Michael Fisher affirms that all baptized Christians are baptized in the same Spirit
One of my favourite comedy actors of all time is the late and great Peter Sellers: very late in fact, because Sellers died as long ago as 1980. Yet many of the movies in which he played leading roles still pop up on TV channels – films like Dr Strangelove, Heaven’s Above, I’m All Right, Jack, and The Pink Panther. I’ve got quite a few of his audio recordings, including a compilation of comic sketches entitled The Best of Sellers, in which he does nearly all of the different character voices. One of them is called ‘Common Entrance’, and it has to do with a father who’s trying to get his son into a good school. Having unsuccessfully tried Eton, Harrow and Winchester, he goes along to a fourth-rate establishment which he describes as being ‘in the heart of the swamp country…. a difficult place to get into, and harder still to get out of.’ He’s shown into the headmaster’s study, then the rather formidable headmaster appears, and the conversation runs something like this:
‘Tell me, headmaster, what type of pupil do you have in this school?’
‘We have two types of pupil: Class A and Class B. At mealtimes the Class A boys get priority’.
‘And the Class B boys?’
‘They get food.’
‘Do you mean to say, headmaster, that the Class A boys never eat?’
‘I never pry into their private lives…’
Class A and Class B, and the Class A ones get priority. According to some, there are two types of Christian: Class A and Class B. The Class A ones are those who proudly call themselves ‘born again’ Christians: people who can recall some dramatic moment of baptism in the Holy Spirit which changed their lives for ever, a moment of spiritual rebirth. And then there’s the rest of us, who were probably baptized as infants and therefore have no recollection of it. There is, sadly, a tendency on the part of some of the ‘born again’ variety to believe that they really do have priority, that infant baptisms don’t really count; that they are ‘in’ and everybody else is at the back of the queue. I well remember a confirmation class in which one young man told me how much he resented having been baptized as a baby, because he had been denied the conscious experience of being ‘born again’. I thought this through for a moment, and then said to him, ‘How do you know that the Holy Spirit has not been at work within you all these years, working too through your parents and godparents, and others who have encouraged you as you have been growing up? How can you be sure that, if you had not been baptized as an infant, that you would be here now, as part of a confirmation group? And he took the point.
In point of fact the expression ‘born again’ is applicable to everyone who has received the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, and embraced the Christian faith. God touches the lives of men and women in a variety of ways; in the overwhelmingly sudden moment of revelation, such as that of St Paul on the road to Damascus, or the slow bit-by-bit fitting together of the jigsaw puzzle, like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus as they grappled with the Scriptures, and tried to make some sense of the world around them. In either case there was a ‘born again’ experience: a new beginning.
Today we can all wish ourselves a ‘happy birthday’ as we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, and the gift of the Holy Spirit that we received at our baptism, and which was first poured out on the twelve apostles in such a dramatic and unforgettable way that they could only compare it to a rushing wind and flames of fire. We read on in the Book of Acts to discover how transforming that experience was, as the apostles found themselves able to communicate the good news of the gospel to all kinds of people: language, race, social standing being no longer a barrier. And it’s a matter of historical fact that within the lifetime of many of those twelve, the gospel had been taken to some of the remotest parts of the known world: to the borders of Spain in the west, and – if we believe the Glastonbury legend – even to the shores of Britain; then in the east as far as India, St Thomas being the founder of the church which still bears the name of Mar Thoma.
Out of the many attributes – and indeed, gifts – of the Holy Spirit, I would like to home in on just one, namely, the Paraclete, a strange word of Greek origin, but so frequently applied to the Holy Spirit. It translates into English as ‘advocate’, ‘consoler’, ‘encourager’ – one who comes to your rescue, stands beside you and supports you when the going gets tough. ‘Comforter’ is another translation, but not as a kind of spiritual baby’s dummy or a ‘there, there, pat-on-the head, have a sweetie’. ‘Comforter’ derives from the Latin confortare, meaning ‘to strengthen’, which is also the root of fortitude, one of the Four Cardinal Virtues, and one of the Spirit’s gifts. So the Holy Spirit is the one who brings strength and courage in times of trouble. As the Bishop of Ebbsfleet explained in his homily at this year’s Chrism Mass, our faith is sometimes revealed in paradox, and he continued, ‘…we experience the Holy Spirit most deeply not in strength and achievement and being successful Christians, but in moments of loss, times when we feel vulnerable and out of our depth.’
This was my own experience some years ago when, for a variety of reasons – problems in the parish, concerns about wider issues in the Church, sickness and bereavement amongst people I cared about – I hit the rocks and found myself in a very dark place. The final straw was the sudden death of Bishop Michael Houghton, the second Bishop of Ebbsfleet, at the age of 49. He was of the saintliest people I have ever known, and had been in post for little more than a year. His funeral in Bristol cathedral took place on the penultimate day of that year – and indeed of the millennium. On a Sunday afternoon a few days later, the doorbell rang, and on answering, I found a woman whom I had never seen before, in a considerable state of distress. She told me that her husband had just died, and apart from the emotional turmoil she was in, she had no idea of how to set about the practicalities of registering a death, contacting undertakers, and arranging a funeral. So I invited her in and began to sort things out with her, then and over the days which followed. But – a funeral? That was just about the last thing, the very last thing that I felt like taking on. I had asked God for help, and he’d sent me a widow. But then, that was the answer, wasn’t it? Or at least part of the answer: ‘That’s the job I’ve given you to do; you received the grace of the Holy Spirit at your ordination – so get on with it. And isn’t that what Bishop Michael would have expected of you?’ So I got on with it, and, paradoxically, that was the start of my spiritual recovery to the point where I was able once again to trust my calling and was all the stronger for it. So Bishop Jonathan’s words at the Chrism Mass this year – which was all to do with the Holy Spirit’s presence with Christ and with us – had a particular resonance, when he said that ‘we need to trust the unshakable faithfulness of Christ and the strengthening power of the Spirit.’
The gifts which the Holy Spirit confers on us are many and various, as St Paul tells us in his first letter to the Christian community in Corinth. Varieties of gifts – and he attaches a long list – but all the work of the same Spirit, are ‘poured out’, he says, ‘for all of us to drink’. But they are not given for our own private self-indulgence, nor is the Church – in which these gifts are manifested – some kind of private members’ club just for the few. All of us are called in some way to engage in mission, for it is God’s will that all should have the chance of having their lives transformed, of being born again. So what about you and me and the task that we have in this particular corner of the Lord’s vineyard, and indeed in the wider world we inhabit out there Monday to Saturday? Remember that there’s no such thing as ‘Class A’ and ‘Class B’. We were all baptised in the same Spirit and we all receive the same spiritual sustenance in the mass. The ‘big issues’, or what we might think are the big issues, may well be beyond our control, but here, within the membership of this church, we have the God-given resources to carry out the tasks that he has given us right here; some of these may not have surfaced yet, but they are here waiting to be unlocked. Above all, we have the assured presence of Christ himself, as in this and in every mass he fulfils his commitment to us: ‘Lo, I am with you always – even to the end of time’.
Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church is governed and sanctified: hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people, that each in their vocation and ministry may serve you in holiness and truth to the glory of your Name: through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen
Fr Michael Fisher is a retired priest in the Diocese of Lichfield. This article formed part of a sermon preached at St Michael’s, Cross Heath on Pentecost 2017.