Sunday, 31 May 2015
The Feast of Pentecost - The Spirit of Truth
The Holy Spirit has many aspects. He is the Creator spirit, who brooded over the face of the waters and brought forth order and life in the Universe. St Jacob of Serug uses this image and describes the Holy Spirit brooding over the congregation as it gathers together at the eucharist, and there is a real sense in which a creative work is performed in our lives at each liturgy and each time we receive communion.
But the Holy Spirit is also a spirit of power. This aspect has been magnified in some Pentecostal and charismatic settings so that the Holy Spirit is often presented only as a source of power, and at times this power is wrongly described as some sort of personal energy to work miracles. The power of the Holy Spirit, which the Apostles were instructed to wait for in Jerusalem, is never a personal power that we own, rather it is the power of God, and we are caught up in it and made able to serve the will of God in holiness and obedience.
In this passage from the Gospel we have especially in view the aspect of the Holy Spirit as spirit of truth. In the times I was associated with charismatic and Pentecostal groups I cannot remember anyone every speaking about the Holy Spirit as the spirit of truth. Yet truth seems quite an important aspect of the Gospel. Our Lord says of himself, I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. He also spoke of a time when the worshippers of God would worship in spirit and truth. He said that we will know the truth and it will set us free. He says that we will be sanctified through the truth.
St Paul instructs us to rejoice in the truth, and speaks of us having our loins girded with truth. There are many more references to truth in the New Testament. It is clearly important, and of the names with which the Holy Spirit is described our Lord chooses to speak of the spirit of truth in three chapters in a row in St John’s Gospel.
Truth is the opposite of deceit and lies. It is the opposite of delusion and Our Lord promises to send the Holy Spirit so that we might be set free from deceit and delusion. It seems to me that there are a variety of aspects to this ministry of truth.
The Holy Spirit leads us into truth about God. There are many false ideas about God, and we can be thankful to God that over the centuries, and through many periods of trials and tribulations, the Church has been able to find a way through the minefield of false and deceitful descriptions of God. We are where we are today, with the Faith that we hold dear, because the Holy Spirit has preserved the Church from falling into error, falling into untruths, into lies, about God.
We are surrounded by false ideas about God. We should not think that this is only something that has value and meaning in ancient times. Even in the past decades we have seen many Western Churches falling into grave error. I know that a survey conducted by Anglicans found that a majority of clergy did not believe central doctrines about God. We know that there are churches in the West which do not really believe in the same God that we do, but hold a vague deism at best, and are atheistic at worse. The people around us in our British society also hold many wrong ideas about God. He is either an angry and vengeful figure to be feared and despised, or so friendly and obliging that there is actually no need to offer him worship at all.
In the midst of real error the Holy Spirit leads us into truth about God. But truth is not only a collection of facts. Indeed it is not really a list of facts at all. Truth is a state of being, and in relation to God it means that we have a personal experience of God which is true and which becomes the experience of truth. When the Holy Spirit leads us into such an experience everything changes.
We can think of the prophet Elisha, whose servant was dismayed when he saw the enemies surrounding the city of Jerusalem. But Elisha prayed that his eyes might be opened, and the servant saw that the skies were filled with an heavenly host and that those that were with the Israelites were greater in number than those that were against them. This was an experience of truth. It wasn’t a fact that Elisha shared with his servant but a personal experience of the way things really were.
The three young men cast into the fiery furnace had an experience of truth and found that they were preserved by the presence of an angel with them. Likewise Daniel was cast into the lion’s den and the King had no hope for his being saved, but Daniel had an experience of the truth, of the way things really are from God’s perspective, and from the perspective of those who are given spiritual sight. He found that he was not alone, but that angelic visitors kept the lion’s mouths closed.
There were many times when our Lord said to his disciples, have you so little faith. These were occasions when they failed to experience the truth. They were caught up in a deception and saw things from a human point of view, or worse, from the point of view suggested by the enemy of our souls.
To experience God is to experience truth. The Holy Spirit leads us to such experiences. They are like a two edged sword because they have several aspects. I mean that to experience the truth about God is not always pleasant. He is a consuming fire, and he is absolutely and entirely holy, and no sin can come near to him or into his presence. This is why the Israelites were not allowed to even approach the mountain when God came down upon it in appearing as smoke and fire. Our God is a jealous God, he does not easily bear with us prostituting ourselves with desires other than for him.
We should rightly be fearful to enter into the experience of truth if we are unrepentant and wilful sinners. Yet because the experience of truth is a two edged sword, even at the moment when we might despair we discover that God is a God of love, and to those who approach him with repentance and contrition he is gentle and comforting. These are not facts that we hold in our heads, since even the demons are aware of facts such as these about God. These are the fruit of an experience of God in truth which strips away the deceit and delusion we build up around ourselves.
Perhaps we say, God doesn’t really mind when I sin. Or, I don’t sin very much, it is the other people he is really angry with. Some people say, God is angry with me above all others, and I can never please him. This is just as much a delusion and a deceit. And this is the other aspect of the experience of truth by the Holy Spirit, the spirit of truth. It reveals to us the truth about ourselves. We discover that we are more sinful than we cared to imagine, but we also discover that we are more truly loved than we could ever dream. This experience of truth changes everything. We realise that we cannot please God at all on our own, and that everything we do is tainted with pride and self-will, but we also discover that God wishes to pour out upon us everything we need to be able to serve him in obedience and holiness.
Just as the Holy Spirit of truth teaches us that God is more fearful than we thought, but also more loving, so we learn from the same spirit that we are both more useless and broken than we thought, but also so much more precious to God.
When we allow ourselves to live in a world of delusion we are often convinced that either everything is collapsing around our ears, or that we have everything under control. Sometimes we oscillate between these two positions. But they are both a delusion, both a lie. And the Holy Spirit of truth will free us from these delusions if we will ask him to, and if we will give him freedom to do so in our hearts. This is a painful but necessary work if we are to break through into a more mature Christian life.
We need to be able to see the truth of the world, seeing it with God’s view, seeing it as Elisha’s servant was given grace to do so. In fact things are never collapsing around our ears, that would be to deny that God is our Almighty Father. Neither are we ever in control. Indeed we all know that things can change in an instant, with a single phone call, with a momentary lapse into angry and hurtful words. In fact God is always in control, and even when things seem at their worst God has not abandoned us, if we have the eyes of truth to see that he is still with us. And when we think we are in control of our destinies God is still there, waiting to act in love for us, and with us, when we are able to let go and trust him.
Truth is a necessary aspect of our Christian lives. We need to see things as God does, so that we are freed from pride in ourselves and fear for ourselves. To experience God in truth is so much more than avoiding saying wrong things about God. It is to know God as he himself reaches out to us. And it is to be challenged and changed by seeing God as he is, both awesome in his divine majesty and overwhelmingly loving in his divine fatherhood. It is to see ourselves and be challenged by our own weakness on the one hand and our preciousness to God on the other.
May it be so for each of us on this glorious Feast of the Holy Spirit. May we experience God in truth and truly by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit, so that each of us is able to trust in God more completely as he truly is, being freed from all delusion of pride and fear. To the glory of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen,