Finding the First Love

Readings : Acts 2.1-21. John 20.19-23

Our readings offer us two encounters with the Holy Spirit: the first from Acts, as the Holy Spirit descends upon those gathered in the Upper Room, fear is banished, and the curse of Babel is reversed in an instant, to the bewilderment of the bystanders.

The second is from Jesus, post-resurrection, as the breath of Jesus confers the Holy Spirit, with the specific intention do sending out for the forgiving and retaining of sin.

The dynamism and range of emotions carried by these narratives is undimmed by the passing of the years since pen was put to paper – and we have a real sense that what has been received is infinitely greater than the concerns of personal safety and survival which had been uppermost in the minds of those who met in secret.

Some of the material we offer in this course is intended to help us to reconnect with our original calling. There was a time in our lives when we were so on fire with love, and the desire to serve, that we were prepared to stop whatever it was we were doing and offer ourselves for ordination. I can remember the sheer sense of thrill and fulfilment that accompanied ordination, and I hope that as we sit here today we can reconnect to that sense of excitement which accompanied the first flowering of our own calling.

But life is not straightforward. That love, that desire, that fire, is challenged by the events of our lives, in parishes, in the service of the wider community, and, indeed, within the wider church. There is an inevitability about that, and we need to look again and again to the sources of grace, the places of refreshment, the ways in which our life in Christ is sustained. A hymn which has sustained me, and returned me to that first love over the years is the fantastic Wesley Hymn ‘O thou who camest from above’.

…kindle a flame of sacred love
On the mean altar of my heart.

There let it for thy glory burn
with inextinguishable blaze
And trembling to its source return
With humble prayer and fervent praise

Then this:

Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
To work, and speak, and think for thee:
Still let me guard the Holy Fire
And still stir up the gift in me.

The Holy Fire needs guarding, that it might be shared. The gift needs to be stirred up again and again by meetings with the Risen Jesus.

Quite a lot of ministry in parishes can feel far removed from those moments of first excitement – the holy encounters which sparked the ignition, as it were. And so much of who we are and what we do can be found in our response to the inevitable moments of repetition and routine in the parish. All too often our responses to such moments are tempered by our own, temporary dispositions. How often is my attitude, my behaviour, conditioned by the people I am with, and how I feel about them? The coming of the Holy Spirit was never conditional upon such things. Grace is free gift: if we are not careful, it can become conditional upon us, and upon our moment-by-moment willingness to respond positively to the gift we have been given.

The need to overcome ourselves and do the right thing, simply because it is the right thing, is essential if we are to be obedient servants of the master. Striving to do all things well, with a joy which transcends our temporary mood, is a converting ordinance which people notice and which is both holy and infectious. Let me finish with a quotation which you may know. Scholarship seems to be divided on who the author was, but I’m not really worried about who wrote it.

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.
Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.
Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.
Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.
Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, will often be forgotten.
Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.
Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.
It was never between you and them anyway.”

Preached at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, to the clergy of the Diocese of Llandaff on 24 September 2013

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