Saint Stephen

Easter 6
May 24th 1992

Acts 15: 1-2, 22-29
Revelation 21: 10-14, 22-23
John 14: 23-29

My words to you this morning are almost entirely thanks to a member of Saint Stephen's congregation.

So let me say what I have said to you before: how much I value the discussions which I've had with some of you. I have learnt as much from the people I have helped to prepare for confirmation as they have from me, and my regret is that confirmation itself is often seen as a "cut off point". So do please consider whether we might be able somehow to continue the experience of teaching each other to "know the Lord" better.

But today's Sermon happened like this. The person I was talking with told me how they had been set upon by a Pentecostalist friend who was not only very critical of the kind of services we have at Saint Stephen's but was insisting that we don't believe in God the Holy Spirit because, unlike them we don't practise speaking in tongues or using other ecstatic utterances like they do.

In the face of this criticism, I'm glad to say, the Saint Stephen's person stood her ground. On the contrary she said that whilst shouting and speaking in foreign tongues might be a work of the Holy Spirit, his chief and chosen way was "to bring God's word to our remembrance, to help to remind us what Jesus Christ had said and has told us to do".

And of course that is entirely correct. Think of those words in the Gospel for today: "the Holy Spirit whom my father will send in my name will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you".

Now if you read the scriptures carefully you will discover that a great deal of it has to do with forgetting and remembering or being reminded especially about God.

Time and again the people of God forgot about what he had told them to do and what not to do, and time and again God raised a prophet or a judge to guide them back into the right way by reminding them of what they had once known. Nothing new. Just what their fathers and forefathers had been told.

In times of trouble and distress the people of God needed reminding that God had delivered them not only once but many times from their adversaries; in times of success and victory they needed reminding that it was not their own hand and right arm that would save them but God's arm alone.

That is why reading the Bible is such an important part of helping the Holy Spirit work among us; and when we come together on a Sunday part of the purpose is to remind ourselves of God's goodness towards us most chiefly of course in the redemption which Jesus Christ won for us on the Cross of Calvary.

To be open to the Spirit of God is the surest way of avoiding the most dreadful of spiritual diseases, Hardening of the Heart.

"Today if you will listen to his voice, harden not your hearts", is one of the key themes of the scriptures. It was precisely because the people of God in the Old Testament hardened their hearts, or allowed a crust to grow over them and become stale, that the word of God could not penetrate into them and so they lost their way and their faith and their interest in being God's chosen people.

But that can happen equally easily to God's chosen people today. Unless you when I are being continuously Re-created (as I explained last week) by the working of the Holy Spirit then we too shall grow hard hearted thick-skinned and deaf to the word God unless our spiritual cells are being continually renewed and replaced by the cells of our skin for example, we shall grows stale. Spiritual deafness to the plans and Commandments of God for us can be fatal equally to individual Christians, to local assemblies like Saint Stephen's and to bodies like the Church of England as a whole. All over the world, all through history, there are examples of such hardening of heart and spiritual deafness for us to take warning from. It is, if you like, a sort of spiritual cancer. It's no use hoping that if we do nothing to prevent it then it won't happen to you and me.

The cure, or rather the prevention, of the condition we call hardness of heart or spiritual deafness or cancer of the spirit, depends as so many other things do, on what is called "the inculcation of pious habits".

Let me explain what that means. You know how hard we work to get our children to develop right habits. We teach them Kerb Drill or the Green Cross Code to enable them to cross the streets safely; we teach them to say Please and Thank You; we teach them to do their homework and not keep putting it off; we teach them to wash their hands before meals and a whole host of other things in the hope that one day they will become habitual and it won't need us to stand over them and say "now remember what I said" that process of patient teaching is called inculcation.

Well that is precisely the way the Holy Spirit works within us, reminding us as Jesus said he would, of the Way God has prepared for us to walk in, inculcating his wisdom into our inmost hearts.

That process, walking in the Spirit, is the one certain way of remaining faithful to God. Not only should we remember his mercies towards us and know that our labour is not in vain in the Lord, but we shall be much less likely to fall into temptation and act sinfully against him.

For if we are in the habit of being open to the prompting of the Spirit we shall recognise evil long before it becomes a serious threat to us. If we habitually bring to the whole of our life the rules which we now apply habitually to crossing the road, to look both ways, to listen carefully, to make use of the helps that are available to us, then the likelihood of having a serious moral accident will be much less than if we have allowed our hearts to become hardened, our ears deaf to the voice of the Spirit.

I hope you will find these words helpful. Certainly I have derived a lot of benefit from thinking about them in this way. But let me remind you how they came about.

A member of this congregation told me how she had answered a Pentecostalist who was maintaining that the work of the Holy Spirit consisted of people getting together to shout and speak in tongues.

"On the contrary" she had said to the Pentecostalist "the chief work of the Holy Spirit consists in reminding people of the word of God of his mercy and loving kindness towards us and the laws which he has given us for our safety."

All that I have done this morning is to pass on to you what she reminded me of.

If we are to acquire the habit of sharing these insights with one another and keeping our ears open to what the Holy Spirit may be wanting to say through the mouths of ordinary people who come to Saint Stephen's, then I believe we should quickly become a Church of the Holy Spirit, the true Pentecostalists like the first Apostles who, filled with the Holy Spirit, were ready to be sent and go out into the world in the power of the Spirit to live and work to God's praise and glory.

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