Sermon for Pentecost – St Peter’s Cathedral 4 June 2017

The Rev’d Canon Dr Matthew Anstey
Principal, St Barnabas College & Canon Theologian, Anglican Diocese of Adelaide
Senior Lecturer, CSU School of Theology


Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Three Persons of the Trinity.

The Book of Numbers, the Letter to the Corinthians, the Gospel of John – Today, like every Sunday, Three Readings.

And so, today, Three Reflections on the Holy Spirit. One reflection for each reading.

And just as the three members of the Trinity are woven together, drawing attention to one another, so the three reflections are woven together.

And an observation – each reflection is written quite differently.

The First Reflection: Numbers 11

Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:28–29)


“Stop them!” – Leaders, like Moses, are easily threatened by sources of activity and energy that are “outside the camp”, beyond their control, unauthorised, unpredictable. The temptation is to assert one’s authority, to be (seen to be) in charge, to ensure all things are in good and – we are ever so certain – godly order.

For surely good and godly order and keeping one’s finger on the pulse are important, surely outbreaks of activities without prior delegation reflect poorly on one’s leadership.

So understandably, Joshua ben Nun, Moses’ understudy, wasn’t going to let this happen to his boss! He urges Moses to clamp down on the rabble, those renegades. You can almost catch Joshua’s anxiety: “Who knows what they’ll be doing next Moses? You simply can’t let them get away with this! Stop them!!!!!”.

Thankfully, Moses had the wisdom, the humility, the courage, to discern that here, in this moment, on this periphery, was something not diabolical but of God; this was “innovation” and not “audit and risk”.

It takes wisdom to pick the difference between the disequilibrium that brings life and the chaos that brings distress.

It takes humility to pick the difference between insubordination and enthusiasm.

It takes courage to say No to those who are gunning for a show of strength.

And it takes a theologically dense understanding of the Spirit of God’s participation in all of human life to realise that “the face of God” – as the Spirit is sometimes depicted – appears wherever God wills; we (really) don’t know to whom The Gentle One has just appeared and we (really) don’t know who will be encountered next.

The Spirit of God is thus radically free: fundamentally, thoroughly, drastically free. Free to bring life, free to bless outsiders, free to touch lives, free even to bring the very disequilibrium at times we so deeply need, so that we might awaken into the contentment and shalom that only God can furnish.

And so: Amen.


The Second Reflection: 1 Corinthians

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. (1 Cor 13:4-6)

Because I proposed that we require “a theologically dense understanding of the Spirit of God’s participation in all of human life”, it would be remiss of me not to offer such.[i]

The Spirit is at once for many Christians the most mysterious and the most intimate reality. “God’s Spirit is seemingly part of everything, and yet we struggle to say anything about the Spirit with confidence”.[ii]

So then, how do we speak of the Spirit? Clearly, words fail us, yet to words we must turn.[iii]

Psalm 139:7 is an important starting point: “Where can I go from your Spirit? // And where can I flee from your face?”. The Spirit of God is then, in some crucial sense, “the face of God”.

The face, so central to our everyday experience, has a vast array of meanings:

  • Appearance – “her face was stunning”
  • Emotion and character – “his face fell”
  • Relationship – “they stood face to face”
  • Honour and shame – “she suffered a loss of face”

Emmanuel Levinas, the French Jewish philosopher, has thought deeply about the notion of “face”. For Levinas, the face is “disruptive”, because the West has consistently practiced a denial of the Other. Yet because faces are always particular, the face of the Other refutes our totatitarian tendences.

The face, in other words, holds an appeal to justice from which there is no escape, it confronts us with a responsibility.

Just think of some of the most famous photographs in history:

  • The face of nine-year-old Kim Phuc, face burned by Napalm in the Vietnam War
  • The face of three-year old Alan Kurdi, lying dead and face-down on the beach in Syria
  • The hooded face of Dylan Voller at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre

Levinas says we must keep such inmates of the human face always between ourselves and God, so that we can never approach the invisible God with first encountering the weight of our neighbour’s face.[iv]

And hence it the metaphor of the Spirit as “the face of God” that  theologians have seen as a way of describing how the Spirit is on the one hand everywhere, anywhere, universal, with us all, and yet on the other, particular, contextual, present.

“The Spirit who is universally poured out on all flesh is also the Spirit of this and that particular life” writes John Robinson.

The Spirit of God, says Colin Gunton, “is not a spirit of merging or assimilation – of homogenisation – but of relation in otherness, relation which does not subvert but establishes the other in its true reality”.[v]

Or, as Walter Kasper writes insightfully:

“The Spirit expresses the innermost nature of God – God as self-communicating love – in such a way that this innermost reality proves at the same time to be the outermost, that is, the possibility and reality of God’s being outside of [Godself]. The Spirit is as it were the ecstasy of God; God as pure abundance.”

And it is this remarkable, stunning combination of innermost and outermost, sameness and difference, universality and particularity that is captured by Paul in 1 Corinthians: there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.

And it is this remarkable, stunning exuberance of the Spirit, that surely Moses discerned “outside the camp”.

For herein lies a simple and yet a profound theological insight: God’s vast trinitarian life cannot be contained nor corralled nor conditioned, and yet, it is customised. The Spirit is without boundaries but also bespoke.

And so: Amen.



The Third Reflection: John 20

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week,… Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you…. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  (John 20:19-22)


If I could only take one book of the Bible with me to a desert island, it would be Genesis. If I could take two, I’d take Genesis and Genesis Mark II, that is, the Gospel of John.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…”

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…”

In our reading today, the story commences “It was evening on that day, the first day of the week…”

Can you see what is happening here? This is first day of the week, the week of recreation to match the week of creation.

And in case we don’t get it, John makes it bleedingly clear: Jesus breathed upon them and said “Receive the Holy Spirit”.

Jesus “breathed on them” (emphusaō). This word occurs only here in the NT. But it occurs six times in the Greek Old Testament.

Crucially, it occurs in Genesis 2:7, “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

It also occurs – and this gives me goose bumps – in Ezekiel 37:9, the valley of the dry bones, the great text on resurrection in the OT: “Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

  • Genesis – the story of Creation.
  • Ezekiel 37 – the vision of new creation.
  • John 20 – the inauguration of the new creation.

The same Spirit of God, weaving the same grand story.

Today, here, we celebrate Pentecost, the giving of the Spirit to the Church. The Spirit is breathed into us by Christ and here’s the thing: the Spirit, the face of God no less, incorporates your life

  • into the entire project of God’s creation,
  • into the entire creation of God’s world,
  • into the entire world of the unfathomable exuberance of God’s life.

Think about this:

** You and your very life,

the very particularity of your very particular life,

the actual DNA that makes you You,

the you that faces the world with your face and no other face **

You are woven into the very fabric of the life of the living God, when God breathes God’s Spirit upon you.

No matter how damaged, how broken, how lost you might be, the Spirit of God brings you fully into life in the face of Christ.[vi]

How astonishing that this is how things actually are.

And how impossible it is to find words adequate to correspond to this reality.

No wonder we turn to music, to silence, to friendship, to liturgy, to poetry.

Clearly, words fail us, yet with words we persist, with words we keep returning.

So let me conclude, then, with a poem I wrote once, as I searched for that which is beyond words. A poem about the Spirit of God, and prayer, and being broken.

I hope Moses would approve! It is called “Watch Me Fly!”

“Watch me fly!” (Isaiah 40:28-31)

if prayer were a white-winged bird, O Lord
I’d fly to where the world’s weary woes
clammer and clang no more

to where cruel voices can’t chant
their chorus of aches and pains and weatherbeaten bones

I’d fly wild down mountain slopes
darting through paddocks and river beds dry
fleeing fears and foes and fools
unhindered in silence pure, windswept in solitude’s glory

if prayer were a white-winged bird, O Lord
I’d fly to where warm winds and cottonwool clouds
whisper fine words of hope and wholeness
murmurings of peace, patiently waiting
rumours of white joy wrapped in roses

if prayer were a white-winged bird, O Lord
you’d have to watch me fly!
the front-row seats are all yours –
so catch me if you can, O white-winged Spirit of God.

And so: amen.



[i] If you think of the three major developments in the life of the worldwide church of the twentieth century, they are all tied to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit:

  • The ecumenical movement, arguably the greatest achievement of the church in the last 100 years, which arose in part from sustained reflection on 1 Cor 12:13 “For in the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body”
  • The pentecostal movement, without doubt the most significant expansion of the church in the last 100 years, which arose from a sustained commitment to the gifts of the Spirit as annunciated in 1 Cor 12: “To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge, to another faith, to another gifts of healing”
  • The liberation/feminist/ecotheology movements, without doubt the catalysts for the most far-reaching rethinking of Christian doctrine.[i]

So, as Karl Barth said in 1982, shortly before his death, our age requires turn to the theology of the Spirit.

[ii] Just think of the phrase “Holy Ghost”. Such a Spirit is an otherworldly phantom, faceless, lifeless, divorced from tangibile life, spooky and shadowy.

[iii] I draw heavily from  my good friend John Robinson’s unpublished phd thesis Facing the Spirit for the second reflection.

[iv] Yet the particularity of the face raises problems with our doctrine of the Spirit. The Spirit is everywhere, for everyone, it is universal. Some theologians have in fact argued the Spirit must be “faceless”, anonymous. Others have co-opted the Spirit for theological concerns – ecotheologians have said the Spirit is “the green face of God”. Several Feminist theologians have said the Spirit is the “feminine face of God”.

[v] Gunton, On the One, the Three and the Many, p. 182.

[vi] Think about Creation – the world was a formless void, yet the Spirit of God brought humankind to life.  Think about the Resurrection – Christ had died, yet the Spirit of God brought Christ back to life. Think about your life …