His “still small voice”, you’d better be listening carefully…
So I’ve suggested tonight that the Spirit can come as a still small voice, a gentle breeze, pouring oil on troubled waters, calming troubled spirits, renewing dried out hearts. But that’s not the whole story of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the great creative force in the Old Testament, active in the creation of the world (Gen 1:1-2,26), his voice like thunder,[viii] motoring Ezekiel’s fiery chariot (Ezek 1:13,20,24), delivering Israel from enemies (ref?), roaring at times from the Temple (2Chr 7:1-3; Isa 66:6, Rev 14:2). He is the prophetic spirit, who empowers the mighty of the Old Testament to be patriarchs and judges, prophets and kings. He is the engine of their mission. He makes them do great deeds, greater than they could do alone.
In the New Testament the Holy Spirit overshadows the Virgin Mary so that she conceives the Messiah (Lk 1:35) and overshadows the apostles at Pentecost so that they conceive the Church (Acts ch 2). That same Holy Spirit is the power of the young Jesus (Lk 1:80; 3:22; 4:1,14,18) and of the young Church. The Spirit drives Jesus into the desert (Mt 4:1) and then descends upon him to anoint him at his baptism in the Jordan (Mk 1:10); from here onwards Christian baptism will confer the gifts or empowerments of the Holy Spirit (Mk 1:8; Jn 3:5-6; Acts 1:5). It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that Jesus exorcises demons and the Spirit inspires His words and deeds, His signs and wonders (e.g. Acts 1:2). The Spirit it is who raises Jesus from the dead (Rom 8:11). Christ bequeaths the Holy Spirit to the Church as His parting gift (Mt 10:20; Jn 14:26; 15:26; 19:30; 20:22; Acts 1:8).
At Pentecost the Holy Spirit appears not as a gentle breeze, but as a cyclonic wind, not as a dew but as a fire. He is a force to be reckoned with, He impassions, He drives: just as He drove Jesus into the desert to contend with Satan and his hordes so He fills Peter and the lads with the courage and inspiration to take on the very powers who had killed their Lord only fifty days before. Thereafter the Holy Spirit is the principal protagonist in that history of the Church which is the Acts of the Apostles, transforming ordinary blokes into Christian heroes, faithful evangelists, witnesses to Christ even unto death.
So the gentle, softening power of God is also an energetic, hardening power. He enters into situations of apathy and uncaringness and He stirs up, stimulates, breaks out. He drives disciples not to eiderdowned comfort but to martyrdom. He makes people line up, for and against. At the ecumenical councils He spoke through the bishops, for He is the guardian of Catholic truth, “the lord, the Giver of Life, who speaks through the prophets” of the Old testament and the New. Sometimes at those ecumenical councils He spoke amidst bishops who were screaming at each other and tearing out each other’s beards! Bishops conferences today are rather more subdued than were the Councils of Nicaea and Ephesus. Maybe that’s good; but maybe we need something of that passion, if not the beard pulling! So the Holy Spirit does not always calm us down; sometimes He heats us up. He enters into situations and relationships, challenging and invigorating them. He enters into un-troubled hearts, hearts full of comfortable securities, self-satisfaction and weak will, stirring them up and driving them to action. In the beautiful Sequence for Pentecost we sing:
immortal, Light divine,
Visit thou these hearts of thine,
And our inmost being fill.
the stubborn heart and will;
Melt the frozen, warm the chill;
Guide the steps that go astray.
My suggestion tonight is that if we like to think of the Holy Spirit as a consoling, calming, gentle breeze, fine; but He is also a fiery power to be reckoned with, like an Australian bushfire that can race through the country with tremendous energy. The Holy Spirit comes in many different forms – as sunshine and dew, both strong and weak, loud and quiet, challenging and alluring, heating and cooling – in each case changing people, giving new purpose, direction, character. He comes in so many different forms because he comes to people who have such different temperaments, relationships, needs, to people who have such varieties of service to do.
So as you attend all the events at ACYF in Perth, one very important thing God and the Church will be offering you is a chance to make a holy racket for the Lord, a time for song and dance and screaming and the rest, a chance to be stirred up, impassioned, given a new energy. Through lighting you up the Spirit of God can run like wildfire through a whole generation…
Each of us needs and indeed should pray for the Spirit to come in one or perhaps both these ways I have described tonight. Pray that He will soften your stone-hard hearts; gently melt away any obstacles to grace and mission, your grudges, frustrations and vices; tenderly breathe into you a newer, kinder temper. But pray also that He will give you renewed zeal, hardened resolve, fire in your belly, a willingness to stand up and be counted even when you are exhausted, uninspired, indifferent. Pray that the Holy Spirit will turn you around, whether gently or more dramatically: this Spirit who can take someone as aggressive as a boxer and give him the gentleness of a child; and who can take someone as meek as a child and make her into a hero. In due course, through the particular graces of ACYF, we hope that the Holy Spirit will do the same wonderful things for you: that He will make you children of God and heroes for a new century.
One week from today the Church will celebrate the great Feast of All Saints. It is, in a sense, Part Two of Pentecost. Pentecost was the birth of the Church, the communion of saints-in-the-making. Heaven is the completion of that work, the church coming to its fulfilment, in the communion of those made saints. And it’s the Holy Spirit who makes saints! The Holy Spirit it was that made it possible for the likes of Peter and the lads, Mary Mag and the girls, to be saints. So too down through the ages to our own age. Teresa of Avila once said that keeping company with God’s friends is a good way of keeping near to God himself. The saints bring God closer because they are close to him. To be touched by them is, in some sense, to be touched by him.
Michelangelo described his own sculptor’s art less in terms of creation and more in terms of releasing: faced with a block of stone, his task was to remove the excess, to clear away the unnecessary obstructions disguising the true beauty that lay concealed beneath. Saints dispose themselves to be freed from the dross that obscures the image of God in us; that excess material which hides the beauty of His new creation. They make space for God even amidst the trials of daily life and allow the Holy Spirit to remake them as His handiwork.
In allowing themselves to become the Holy Spirit’s art-work in whatever they do, the saints are doing God’s art-work themselves. In becoming His space, their lives become a space in which others may find Him. In the lives of the saints heaven and earth touch, the veil between the two is at its thinnest. Through it, it is possible to glimpse the divine glory, the Holy Spirit Himself. And it is possible to see the promise of the human being most truly herself or himself and finally fulfilled, the promise to each of us that if we are willing to enter into the kingdom of God and invite the Holy Spirit to enter the kingdom of men, he will do great artwork with us. So the Church’s task, ACYF’s task, the Holy Spirit’s task is to stir you up and calm you down, impassion and heal you, but also to make you saints. So invite the Holy Spirit into your life to sculpt and polish you.
Before All Saints or in old English “All Hallows” comes “All Hallows Eve” or in old English “Halloween”. Traditionally it’s a time of ghosts, of restless souls, roaming the earth. Most of it is superstition and commercialism, the invention of Americans who like to be tricked and treated. But it does help to draw our attention to the fact that not all spirits are the Holy Spirit, or even ones en route to sanctification. There are other, uglier forces also operating in our universe. Whether they are supernatural ones or merely the product of our own vices, they can quench the Spirit within us. Any project as important as evangelisation will draw the attention of dark forces. They will send all sorts of enemies our way, and they can work on us from the inside. We will get tired and cranky, or spiritually and emotionally dry at times. We will be easy prey at those times to frustration, anger, rivalry, all sorts of tricks and treats to throw us off balance and endanger our team effort. That is Halloween at work in us. And there is only one antidote… We need the Holy Spirit, the one who turns All Souls into All Saints. Gentle or forceful, converting and gracing us, we need him right now. Moulding us into saints. Moulding us into a team, a communion of saints. There is no project so great as that we will ever be given to do as to listen to the Spirit and let him make us into saints. Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of these young faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love!
[i] Gen 1:1-2,26; Job 33:4; Ps 51:11; Wis 9:17; Isa 11:2; 63:10-11; Mt 1:18,20; 3:11,16; 12:32; 28:19; Mk 1:8; 3:29; 12:36; 13:11; Lk 1:15,35,41,67; 2:25-6; 3:16,22; 4:1; 10:21; 11:13; 12:10-2; Jn 1:33; 14:15-6,26; 16:7; 20:22; Acts 1:1-2,5,8,16; 2:1,4,33,38; 4:8,25,31; 5:3,32; 6:5; 7:51,55; 8:15,19; 9:17,31; 10:38,44-7; 11:15-6,24; 13:2,4,9,52; 15:8,28; 16:6; 19:2,6; 20:23,28; 21:11; 28:25; Rom 5:5; 9:1; 14:17; 15:13,16; 1Cor 2:11; 6:19; 12:3; 2Cor 1:22; 3:17; 13:13; Eph 1:13-14; 3:5; 4:30; 1Thes 1:5-6; 4:8; 5:19; 2Tim 1:14; Tit 3:5; Heb 2:4; 3:7; 6:4; 9:8,14; 10:15; 1Pet 1:11-2; 2:5; Jude 1:20; Rev 21:10 etc.
[ii] Zech 12:10; Jn 3:34; Acts 2:38; 10:45; Gal 5:22-3; 1Cor 12:1-11; Heb 10:29. Aquinas says ‘Gift’ is the Holy Spirit’s proper name: cf. STh I, 38, ii.
[iii] Job 33:4; 2Tim 3:16; 2Pet 1:21; Jude 1:20.
[iv] Gal 5:22. Aquinas says ‘Love’ is a proper name for the Spirit, who is the love of the Father and the Son, and also God’s love for humanity: STh I, 37, i.
[v] Ps 143:10; Isa 11:2; Neh 9:20; Jn 14:17,26; 15:26; 16:7,13; 1Cor 2:12-6; 12:10; Eph 1:17; 1Jn 2:27.
[vi] Isa 11:2; Jn 14:16-7,26;15:26; 16:7,26.
[vii] 1Pet 4:10; Rom 12:6-8; 1Cor 12:1-31; Eph 4:11-12.
[viii] Ex 19:16; 20:18; 1Sam 12:18; 2Sam 22:14; Job 37:2-5; Ps 18:13; 29:3; 104:7; Sir 43:16-7; Isa 29:6; Ezek 1:24; Rev 4:5; 11:19.