The church, the world, and the Spirit

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Galatians 6:2-5, 7-10; Luke 10.1-11, 16-20
Church of Scotland, Geneva, Auditoire de Calvin, July 3 2022

Two daughters

What do you think? There was a woman who had two daughters. She was busy making lunch on a hot July day, so she found her first daughter and asked, “Can you help me by setting the table?”

The daughter said, “Don’t bother me now, I’m busy playing this video game.” But later she changed her mind and went to find the knives and forks and cups.

Meanwhile, the mother found her second daughter and asked her the same question: “Can you help me by setting the table?”

The second daughter said, “Sure”, but she carried on playing her video game.

Which of the two daughters pleased their mother?

The church, the world, and the Spirit

Some sermons aim to encourage us in our faith. Some sermons aim to encourage us to think. If I preach on the Holy Spirit, perhaps I can do both.

Four Gospels in our Bibles tell the good news about Jesus of Nazareth. We can’t be sure who wrote them, but they are known traditionally as the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke. and John.

Of these four, only Luke writes a sequel: the book we know as the Acts of the Apostles.

Luke’s Gospel begins with the annunciation and the birth of Jesus; his sequel begins with the annunciation and the birth of the church. In both of these births, the Holy Spirit plays an important role.

But it is a mistake to think that the Spirit is simply absent from our world before she comes at Pentecost or at the incarnation.

When the adulterous and murderous King David is confronted by the prophet Nathan, it is the Spirit that enables him to recognize the enormity of what he has done and to repent.

When the lying, cheating Jacob goes nervously to be reconciled with his brother Esau, from whom Jacob has stolen his birthright, it is the Spirit that enables Esau to embrace his brother instead of killing him.

But we can go back further still.

John begins the fourth Gospel with a famous sentence: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In like manner, we may say, “In the beginning was the Spirit, and the Spirit was with God, and the Spirit was God.”

The Spirit is present even at the dawn of creation. She sits like a bird, brooding on the waters, and bringing all things into being.


You may have noticed that I just quoted the opening line of CH4 593, written by John Bell and Graham Maule of the Iona Community.

Here are three of the closing lines:

For she is the Spirit, one with God in essence,
Gifted by the Saviour in eternal love …
Enemy of apathy and heavenly dove.


If we are fortunate in our parents, from the day of our birth we receive from them a steady flow of gifts: food, shelter, affection, and care. But their first gift, the source and origin of all the others, is the gift of their love: they love us, and therefore they bestow on us the things we need to flourish and grow.

Not all parents are like that, of course. Some go so far as to kill their children. And no parent is perfect.

But parents at their best are an analogy for God. The many gifts of God for which we give thanks are simply the consequence of God’s first gift to us: the gift of God’s love, the gift of love as a person sent to us, the gift of the Spirit.

In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul puts it with characteristic eloquence: God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us, and so we may hope with a hope that does not disappoint (Romans 5.5).


Let me turn from parental love to the love between two adults.

In the second of its two creation stories, Genesis says, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Genesis 2.24)

Nowadays, it is a little more complicated. But let us skirt the minefields of sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital breakdown, and focus on the growth, the development, of adult love.

Two people, even for a long time, may love each other without declaring their love. While that is the case, they may have the beginnings of love but hardly the real thing. Until they admit that they do in fact love each other, their love remains obscure.

But then begins a new adventure: if they are fortunate, a life-long adventure. In spite of every obstacle, each learns to see the other more clearly and love the other more dearly, until their love becomes a love that can always be counted on.

From the beginning, God loves us with the love is the Holy Spirit in our hearts. But until God declares that love, God’s love likewise remains obscure.

John describes the Spirit as like the wind that blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. In the ancient world, unacquainted with modern meteorology, the movement of the wind was a mystery.

That is the way it is with the Spirit until the Word is made flesh.

We may sense the Spirit as a quiet undertow in our lives; we may sense that in spite of all life’s troubles we are loved and accepted; we may sense that in spite of all life’s temptations, we are called to be the best version of ourselves.

That sense is at work in the world’s religions and even in men and women of no religion at all. It is the fruit of God’s gift of the Spirit, but it remains obscure.

In the fullness of time, God declares God’s love, in the Word made flesh, in the cross on Calvary, in the tomb thrown open to the skies.

It is a commonplace that the Spirit makes the Word known, enabling us to confess Jesus as our Lord and our God. But we can also say that the Word makes the Spirit known, allowing us to recognize that the whole of our human history is a courtship ritual in which God patiently woos us by gifting us both Word and Spirit.

We have a gospel to proclaim: by what we say, by what we do, by who we are and who we are becoming. We go into the world to proclaim that gospel confident that this is not a world from which God is otherwise absent.

The Spirit of God goes before us, creating hearts of flesh, opening eyes of faith to see the world as God sees it, opening ears to hear the declaration of God’s love. The Spirit is not a bird in a cage. She cannot be captured, silenced, or restrained. She is the heavenly dove, winging over earth and soaring through the skies.

And so we have no excuse for apathy.


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