The gift of God’s Spirit


Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.25-35, 37, Romans 8.22-27, John 15.26-27, 16.4b-15

The Very Rev’d Bertrand Oliver, Dean and Rector

From psalm 104: ‘All of them look to you to give them their food in due season. You give it to them, they gather it; you open your hand and they are filled with good things. You hide your face and they are terrified; you take away their breath and they die and return to their dust. You send forth your Spirit and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth.’

Earlier this year you may have been aware of the controversy surrounding the launch on Netflix of the latest documentary by British filmmaker Ali Tabrizi, ‘Seaspiracy’.

In 89 breathtaking minutes, this film takes us on a blunt and often horrifying tour of the human impacts on marine life. It highlights the environmental cost of plastic marine debris – in its largest proportion due to discarded fishing gear; the effect of ghost nets, discarded and unseen, and causing starvation, laceration, and suffocation by continuing to trap a large amount of marine life including fish, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, crocodiles, seabirds, crabs, and other creatures, including the occasional human diver. It examines the consequences of industrial scale overfishing and fish farming around the world; and it throws a light on the Taiji dolphin drive hunt in Japan, whaling in the Faroe Islands, and modern slavery within the fishing industry in Thailand.

It is fairly grim, and would certainly make anyone re-consider their consumption of fish, as I have.

Seaspiracy followed in the steps of another similar called Cowspiracy which looked at the environmental impact of the cattle industry, and was equally challenging.

Plain to see are the obfuscations of powerful profit-driven industries who operate often unseen, hiding behind labels that make consumers believe that they are making sound choice for their health, the welfare of the animals killed and the environment – often in a misleading way.

After watching these images, you might be left wondering: where God is in all of this, as you seek to reconcile your image of God’s creation as painted in Psalm 104 and the reality which it has become today.

It is true of course that we need to find ways of feeding the ever-growing population of our planet in ways in which every living human being can access enough food to live with dignity. But it is also clear that it is not sustainable to do this by either depleting our oceans and destroying marine habitats, or by clearing the Amazonian forest or contributing to other environmental disasters to produce more and more animal feed to generate resource guzzling red meat or fish farms.

The whole animal and aquatic kingdom that God has placed on our beautiful earth is described lovingly by the Psalmist as a joy to God, under God’s care, even going as far as describing leviathan – the mythic sea monster – as God’s pet.

Under God’s rule of the sea, there is no chaos but instead a beautiful balance, into which humanity is called to play its part of stewardship – not plundering.

We might wonder why psalm 104 is chosen for this feast of Pentecost, when we ostensibly celebrate the birthday of the church, the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples and then to all of us – a gift which some have interpreted as giving them all power over the whole creation rather than the stewardship of a divine garden.

The whole psalm 104 is worth re-reading if you have not looked at it for a while. The portion we read specifically broadens our horizon of the life of the Spirit onto a much wider canvass where faith and reality intersect in our care for the well-being of the whole creation. Here, in the flowery language of the poet, we are reminded that the church and creation live only because of the gift of God’s Spirit.

‘You send forth your Spirit and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth.’

Perhaps today, as we consider the gift of the Spirit to us, we may ponder how we renew the face of the earth?

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles which we heard first speaks to us more traditionally of the events of the feast of Pentecost on the apostles gathered in their room, still grieving, still anxious, still fearful, still wondering what to do next.

The event that occurs next is startling: violent rush of wind, divided tongues of fire resting on everyone of them – and then a new ability to speak different languages, to be heard and understood by the many devout people from all over Asia who had made Jerusalem their homes.

There is exuberance in the air, a sense of celebration, wonderment at this new freedom of speech – but there is also caution. How can twelve men suddenly speak at least fifteen languages?

Or how can those gathered around them, how can we, all hear the Gospel message in our own languages? Are these drunk or are we?

Can the Spirit of God really speak through anyone so clearly?

The image of the divided flames may be in some way worrying, reminding us perhaps of the forked tongue of the snake in the Garden of Eden. English theologian Lancelot Andrewes, in his first Pentecost sermon, ponders on this point, noting that the tongue is both the best and the worst of our members.

But he notes that this time, the division is a positive sign that the message is going out to all the world – in some way ‘reversing the earlier curse of Babel’.

In his farewell discourse, part of which was our Gospel reading today, Jesus prepares his disciples for his departure and promises them the coming of the Spirit – the Paraclete – here translated in the New Revised Standard Bible as the Advocate.

The promise of the gift comes with a sting attached. This gift of the Advocate cannot come unless Jesus goes away – certainly not what the disciples were hoping for after the renewed joy of resurrection.

But Jesus promises that this advocate will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement.

When it is not immediately clear how the spirit might do that, then we don’t have to wait long: the spirit will guide us into all the truth and will declare to us the things that are to come. A huge gift, but also a huge responsibility in discerning the words of the spirit as opposed to the words of our own egos or simply wishful thinking.

St Paul, in his letter to the Romans, reminds us how the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now. It was true in his time, and it is still true in ours.

We need to remain focused on hoping for what we do not see, so that the spirit can help us in our weakness, and especially intercede for us individually and as creation with sighs too deep for words.

A year ago, the world was shocked by what we saw in the killing of George Floyd and the conflation of this additional abuse of power with the mood of the world allowed the Spirit to inspire over 23 million people to take to the street in protest.

Ever since, faithful communities around the world have been hoping and working and praying for what we do not see yet – a world where Black lives matter – knowing that the Holy Spirit is at work here, translating our own groans which we can’t formulate into prayers that God hears.

Over a year ago, the pandemic struck and it was soon clear that words of human solidarity were only that when protection resources were scarce. Communities around the world have been hoping and working and praying for a world where all human beings can access resources equally. And the Holy Spirit is at work there too.

Earlier this year, Seaspiracy joined the top ten watched films on Netflix, thereby raising consciousness about the harm of our current abuses of the oceans on the environment and asking us to re-evaluate our food choices. The Holy Spirit is at work here too.

And on this feast of Pentecost, we are specifically reminded of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles but also to us at our baptism.

And we know that God’s Holy Spirit is at work within us – even as we are unaware.

When we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us, without words, and perhaps we can learn from that too. Perhaps as we contemplate the world in all its beauty and all its challenges, we can also learn to let go of words and simply allow the Advocate, standing between us and God, to say what we cannot put into words for ourselves.

Because, in the words of Cally Hammond, ‘in court, advocates have a specialist skill in persuasion. In Faith, the Advocate has two functions: the first is to plead on our behalf, as counsel for the defence; the other is to be the prosecuting counsel who exposes the failings of the world’.


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