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Preaching: where the Spirit leads

11 March 2016

by the Revd Dr Melanie Marshall


Bright wings: Holy Spirit mosaic, Vienna, Austria

Bright wings: Holy Spirit mosaic, Vienna, Austria

THE Holy Spirit is arguably the most concrete Person of the Trinity — present to us right now, in tangible, audible, physical forms: a piece of bread, hands raised in prayer, the faces of the saints. Our lived experience is charged with the Spirit, and as preachers we can draw that out.

We can begin with the fact that the congregation has turned up at all. Whether we gather for worship songs or a high mass, the Spirit is the heart of our impulse to worship. One avenue for the preacher is to encourage reflection on that gift. It is not only the parents of small children whose attention wavers in church. And yet the spark of desire for God is there. If we name it and hallow it as God (God the Spirit, who prays in us), we help it grow.

The Spirit’s job is to get inside us, and change us. It does this through word, and sacrament, and other people. It’s the answer to some of the preacher’s biggest questions: What does it mean to say that God’s word is lively? That in the sacraments something actually happens? That we are transformed by these encounters, even when we don’t feel it, or perhaps want it?

It is not easy to preach about being radically receptive. We resist awareness of our vulnerability. So we can draw analogies — from illness, sadness, sex. The moments when we let ourselves be served are a way in for the Spirit.


THE Spirit has a face, and it is the communion of saints. So we should be telling the stories of Christians living out their baptism searchingly, courageously, hilariously. Paint pictures of holy lives. Their variety encourages us to be ourselves, as diverse as we are. Their beauty speaks for itself.

And, if we would be saints ourselves, we must be open to the Spirit as it grows its fruits in us (Galatians 5.22-23). The fruits make wonderful preaching and teaching tools for all sorts of occasions. Which do we have in abundance? Which would we like more of? Who do we know who is gentle, self-controlled, joyful? And what could we learn from their words and actions? Holiness, after all, is a practical matter.

The Spirit of truth is also the comforter, and true comfort is a provocative subject. The Spirit cries out against comforting lies, easy promises, cheap grace, and so should we. The Spirit gives discernment and wisdom, and a truth that is hard for the world to hear — illustrations abound. But we can promise that the Spirit is trustworthy, precisely because it does not dance to our tune.

The Spirit blows where it wills. We accept that the Christian life will not always take us where we expect, or hope, or want. We have to follow — to be led into all truth. We should be clear, when we preach, that we will not always like the journey the Spirit takes us on. But then, there is no other journey.


The Revd Dr Melanie Marshall is the Chaplain of Lincoln College, Oxford.

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