+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There are very few things I lament about our liturgical tradition as Western Christians in general and Anglicans in particular, which is probably why I am generally grumpy when some colleagues perceive the need for liturgical experimentation. That said, there is one thing which I wish were more a part of our inheritance and which Eastern Christians may do a bit better, namely prayers addressed to the Holy Spirit. Most of our prayers are addressed to the Father and prayed in the name of the Son and in the power of the Spirit, but there’s no reason why we can’t pray directly to the other persons of the Trinity. In any event, the work of the Spirit is nonetheless featured in many of our prayers. One of them, which I use at the beginning of each vestry meeting gives us what many take to be two of that same Spirit’s most important activities in our lives – “strengthen the faithful [and] arouse the careless.”
On this feast of Pentecost, when we celebrate the coming of that Spirit and his abiding presence with us, we must be careful to keep both of these divine missions in mind. Our lessons appointed for this morning all focus on the latter: the apostles are given the miraculous ability to preach the Gospel to the nations in various tongues, Paul outlines the variety of gifts given to the faithful to do the work of the Gospel, and Jesus breathes the Spirit onto the Apostles, empowering them to absolve sinners.
I guess I understand why this is our lectionary’s focus; it speaks to a cultural reality of comfortable, nominal Christianity in which we so often need the Spirit to lift us out of complacency and give us power and passion to do God’s work in the world: whether that is the work of evangelization or service to the needy or exercising leadership within the church, or any one of a host of other active vocations within the Body of Christ to which that same Spirit calls us.
But, I’m not so sure that this is really our prevailing reality anymore. Maybe comfortable, nominal Christianity was the primary concern fifty or sixty years ago, and it’s not to say that we don’t ever need the Spirit to roust us out of our complacency today. But I personally grow tired of sermons that tell me that we need to do more–sermons that are, as I said several weeks ago, strong on the Law and weak on Grace. You see, the problem in the Year of our Lord 2023 (at least as I see it, from the perspective of a priest of a parish whose people cannot be accused of not doing enough as far as I can see) is not that the faithful are complacent. I don’t think nominal, cultural Christianity should be our biggest concern. The culture no longer seems to reward that. We might lament the statistics which suggest continued secularization in our society and throughout the West (and I do). But we should also take that with a pinch of salt, remembering that those who do identify as Christian these days are probably a lot more likely on average to actually believe and do what Christians are called to believe and do, the expectation of church attendance for the sake of respactibility no lonmger being terrribly common.
Perhaps this Pentecost the more important focus is that which is absent from our appointed lessons, then, but fully present throughout Scripture-namely, to comfort the afflicted and strengthen the faithful. In the midst of our fallen world there is no doubt that we should pray for and permit the Holy Spirit to stir up in us the will and means to take faithful action. Even so, I think we must first ask that same Spirit to comfort and console us, lest our action be motivated by something other than literal inspiration (the Spirit dwelling in us to guide us).
So today, perhaps, our prayer should simply be that the charismatic activity which our lectionary omitted be forthcoming. Jesus promised this during his farewell discourse, recorded in John’s Gospel, particularly in the fourteenth chapter of the same:
And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of Truth … I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you … [T]he Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, I give unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.
The word Jesus uses here is παράκλητος (Paraclete), which we might render more literally in English as “the one called alongside.” You see, the Spirit of God, the Church teaches, is not some phantasm or mere force (hence more modern bible translations and liturgical texts preferring “Spirit” to “Ghost” for the third person of the Trinity, though I don’t know whether or not that choice actually succeeds in clarifying the point).
The Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost is, rather, a person, just as much as the Father and the Son, and he comes along side us just as he dwells in us, to help us when no other helper can be found. And St. Paul tells us, in his Epistle to the Romans, that even when we cannot pray–when we are so sad or angry or frightened or exhausted that we cannot even put our feelings into language–the same Spirit prays in and for us “with sighs to deep for words.”
Come, then, Holy Ghost to us now. Pray for us when we cannot pray. Comfort us when no other comforter is near. Give us strength and courage to meet the days ahead. Help us to trust in the Father’s will, in the Son’s intercession on our behalf, and in your own abiding presence with us now. Give us those gifts that have been promised to aid us in our work for the Kingdom and hope for the Kingdom that has yet to be revealed. At the last, bring us to that pace where with the Father and the Son, you too live and reign to the ages of ages. Amen.