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Charles Wesley’s insight into Spirit-filled life

06 June 2014

For Whitsun, David Bryant reflects on the theology of the hymn 'O thou, who camest from above'


THE Pentecost story explodes into high drama. A ferocious gale threatens to blow apart the upper room. Mysterious, incandescent haloes of fire dance on the disciples' heads, and in a flash they become multi-lingual. Not surprisingly, accusations of drunkenness are thrown around. You could not ask for a more boisterous, action-filled account of the Early Church getting off the ground.

This outpouring is a follow-up to something even more thought provoking. Turn to the first verse of the Bible, and there it is. "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters."

Familiarity can easily blunt us to the mind-blowing significance of this. Not only do we live in a Spirit-filled universe, we have done so from the word go. In contemporary terms, it is like saying that the Big Bang was not just a cosmic event of astronomical proportions; it was embedded with the seeds of the divine from the moment of its inception.

If ever there was good news, this is it. Contrary to appearances the world is not doomed, dark, desolate, and forsaken, but enmeshed with God's glory. What this means for the Christian pilgrim is made explicit in Charles Wesley's theologically acute hymn "O thou, who camest from above".

The Holy Spirit comes, "the pure celestial fire to impart", kindling a flame of sacred love on every heart. The choice is stark: we can take it on board, and cherish it so that it burns "with inextinguishable blaze"; or we can bury it, and smother the blessing with a dark veneer of greed, cruelty, egocentricity, and wrongdoing. The pith of this is that nobody is totally beyond the pale; for though the flame of the Spirit canbe stifled, and human behaviour is sometimes utterly destructive, the rekindling of the fire is always a possibility.

The Christian pilgrimage is not made in loneliness or aloneness, the hymn-writer says. Our relationship with God is reciprocal: he fires us with the Holy Spirit, and we have the capacity to respond, allowingthe innate warmth and love to flow back, trembling, to its source.

This enshrines the very heart of prayer. It is a continuous interplay between our humanity and the being of God, a great rush of swirling Pentecostal fire emanating from the Holy One being met by a tiny, often somewhat ineffectual, and yet heartfelt response from us.

This spoken or unspoken dialogue between the worshipper and God brings fruit. "Jesus, confirm my heart's desire To work and speak and think for thee." The 13th-century Cistercian and mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg describes this spiritual see-saw vividly. "The Holy Spirit is our harpist, And all the strings which are touched in Love must sound."

This is at once both a tremendous challenge and a fearful responsibil­ity. The onus lies uncompromisingly on our shoulders. We can drift through life ignoring or shunning the Spirit, or we can allow it to transform our nature, constantly guarding the flame against the world's darkness that threatens to extinguish it. 

It is a lifelong process, Charles Wesley says, till "death thy endless mercies Seal and make the sacrifice complete".

Mechthild expresses this theo­logical mystery in mellifluous verse:

Lie down in the Fire
See and taste the Flowing
Godhead through thy being:
Feel the Holy Spirit
Moving and compelling
Thee within the Flowing
Fire and Light of God.

St Paul is more terse and down to earth. "Quench not the spirit," he enjoins the Thessalonian Christians. Both are right. It is the most pre­cious gift that we possess.

The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in Yorkshire.

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