The Holy Bird

Sermon preached at Pucklechurch (unspecified service and location), 22 May 1988

The wind blows where it wills, you cannot tell from where it comes nor where it goes; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.

“Oh, dear. It’s electrical.” I have opened the bonnet of my car, and then the handbook which smugly assures me that I can follow their fault-finding charts and the problem will soon be sorted out. Hence my cry of despair. I know nothing about electrical things, even though well-meaning friends say it’s just like the flow of water. Their picture language about this unseen power doesn’t really turn me on – and the car won’t go either!

I think that the same is true about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit can be experienced, felt, known even, but by being unseen there are all sorts of difficulties and we have to resort to metaphors like WIND, FIRE, ENERGY and, oh dear yes, the Holy Bird, the darned Dove.

What sort of image do you think of, then? Such a pretty bird, descending without a sound, with an olive branch for peace in its beak. Perhaps that’s only my own particular hang-up because I know that, at times, he is hardly gentle. He is more like a great and terrible eagle that moves upon the face of the waters at the moment of Creation.

Powerful, brooding, dark, the Spirit is extremely unpredictable. He cannot be controlled nor summoned like a celestial plumber. You cannot call upon the Spirit without running the risk of getting involved and being led to some pretty uncomfortable experiences – especially on the journey into yourself.

To receive the gift of the Spirit is to accept the invitation of freedom. That’s too much of a challenge. Cages are safer for this Holy Bird, yet there is no guarantee that he’ll be in it!

You know what it’s like when you say, “I don’t know what it was, something just came over me!” There is no rational ground for my action, it’s just the way it was. That’s how the disciples may have felt when they experienced the power of the Spirit coming and overwhelming them. They were filled with renewed confidence and were inspired – that is, they drew in the breath of God.

The experience of Pentecost is the opening of a new chapter. It is, in effect, the most powerful promise and challenge. “All the works you have seen me do,” says Jesus, “you will do, and greater ones than these.” Oh come on, you can’t be serious. Me? It must be said, “all those who are led by the spirit of God are sons of God.” What else, then, can it mean?

Let’s not get bogged down in wondering about talking in tongues. That’s only another way of saying that the love of God, through the Spirit, will be transmitted in ways that so many different people will be able to understand and take to themselves and express their own lives.

Michael Ramsey expresses it like this:

If I believe in God and Jesus, I want to respond, and there’s a divine something enabling me to do so. To put it as simply as possible: where is God? God is above us and around us and everywhere, the world’s creator. Where is God? God is particularly revealed in Jesus, the very image of God. Where is God? God is within me, enabling me to respond to God above me and around me. Why a person? Because God is always personal; so I find myself saying not that there is an It within me – but just as there is a He to whom I am responding, so there is a He within me enabling me to make that response.

There is a relentlessness about God as spirit. He keeps on knocking at you, and won’t go away. You keep bumping into him in all the long ordinariness of life, and he really is a part of everyday experience. Recognition, sudden insight, any occasion or circumstance when the penny drops; any time when you say, “Ah! I see it now!” – that’s where the Spirit breaks through the clouds of ignorance. It’s maddening in a way. Somehow it doesn’t seem nearly religious enough. And, of course, it is dangerous to have the Spirit so very, very close.

It is dangerous, too, when the Church imagines that the Holy Spirit works exclusively within the Christian community. For when Paul writes,

“all those who are led by the spirit of God are sons of God”

only God knows where the Spirit leads and whom he will call into kinship.

The Spirit is universal and free and will not be tied to any system or straitjacket.

The Spirit reveals ourselves in the depths of what we are. It is me at the profoundest level of my being. So the Spirit is called “God in me”. The water in the bucket of my soul doesn’t look like the ocean. Yet every Sunday we affirm that it is. We talk of the Spirit as he “who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified.” We say it, but we are tempted not to believe it. We feel a kind of terror and panic about the most ordinary and undangerous things and say, “I can’t do it!” Or there are violent rages roaring inside us – triggered off by something ridiculously insignificant: a word, a glance, a failure to show some interest in a petty concern.

The sons and daughters of God who are led by the Spirit will grow, they will live dangerously but free also. If they climb upon the Spirit’s back the ride may not always be comfortable, but they will be reminded the whole time that they are most gloriously alive!


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