“Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
Strong words from a writer who I turn to from time to time, to challenge me, Annie Dillard, written in a book called ‘Teaching a Stone to Talk’. Annie clearly sees the potential for encounter with God as very powerful, to be taken seriously and not to be trifled with. Perhaps we don’t explicitly talk enough about the power of the Holy Spirit or the Holy Spirit more generally, except perhaps passingly at Pentecost. God the Father seems straight-forward enough and God the Son we read about in the the real-life stories of the Gospels week by week, but God the Holy Spirit?
I don’t know about you, but there are times when the prospect of coming to church doesn’t always fill me with the Holy Joy that perhaps it should do. But you know once we get down to the serious business of invoking the name of what Annie calls the “Sleeping God”, something happens. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it happens. I don’t know quite when it occurs, but it happens. I don’t know precisely what causes it, but it happens. The assembled company become the body of Christ, infused with the Holy Spirit, that “fills our hearts with love”.
One of the joys of the Scottish Episcopal tradition is that in our Eucharistic Liturgies we have an explicit Epiclesis. That is the part of the Eucharistic prayer in which the presence of the Holy Spirit is invoked to bless the elements or the communicants or wonderfully in our case, both. In most of our Eucharistic Prayers it goes like this:
Hear us, most merciful Father,
and send your Holy Spirit upon us
and upon this bread and this wine,
that, overshadowed by his life-giving power,
they may be the Body and Blood of your Son,
and we may be kindled with the fire of your love
and renewed for the service of your Kingdom.
“and we may be kindled with the fire of your love”, I just love that bit, it sends a tingle down my spine every time. We’re asking for the Holy Spirit to descend on our community of faith, to bless us, to change us and to elevate us beyond all our human weakness, our human failings and our human imaginings.
At Pentecost and every Sunday the Spirit descends, not on us as isolated individuals all with our own likes, dislikes and foibles, but on on our assembly, to raise us to something more divine and just a little less human. The result is an ever deeper common life; united in prayer, united in the breaking of bread, united in action in the world, united in love. As Disciples of Christ we share at least some of our lives, some of our resources and some of our talents for the benefit of others.
Common life in the early church was built across the boundaries of gender, of ethnicity and of social class. It subverted the values and hierarchies of the Roman Empire and by the power of the Spirit, that life is to be taken to every corner of the earth. That subversion is what we should be about – filled with the Spirit.
As Paul says in his letter to the Romans: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”