Sermon for Pentecost

Text: John 15:26a
(Jesus said to his disciples),The Helper will come—the Spirit”.

The Holy Spirit – the helper

How do you measure the success of the church? 
What are the indicators that tell us the church is accomplishing anything and has a purpose for its existence? 
What benchmarks can we use to assess whether the church is doing anything useful or not?

When talking to people from certain churches the conversation inevitably turns into numbers – how many hundreds attended a particular worship service, how many gave their lives to the Lord, how many children attend the ‘Children’s Church’, and so on.  Is this suggesting that the success of a church is measured by how many bums on seats there are on any given Sunday?  Is that a true benchmark of testing a church’s success? 

Another question that is asked, “What style of music do you have at your church?”  So do we measure the success of a congregation by its music styles and the musicians it has available to lead worship and how dynamic the worship leaders are? 

It’s natural for people to judge a church by the number of people that go through the doors on Sundays.  It’s impressive to sit in a church crowded with people and to feel the energy singing with a large gathering.  But is the church that barely has 20 people, and it only takes 2 families to be away for the service to be cancelled; the church with no musicians and a recording if they’re lucky, singing the old style hymns as best they can with at least one loud off key singer and often having one of their own read a sermon from the internet, is this church deemed to be a failure by what you see happening on Sunday?

We get so hung up on the idea that for something to be good it has to be bigger and better than anything else.  This is worldly thinking that so easily leads to pride, boasting, superiority and self-importance.  Jesus turns this kind of thinking upside down when he says the first shall be last, and “If one of you wants to be great, you must be the servant of the rest” (Matthew 20:26).

Don’t get me wrong.  I rejoice with those who gather in large numbers but the point I’m making is that where 2 or 3 are gathered on a Sunday this is no less the church.  What happens on Sundays is only a fraction of what the church is all about and what it is doing and those words of Jesus about greatness consisting of being a servant get right to the core of what I want to say. 

Recently while chatting to a delivery man, I was asked the inevitable question, “Do people still go to church on Sundays?” Affirming that they did, my answer went something like this, “What happens on Sundays is important but it’s only a small part of what happens every day of the week here under the banner of St Paul’s.  What happens in the primary school, the high school, the aged care village, or in activities of the congregation, including the worship services here on Sundays and in our schools, at the aged care village, on Bribie Island and now at Mt Mee, or the care offered to those in hospital or at home, are all part of what we do as the church not just on Sundays.  Then I told him about the massive collection of food items that the school children are having for the Salvation Army at the moment – all of this is the church doing God's work seven days a week here in this community.” 

Another church might not have all the infrastructure that St Paul’s has but it has people – people using their gifts to serve others in whatever way they can and making a difference in people’s lives. 

The point I’m trying to make is that the church and the work of the Holy Spirit aren’t always, in fact, very rarely are they about the spectacular and the amazing.  Too often our chatter about the Spirit latches on to the unusual; the exceptional, the wildly flamboyant. People tend to limit the visitation of the Spirit to special, effervescent spiritual experiences – like the talking in tongues or miracles or a rapturous moment of spiritual insight. 

I have been to many very moving and very uplifting traditional liturgical services.  The music and drama of the liturgical service touched the soul, the preaching was clear and well presented, the choirs were truly angelic, the pipe organ really magnificent.  People said that the Holy Spirit was truly present in the worship that day and no doubt he was.  But by limiting the Holy Spirit to the amazing and spectacular, we can miss the prime importance of the normal, loving activity of the Spirit in our lives, and through our lives to others.

A good place to find out about the Holy Spirit is from Jesus himself in John’s Gospel chapters 14-16.  When Jesus talked about the Holy Spirit there is no mention of the spectacular. The majority of the Spirit’s work is done quietly.  Jesus uses the word ‘Paraclete’, a Greek word that is translated as Counsellor, Comforter, Helper, Encourager, or Enabler.  There is nothing rapturous, effervescent, thrilling, highly emotive, or spectacular about the title ‘Paraclete’.  The Spirit is that holy Friend who quietly works in us and through us every day behind the scenes in the basic activities of our lives and the lives of the people around us.

Some people feel guilty that they haven’t experienced the spectacular and unusual working of the Holy Spirit or they feel bad because other thoughtless Christians have insinuated that there is something wrong with their faith because they haven’t experienced the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit, and yet in reality, the Holy Spirit has been very much alive in their lives as they have steadily borne the beautiful fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  They had been touching lives around them with the greatest fruit of all – love. 

It’s easy to take for granted the work of the Holy Spirit.  It’s a bit like living in Queensland – beautiful one day and perfect the next.  We take the weather, the natural beauty of the coast, the ranges, the bush, the rainforest and the wild life pretty much for granted. We drive up and down the coast or up into the ranges without even thinking about it.  It’s all pretty much every day routine and we don’t even see it as anything amazing. 

We’ve had some overseas visitors with us from time to time and their exclamations at the view or amazement at the open spaces we have or their gasps at the natural beauty of our flora and fauna, have enabled us to look at these things with fresh eyes and to marvel again at the great things around us that we overlook so often every day.

That’s what happens with the Holy Spirit.  Because he is the quiet helper in the background, the unassuming friend, the unobtrusive guide and comforter, we take his presence for granted. 

The Holy Spirit, the Helper is quietly at work:
in the sincere concern of a friend for our health,
in the generosity of those who give us so much help,
in the inner strength we discover in times of crisis,
in those moments when we admit that we have been wrong,
in making a tough choice,
in the resilience of people who face one bad thing after another,
in times when we have dared to love even though it was hard to do so.

The Holy Spirit, the Helper is quietly at work:
in taking on responsibilities that we once thought beyond us,
in refusing to let the greed of society take over our soul,
in giving thanks always even though times have been hard,
in rising above past failures and putting past hurts behind us,
in finding a central core of peace in the midst of turmoil,
in an adult patiently teaching a child self-esteem and self-control,
in the person sitting quietly beside a hospital bed,
in a parent praying for a troubled son or daughter.

This is just the beginning of the Spirit’s story.  The Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, is active amongst us in a quiet, pervasive, reflective manner, inspiring the fruits of the Spirit amongst us.  This is where the real work of the church is happening.  There is a time and a place for the amazing and spectacular, for the choirs and loud music, but the real powerful work of the Spirit in a congregation is when the people become Christ to others and serve them in whatever way they are able with whatever gifts God has given to do that work. 

A church can have the most spectacular worship or a simple basic style,
fantastic facilities or a borrowed hall,
wonderful music or no music,
crowds of people or just a small group –
whatever the situation there is one test that applies to all as far as the Holy Spirit goes – and that is love.  It has to be the same kind of love that Jesus has for us – sacrificial, self-giving, committed, generous, peace-seeking, patient, caring and gentle.  It’s the kind of love that knows how hard it is for each of us to be like this and so, like Jesus, it is ready to forgive each other’s faults. 

The spectacular cannot replace or is not more important than the quiet, pervasive, unassuming work of the Holy Spirit shown in simple acts of love amongst and by those whom Jesus has called together to be his people in the church.

It is possible for someone to interpret what I have said so far as, “So you mean, all I have to do is let the Holy Spirit do his work behind the scenes and I don’t need to worry about anything else”.  O, I wish it were that simple and yet in another sense it is. 

The Holy Spirit comes to us through the simple word of the Bible, through the simple water of baptism and the simple bread and wine of Communion calls us to renewal and change. 

The Spirit calls us to repentance, to turn our lives around;
he calls us to faith and to daily take up our cross and follow Jesus. 
Sin is so deeply rooted in our lives that the Holy Spirit knows that we can’t turn our lives around ourselves;
that repentance is not something we can do by ourselves;
that true faith is an impossibility so he has to keep on refreshing us through word and water and bread and wine that join us to Jesus’ cross and resurrection.  The good news is that the Holy Spirit keeps on turning us back to Jesus, keeps on forgiving and renewing us through the Gospel and our Baptism and Holy Communion.  When we encounter the Holy Spirit, we never walk away the same as we were before.  He is always creating all things new.

Whichever way you look at the Holy Spirit he is always our Helper; always helping us to be what God made us to be.  He helps us to be truly great, namely, to be servants to one another.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
27th May 2012

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