Send forth your Spirit O Lord, and renew the face of the earth.
As we celebrate the festival of Pentecost, we’ve heard readings that, in their different ways, show God sending forth that Spirit to renew the face of the earth. They are readings that remind us that God isn’t a passive observer of our comings and goings, but that there is an ongoing and evolving relationship between God and God’s people.
The first reading was from the book of Numbers. The context is that Moses is leading the people through the Wilderness. That journey wasn’t a meander from here to there, stopping to look at the landscape or the wildlife. It was the journey of an exiled people who were surrounded by enemies. And they weren’t happy campers. They grumbled as they went – they missed the interesting diet they’d had in Egypt, they wanted to be in a different situation, their faith was tested. Moses expended quite a bit of energy trying to keep them contented, to persuade them that God hadn’t abandoned them.
Up to this point, God’s communication had been through Moses who was tasked not only with keeping the people moving, but with interceding for them with God. And today we see God take a new initiative, we see God engaging in a different way. 70 elders were gathered and they experienced a direct encounter with God. But that wasn’t all. Two men who were outside the tent also received God’s direct blessing. In that time and space, God’s spirit came both to those who were selected to be in the tent and also to those on the outside. And that’s important – it shows us that this isn’t just about those who had been chosen but is also about the connections and connectedness between a much wider group of people and God. The conduit for those connections is the Spirit.
Let’s jump to our Gospel story. The doors of the house were locked; the disciples were huddled together in their safe space because they were afraid. It was in that place, in that place of discomfort and uncertainty that something changed. Again, God did something different, something new.
This isn’t the first resurrection experience, Jesus appearing in their midst may have been wonderful and extraordinary and mind blowing – but it wasn’t new. The new element was the introduction of the Holy Spirit – Jesus breathed on them and said: receive the Holy Spirit. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven…. Receive the Holy Spirit, not just for yourselves but for the wider community.
Yet again, this gift of the Spirit is about connections with other people – it’s both about the people in the locked room and about the many people outside that room who were in need of forgiveness, who were in need of engagement with God.
Two scenarios, very many years apart, where God does something new, brings something to the table that is a game changer. And notice something else about both of these stories – they’re not about God’s still, small voice whispering in the ear of a true believer; they’re about God’s Spirit engaging with gatherings of people – reaching into communities that then reach into other communities.
The stories illustrate something about the experience of God’s interaction with humanity, the connections and connectedness that are the catalyst for change. They remind us that God doesn’t stand still; God doesn’t watch us from afar.
God finds innovative ways to reach out and touch lives. And the Holy Spirit is one of God’s dynamic routes of engagement.
God’s Spirit is a gift that is freely and generously given. It’s given to people who are inside the structures of spiritual and religious life and to people who are outwith those structures. We see the fruits of that Spirit in the signs of renewal within our communities, within the people and places that we know. It’s given, not as something to hold onto, but as something to share, to grow, to journey with.
As we find ourselves touched by that Spirit, as we find ourselves renewed and forgiven and refreshed, so we may find that we have the resources to pass something on to other people. For instance, we know that kindness encourages kindness, generosity is almost catching.
We’ve been reminded of that in recent weeks – smile at the person you pass on your daily walk and they will almost certainly smile back and perhaps pass that smile on to the next person they encounter. We sometimes speak in church about the movement of the Spirit; perhaps an expression of that movement is in the ways that we share and support and care and grow within our communities.
Many of you who know this building well will know the work of Liz French, a glass artist whose work has been exhibited in this Cathedral during the Edinburgh festival. This week I received some photos of Liz’s recent work. She’s been making hearts out of glass and sending them to the hospitals as a tool for making a connection between patients and their families. They give people the means to feel connected at a time when a physical connection isn’t possible. But they bring something more than that. They serve to show people that there is a wider community that is aware of their plight and their challenges.
A wider community that may not have a personal connection, but has a connectedness. Liz, the artist, has no idea where her glass hearts will go.
She creates them and then effectively sets them free. She offers something that she perhaps hopes might touch people on many levels. But she has no control over that. The fruits of her creative work are not directly for her – the work effectively has its own life and dynamic. The hearts have the potential to bring change, but of themselves they are not the change.
When God’s Spirit is set free into our world, God doesn’t control how it will be shared. We are trusted to be the conduits for that – we are given opportunities to work with and within the movement of the Spirit and so to expand and enhance the connections we make.
God’s engagement with us is in the midst of all that is – through the Spirit, in the connections we make, in the encounters we have, in the moments of kindness and caring and connectedness. Within our communities and as we find ways to engage with new communities, the dynamism of the Spirit is set free. Through us, God cares. Through us, God connects. Through us God’s Spirit is freed in order that lives can be renewed.
Questions for further reflection:
Can you reflect on examples of the dynamic presence of the Spirit both within the institution of the Church and within your local community?
How do you understand the difference between connections and connectedness?
What changes when you think about God trying something new?