Sermon - Pentecost

Questioning Church
Deepening Spirituality
Image of a flame in an oil lamp
John Schofield

John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.


Immortal, invisible…

Familiar words.

And how about

Inaccessible, intangible?

That’s the trouble with God - intangibility. 

Of course, we had the Incarnation. But that was just 30 short years, and so long ago.  

But don’t imagine that God’s unaware of the situation. Don’t imagine that God doesn’t provide solutions.

We are the first solution. The church – that’s you and me, however much attention we’ve been paying to buildings recently – this human church is meant to be something tangible of God amongst us. ‘

Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ ‘

We are the body of Christ. In the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body.’

The church, the body of Christ, is a way God has chosen of extending the Incarnation in us and through time. As Teresa of Avila famously reminds us:

          Christ has no hands …

What a privilege. You can touch us; people can touch you - so God is not completely intangible. But then how awesome are these hands, these eyes, these ears.  What a responsibility. Who is equal to this?

Well, quite simply you are, and I am. Not because of anything we can do of ourselves. But because of God’s second solution to the problem of intangibility. We have been given the Holy Spirit.

But, I hear you say, that’s intangible too. So let us look at some word pictures, pictures which through things we can touch or sense or see give us ways into God the Spirit. And do not despise or underestimate these pictures that we weave with words and ideas.


Picture one

My mother often used to tell me about seeing the Crystal Palace burn. It was seared into her memory. The light, the power, and of course the damage. Maybe the Olympic flame which lasts the lifetime of the Games is a better picture. 

Have you never heard it said of a sportsman, a musician, some public figure on a roll – that they’re really on fire? I guess you don’t expect to see flames coming out. But you automatically understand the intensity, the passion, the drama, the commitment.

And you do not know what God is telling us the Holy Spirit is like?

          I too have seen the briar alight like coal,

          The love that burns, the flesh that’s ever whole,

          And many times have turned and left it there,

          Saying: ‘It’s prophecy – but metaphor.’


          But stinging tongues like John the Baptist shout:

          ‘That this is metaphor is no way out.

          It’s dogma too, or you make God a liar;

          The bush is still a bush, and fire is fire.’


Picture two

The poet Edwin Muir, in his autobiography, writes:

‘I was coming back from school when, as I passed the little pond below the house, I became aware of the intense stillness. When I went into the kitchen my mother said she did not like the look of the weather, which surprised me, for I had loved the dull, sad stillness, the dense air which made each motionless blade of grass sweat one clear drop, the dreary immobility of the pond. A little while afterwards we heard an iron pail flying with a great clatter along the length of the house. My father ran out to see that all the doors and windows were fast shut. I wanted to go with them to see the storm, but my mother forbade me, saying that the wind would blow me away: I took it for a fictitious warning, for I did not know then that wind could do such things.’

And you do not know what God is telling us the Holy Spirit is like?


Picture three

Have you ever noticed that  when you want to be quiet, there’s always one thing you’ll hear, even if you can still the noisiness of your brain, the wandering of your mind? You’ll always hear your breathing. Breath, life. Life, breath. You can’t have the one without the other. And for the New Testament writers the word for breath is the word for wind.

And you do not know what God is telling us the Holy Spirit is like?


Picture four

‘Sweet is every sound’ says Tennyson, including ‘the moan of doves in immemorial elms’ (a schoolboy memory of examples of alliteration). Doves have long been associated with creativity, softness and love: the word brooding/hovering in the second verse of Genesis suggests a bird, and on that basis the Rabbis likened the Spirit to a dove:

  • it is a dove which returns to Noah with the freshly plucked olive leaf telling of the recovery, almost the recreation, of the earth
  • the Psalmist longs for the wings of a dove to take him to a place of rest
  • and the lovers of the Song of Songs use the dove evocatively:

‘Ah, you are beautiful, my love;

ah, you are beautiful;

your eyes are doves'.

‘Oh my dove.’


In this form the Spirit appears to Jesus, fills him.

And you do not know what God is telling us the Holy Spirit is like?


Picture five

One of the most fascinating parts of the Bayeux tapestry is that bit where Bishop Odo (who as a Bishop is technically not allowed to fight) is threatening the backside of one of the soldiers with a fearsome stick or club, a bit lance like. The caption tells us:

          Hic Odo Eps Baculu[m] Tenens Confortat Pueros.

Note the ‘confortat’, Bishop Odo is ‘comforting’ his boys, the troops. Not the sort of comfort that you may be hoping for in battle, I dare say. But it does remind us that one of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to give us a poke up the backside, strengthening us either when we’re in danger of idling or when we’re fainting in the presence of something we’d rather not face.

And you do not know what God is telling us the Holy Spirit is like?


Picture six

Colette is blind and learning to climb.

          ‘I called: ‘Raymond, I can’t do it, I want to go down.’

          ‘Find somewhere to put your feet and rest for a moment.’

          ‘I’m completely out of breath.’

          ‘You’re going at it too hard.’

His imperturbability restored my morale. I took his advice and rested. Then I made another effort and reached him.

‘You mustn’t let yourself get so upset,’ he said. ‘Don’t fuss, you’ll get the hang of it. It’s bound to take a little time. You aren’t doing too badly. All you need is practice.’

‘Are we going down now?’

‘Whenever you like.’

He gave me a friendly pat on the shoulder, because I was still a little scared when it came to stepping off backwards into emptiness. I knew all about the drop below me, having just climbed up it. But having made the first step, I felt wonderful.’’

The Paraclete, the Advocate, John’s favourite word for the Spirit, may have started life as a friend standing alongside you in court; but what better picture of a helping hand, a paraclete, can you want than Raymond to Colette?

And you do not know what God is telling us the Holy Spirit is like?

Go on. Use your imagination. Touch the intangible. Let the Spirit loose.

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