In this sermon, preached at his Chrism Masses in Bristol, Exeter and Lichfield Cathedrals, the Bishop of Ebbsfleet speaks of the Holy Spirit’s presence with Christ and with us, signified by the oil of Chrism
Normally at this celebration we read from St Luke’s account of Jesus appearing in the synagogue in Nazareth and reading the prophecy we have just heard from Isaiah: ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me’. But this morning we’re scrolling back a little: back to the Jordan just after the baptism, and turning to listen to St John (John 1.19,24-42).
St John always seems to have a different story to tell. In the other gospels the Holy Spirit comes down upon Jesus at his baptism to enable his mighty acts. But St John talks about the Holy Spirit rather differently. He doesn’t tell the story of Jesus’s baptism like the other gospel writers; instead John the Baptist gives us a ‘witness statement’ about it. And in that statement, it is said (uniquely in St John’s Gospel) that the Spirit not only descended on Jesus but remained on him (Greek, emeinen: John 1.32).
Read the passage carefully and it becomes obvious that this is the central fact of John the Baptist’s evidence. The Spirit did not just visit Jesus but remained with him, and that is precisely how John the Baptist knew that Jesus truly was the one he’d been looking for.
This is how John sets out his evidence:
- ‘I knew someone greater than me would follow me, but I didn’t know who it would be. I baptized with water, you see, so that he would be revealed.’ (v. 31)
- ‘The one who sent me to baptize with water had said, “When you see the Spirit coming down and resting on someone, that someone is the person who will baptize with the Spirit.” ’ (v. 33)
- ‘And I did see it: I saw the Spirit coming down, like a dove out of heaven, and resting on him.’ (v. 32)
- ‘I can only tell you what I saw. But that’s how I know he is the servant and lamb of God.’ (v. 34)
In John’s Gospel the Spirit does not come upon Jesus for a specific task or a special moment, as with the prophets and other spirit-anointed people of the Old Testament. Jesus becomes the unique dwelling place of the Spirit. The Spirit stayed with him permanently and filled him with all the potential (all the dynamis) of God’s wisdom and action and presence.
And there’s more. A little later in John’s Gospel, in Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus, this sense of the Spirit’s permanence is expanded by a sense of the Spirit’s abundance. The Spirit is given to Jesus ‘without measure’ (Greek, ek metrou: John 3.34). Jesus bears the Holy Spirit in a permanent and inexhaustible way.
All of that is wrapped up in St John’s distinctively different allusion. St Basil the Great says that the Spirit was Jesus’s ‘inseparable companion in everything… every activity of Christ was unfolded in the presence of the Holy Spirit’.1 Jesus’ ministry simply cannot be explained without the presence and power of the manifold gifts of the Spirit.
All of this is, if you like, ‘poured into’ the Chrism oil from which this Eucharist takes its name, the complex perfumed oil which, in a sacramental way, will be used as a sign of the permanent and inexhaustible presence of the Holy Spirit – who is not only the inseparable companion of Jesus, but who becomes the inseparable companion of all those who are baptized and confirmed into Christ’s risen body: that is, of course, you and me. Another great Christian author, this time a modern Anglican, Austin Farrer, talking about confirmation, says, ‘The unity we have with Christ, both in receiving baptism and afterwards by standing by it, brings down on us the very blessing and the very Spirit he received. In so far as we are in Christ we are filled with Holy Spirit and the Father’s good pleasure rests on us; infinite Love delights in us.’2
Christ’s relationship with his Father (John 17.10) has been enlarged to include us. The eternal relationships between Father, Son and Spirit have become our home, our identity. At all times Christ accompanies us to his Father with our prayer and our praise, our penitence and our pain, whenever we wish, and whenever we need. This is our home, because it’s where Christ and the Spirit dwell, permanently and abundantly. And at this time of the Christian year, as we approach the Paschal three days, it’s especially important to be reminded these things do not change whatever difficulties and turmoil, whatever ‘sorrow, need, sickness or any other adversity’ we may be experiencing. Regardless of turmoil or failure or suffering, or even death, the permanent and inexhaustible presence of the Holy Spirit kept Christ faithful to his Father and to us; and he keeps us faithful to too.
We find ourselves, of course, reflecting on these things in the midst of confusions and tensions in our church after Bishop Philip North’s withdrawal as Bishop of Sheffield, made more acute by those who seek to sharpen the divisions in our life together. In such a situation – whatever is now being done to minimize damage, to heal hurts, or to strengthen mission – we need to trust the unshakeable faithfulness of Christ and the strengthening power of the Spirit.
In one of his sermons St Bernard has something to say about such situations of turmoil, and the sense of doubt and vulnerability that they create in us. He says, ‘I have sinned a great sin, and my conscience is like mud all stirred up; yet I’m not unsteady (not shaky) because I am mindful of the Lord’s wounds.’3 And he goes on to say that the Lord’s wounds are like places he can hide in, like the cleft in the rock for Elijah, a safe place to hide until the storm passes.
Why, I wonder, might St Bernard refer to the Lord’s wounds in this way? I think that the answer lies in another surprisingly different feature of St John’s Gospel, concerning the Holy Spirit.
All the way through John’s Gospel there is a mounting sense of expectation. The Spirit, who – we’ve been emphatically told – remains permanently and abundantly with Jesus, nevertheless can’t be given to the disciples because Jesus had ‘not yet been glorified’. Even at the Last Supper, Jesus had to explain, ‘I will ask the Father, and he will send you another Comforter who will never leave you – the Spirit of truth.’ Then, three days later, when the great climactic moment of the Resurrection arrives, and Jesus that same evening bursts through the locked doors where his friends are, he does three things:
- he greets them with the peace of the new creation,
- he shows them the angry wounds in his hands and side,
- and immediately he breathes on them saying ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.
There’s no hanging around fifty days for Pentecost with St John.
It’s clear that it’s only when Jesus’s body has been broken and lifted up on the cross – only after, in St John’s words, he’s been ‘glorified’ – that the Spirit is free to stream out of his wounds and flood the lives of those around him. Without that failure and darkness, without those open wounds, the Spirit could not be shared. But after that darkness, from those wounds, the Holy Spirit ‘pours out for us to drink’ says St Paul (1 Cor. 12.13): from those wounds flows the baptismal flood that brings into our lives the permanent and abundant life of the Spirit.
It’s as if the surface of our achievement, our specialness and attractiveness, has to be wounded before the Spirit can truly create holiness and communion between the followers of Christ. So not for the first time, our faith is revealed in a paradox: we experience the Holy Spirit most deeply not in strength and achievement and being successful Christians; but in moments of loss, times when we suddenly feel vulnerable and out of our depth. Even when those bitter moments of hostility or betrayal arise within the body of the Church, through those wounds, into that need, the Holy Spirit flows. And in that situation, as St Bernard suggests, though our consciences are ‘like mud all stirred up’; yet we are not unsteady because we are mindful of the Lord’s wounds, and the Spirit that flows from them.
‘Deep in thy wounds Lord, hide and shelter me,
So shall I never, never part from thee.’
Having drunk of the everlasting, inexhaustible and renewing Spirit of Jesus – in this as in every Eucharist – we shall be able go out and overflow, in our words and our actions, in acts of compassion and service, because our own lives have been broken open and filled by God.
1 On the Holy Spirit, xvi.39
2 A Triple Victory: Christ’s temptations according to St Matthew (London, 1965)
3 Sermon 61.3, On the Song of Songs.