The Wild Goose Sermon


BpJohn (Frame)

Bishop John McIntyre, St Paul’s Cathedral, Sale, 8am Sunday 21st May 2006 (during Synod)

Opening Prayer

Gracious God, open us now to your Holy Spirit. Fill our minds; fill our whole lives, that we may hear you speaking to us. May we learn something more of you, something more of ourselves, something we can out into practice in our daily lives. We ask this is the name of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


The Celtic image for the Holy Spirit is the wild goose. It’s my favourite image of the Holy Spirit. A wild goose is a dangerous animal: some people even employ geese because they are better than watchdogs. Have you ever been bitten by a goose? They hurt. They are powerful birds.

And a wild goose is not an easy bird to control. In ancient Celtic spiritual tradition, ”Chasing the Wild Goose” was a symbol for seeking to go in the way the Spirit of God calls us to go, and I have a sense that the whole phrase about a “Wild Goose Chase” finds its origins somewhere in this kind of symbolism. We use it in a certain way in our daily day. Essentially, when you “chase a wild goose” you don’t really know where you are going to end up.

Moving with the Spirit of God can sometimes be like that, Jesus, in fact, used the image of the wind to make this same point. “The wind blows where it will: you do not know where it comes from, or where it is going.” There is a sense in which, when we are captivated by God, there is that dangerous element to it. There is that risk; there is that excitement; there is that thing that surges into us; there is that adrenalin burst, and there is that possibility that the goose might actually turn around and nip you, and that can hurt.

Certainly, the image of the wild goose as a symbol of the Holy Spirit leaves us in no doubt that we cannot domesticate the Spirit of God. I don’t know, if in Jesus’ day, or in ancient times, when the symbol for the Spirit was the dove or a pigeon, whether they were wild birds or not; but what I do know, in our day, is the pigeon is a very easily domesticated bird. And I think that rather unfortunate, when it is for us the symbol of the Spirit of God. The powerful Celtic symbol of the wild goose is something that draws me more strongly even than the image of the dove, whether or not it should, because of course, the dove is a Biblical image.

Do you see where I am headed? God is not to be domesticated. The great danger of organised religion is that we do domesticate God.

Peter is the one through whom a great moment takes place in the life of the early church, and indeed in the life of the whole story of the way in which the Spirit of God moves amongst the people of God for the sake of the world. In this great moment, when Peter goes to Cornelius, we see the Spirit of God come down upon Gentile people, non-Jewish people; people who up until that point in the minds of the people of God, were people that the Spirit of God should really have little or nothing to do with. This was because, unfortunately, the people of God were prone to domesticating the Spirit of God.

But through Peter and the vision he is given the ancient traditions of his religious understanding about food laws were put aside. You remember the vision: the sheet comes down from heaven with all those animal within that were forbidden for Jewish people to eat, and Peter is told to kill and eat. He says “Never!” Three times he says “Never will I do that!”

The religious tradition by which he was nurtured in faith actually prevented him from doing that, and yet somehow the Spirit of God now does the unthinkable and suggests to him that he needs to break beyond that attempt, even by good things; by good spiritual tradition; by good religious tradition, to domesticate the Spirit of God.

The religious tradition by which he was nurtured in faith actually prevented him from doing that, and yet somehow the Spirit of God now does the unthinkable. The Spirit of God descends upon these pagans, these Gentiles, these people outside the blessing!  ….. And the realisation comes; he can do no other than baptise them.

So he is taken, kicking and screaming a little, into a whole new dimension of the understanding of the way in which God is at work in and through the people of God, by the power of God’s Spirit that will not be domesticated.

I like Peter. Sometimes I wonder whether Peter sits up in heaven and watches us all reading the stories about him and cringes a little bit. You know what he’s like in the Gospels. At one moment Jesus is saying, “Blessed are you, Simon, flesh and blood has not revealed this to you”. Yet almost in the very next breath, Jesus says to him, “Get behind me, Satan”. There is Jesus: we see him absolutely resolute in his determination to go to Jerusalem. And there is Peter; this figure that leaps up and down around him. He is all enthusiasm: sometimes he gets it so right and yet sometimes he gets it so wrong.

Then we get into the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, which some, I think quite rightly, have rather called the Acts of the Holy Spirit. That’s certainly the impression you get in the beginning of the book, isn’t it? The Holy Spirit is going everywhere, not to be domesticated, and the Apostles are running round and round in circles, wondering how to keep up. It’s all breaking out around them and it’s far more than they can handle. The Apostles seem to be all over the place, and the Spirit certainly seems to be taking them on a wild goose chase. It’s all a rather wonderful story. And there’s Peter again. He’s starting to come good by the time we get to the Acts of the Apostles. He is starting to stand up, and now I can imagine him sitting up there in heaven, thinking “they’re getting a better image of me here”.

But then, Paul gave up again didn’t he?  When he wrote the Letter to the Galatians, Paul gives Peter up. You see, Peter was the one through whom the first gospel goes beyond the bounds of the religious traditions, in which those early Jewish Christians were still living, and out of which they had to be broken, and takes the gospel to the Gentiles. He was the first one through whom this happened. He even stood up in what we call “The Council of Jerusalem” and advocated for Paul to go to the Gentiles. So, he’s starting to look better.

But then, Paul gave him up, because there is another time when Peter goes back. He retreats back into the old traditions, and as Paul points out, refuses to eat with Gentiles when other Jewish Christians come into the situation.

So, Peter is an interesting character. I am actually encouraged by him. I have to say that. People around him appear to be very resolute and he seems to be up and down all over the place. Certainly Paul seems resolutely resolved: he sets his face towards Rome in the way that Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem, and nothing seems to thwart him from that.   Though, again, if you read into some of Paul’s Epistles, don’t you see that kind of angst that exists within this man? There  is a resolve there; and yet he is still very human isn’t he? And certainly Peter is very human. This I find a great encouragement.

As I think, particularly of you members of Synod over the last few days, and of all of us, some of the things we have been highlighting are things prone to threaten us. The challenge of being the church in the modern world is the challenge to break out of the ways where we are sometimes tied down by the traditional way of doing things. Not to disparage those traditions, for in and of themselves they are good; but to say “Let us not thereby domesticate God”.

Now this is dangerous stuff. Is the Spirit calling us out right now to do something significantly different? To take risks? I believe so. That’s a hard word to hear in many ways, and to pick up what Archdeacon Phillip said last night, is the Anglican Church at this point in its history, being pruned back? The image of the vine keeper pruning back the vine is a painful image. The process of being pruned back is not comfortable. But it is done so we might come through to a new place where new fruit is born. Are we there? That is a hard place to be.

We can feel very inadequate and perhaps threatened by that. That is a great danger; the sense of risk can become too much; the sense of challenge can become a bit overwhelming. In a moment like this we might actually withdraw back into that domesticated version of what it means to be Christian and lose the call of the Spirit to go out and chase the wild goose.

So Peter’s bumbling efforts, sometimes getting it right, sometimes getting it wrong, encourage me. I will be quite frank with you; that’s sometimes how I feel. I have a picture of myself as a thirteen year old boy, sitting with my father at a Father and son event; you know, one of those “bloke events”; really good. The school organised it, and they are a good idea. There’s my father sitting there; there are a few of the other boys looking pretty confident, sitting next to their dads. The look on my face is, “I don’t want to be here”; “I don’t know what’s going on”; it’s the look of an overwhelmed child.

Sometimes that picture sits with me a lot; it comes back into my mind. It’s very vivid in my mind, because not only did I look like that in the photograph; I know that’s how it was. To use the image of a goose, I was the sort of person who would not say “Boo” to a goose, without a doubt. It was through the urging love of the Spirit of God through the love of those around me that bewildered, overwhelmed child that can still be in me even now, believe you me, was somehow nurtured into a situation where risks for God began to be taken.

Sometimes a little bit of prodding had to happen, I have to tell you. Some of the people who loved me and knew me, and perhaps felt that I might have something under God to offer, knew that I would not do that in my own right because of the sort of person I was. So they prodded, pushed and put me into situations that I did not want to be in, in order to enable me to discover the risks that can be taken, and the wonder of what God can do if in our own bumbling ways, and sometimes overwhelmed sense of whether or not we can do it, we actually go out there in the name of Jesus and in the power of the Spirit and move beyond the domestication and the comfort of that to that wild place where we can so impact the world for God, that God’s kingdom of beauty and peace and harmony begins to emerge in the life of the world in which we find ourselves.

You may feel a bit overwhelmed by that demand. I know I certainly do, but the beauty of the wild goose, that sometimes yes, will turn around and nip and take us to places that we could never have imagined we could have gone to is, as Peter discovered, also a reality that is an embracing love. It is an embracing love that encourages, yes pushes and prods sometimes, but builds up in every moment, such that even the most overwhelmed child, who feels that they have nothing to offer, and who lives in many of us, I know, and still lives in me, in knowing I am loved can do great things. In and through all of this the Spirit of God is released in the life of the world.

So, for you members of Synod, I hope the message of this Synod has been a challenge; a challenge to break out and to be there for the world, and to recognise God may be pruning us back and it’s rather hard, and that we are being asked to go to places where sometimes undoubtedly we will feel uncomfortable; that we are being asked not to domesticate God by our religion, not to domesticate the Spirit, but to allow the wild spirit to break free and to take  us to places we know not where, for the sake of God and for the sake of the world, and ultimately for our own sake.

If that is the message we are hearing and we are somewhat overwhelmed by it, hear also the message we see in the life of Peter, the bumbling fool, or the message we see in the angst of Paul, who sometimes seems so uncertain and yet at other times so resolute. Hear too that we are embraced by a powerful and loving God. And while this God may push and prod and sometimes want to make us break out, this God loves us with an incredible passion; a  compassion that is so concerned for our well being that in the warmth of that, surely we can take up any challenge that God lays before us.

Let us dare to chase the wild goose!