The Stream, the Lake and the River

Acts 2.1–21; John 7.37–39
a sermon at the Eucharist on the Feast of Pentecost, 11 May 2008

by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright

‘There was not yet Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.’ Those words, flattened out somewhat in most translations, conclude the powerful little gospel reading we have just heard. It’s very stark and even perhaps shocking. John doesn’t write ‘the Spirit was not yet given’, or ‘the Spirit was not yet poured out upon them,’ but simply, ‘the Spirit was not yet’, or ‘there was not yet Spirit’. And this sets up at least a double tension. There is a tension between this bald statement and what we find elsewhere in John’s gospel, that the Spirit is already at work in and through Jesus. And there is a tension within the little reading itself, because John is explaining what Jesus meant when he shouted out, at the climax of the Feast of Tabernacles, ‘If anybody is thirsty, they should come to me and drink!’ – and when he promises that out of the believer’s heart will flow rivers of living water. Why make the promise if it’s not yet available? Would you say to someone ‘come here and I’ve got a wonderful present to give you’ if in fact it hasn’t yet arrived from the mail order company?

The answer to both these puzzles comes, of course, in the massive and multiple tension which is set up by the incarnation of Jesus himself. He was in the world; the world was made through him; but the world didn’t know him. He came to his own, and his own didn’t receive him. And now: he is promising the Spirit, the rivers of living water; but even those who believe in him can’t yet receive this gift. Why not? John explains with another ‘not yet’: because Jesus was not yet glorified. And we, who today celebrate the feast of Pentecost as something which has now fully arrived – interesting, that at the start of Acts 2 Luke insists that the day of Pentecost had fully come, which seems to mean that it was a day of long-awaited fulfilment – we need to begin by reminding ourselves of the prior condition. Why couldn’t the Spirit be given because Jesus was not yet glorified? What is this ‘glorification’, and why does it become the signal, the trigger, for the release of the Spirit who is, to that point, apparently waiting in the wings but not yet allowed on stage?

The answer shows how totally the meaning of Pentecost is dependent on the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Throughout John’s gospel there is a build-up towards the ‘glorification’, the ‘lifting up’, of Jesus – which turns out to be, with heavy paradox, the crucifixion of Jesus seen as the moment when his glory is fully and finally revealed, when the love of God which was always at work in him shines out most fully. And that love, as we discover again throughout John’s gospel, is a cleansing, restoring love, which takes people as we are, muddled, sinful, fearful, polluted, turned in on ourselves, anxious, depressed, rebellious, angry, frustrated – oh, there are portraits of all of us in that wonderful gospel – and pours out God’s rich, forgiving, healing life. And it all happens because of the kingdom-work of Jesus, which leads him to the cross where he is lifted up to draw all people to himself. The love of God was fully revealed in the lamb of God so that the life of God might flow into the people of God. (A pity not to keep the alliteration, but the last one works in Greek, where it would be the laos of God.)

You see, you don’t put a wonderful liquid into a dirty vessel. I remember many years ago one occasion when Maggie and I invited some guests round and, unusually for us then in our student poverty, bought some nice wine to go with the meal. In our busy preparations, with little children to put to bed as well as a meal to cook, I forgot to get out the wine glasses, and then, with the guests already seated, realised, went to the cupboard, grabbed them, put them on the table without a second thought, and poured out the wine. It was only when I took a sip of mine that I realised something was very wrong. It was an old house, and we weren’t the only inhabitants. One of the smaller, eight-legged inhabitants had done what spiders do best, right there in the wine-glass. It’s the only time in my life I’ve drunk part of a cobweb, and I don’t recommend it. I remember looking around the table in horror to see if anyone else was having the same interesting experience. The fact that at that point my memory cuts out completely tells me that the whole situation was too embarrassing for the internal movie to continue.

First you cleanse the vessel; then you pour the wine. Jesus’ whole work, of word and deed, of death and new life, was aimed at making his people clean, clean through and through, sparkling and fresh and ready to be filled. That work was already going on in his ministry, and was completed in his glorification on the cross. And the work of the cross was not undertaken simply so that we could be forgiven from our sins, though God knows that has to happen. Our lives are so full of spider’s webs, dusty and tangled and dirty with dead flies, that to ask for God’s Spirit to be poured out within us in that state is to ask God to perform a nonsense. The work of the cross was accomplished not just to bring us back from a massive moral overdraft to point zero, no debts but no credits either. Jesus died on the cross so that, by cleansing us from top to bottom, he might make us fit and ready to receive his own life, the pure, fine, sparkling wine of his powerful love, poured out at last into a vessel made fit to receive it. The Spirit was not yet, because Jesus was not yet glorified, but now, with Good Friday and Easter behind us but with their effects powerfully present within and around us, we celebrate the pouring out of that new wine into vessels that are ready and waiting for it.

Change the image. John’s gospel is, at one level, all about the Temple. And one of the key tasks which the long-awaited Messiah was supposed to perform was to cleanse the Temple so that Israel’s God, who had abandoned the Temple at the time of the Exile, might at last return and dwell there for ever. But with Jesus there comes a dramatic twist in the plot. No longer are we talking about the physical Temple. Jesus goes there again and again and each time he causes trouble by doing and saying things which imply that the old Temple in Jerusalem is just a signpost to something else, to a greater reality, to God’s desire to live not just in a building of bricks and mortar but in the hearts and lives of living human beings. Jesus himself is the true Temple, but this is so that Jesus’ followers in turn may be cleansed to be extensions of that Temple. Imagine a sequence of three Russian dolls, sitting silently on a shelf. Nobody realises that the one at the very heart is actually alive. One day, at the centre of the stack, she begins to look around herself. She calls to the doll who surrounds her, and she comes to life. Then that one, looking around her, calls to the largest one, and she comes to life too. So it is with Jesus. He is the true Temple, at the very centre of Israel, of creation, of the entire story of the human race. He calls to his followers, who have no life in themselves, and they come to life with him, with his life inside them. But it doesn’t stop there. They now have to call to the wider world, the world which needs to know the new life which is already present at its heart. The Temple in Jerusalem was a signpost to Jesus as the true Temple; but Jesus then calls his followers to become Temples themselves, cleansed and made fit for his life to flood through them. And the point of that, in turn, is that we are filled with the Spirit not for our own sakes but for the sake of Jesus’ mission in the wider world.

High up in the Northumberland hills is a wonderful lake which some of you will know. Actually, I remember the time before that lake existed. It’s in Kielder Forest, and Kielder used to be a little village, near the end of the road up from Bellingham. But then they built the dam, and the streams from the southern Cheviots began to collect, and the old village, whose inhabitants had been moved out to Hexham and Rothbury and places like that, began to fill up with water. And now there is a magnificent lake, Kielder Water, and it’s a splendid country attraction, with walks and wildlife and boating and fun for all the family. And if you didn’t know, you might suppose that all the effort had gone into it simply for the purpose of creating a tourist attraction up there in the back of beyond. But of course that wasn’t the point of it at all. The boating and wildlife and all the other features of Kielder Water are simply a spin-off from the main reason, the hard-headed reason, why they went to such trouble to move people out and flood the place with water. They were collecting water that would otherwise have gone down into the North Tyne valley so that it could go somewhere else instead: to the massive industrial complex on Teesside, which wasn’t apparently getting enough water from the North York Moors and so needed help from its northern cousins. The lake is created not because of the fun you can have sailing on it but so that water can flow out from it to the people who need it most.

Listen again to what Jesus says in that gospel reading. ‘If anyone is thirsty, let them come to me and drink!’ Yes, we think, we are thirsty, our lives and hearts are dusty and gritty and we badly need that living water. But so many Christians in the last generation have supposed that the Spirit is given so that, in being filled with it, we may become a beautiful lake, a fine sight, a holy people, enjoying the presence of God. I’ve just been sent a book which proclaims that the whole point of scripture, the whole point of God’s purposes in Jesus Christ, is so that we can be ‘with God’, and learn what that means. Now that’s fine as far as it goes. But, glancing through the book, it seems to me to end up with that picture of the lake, beautiful and glistening but essentially static and in danger of becoming stagnant. Because the point of the lake is not that it’s there for its own sake but so that water can flow out of it. Listen to how Jesus goes on. ‘The one who believes in me, as the Scripture says, out of that person’s heart will flow rivers of living water.’ Out of that person’s heart! We thought he was going to say ‘into that person’s heart’! And, yes, the heart is indeed cleansed so that the waters can flow in! But the whole point of the exercise is that the waters, having been collected in the lake, can then flow out, downstream, to where they are needed the most. If Jesus is the living Temple, calling us to become Temples of the Spirit, and cleansing us so we are able to receive the Spirit, the point is that he wants, through us, to flood the whole world with his love and power and glory. ‘The earth shall be filled with the knowledge and the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.’ That is the promise; and the call to you and to me is not to be a stagnant lake, however beautiful, but to be the place where the Spirit which fills will then flow out to the world around.

The feast of Pentecost is therefore a time, not only of celebration, but of vocation. The scripture which Jesus refers to is almost certainly the promise in the final chapters of Ezekiel that the renewed Temple will be a place from which a great river flows out to irrigate the surrounding countryside. That is how it reappears in the majestic scene of the last chapters of Revelation, where the river of the water of life flows out of the new Jerusalem into the surrounding country, with the Tree of Life growing on both banks, and the leaves of the tree being for the healing of the nations. My friends, as we make our way into this already troubled century, and as God’s church makes its way, stumbling and uncertain as it often seems, into the new tasks of work and witness that lie before it, let today be a day of fresh calling to each of us: calling to open our hearts and lives to the cleansing of Jesus, yes; calling to receive the fresh water of life for ourselves, yes; but calling, above all, to be people out of whose hearts will flow rivers of living water, in love and prayer and service and witness, in digging wells in Africa and teaching Sunday School in Sunderland, in working with the dying and the newborn, with the homeless and the heartsick, with those who weep and those who laugh, with those who make a lot of money and those who have less than none. The Spirit of God longs to fill the whole earth with God’s glory, and our worship here today is supposed to be a sign and a foretaste and a means towards that end, as we celebrate the glory of Jesus and share in his Spirit and are thereby equipped to pour out, ourselves, from our own hearts, those rivers of living water to a world – God’s good world – which is once again in danger of dying of thirst.

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