Saturday, May 08, 2010

There’s an old story about a company that advertised a job for a telegraph operator - the fact of course that there’s no such thing as a telegraph operator any more tells you exactly how old this story is - and because the pay was rather good the waiting room soon filled up with eager hopefuls.  Most of them had brought along their licence books and copies of their qualifications - for young people used to just pulling out your mobile phone and whipping off a text message it might not be entirely obvious, but this was a highly skilled job and you had to study hard for the qualification.  Each of these young men had his head full of theory, each one waited nervously for the chance to tell the interviewers just how smart and quick he was.  Somebody somewhere must have been especially nervous, the sound of fingernails drumming was just audible.  But the door stayed firmly shut, nobody was getting the chance to tell anybody anything.

After what seemed an age one of the young men simply stood up and walked over to the closed door, opened it without knocking and walked straight in.  The cheek of him, everyone else thought.  Queue jumper.  A minute later he walked out again, cleared his throat and told them they could all go home.  ‘I’ve got the job’, he said.

Because of course it wasn’t nervous fingers drumming, it was Morse code.  ‘Come straight in’, was the message.  ‘The job’s yours.’

The point is, sometimes it’s not enough to have your head full of theory.  You also have to be paying attention to what’s happening around you so you get the chance to put it into practice.  The job didn’t go to the one with the best marks, or the fastest key-strokes, it went to the one who was bright enough to realise he was hearing Morse code, that it was a message for him personally, and that he needed to respond.  The one who heard, understood, and did something about it got the job.  Life actually is like that rather often.

The Morse code is the Holy Spirit.  We tie ourselves in knots a bit about trying to explain the Trinity.  But it’s simple, actually.  The Holy Spirit is Morse code, the annoying background noise of our lives that’s God trying to get our attention, addressing us personally, telling us ‘ yes, I mean you’.  The Holy Spirit is where the practice of resurrection gets personal, where all this theoretical stuff about love and forgiveness gets some traction in our lives.  And its the message that ties together all three of our readings this morning.  To be the Church, to be followers of Christ means to have a mission.  The Holy Spirit is the key.

In Christian tradition the Holy Spirit gets imagined or represented in various different ways - as a dove, as a flame, as wind - all images from the Bible but not in any of today’s readings which instead talk about the Holy Spirit in imperative terms - the one who sends, the one who calls, the one who blocks off some options and allows others.  This is a bossy Holy Spirit.  It’s also the Spirit of visions, of imagining how the Church might be different, even disturbingly different, and daring men and women to chart new directions.

The reading from Acts is one that is a favourite for churches trying to reflect on what mission is all about.  Actually this is not an easy question to answer, especially since as soon as we give it the name, ‘mission’, it already sounds as though it’s a job for somebody else, somewhere else.  But the one thing mission is for sure about is being sent, about the Church going to other people rather than waiting for other people to come to the Church.  So Paul has a vision, a dream in which a man from Macedonia is pleading with him to bring the good news.  And so he wakes up, and goes.  This is the most basic thing of all.  One - be perceptive enough to know when you’re being spoken to.  Two - do something about it.  And of course when he gets to Philippi he finds not a man but a woman, Lydia, a wealthy and influential woman who uses her resources to support the beginnings of the Christian Church in Asia Minor.  So this is the second basic thing - be flexible enough to cope with changes of plan.  We see how far Paul the respectable Pharisee has come, chatting with women and accepting their hospitality would have been more than a little scandalous.  We also incidentally see how crucial the leadership of women was in the very early Church.

So this is what it teaches us about mission - that it’s about openness, about having minds that are open rather than closed.  Being sensitive enough to know when and how we are being addressed by the Holy Spirit, being humble enough to follow and flexible enough to adapt to new realities.  But above all, to trust that God’s Holy Spirit is already there ahead of us, that there are already signs of what God’s Spirit is doing.  So mission crucially is about joining in the conversation that is already happening, being prepared to talk about how God’s Holy Spirit is leading us, prepared also to listen to how God’s Holy Spirit is already active in ways we might not have anticipated. 

In John’s gospel we are continuing to read Jesus’ rather long farewell instructions to his disciples.  Maybe you’ve got to this point - in the sermon at least - feeling that the Morse code is not intended for you, that you at least are not being personally addressed by all this talk about mission.  That’s what we’ve got ABM for, you might be thinking.  Unfortunately, Jesus makes it very personal indeed.  If you love me, he says, keep my commandments.  And then he turns it around a bit, makes it into an acid test.  Those who don’t love me, don’t keep my commandments.  Or even - those who don’t keep my commandments don’t really love me.  We are personally addressed, and it’s not theoretical.  Jesus’ commandments are quite specific: loving God, loving one’s neighbour - who as the parable of the Good Samaritan tells us is anyone who needs our compassion and care.  Our religion is designed not to keep us holy and separate from others, not to insulate us from the seductive and self-serving attractions of the world around us but to draw us deeper in, to make us perceptive enough and caring enough to actually notice the needs of others, to actually notice when somebody needs help and to act on it.  To know that the one who is being addressed is us.  The point of our religion is to get us into the habit of noticing the demands on our humanity that are actually there all around us, all the time.  And Jesus in today’s reading draws out the connection between the response that love demands of us, and the action of the Holy Spirit.

Too often in reading John’s gospel at this point we focus straight in on the wonderful, warm and fuzzy word, Comforter.  Or Helper.  The Holy Spirit is a great big eiderdown.  Actually Comforter is what the Holy Spirit is called in the 16th century King James version.  In the New Revised Standard Version that we read in church the Greek word parakletos is more accurately translated as Advocate, one who encourages or intercedes or exhorts.  So this is the first thing about the Holy Spirit, not fuzzy but  empowering, powerful, and demanding, not quieting and stilling but stirring and disturbing.  Not an eiderdown but a job description.  And the second thing is this, that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus, teaching us and sending us just as Jesus teaches and sends us.  In fact the Holy Spirit is the coming true of Jesus promise that if we demonstrate our love for Jesus by doing what he commands us then the Father and the Son will make their home in us.  The gift of the Holy Spirit is the presence of Jesus in us that is made possible when we actually put the love that Jesus commands into action.  That, of course is mission, and it is the vocation not just of ABM but of you and me.

You know, it’s perfectly possible to talk all Easter long, all through the Sundays of Easter, about unity and love and forgiveness and for it all to be theoretical.  To still be people who don’t practise those things, to be self-centred and ungenerous and to keep a ledger of how other people let us down.  The love that Jesus commands doesn’t happen automatically and we have to work at it.  A good place to start is here, in our own church community, in noticing one another’s needs, in performing the little everyday tasks of love like sweeping a floor or asking about somebody else’s life, in being more concerned with giving of ourselves than being catered to.  Here is a good place to start.

The New Jerusalem doesn’t get beamed down around us just if we wait long enough, the City of God that John of Patmos sees is the new creation made possible by the resurrection of Jesus. But it’s the new creation that needs us to live into it by choosing to listen to the Morse code that’s all around us, which is to say, by paying attention to the Holy Spirit, by recognising that it’s a message for us personally, and by doing something about it. The City of God is us, just as soon as we get up and walk through the door.