We can imagine the scene: a room with the door firmly locked. A dozen men, maybe some women crowded in there, arguing. Is it safe to go out? Are the police after us? What do we do now? Do we leave Jerusalem? And now there is the extraordinary news that the tomb is empty. The body has gone. Then Mary Magdalene turns up and claims she has seen Jesus and talked with him. In the midst of the noise, the argument, the fear, the confusion Jesus suddenly appears. “Peace be with you” and silence is total. Astonishment, fear, unbelieving joy fills the air. Peace is not the peace of sleep. It is not the peace of emptiness. It is a peace full of life, full of hope, full of joy. A fertile peace; a peace in which good things will happen. This is the peace we celebrate today, a peace of the Holy Spirit of God.
Jesus breathes on the disciples and says: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven.” In Acts, when the Spirit comes it sends the disciples out into the street, preaching, prophesying, speaking in tongues. In John it is much quieter. Jesus indeed sends the Apostles out: “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” But he sends them out first with this message that sins can be forgiven. Sin, which brought death into the world, has been overcome. Now life can return. The Spirit which he breathes over them brings new life into the world. Jesus will soon depart to be with his Father in heaven but he is not really leaving the world. He is leaving the Spirit of God in the world and this Spirit, His Spirit will constantly make him present to us. That is the mystery we celebrating today.
We are celebrating the Holy Spirit in a time of lockdown, mitigated a bit from how it was a few weeks ago; a time when the Covid-19 virus dominates everything. Two months ago when all this started and we began to realise just how dangerous this virus could be, there was much fear and confusion, much argument and noise. Lockdown happened and suddenly there was a kind of peace. For some it was a devastating peace as jobs disappeared, income dried up, new ways of living had to be found. For some there was distress, even violence and abuse; but for many there has been relief. Many have found new ways of living. Many have realised just how bad their daily commute to work is and want to change it. Many have rediscovered their children and their families. Hobbies have emerged, books have been read, gardens have been enjoyed and the world has become a cleaner, quieter, saner place. Is this the peace that the Holy Spirit brings? It could be if we choose to make it so. God starts where we are. If we want to find the Holy Spirit working in our lives we need to look at the lives we already have. The Holy Spirit does not create a new extraordinary sort of life; he takes the life we know and transforms it. ‘Heaven in ordinarie’ as George Herbert describes it. What have we learned? As we emerge slowly from lockdown, rather like those apostles coming out of the darkened upper room, blinking in the light, what do we see? What do we bring with us?
We find a cleaner world, with far less carbon floating around. Can we keep it like that? We have a new pleasure in nature, birds, trees, even vegetables; can we reset our lives so that these are in the centre? We discovered right at the beginning that the really important people in our society are the nurses, the health workers, the cleaners, the delivery people, the ones who continue to work in supermarkets while are self-shielding at home. They are often the badly paid members of society. Can we change that?
This may sound like a Guardian editorial on improving society and saving the planet. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. But is this the presence of the Holy Spirit? Should we respond this Pentecost with a whole lot of little actions that may lead to a better life style for some, a greener planet, a saner more balanced day? In the story from Acts today we saw a different kind of Holy Spirit: tongues of fire on people’s heads, apostles rushing out to preach, foreigners from all over the Mediterranean hearing them speak in their own mother tongues. They thought the apostles were drunk. Should not the action of the Holy Spirit be like this? Well, sometimes it is, but we can’t control that. Only God can do that, when he wants. Yet the Holy Spirit is with us all the time. Every action we do can be something in which the Spirit is involved. Every thought of love, perception of beauty, action of joy is the Holy Spirit quietly changing our lives. That is at the heart of the Religious Life we live, here at Mirfield. The coal face of this life is the daily interaction with our brothers and the daily singing of our praises to God. Change in our lives comes slowly over years and that is how it is for most Christian lives. Trees must grow slowly if they are to grow well and not fall over in a storm. It is the same for us, but God’s Spirit is in this growth and from time to time it catches us by surprise and we gasp in amazement. Every spring we are amazed by the world around us bursting into life. It is a miracle, yet a very natural miracle that can be explained. It is God’s life in the world, causing trees to grow, leaves to sprout and even water, earth and grapes to turn into wine, with a bit of help from us. The miracle of Cana in Galilee happens every year, all over the world because of the life of the Spirit of God. And every time we celebrate the eucharist the Holy Spirit is there making Christ present in the world. We do not need the tongues of fire, or the speaking in tongues to know the Spirit is with us. We only need to look with the eyes of faith, with hope, with confidence in the goodness of God to see the Spirit at work. And having that faith, hope and confidence is itself a gift from the Spirit.
But we don’t only look and rejoice. As Christians we act. The Collect for today asks God to “grant us by the Spirit to have a right judgement in all things”. As we emerge from this encounter with the Coronavirus into a changed and changing world can we look at the big questions it has raised about society, life style, the environment and make decisions trusting that the Spirit will indeed give us that right judgement in all things if we ask for it?