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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr David's Sermon

8th June 2003

Fr David Shepherd

Whit Sunday

The Spirit of Life

O Holy Ghost
    giver of light and life;
Impart to us thoughts higher than our own thoughts,
    and prayers better than our own prayers,
    and powers beyond our own powers;
that we may spend and be spent
    in the ways of love and goodness,
after the perfect image
    of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Eric Milner-White 1884-1963

When I was at theological college in Lincoln each ordinand in turn officiated for a week at the daily offices in the college chapel, in front of very critical peers. A daunting week came to an end with the student leading the prayers at Evensong in the Minster. Beforehand the prayers had to be submitted to a canon for approval. You had to go in person to a fine canonry, stepping back into the rather donnish atmosphere of the C19th. The aim was to produce better prayers.

Eric Milner-White who prayed for the gift of better prayers had the gift of writing better prayers than most. His prayers were widely used in Anglican worship, after the third collect at Evensong. If you don't know of him you will certainly know of his enduring legacy to the World, the Christmas Eve service of Nine Lessons and Carols that he introduced as Dean of King's College Cambridge, in 1919.

His prayers come out of his own life of meditation and reflection and thus take us into the heart of God. The one I have just read helps us be more receptive to the 'Spirit of Life' whose great feast we celebrate on this Whit Sunday, the Day of Pentecost.

The prayer begins by invoking God who is Holy and Spirit (Ghost in Old English). That suggests that God is other, not at all like us. If that were the whole picture we would have problems. God would be unknowable; we would not know what he was like. As the conclusion of the prayer reminds us he is knowable and we do know what he is like because Jesus Christ is his perfect image. It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to know God because as God's Spirit he is the giver of light and life. Light dispels the darkness. We can see God with the inner eyes of faith. By his Spirit (in the OT 'breath') God gives us life and makes us spiritually alive so that we can share in his life to the full.

As we read the prayer we are taken out of ourselves, uplifted into the presence of God. There is a 'soaring' quality about it. In the Christian faith there is always more, such is the nature of the divine economy. We ask the Holy Spirit to impart to us thoughts higher than our thoughts, prayers better than our own prayers, powers beyond our own powers. When we think we have arrived then we are in danger. There is always more to learn about God and his creation, new things to discover. Prayer is one of the ways in which we do this. As Paul wrote to the Romans, the Holy Spirit teaches us to pray and prays (intercedes) for us with 'sighs too deep for words'.

Weakness is another difficulty. Our humanity is limited, subject to decline and decay. 'The Spirit helps us in our weakness'. He is God's power in our lives enabling us to live out our vocation and discipleship.

If the first part of Milner-White's prayer is essentially devotional, taking us up into the splendour of God and enthusing our worship, then the second points us in the direction of our Christian service of others. The Holy Spirit, God's power in our lives, makes the Christian life possible, making strength of our very weakness. On the day of Pentecost the disciples were changed from a huddle of frightened people into a dynamic young church as the Holy Spirit came upon them in a rushing wind and with tongues of fire.

To live that life is to spend and be spent in ways of love and goodness. Remember the comparison of the Christian with the candle that can only give light by burning itself up. All this is after the example of Jesus who emptied himself for us on the cross, giving his life so that can receive life in all its fullness. By the grace of the Holy Spirit we are to become Christ like.

On this feast day of the Holy Spirit we can make Eric Milner-White's beautiful prayer our own. We can begin by asking the Holy Spirit to teach us to pray and to be open to his promptings. As we do so we will be drawn into the heart of God who is love and equipped and renewed in our Christian ministry of loving discipleship after the example of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.


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Last updated 08/06/2003 07:00 Author: Fr David Shepherd