Homily at St John Bosco’s, Erskine, as part of the Sion Community Mission– Friday evening Celebration based on Acts 2:1-11 and Luke 11:9-13.
When the day of Pentecost came, Our Blessed Lady and the Apostles were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. It appeared that tongues of fire rested upon each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak. A great crowd gathered, for Jews from many nations were gathered in Jerusalem for a festival. And yet each heard the Apostles speaking in their own native language!
On the Day of Pentecost, we see ordinary people empowered to do extraordinary things. What could be more ordinary than a fisherman, a tax collector, or a wife and mother?
Many times, Jesus had said to his friends and followers, “Do not be afraid!” Together, Our Lady and the Apostles had endured the agony of Good Friday and the ecstasy of meeting the Risen Lord mere days later. Ten days past, Jesus had ascended from their sight, telling them not to leave Jerusalem until the promised Spirit had come upon them. I wonder how they felt? Alongside the amazing news that Jesus had triumphed over death lay the knowledge that the same Romans and Jews who had crucified Christ might also seek the destruction of His followers. But the power which filled them on that Day of Pentecost impelled them into the public square, where St Peter addressed a vast crowd, and three thousand listeners were baptised and added to their number.
What about us? Could we do what St Peter did? Could we do what Our Blessed Lady did? Or are we bound up with fear? And which frightens us more – the thought of doing God’s work in the presence of scoffers, or the thought that God might trust us enough to call us and work wonders through us in the first place?
In August, 1993, three years after becoming a Catholic, I attended a summer youth retreat. I had one year left before I finished my degree, and I had to start thinking about what to do next. Of course, there were lots of options open to an Oxford physics graduate!
I was young.
I was male.
I was single.
I was Catholic.
What about the priesthood?
The thing is, although I knew I was saying no, I didn’t know WHY I was saying no. What was I afraid of?
I think, looking back, I was afraid that Jesus was going to ask me to do something I probably wouldn’t like. I’d have to do it, because he was God. And once I said yes, I was going to be miserable for the rest of my life.
During that retreat, one of the speakers invited us to take a silent hour in the afternoon, so I found myself a secluded spot on a riverbank and began to ponder.
I believed that Jesus, as God, was the smartest being in existence.
I believed that Jesus, as God, was the most loving being in existence, and couldn’t possibly want anything for me that would be bad for me.
I called Jesus, “Lord”. If I really meant that he was my Lord, that would mean I was saying I wanted him to be the person in charge of my life.
So… if Jesus is smarter than me, if Jesus will never choose anything which is not in my best interests, and if the Bible encourages me to call Jesus, “Lord”, I was faced with only one inexorable, inescapable, and incontrovertible conclusion: YES to everything.
So I prayed. And my prayer went something like this: “Jesus, I believe you are who the Bible says you are. I believe you love me and have my best interests at heart. From today onwards I will go where you ask me to go, do what you ask me to do. Whatever you ask – if you make it clear what you want, I will do it – even if it is the “priest thing”.
Well, back then it wasn’t the “priest thing”. I ended up in working in Nottingham on a gap year and then at Cardiff University for my PhD. But in 1997, the Lord showed me that it was time for the “priest thing” and here I am today.
Yes, 1993 was a key year in my life. Two things happened which changed the course of my life. I’ve just told you about the second one, when I said yes to Jesus and yes to priesthood. But four months earlier, actually during a visit to Scotland, I said “Yes” to the Holy Spirit.
On Monday I shared with you the story of how I become a Catholic. I read my way into the Catholic faith… and I spent time reading about other kinds of Christians too. I read about how the Pentecostal Churches started at the beginning of the 20th Century. I read about how large numbers of Catholics started experiencing similar things in the late 1960s – praying in tongues; laying hands on people who then experienced healing; and receiving prophetic words, knowledge that seemed to come from God and blessed the people who heard it. And of course, I read the Bible itself which showed us that prophecies and healings and praying in strange tongues were quite normal for St Peter, and for the early apostles and church leaders.
Now it’s one thing to encounter these things in books – quite another in real life. At Oxford, there was a student in my college who became a good friend. Sometimes we prayed together, and she made strange noises. So one day I asked her, “Cathy, those sounds you make when you’re praying – is that what they call praying in tongues?” She said it was. A few weeks later I asked her to lay her hands on me and pray for me to receive the same gift, so she came to me and prayed – and… nothing happened.
Well, almost nothing. I did have a sense of God whispering to my heart “Yes, but not yet.” A few weeks later, I was in Edinburgh for a science conference, and I popped into a local Catholic bookshop, Harkins of the Mound, where I spotted a book I’d been seeking for ages. This book, a volume on prayer by a Jesuit priest, had one chapter which spoke to me powerfully. It set out what you should do if your prayer life felt blocked, if it was dominated by just one big thing.
That was exactly where I was that Spring. I’d fallen in love for the first time in my young life, but not only did the woman in question turn out to be dating someone else, but even worse, she was on the brink of abandoning her Catholic faith! For weeks my only prayer had been: “Lord, if I can’t marry her, at least give her her faith back!”
Guided by the prayerbook, I knelt down that evening and handed over my burden to God. “Lord, I realise that I am holding on to this person, and it’s not right that she is the only person I pray for. So I am going to put her in your hands now. She’s your responsibility, not mine.”
The very moment I finished the prayer, I felt unbidden sounds arising on my lips, and I prayed in tongues for the first time. Later, Cathy took me to a large prayer meeting with more than 100 Catholics praying that way. I’m sharing this so you know that even if you’ve never come across it yourself, there are lots of Catholics out there for whom praying in tongues is an ordinary thing. Even the newly appointed Catholic Archbishop of Southwark had admitted that he prays that way – and an even more famous Christian who says he prays in tongues is Justin Welby, the current Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury!
There are many gifts much more important than tongues, of course. St Paul says the greatest gift the Holy Spirit can give us is prophecy, the ability to know what God wants to say to a person. Sometimes that’s a word of encouragement which touches a person’s deepest needs at that moment. Other times it’s a word of information, something the person speaking couldn’t have known by natural means, as proof that it really is God who is speaking and wanting to bless the listener.
A few months ago, one of the members of Sion Community asked me to pray with her, to receive the gift of prophecy. I gladly did that, but then I did something she wasn’t expecting. “Ask God to show you something to share with me, right now!” So she stopped, and prayed, and an image came to her mind, which was the exact same thing I’d asked someone else in the Community to pray about for me just ten minutes earlier! The Holy Spirit loves to bring us gifts, but often waits to be asked.
The Holy Spirit also brings us the gifts which our young people learn about for Confirmation: Courage and Wisdom, Knowledge and Endurance, Good Advice, Piety and Fear of the Lord. Now ‘fear of the Lord’ doesn’t mean quaking in our boots being afraid that God will punish us if we don’t do His bidding. Rather, it means a healthy respect for who God is and a willingness to obey his will.
If we have a healthy respect for God, a genuine fear of the Lord, we won’t be afraid to lift our hands in the air and sing his praises.
If we have a healthy respect for God, a genuine fear of the Lord, we won’t be afraid to lay our hands on one another and pray for healing of our ills and a deeper experience of God’s power.
If we have a healthy respect for God, a genuine fear of the Lord, we won’t be afraid to use our lips for whatever sounds God may place on them, be that prayers in unknown tongues or words of affirmation in human language.
In our broken humanity, we do fear the unknown. This is why Jesus reassured us that our Heavenly Father will only give us good things, and the best gift of all is the Holy Spirit.
I shared with you on Wednesday, how my old headmaster would address me solemnly and declare that he was expecting Great Things of me! Our Lord was even more challenging to his followers. In John 14 we read that Jesus said: “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father!” Jesus then promised to send the Holy Spirit as our Helper.
I’ve been watching a new medical drama recently, called New Amsterdam. A dynamic doctor has been appointed as the Medical Director of a busy public hospital, but instead of spending most of the time in the boardroom, he puts on his scrubs and spends as much time as possible treating patients. His catchphrase, whenever he walks on to a ward, is “How can I help?” And his name? He is Dr Max Goodwin! He certainly seeks the maximum number of good outcomes for his patients! But he can’t do it all himself. By the end of the series he has inspired his colleagues to be like him. They are no longer constrained by the way the hospital used to run. If there’s a better way to do things, they can do it. We know he’s had an impact when his colleagues start asking, in their turn, “How can I help?”
God loves to be asked to help. In the Gospel we heard this evening, Jesus said: “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” When St Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the gifts of the Spirit, he said that we should eagerly desire the gift of prophesy – and what would we do if we desired it, if not to ask the Giver of all Good Gifts to grant it to us?
In our prayer this evening, we will have an opportunity to ask God to pour out the Holy Spirit’s gifts upon us. On the table at the front, we’ve laid out some of the gifts you might ask for – gifts of character to embolden us to do God’s work, and spiritual gifts which only God can grant to make us His helpers on earth. So you’ll be able to come and look at the gifts on offer, and see which one or two are your heart’s desire this evening. I can’t promise that you will receive the gift you most desire, because these are gifts, freely given by God as God pleases. But I do know that Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to those who ask.
You might need to deal with fears and blockages first. If you are afraid of what God might ask, just ask yourself, as I did, if you can trust God and if God doesn’t have your best interests at heart. If there is some obstacle in your life, some hurt or anxiety getting in the way, give it to Jesus – he wants to carry your burden upon his Cross. But remember the Mission Prayer you have been praying to prepare for this week. Open your lives to joy. Open your arms to your brothers and sisters. Open your hearts to the Holy Spirit, for tonight, there is nowhere he would rather be.
So come! Come and select one or two gifts which stir your heart this night. And bring your gift token forward to the brother and sister who will stand at the front to pray with you, asking the Holy Spirit to grant what you ask. Fear not, rejoice, and be glad, for it has pleased the Father to give you the Kingdom and fill you with his Holy Spirit!