Every Sunday we say in the Creed that we believe in “The Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life”. This should remind us that without God, as Holy Spirit, being present within us from the first moment of our life in our mother’s womb, we wouldn’t be alive at all. And this is exactly what we hear affirmed in the great Creation story at the beginning of the Bible (Gen 1:2) when it is God as Spirit that actually creates everything, that gives life to the world! Those of you with logical minds may therefore be asking quite rightly, “Why in our Gospel today (John 20:19-31) does the risen Jesus breathe the Holy Spirit on the disciples, if they have the Holy Spirit within them already?”
The simple answer to this is that God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit does not exist in the way created things exist, because God is eternal. This means that God is already at the end of all things waiting for us, just as God was at the beginning when everything was created. So when the risen Lord Jesus appears to the disciples, he re-creates for them and in them what is already there. In effect he gives them a new birth, so that whilst remaining the same people they always were, they are being transformed into the brave people, the first saints, that they are going to be. This is why the Church sometimes describes the Resurrection as “the New Creation” using words from St Paul when he says in his 2nd Letter to the Corinthians (5:17) “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”
In our 2nd Reading today (1 John 5:1-6) we also hear about this New creation, this new birth, although St John uses a word that is less familiar to us, the word “begotten”. So he writes “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ has been begotten by God”. In other words, we are drawn by the Holy Spirit into God’s New Creation. We are given new birth, by every word and action in our lives in which we proclaim, consciously or unconsciously, that we believe in Jesus and follow him.
But some of you might also be saying, “Hold on a minute. Why are we hearing about the Holy Spirit now? Surely the Holy Spirit comes to the disciples at the Feast of Pentecost in 6 weeks time?” Again the answer is that God isn’t like us. A great teacher of the faith once described the Holy Spirit as like water, like soft refreshing rain falling onto the earth. It gives life into whatever it falls upon, soaking into it if it is a plant, or being drunk if it is an animal or a man or a woman. But we always need more, we always need topping up. We can never say “I have received the Holy Spirit and that’s the end of the matter”. Just as we need water regularly to survive, so we need God working within us if we are to reach our full potential.
God wants to work in us and through us in all sorts of ways, and he does this as the Holy Spirit; but it’s up to us whether we open ourselves to God working in this way or not, whether we open ourselves to what we might be. So the disciples, like us, first received the Holy Spirit when they first had life in their mother’s womb; then like us they received the Holy Spirit in a new way when they met the risen Lord Jesus,; and finally, like us, they need to receive the Holy Spirit in a powerful way if they are to be brave enough to go out and share the message of Jesus with the world, whatever the world might do with them in response. And of course, for all but one of them they end up being killed for what they proclaim, so they certainly need a lot of courage.
In the next few weeks, leading up to Pentecost, I have decided to preach about how the Holy Spirit can work in our lives so that we too can become better disciples of the risen Lord Jesus. I hope to show you that what the Holy Spirit does in us is sometimes easily missed, because his power affirms and strengthens what is already there, what we have within us anyway by virtue of our being alive. So I will talk about how God as Holy Spirit works in our mind enhancing our knowledge and helping us to teach and explain things to others. I will also talk about how the Holy Spirit helps in the process of caring for and healing the sick and the sad, how we are helped to pray more deeply, and above all how we can be helped to love more powerfully, to love even those who might be described as our enemies. For that is what Jesus told us to do. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt 5:43-48) There’s that image of rain again!
In all this we must remember how easy it is to take God for granted, just as we take water for granted, just as we take the air we breathe for granted. Yes, it is all too easy to spend most of our time just getting on with living day by day, and missing so many opportunities to bring God’s love to others in one way or another, because we are too concerned with our own lives. Our Easter readings will remind us of this, as we see how the risen Jesus in various ways appears to the disciples, to shake them awake, to make them live out together as the Church, the new community of love, the new birth that he gave them when he breathed upon them. They too, to start with, tended to carry on with their own lives without realising the significance of what had happened to them and what they were called to do.
Discovering what this is, is what the life of every Christian ought to be about. We may not do the great deeds of the saints, but in all sorts of little ways God can be glorified in us, if we let him.