A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Feast of Pentecost 2019
9th June 2019
Never begin a speech with an apology the experts tell you. Today I’m going to break that rule of public speaking. I want to apologise to those who were expecting to have the launch of our Rule of Life today. I did promise that at our Annual Meeting and then promptly did nothing about arranging the launch. We had spent a good deal of Lent looking at it – remember Pray, Read, Learn, Tell, Serve, Give? Well I do apologise that I’ve not got us ready for the launch today; I’ll do something about putting that right in the coming weeks.
Unless we are superhuman, we’ve probably all had an experience of failing to deliver something on time; or failing that, at a standard less than we would have wished through putting something off until rather too close to the deadline. It can so easily lead to discouragement, despite the ever-more elaborate justifications we dream up for putting off the inevitable. While it’s always best to own up to missing a deadline, some people invent the most elaborate excuses. According to the inland revenue, such excuses include the predictable “my dog ate my tax return” (and presumably all the reminders too), the unlikely “the postman doesn’t deliver to my house” and the tragi-comic – “I couldn’t complete my tax return because my husband left me and took our accountant with him. I’m currently trying to find a new accountant.”
In different ways we all get discouraged from time to time. It could be the daily round of tasks, or the unrewarding nature of our work, or a particularly negative encounter with another person. That can sometimes be true about our faith as well, as we feel our prayers go unanswered, or our lives take an unexpected turn for the worse, or – perhaps most likely – everything gets a bit stale. Somehow, what we expected of faith in God doesn’t turn out quite as we thought had been promised. And we get discouraged. A sense of defeat and hopelessness saps us of energy and vision. Discouragement can consume a lot of our time, leading to an unhealthy introspection, endless procrastination or a critical or cynical spirit that saps the faith and energy of those around us. Discouragement of course can be a sign of poor mental health, so if it persists, a trip to the doctor is recommended; but, in the main, discouragement is a natural, but unhealthy, state. Scripture even suggests that it is a temptation to be avoided, something not to be tolerated in ourselves and discouraged in others. Did you see what I did there? We are encouraged to discourage discouragement.
Well, brothers and sisters, Pentecost is the feast of encouragement. Now, it’s very easy to get a little bamboozled by Pentecost, chiefly because the Holy Spirit prefers to work in hidden, subtle ways. You can’t see the Spirit in the way you can see Jesus. The idea of the Spirit isn’t as easy to relate to as the more humanly-understandable idea of God as Father. So confusion can follow. It is suggested to preachers therefore that we take one idea about the nature and work of the Holy Spirit, given at Pentecost, and focus on that. Today, that is the idea of the Holy Spirit as encourager.
When God gives the Holy Spirit to the disciples on the Day of Pentecost he is doing only what Jesus promised, in our Gospel reading: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth…you know him because he abides with you and he will be in you.” Jesus is saying farewell to the disciples here in these four chapters of John 14-17 and, at the centre of his words are the promise of the Holy Spirit, who is referred to as the Advocate in this particular translation. There are a number of ways of translating the Greek word parakletos here. Our word in the New Revised Standard Version is Advocate, which we know chiefly in the context of the law. Some of you will know that I have had to lead at St Mary’s on a long-standing legal matter here. That has required, regrettably, taking someone to court. We have had good legal advice from a solicitor but, in the end, we needed a barrister, or an advocate, to speak for us in court. It was an encouraging experience to watch our advocate in action, the one who spoke on our behalf, who understood our situation and made representations to the judge for us. This advocacy of the Holy Spirit is part of the Spirit’s encouragement of us. He is the one who speaks for us when we cannot find the words of prayer ourselves – as St Paul puts it in the epistle today, “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 to deep for words.” She is the one who continually prays to God within us – as St Paul puts it “the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” The work of the Holy Spirit as Advocate is to work for us in prayer and to continually pray within us to the Father, speaking on our behalf. Be encouraged by the Advocate.
That tricky word parakletos can also be translated Comforter as well. “And he will give you another Comforter,” are words used by Thomas Talllis in his well known anthem “If ye love me.” We all need an arm around us from time to time. One of the reasons I’ve overlooked the Rule of Life thing today is because I’ve had a significant number of people approach me for help as they face the end of their lives. One of those – Paul – is close to death now and it has been a complete privilege to spend time with him. Paul is a member of the choir, and ten days ago the choir went to the Hospice to sing for him. Together, choir and priest have been a tremendous comfort to Paul – I know this because he’s been telling the doctors and nurses. Now, having such comforting presence at end of life is one thing, but each of us needs the encouragement of others in moments of difficulty, and in the daily round of stresses and strains we face. But Jesus promises us the gift of the parakletos – the Comforter. The Holy Spirit, given to us all at Pentecost and through our baptism and confirmation, brings not just the comfort of friends but the comfort of God. Elsewhere St Paul says this “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of all mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Quite a mouthful that verse, but laden with the idea of divine comfort. The Christian author Joni Eareckson Tada says this, “You don’t have to be alone in your hurt! Comfort is yours. Joy is an option. And it’s all been made possible by your Saviour. He went without comfort so you might have it. He postponed joy so you might share in it. He willingly chose isolation so you might never be alone in your hurt and sorrow.” Whatever we go through, we have a saviour who has, if not experienced our particular challenges, has felt what it has like to be without comfort. But, through the promised Holy Spirit, the Comforter he bring us the eternal, divine consolation. We will never be alone as Jesus was.
So Pentecost is a feast of encouragement because it celebrates the gift of the Spirit, the Advocate, the Comforter. Parakletos can also mean Helper, but there’s not time to talk about that today, save to point out that it’s another way of talking about the Advocate. But one of the interesting things about being a helper, is that the person being helped needs to be willing to receive the help. The thing about gifts, you see, even the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, is they have to be received. Help needs to be welcomed, an advocate needs the agreement of the plaintiff to speak on their behalf, even a comforter needs someone open to being comforted, to be of much use.
So, in a significant way, the secret to avoiding discouragement lies in our hands. John chapter 14, which is the chapter of our Gospel reading today, starts with these words of Jesus ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.’ In some ways this is more a command of Jesus rather than advice. Rather than our hearts being ruled by what we can see, rather than the thing that gets us discouraged ruling us, instead be ruled by what I promise you, be ruled by the promise of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Comforter, the Helper. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” That’s Jesus’s advice to the discouraged.
So, on this day of Pentecost, when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, let’s be encouraged by what God has done for us in giving us this Spirit of truth. Truly there is grace in it, and everlasting gift. But let’s also not allow ourselves to slip into discouragement by becoming victims of circumstance or by refusing the help of the Helper. Let’s fight it instead by embracing the promises of Jesus, by trusting his words, by finding the thing that is at the heart of encouragement, which is courage. This is the work of the Spirit, to give us courage to face what life brings us, through knowing and trusting the words and promises of Jesus. Promises like this one “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us?” Or this one, “I have said all these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Frederick Buechner puts it like this: “Turn around and believe that the good news that we are loved is better than we ever dared hope, and that to believe in that good new, to live out of it and toward it, to be in love with that good news, is of all glad things in this world the gladdest thing of all, Amen, and come Lord Jesus.”