“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (Lk. 4:18).
Years ago I had a clergy colleague who told me that there was no need for him to renew his vows because he had never broken them. (Certainly a new perspective on the renewal of ordination vows, that might send us heading for the door!) If you knew the man you’d know that there was a fair chance that he was telling the truth, at least in a technical sense: he’d never abandoned his calling, or been guilty of “conduct unbecoming the ministry.”
Still, who has not felt faint of heart in the face of the enormous responsibilities of pastoral ministry; who has not wanted to head in the other direction when confronted by the demands of “holy order”? These too are forms of breakdown. Pastoral work is demanding, no more so than at times of crisis in the community, as we have experienced in the last week. We are all more or less inadequate to the tasks that we have undertaken as ordained persons, more or less up to the mark, and no more conscious of it than at times like these. Yet in one perspective we ourselves are the “earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7) that St. Paul talks about: the fragile containers that witness to the truth that the transcendent power is God’s.
However that may be, I think my friend was not giving sufficient weight to another reason for renewing our vows, and that is the importance of remembering and recalling. This is something that all of us do as baptized persons each time we renew our baptismal vows. We remember who’s we are, and the call that has been addressed to each of us. We, like the members of the Ephesian Church in the Revelation of John, are recalled to “the love we had at first” (Rev. 2:4). Like the renewal of baptismal vows, we remember here today the vows that we have taken for the particular ministries we have accepted, as bishop, priests, and deacons.
In our Gospel this morning, Jesus reads the words of the prophet Isaiah and then applies them to himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me… Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk. 4:18, 21). St. Luke’s Gospel foregrounds the Holy Spirit, active and powerful in the ministry of Jesus Christ. The moment in the synagogue when Jesus reads from the prophet has been prepared for by the Spirit that overshadows Mary at the Annunciation. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Lk. 1:35). At his baptism, the Holy Spirit comes upon him in bodily form like a dove, as it says in Luke’s Gospel.
The work of the Holy Spirit, however, does not begin with Jesus. At the beginning of creation, the Spirit moves across the face of the deep, as a wind from God, stirring things up and getting things going. Spirit is breath or wind, the same word serving for both in both Hebrew and Greek. Life, in other words, begins with the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and giver of life,” as we say in the Creed. At the Red Sea, it is a wind from God again that determines the course of history, as the waters recede and the People head out of slavery in Egypt and into freedom in the promised land.
The Holy Spirit continues “to blow where it wills” (Jo. 3:8), stirring things up in the life of the world and the Church today. As St. Luke underscores in the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit continues to be powerfully present in the work of the Church as it goes forward. This includes us. The chrism that we consecrate this morning recalls the Holy Spirit that is at work in the water of Holy Baptism, giving us our fundamental identity as Christians, and setting the stage for the ministries that all of us are called to. Again, as Jesus says in our Gospel, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me… Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk. 4:18, 21).
But of course, the Spirit’s work is not confined to the Church. Part of our vocation as Christians and as leaders in the Church is to discern what God the Holy Spirit is doing in the world and then to respond. God is at work in the events of the past week: what are we making of them? This work requires reflection and not reaction, as we ponder in our hearts what these things might mean. The work of reflection prepares the way for the move into action. The work of discernment itself is also the work of the Holy Spirit, requiring wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord: the seven-fold gifts of the Spirit.
These are challenging days for the Church, on multiple fronts. This week we and our congregations will engage once again the mighty acts of God by which the salvation of the world was won. May the Gospel promise of new life through Jesus’ death and resurrection ring out once more! May the Holy Spirit continue to work within us, encouraging us and inspiring us for the work that lies ahead.