Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
The upper room provides a place of safety for the disciples. After the crucifixion they’d gathered there, spent with grief and fear, its four walls containing a world that had just got much smaller and much more dangerous. They’d paced, argued, sat staring into space, gone over again and again how they’d got it so wrong, shifted blame onto each other because at least that stopped them having to look within, and face their own weakness and denial.
Then Jesus had appeared, and their world shifted once again. Recrimination turned to reconciliation; fearful hearts pulsed with new courage. Strengthened by the presence of the risen Christ, the disciples ventured out once more, filled with a peace that flowed right through them and into the people they met.
Then Jesus ascends, and talks about sending his Spirit, and though they trust him their brains are scrambling to keep up. Back to the upper room they go: a place to regroup, to pray, to wait – though for what, exactly, they’re not sure.
But it is at least a place they feel safe. Although they don’t know what to do next, what to make of Jesus’ promise, they’re together, and there’s solidarity in this time of unknowing, While they’re here there is respite from the violent plots of the religious authorities and the upheavals of a Messiah who keeps going ahead of them. Here, within the safety of their four walls, there is space to pause, to breathe, to plan what to do next.
But they are not safe. Not from the Holy Spirit of God who descends on them like a holy hurricane, rattling the windows and swooping round the room, freeing timid tongues to speak and setting their heads on fire. Cautious, doubtful disciples find themselves filled with passionate conviction; men whose faith had stuttered and struggled are filled with polyglot eloquence.
The upper room is not big enough, not nearly big enough, to contain it. The disciples’ voices, then the disciples themselves, spill out onto the streets, with a message that demands to be spoken and a life that demands to be lived. When they speak, it is Jesus’ voice that is heard; when they reach out to bless and heal it is as though Jesus’ power is present in their touch.
United in the gift of the Holy Spirit, the disciples discover that Jesus is present among them and within them; that his life is now at work in them; that, however improbably, they are now filled with his own spirit and power. Through the Holy Spirit, the life of Christ is received by the Church as a gift, given to be lived and passed on, incarnated now in the lives of his followers.
Only, I think quite a lot of us are shut up in our own upper rooms, our own places of safety where we think we can keep God at arm’s length and preserve our lives from the more outrageous demands of the gospel. We may be happy enough to affirm our belief in the gift of the Holy Spirit at baptism, and our strengthening in it at confirmation, but ask most Christians of a non-charismatic variety about the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives and I suspect you’d be met with a blank or embarrassed stare. We may profess that we believe in the Holy Spirit, but often we live as though the fire has pretty much gone out; that after 2000 years we shouldn’t expect more than a few glowing embers.
And I understand that, because I do it. I am not at all sure I am ready for what the disruptive grace of the Holy Spirit might do, and I will mostly try to avoid letting God set my head on fire. I may pray ‘come, Holy Spirit’, but I am picky about the bits of my life I want to let the Spirit into, fencing off the bits I’m reluctant to look at myself, let alone turn over to God to do with as he wills. Too often, I choose the comfort and the safety of the known over the unpredictability of the Spirit.
For I have tangled with the Holy Spirit just enough to know how dangerous it can be to a life of comfort and security. The Holy Spirit works in us to make us more like Jesus. Let the Spirit in and she will bring you to thankfulness for God’s grace; to sorrow for your sin; to a deeper love for God’s people; to a charity you do not recognise as your own – because it isn’t – and to a love for God that threatens to upset all the other priorities you had planned to live your life by.
And the Holy Spirit works to make us more like Jesus because this is what God’s desire for us is: to be restored in the relationship for which we are made; to live as children of God, in the perfect love of the Trinity. But God will not coerce. He will not save us without us. He gives us the Spirit to sanctify us, to make us holy by making us like Christ. But he asks us to participate in this work: to choose to co-operate with his grace.
This is where we recognise the presence of the Holy Spirit. It can be tempting to think that we grow in virtue or holiness by our own efforts: by our habits of prayer or by our generosity in giving; by putting in some hard graft on our spiritual lives. But we do not save ourselves: we only ever participate in God’s salvation of us. And that means being inviting of the Holy Spirit, and alert and attentive to its presence.
It isn’t always easy to discern the presence of the Spirit. What one person might attribute to the Spirit another might call coincidence, or indigestion, or fantasy. It may be as dramatic as that first Pentecost, or it may be as gentle as the breeze siffling through the highest branches of a tree on a summer’s day. But it will be God’s Spirit at work in us to make Jesus known.
Sometimes the Holy Spirit will work in us so imperceptibly that it’s only by looking back that we recognise its presence. Over a period of time we find we have become kinder, or more peaceful, or gentler with others and with ourselves. There are the fingerprints of the Spirit.
Or perhaps there’s something prodding at you, a nagging sense of dis-ease over something you’ve done that leads you to penitence; or a disquiet over injustice that leads you to speak out or to act; or a feeling that won’t go away that maybe God is asking you to do something different with your life. I’d call that the work of the Spirit.
Other times the Spirit will arrive unexpected or unannounced. In this past week I recognised the Spirit in a swift dart of truth spoken by my spiritual director, which pierced through my defences to open up a conversation I didn’t want to have but needed to. Or again, in a phone call out of the blue from someone I’d lost touch with, where across years of silence friendship was rekindled. There I recognised the Spirit by her actions: the Spirit leads us into truth, and restores relationship.
You will have your own stories to tell, of times when your heart has swelled in your chest with compassion, when you’ve found yourself provoked to speak with a courage you did not know you possessed, when you’ve extended a hand across a chasm of unforgiveness, or welcomed someone else’s reaching out to you. That is the Holy Spirit at work, breathing new life, rattling old certainties and conforming us more to Christ so that not only may God save us, but that through us, others may see him and be drawn to him.
Choosing the safety of our own upper rooms will at times seem both tempting and sensible. There, at least, we can maintain a semblance of control over our own lives. There, at least, the outside world, with its brokenness and its terror, can be kept at bay. Lock the doors, shut the windows, hunker down.
The first disciples stayed shut up in their room until they couldn’t. Wondering what to do now Jesus had ascended, who they were without him, in the gift of the Spirit they discovered not that Jesus was absent but that he was present in them, sending them into the world just as he had been sent, to make God’s love known. And in the disciples that love is known and seen in the fruits of the Spirit: in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
These may not sound like much in a world where terrorists wield knives and bombs, but they are God’s gift of life in a world that too often deals in death. So there is all the more reason to celebrate this feast, all the more fervently to pray ‘come, Holy Spirit’.
When we pray for the gifts of peace, of healing, of reconciliation, of truth, of wisdom and understanding, it is the Holy Spirit we are asking for. And God’s answer comes through giving us his Spirit, and by taking our timid tongues, our fearful hands and feet, our hearts that are sometimes scared to love, our minds and imaginations that cannot conceive of a different future – by taking all these and breathing the life of his Spirit into them, and sending us out, as he sent those first disciples, to be his good news for the world.