The Spirit, the Kingdom and the Life
A Sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Readings for this Service: Colossians 1: 1-14
I want to tell you about three conversations I’ve had recently that I’ve come to believe all add up to something. The first was with a person who’d been coming to St Martin’s for a while. She said, ‘Why don’t we talk more about the Holy Spirit?’ It was a good question. Rather uncomfortable, I had to explain to her that talk of the Holy Spirit had been rather captured in the last hundred years or so by those who experienced, asserted and advocated the rather grand, visible and tangible aspects of the Spirit’s work, such as speaking in tongues, uttering prophecy, and miraculous sudden healings. So those who are a bit nervous of the brashness of such things have become rather shy of talking about the Holy Spirit at all.’ It was a rather lame answer, but it was the truth.
Next I spoke to a person who’d been coming to church all his life, but had never got an answer to some nagging questions. He asked, ‘What is this word “kingdom” that you use? What do you mean by the “kingdom of God”? I replied, ‘Jesus talks of the kingdom as the full reign of God that is just beginning to break in with his ministry in Galilee and Jerusalem. We believe we shall discover what the reign of God truly looks like in heaven. We try to live in that reality in the church. But often we get it wrong, and sometimes we’re humbled by the way the Spirit acts in the world that puts the church to shame. We call those moments “epiphanies of the kingdom.”’ He was bothered that kingdom seemed such a male and territorial word for something beyond gender and space, and I said, ‘You’re right, but we haven’t come up with a better word yet.’ Again I felt like I hadn’t given a great answer.
Then last week I talked with a person who goes to another church who was very frustrated. She said, ‘Church is so… churchy. It’s like the only thing anyone seems to care about is what happens in church, and in the wider malarkey of synods and bishops and all that palaver. I can’t remember when I ever heard a sermon about the challenges I’m facing in my line of work and in my life in general.’ Again, I tried to respond. I said, ‘Sermons don’t work like that. They’re not supposed to be self-help guides to help you win friends and influence people. They’re supposed to identify the action of God in scripture and world and raise your soul to worship the one who longs to be close to you.’ But a third time, I felt I was protesting too much. What she was asking was, ‘How actually is God working in the world, and has my life got anything to do with it?’ And I hadn’t really answered her question.
I want to give a better answer to all three questions today, because the opening words of Paul’s letter to the Colossians are about Spirit, kingdom and life, and I want to share with you a much more positive understanding of these things than a rather defensive and timid church tends to give. Here we go.
Jesus is the centre and purpose of all things. He’s the embodiment of God’s relationship with us: fully God and fully us. In his words and actions he portrays for us what entering into this full relationship entails. In his death he shows us the cost of this relationship and in his resurrection he shows us that this relationship is the truest thing of all: it transcends sin and death and lasts forever. The church is the name we give to those people who are committed to entering into the relationship with God made possible by Jesus, imitating Jesus in his life and death and following him in his words and deeds.
So far so good. But what about the parts of life that are good and wholesome for their own sake, and not simply focused on following Jesus to the cross, sharing the good news, and anticipating everlasting life? And what about the parts of the world that are not church, yet are clearly theatres for the action of God? This is where we need the three key words that my three questioners were searching for.
We need the word Spirit. The Holy Spirit makes Jesus present. We may think, that’s no big deal, but if we take Jesus’ full humanity seriously, a human being can only be in one place at a time. After Jesus’ ascension, he isn’t here. The Holy Spirit makes present to us Jesus and everything Jesus achieved and represented. But here’s the point. We’re used to thinking of Jesus as showing up through the power of the Holy Spirit in holy communion, in the reading of scripture, in prayer and in baptism. These are what we could call the four most reliable places where we trust that Jesus shows up. But lurking behind this conviction I sense we retain a suspicion that God’s still hard to come by. Either God’s a bit shy, and doesn’t like showing up too often, or God finds it difficult or wants to make it difficult for us. If we turn this suspicion round, and say God is all the time and in every way seeking to stir our imaginations and change our hearts and move our souls to be in utter relationship, then suddenly we change our whole attitude to what’s going on in the world.
It’s another day at work and we’re lost in the busy-ness of the moment and the worries on our mind. But then a customer makes a kind remark, we receive a wonderful email, we hear an amazing tune – and the Holy Spirit has broken in with a smile, a hug, a poem from God. We’re looking at the news and everything seems tawdry, tense and troubling, and then we spot an inspiring story of a person who did a kind and generous thing for no reward, that makes us laugh and cry and take notice. Again, the Holy Spirit has sent us and a million others a kiss. Or we’re working for the church as a volunteer and we’re hampered by constant frustrations that personalities are getting in the way or people are so caught up with their own agenda they can’t see the big picture. And then we see a person on the tube stopping to help a stranger on the stairs, even though it means missing their train, and we’re humbled and moved and realise the Spirit is working when we ourselves have fallen short, and it changes our whole attitude to our voluntary work. We’d started by thinking the only way good was going to come in the world was through us, but we suddenly realise the Spirit’s at work in the world making Christ present and if we’re lucky we’ll catch up with where it’s at work today.
Let’s move to the kingdom. The church is the definitive way God is alive and at work in the world today. In the scripture and the sacraments it has the most reliable ways we recognise how Christ shows up. But as we’ve just seen, the work of the Spirit is by no means limited to the life of the church. At different moments in history Christians have repeatedly got it into their heads that outside the church there was no salvation – that God was only working through the church and not in any other way. But that is to be too inflated in our idea of the church and too limited in our understanding of how the Spirit works.
The kingdom isn’t just about occasional surprises and epiphanies. It can be about genuine common efforts to do social good that go across boundaries of religion, class and culture. Let’s say you’re working in an organisation and a staff survey goes round and asks what you’d change if you could change one thing. You say ‘Could we do an access audit so we can be sure that people with disabilities can get in and join in and so that all their gifts can enable the organisation truly to flourish?’ Within weeks you’re collaborating with people inside and outside the organisation to make a workplace that looks more like heaven, where diversity is a source of life and opportunity is in the air. That’s the kingdom breaking in. Let’s imagine you’re in a neighbourhood where there’s been knife crime and the gangs are moving in. The local imam and rabbi say ‘Let’s do something together on this,’ and a few weeks later there’s a safe-space homework after-school club with Wi-Fi access that meets at a different religious building each day of the week and young people get to know more about each other’s life and worship. That’s the kingdom breaking in. The point is there are all sorts of places and moments when things happen and people come together and it’s like church and sometimes better than church but it isn’t church yet it’s a glimpse of heaven. There’s a name for it: it’s called kingdom.
And that brings us to our third neglected word, which is life. Jesus came to bring us life to the full; he also embodied life to the full – flourishing relationship with God, ourselves, one another and the creation. I wonder whether you’ve ever been unemployed. Of course there’s the loss of income. But it makes you aware of the other things good work can mean: friends, creativity, company, purpose, teamwork. The person who told me she’d never heard a sermon about the challenge she experienced at work was saying, ‘God cares about these things but it often feels like the church doesn’t.’ Let’s imagine you work in the accounts department. It’s satisfying to balance the books, it’s encouraging to feel you’re indispensable to your colleagues, it’s rewarding to make a contribution to a common project, it’s fascinating to see how figures can be projected and lessons can be learned and wisdom can be applied. Something beautiful takes place when a person’s gifts match an organisation’s needs and together they make a real difference.
A friend spent a season serving a church in Ghana. Ghana gets very hot in the summer, and there’s not much in the way of air conditioning. My friend’s church didn’t have enough money to put glass in the windows. The advantage was that it let a bit of air in. The problem was that there was also quite a strong breeze, so when they brought papers into the church the papers blew all around. Eventually they decided that having the wind blowing through the church was intolerable so they got together enough money to put glass in all the windows. The result was simple. The wind blew the roof off.
That’s how much the Spirit wants to bring us into relationship with God in Christ. That’s what happens to the church if it doesn’t learn to enjoy the ways of the kingdom. That’s a sign that Jesus came to bring us life, and won’t be put off by our narrow vision for where that life flourishes and what form it can take. Watch out, any who limit the work of the Spirit, neglect the joy of the kingdom, or ignore abundant life: God’s gonna blow your roof off, too.