It is a great pleasure for me to be back here in Bathgate as I near the end of the first stage of my education for ministry. This church will always be a special place for me. It was here that I began to get some idea of what it is to preach God’s Word, to hear and respond to the Spirit’s prompting; it was standing in this pulpit that I started to learn and much of that learning was from you.
My affection for this place and for this congregation comes partly from gratitude, then. You made me welcome, you encouraged and supported me, you made me feel safe enough to experiment and to say what I really felt and thought and I thank you all for that. But this is only part of it.
Another part, and this is what I really want to speak about today, is what I saw and experienced here of the life of the church. In thinking about our Scripture readings today I have had in my mind elders’ meetings I attended here, meetings in which I felt the touch of the Spirit, in which I saw God at work, in ways quieter and less dramatic than the tongues of fire and the strange languages of Acts but, to me, no less real.
I remember the meetings at which your elders discussed the proposal for John’s time to be divided between this church and that in Avonbridge and the meeting at which they looked at a request from the local Baptists to use your hall for worship. In each case the response was one in which a real and immediate generosity was shown. The thought, shared by all, was how best the resources of this community could be put to work to help another worshipping community. There was real joy at having the opportunity to help, to share what you have with other Christians.
This may seem undramatic and unremarkable when compared with what we have heard in the Scriptures. No-one prophesied like the elders in the camp. No flicker of fire was to be seen. No wind blew, no unknown languages were spoken and I did not for a moment suspect your elders of drunkenness. Instead there was a discussion of how to manage John’s time and expenses. There was talk about the heating of the hall and the provision of storage space. And I felt the Spirit of God at work.
The Spirit is often associated with prophecy and other special gifts, like speaking in tongues or healing, with ecstatic states and dramatic signs of God’s presence. But in the Reformed tradition there is another very strong tradition of thinking about the place of the Spirit in the life of the Church. In writing about Scripture John Calvin says “we have no great certainty of the word itself, unless it be confirmed by the testimony of the Spirit … our minds are duly imbued with reverence for the word when the Spirit shining upon it enables us there to behold the face of God;”
the Spirit shining upon it enables us there to behold the face of God.
Here we have a rather different vision of the Spirit’s work. It doesn’t cause things to happen that are outside the normal run of human life. Instead Calvin sees the Spirit at work in the devoted attention to Scripture that sees in it the face of God, that hears God’s voice in the words that are read or heard. This is a quiet but still powerful Spirit, touching our souls through the Bible, allowing us to see God revealed there.
At about the same time that Calvin was working out the ways in which the Spirit can teach us through the Word, freeing Christian devotion from dependence on the authority of the Church a very different Christian was also exploring the how the Spirit works in our lives. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order wrote a work called simply “The Spiritual Exercises”. This is a manual or guidebook for a disciplined and supervised series of prayer exercises designed to be undertaken over a full month of full time retreat.
I undertook them over a year. First I went away for a week during which I prayer for five hours a day, had a daily meeting with my director and otherwise spent my time in silence, then I prayed for an hour five days a week for a period of nine months with weekly meetings to discuss progress and receive guidance. What I came to understand is that these exercises are intended to enable one to be attentive to the promptings of the Spirit, to develop what is called discernment, which means to be able to identify what in one’s life comes from God as a call or prompt.
This experience has made a deep mark on me. It has given me a new openness to the presence of the Spirit, sent by Christ to sustain and lead us, to show us the truth. The Spirit is always at hand, ready to show us what God wants from us and to reassure us of God’s love and care. We can hear and feel the Spirit without knowing that this is what is happening and we can nurture in ourselves an openness and an attentiveness to the Spirit. The more we study and love God’s Word the more easily the Spirit can reach us.
I have found this to be a place and a community where the Spirit can find a ready welcome. Value that, brothers and sisters, and carry on with your generous sharing of the gifts the Spirit gives you. Have confidence in yourselves and above all in God, believe that Jesus has sent the Counsellor to join us to him and to show us the way and go on putting yourselves at his disposal, to do his work and to witness to his love.
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,