Not last Sunday, but the Sunday before, the Western Church celebrated the feast of Pentecost, or Whitsun if that is what you like to call it. On that day we recall that period in the history of the early church when God as Holy Spirit was particularly manifest to the early followers of Jesus. In a short period of time they were transformed from a ragtag band eager to return to the safety of their fishing nets into an embryonic missional church community ready to go out and spread the news of what had happened to the man called Jesus of Nazareth, and, if necessary, to suffer and die trying. The moment of the Holy Spirit’s manifestation was, as reported in the Acts of the Apostles, accompanied with a dramatic ability to speak in foreign languages, “other tongues”, allowing the followers of Jesus to tell their message to anyone who would listen, regardless of nationality or background.
We were treated to an excellent sermon that Sunday from the Reverend Lu Gale, Officer for Lay Mission and Ministry in Southwark Diocese, who has helped and supported us greatly through our interregnum. We heard how for some God’s presence as Holy Spirit manifests as exuberant, extravagant, lively praise and worship; in others humbled silence. “Some the Holy Spirit bucks up; others the Holy Spirit shuts up!”, as our preacher was informed by Ronnie Bowlby when he was Bishop of Southwark. (I think I veer towards the latter…)
Was the Holy Spirit with us at St George’s on Pentecost? Well, I should hope so – a denial of that would give a pretty bleak outlook of any church. So, “yes”. But there are always moments within any church service, within any experience, any day in the life, where perhaps God feels more than usually present. Most Christians would probably describe those moments as being when the Holy Spirit was present. An increased awareness of God’s presence as Holy Spirit might be a better way to describe it, I’m not sure.
In true CofE fashion, our celebration of Pentecost was a relatively low key affair. There was no manifestation of what the Pentecostal or Charismatic churches would consider the “gifts of the Spirit” – no praying in tongues, no prophesying. There was no particular euphoria, no collapsing of people overcome, no altar call, no Toronto Blessing. There wasn’t even an invitation for the Holy Spirit to rest on God’s people – one of the peculiarities of Eucharistic Prayer E (the best, I think). So where was God present as Holy Spirit?
It was quite an emotional Sunday for us. It was only the second Sunday we had taken our new baby, Sebastian, to church due to Serena having been too unwell to go the week before. It was emotional, for me, in the sense that Sebastian was blessed in my arms not once, not twice, but three times during the service. One blessing at the communion rail as the rest of us receive the sacrament, and the usual benediction on us all at the end of the service. A further blessing on him, and on all of us, was bestowed when the congregation were anointed individually with holy oil – a high(ish) church Pentecost rite which was beautiful in a very understated way. Was the Holy Spirit present in that threefold blessing on our new son? Well, again, a “yes”, but a “yes” in the same “yes, of course” sense. Even those three blessings on Sebastian were not what I’m thinking of in particular.
Let me tell you about our friend Heather. I will always remember Heather as the first person who really made us feel welcome at St George’s. Not welcome in the meeting-and-greeting of new people sense, but genuinely welcoming us by taking us under her wing the first Sunday we attended and just being herself for us. (I say this about someone fifty years my senior). She’s kept a prayerful eye on us ever since, I am sure.
Heather’s life is not currently easy. Her husband died many years ago. One of her two sons has been mentally very unwell for the whole of his life, and Heather does more for him than many her age could – she is always up and down to his residential care home, takes him away on the most wonderful holidays, is always there for him. But Heather’s sight is now threatened by macular degeneration. It is being treated, but success is never guaranteed. Her primary concern is that if her sight deteriorates she won’t be able to drive to see her son. The last time we spoke she hadn’t told her son.
But Heather is not someone visibly weighed down by what may have happened in her life. She is a kind, loving, patient person who always wants to know about you and your week first. Like my Gran Gran she is one of those people who says that they have prayed for you, or will pray for you, and you know that will happen; sincerely, validly, lovingly. And she likes Formula 1.
When Serena had been ill we received some beautiful flowers from Heather. The first opportunity we had to thank her for them was as we were waiting in line to receive communion and she was returning from the altar. We exchanged the briefest of conversations, during which we thanked her for her kindness and she told us that she had lit a candle for Serena when she had been at church the week before. She kissed us both, and then Sebastian.
It was an additional blessing, in the truest sense of the word, and in those brief moments God was present by the Holy Spirit. Two or three of us were gathered, and Jesus was present amongst us.
No fireworks on Pentecost, just the true fruits of the Holy Spirit “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”.
May God bless friends like these. Amen.