Where Does The Spirit Lead? (Acts 8.26-40)
Have you ever had that niggling feeling in the back of your mind? The sort of feeling that just won’t go away, the compulsion to do something, or to say something. Something dragging you towards something else, like the way in a cartoon, a finger beckons out of the mist from a pie, and the character has no choice but to follow it?
Sometimes the Holy Spirit leads us to unexpected places.
In our curate’s training group we did an exercise in which we had to discern what our learning style was, which also feeds into personality too. There were four quadrants in this particular model. Activist, how much of a doer are you? Do you like to get stuck in? A Reflector, people who like to gather data by reading and listening, they have a thoroughly methodical approach. A Theorist, people who are rational and analytical, they point out flaws in thinking and ask probing questions. A Pragmatist, people who like to solve problems and experiment with new ideas. They are mostly interested in the practicalities of doing something.
Now, this is where it gets interesting, bear with me. Most clergy in the Church of England are thinking reflectors. They like method, reflecting on things, sitting around drinking tea, and then thinking a bit more.
That is of course a vast oversimplification for the purposes of a joke. It’s far more complicated than that, there are often biscuits as well. but you get the gist. The great thing about thinking reflectors is that they are thorough, strategic and take everything on board before making a decision.
I on the other hand am a MASSIVE Active pragmatist. I’m concerned mostly about doing stuff, and thinking about the ramifications later. Active pragmatists are good at getting stuff done, but less good at thinking through all the ramifications beforehand. This means that often I leap into things without thinking, and need one of my thinking reflecting friends, to take me by the scruff of the neck, like an errant choir boy, pull me back and go, wait a minute, hold you hard, you haven’t thought about this properly.
The constant need for reflection and discussion about things is something that I’ve never understood, and something I struggle with. We are however all a mixture of these different styles, just because you are a thinking reflector doesn’t mean you can’t act and do.
So when I talk about doing, it’s natural for me as an active pragmatist to want to leap in, and do something.
Doing in this sense, is not the kind of action I’m talking about when I say that the spirit leads us into unexpected places.
My kind of action is impulsive. The kind of action I’m talking about, comes from the very centre of who we are. It’s not just a need to leap in, but something deeper than that. A feeling, a compulsion to do something unexpected or extraordinary. Feeling, trusting and reaching.
One of the things that’s most striking about our reading from Acts today, is the sense of the Spirit leading Phillip into action. The Spirit leads him to somewhere unexpected, to convert one of the most unexpected people. The spirit literally tells Phillip, “Go to that chariot” and what that felt like in Phillip’s mind we can only imagine.
The Holy Spirit empowers us onwards, and I often wonder were the disciples thinking reflectors, or were they active pragmatists? I wonder how comfortable Phillip was in this situation? Did he just carry on despite his misgivings? How could they possibly have discussed things without tea and biscuits?
This Eunuch was most likely Jewish, and although he was Jewish, he was considered outside the covenant, and forbidden by law to enter the congregation. He would’ve been an outcast in the religious life of the Jewish people.
Before becoming a disciple of Jesus, Phillip might have thought that this Eunuch was unclean, not somebody he really wanted to associate with, but the spirit compels him into action, and to talk to the Eunuch and eventually convert him.
This simple fact is an amazing thing, because it shows that everyone can be incorporated into the body of Christ, which is fundamentally what baptism is, the bestowing of the Holy Spirit and incorporation into the body of Christ.
God glories in the identity of this man, he is most likely black, an outcast from his community because of genital mutilation, but God still draws him in.
The spirit led Phillip into an unexpected place, but it led the Eunuch into an unexpected place too. I’m pretty sure that when he was buttering his toast that morning, he wasn’t expecting the encounter he was going to have! He wasn’t expecting to become a full and equal member of the body of Christ.
I believe that the Holy Spirit is present in our lives, just as the Spirit was present with Phillip, it’s still here with us today. I think the spirit is something difficult to understand, but that’s okay, I’m not sure we’re really supposed to get it.
The spirit is what we use to describe something about God, that is, God’s movement in and through all things, the love that binds our universe together.
I believe the Holy Spirit is particularly present with us when we pray, and when we receive the sacraments. I don’t know if any of you have ever been anointed with holy oil, but some of the most moving encounters I’ve had with God have been whilst being anointed. It gave me an unmistakable sense of God’s presence and love upon me, the spirit’s power working through me and with me. I can highly recommend it.
This past week I’ve been skiving off at a conference, which I also use as an annual retreat. On Fire Mission is a conference for Charismatic Catholics within the Church of England. It blends charismatic worship styles, with the deep prayerful and sacramental spirituality of the catholic side of the church.
There were people who spoke in tongues, some who had such an overwhelming sense of God’s presence when they were prayed for, or anointed they were slain in the spirit. I have to say I’m not quite there with that, but there was an unmistakable sense of awe and reverence, and the spirit moving amongst us.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that this is the kind of thing we should be doing at St Peter Mancroft, but remembering the Holy Spirit’s presence with us, and hearing God’s voice is something we should all be trying to do. Whether you find that in the beautiful woven quality of Tallis’ music, or perhaps sitting in silence and looking through a stained glass window. Whether you find yourself caught up in the vibrancy of a worship band, or listening to the subtle music of birdsong. Whatever way, make time for it, nurture the sense of that often small discreet presence in your mind.
Also if you don’t know what on earth I’m going on about, and if I sound a bit bonkers, don’t worry, God points the way to himself, just try to listen.
Feel, trust and reach. What does the holy spirit sound like?
If it sounds like we should reject others and put barriers up, that’s not the Holy Spirit talking but us. We know from this reading that the Holy Spirit isn’t into partiality. The Holy Spirit can work through anyone, and calls everyone into relationship with God. From 1st Century Palestinian fisherman, uneducated men and women who managed to found the church, with very little strategy and lots of trust, to us in the here and now, the Holy Spirit uses us. If we do things that increase partiality, then it’s not of God. It’s not in the name of the spirit, if the action we try to take isolates and excludes others from God’s love.
That’s why at Mancroft we are trying to lower the barriers that exclude people, and it starts with little things, making the service sheets at Evensong easier to navigate, is the work of the Holy Spirit, because it’s leading and enabling. Being a welcomer or a sidesperson, if we do it in the right spirit, is fulfilling the work of the Holy Spirit.
We don’t have to be converting entire villages for us to be doing the work of the sprit. We have to welcome others, give our times and talents, and sometimes go to places that are unexpected and awkward. We have the power. We can’t only be activist and pragmatists, for us to join in with the Holy Spirit we have to think, pray and act. Feel, trust and reach.
In a few moments, we’re going to have two or three minutes of silence, which I as an active pragmatist will of course find extremely difficult. It is good to pause, and to remember God’s presence with us, and I leave you with this question.
What is the Holy Spirit calling you to do?
Preached at Evensong 29/04/2018