I am tired of a spiritually atrophied Unitarian United Methodism which acts as if the Holy Spirit is not real.
This past Sunday, I had the privilege of preaching at First United Methodist Church in Grapevine. With their Sr. Pastor out recovering from surgery, the Associate Pastors and worship staff at the church asked me to preach on the Pentecost experience. (It was, after all, Pentecost Sunday.) Soaking in the marvelous opening verses of Acts 2, the power of the Pentecost story in the pouring out by God of the Holy Spirit, slammed into me afresh.
Jesus had made a promise. It is recorded in John chapter 14.
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, [helper] to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”
At Pentecost that promise became reality. It is still true for today.
In order to faithfully exegete a Bible passage during a single sermon, we preachers focus on one segment or section of Scripture. This is understandable, and often necessary, but runs the risk of losing the full depth of a Bible teaching. I invite the reader to walk with me to the edge where the mists of time swirl like tendrils of fog at our feet. Now risk leaning far over and peering down the ancient chasm that makes the story of the Holy Spirit’s descent in Acts 2.
The Pentecostal Experience
It had been a tumultuous, wild, stunning beyond belief number of weeks. The disciples had lived through the brutal Roman execution of their beloved Lord and liberator and experienced the soul crushing defeat of death. Then, in a still hard to believe whiplash of righteous joy, they had encountered their leader - risen from the dead. Stirred liberally with overwhelming ecstasy, heartrending confession, and mind-bending insight, they had experienced his further teaching and been given their marching instructions. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Absolutely thunderstruck, they watch him ascend in a cloud and then had been addressed by two men in white robes (angels some thought) who promised his return at some unknown date.
Pentecost day is a day that the church has long called holy and for centuries has regarded as second in importance only behind Easter – even ahead of Christmas. What takes place in the second half of Acts 1 is significantly import in understanding Pentecost. With the Lord’s ascension, the first Christ-followers had gathered and spent time in deep prayer. As much as we tend to downplay institutional organization, that is exactly what they had done in verses 21 through 26 in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles culminating in the election of Matthias as an Apostle.
They gathered in worship, unsure of what to do next. In praise, prayer, confession and song, they experience an overwhelming outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Inhale the words of Holy Scripture. “Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.” In the sadly subdued polite Methodism of our day, we often fail to grapple with the biblical reality of what can only be called a “Pentecostal” experience.
What Does This Mean?
The spiritual gift of tongues, an ecstatic praise language, overwhelms them so much so that some assert that they are drunk. Twice, in a handful of verses, the Bible describes them as (depending on the translation) “amazed,” “surprised” or “utterly amazed,” adding that they were “astonished” or “bewildered.” With the dizzying chaos and cacophony of the Holy Spirit’s decent burning into their being, they ask a most reasonable of questions. “What does this mean?”
It is here in this perceptively piercing question that we encounter the earliest Christians in our lives today. Their question is ours. What does this mean?
It means that Christianity is not about a distant God vaguely active in human history occasionally intersecting our lives in indulgent wish fulfillment. Whether or not it is clear to us, the dynamically active God, Lord of the Universe, Savior of humankind and rightful ruler of our lives, is intimately engaged and active in our world. To focus the impact of Holy Scripture more personally, God’s real presence and real power is active in your life and mine today – both personally and collectively. The Lord God Almighty – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is with us in power and presence daily to comfort and challenge, prod and provoke, govern and guide, discern and discipline.
God Has Gotten Loose!
It is somewhat akin to the story of an old Methodist revival preacher who entered the pulpit in one of those old-fashioned altar areas with a little swinging gate that was latched so that the altar rail ran unbroken across the front. As the preacher mounted the pulpit and got going into is sermon, he got more and more agitated and demonstrative. Watching with concern about two or three rows back, a little boy was sitting next to his father. Finally, the kid leaned over to his dad and said, “Daddy, what do we do if he gets out?!”
What Pentecost means is a that God in Christ through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit has gotten out. The cross is not a symbol of execution but a sign of victory. The grave is not a grief-filled prison but an empty tomb of triumph. The birth of the church in worship at Pentecost is not a gathering of polite, gentle religion but an assembly of the troops under the leadership of the Risen Lord through the Spirit’s power and presence saturated in praise of God.
The tragedy of so much contemporary Christianity is that it is a pallid, impoverished imitation of the real thing. What does this day called Pentecost mean? It means through the Holy Spirit, God has gotten loose.
Famously John Wesley once said,
“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”
Counter Cultural Christian Witness
What does this mean? John Stott, the great British pastor and biblical scholar says, “Without the Holy Spirit, Christian discipleship would be inconceivable, even impossible. There can be no life without the life-giver, no understanding without the Spirit of truth.” We can connect to the very presence of God active in our lives through the Holy Spirit today and in all the days of our life.
Dear reader, be wary, be very wary, of a tame, all too polite version of Christianity. At its essence, the Christian faith is counter cultural. It seeks to lift us from life stuck on the human plane to a life lived with God. The Pentecostal presence of God’s signs and wonders are all around us.
The biblical account in Acts 1 & 2 instructs us on connecting to the Spirit’s presence. In the first chapter our marching orders are given us by the Risen and Ruling Savior! “You shall be my witnesses.” Notice it mirrors the Great Commission of Matthew’s gospel when Jesus instructs his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations.”
The first element of connection comes in obedience to this mission. It is followed by a period of quiet, thoughtful, submitted prayer. Connecting with God in the Holy Spirit is not about prodding God to be your personal servant, giving you whatever you desire, want, or wish. It is about submission to the will God. It is about openness to discerning what God desires and not what we might want. Thirdly, in the first chapter of Acts, they organize for mission – they elect Matthias an apostle. (The word “apostle” means a sent one.)
These three, concrete, specific steps involved in connecting to the Holy Spirit are completed, like making an electrical connection, by plugging into worship. “When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place.” Christianity is not a solitary thing. It comes together in worship with others praising God. John Wesley said, “the Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” Carefully attend to how this communal understanding of faithfulness is illustrated in biblical text. Their gathering was as multi-cultural and multi-ethnic as you can get. I count something like 16 different specific groups of people mentioned in the second chapter of Acts.
What does this mean?
God in the Holy Spirit is at loose in our lives and our world today, now!
We connect to the Spirit’s power and presence through
obedience to the mission given by Christ;
prayer & submission;
being organized for mission;
worshipping together in effusive praise of God.
One crucial third component must be added to the descent and outpouring of the Holy Spirit’s “Pentecost” presence.
The outpouring of the Spirit demands a response.
The Bible says that we are those upon whom the Holy Spirit has been poured out. It does not speak of this as an emotion or a rush of feeling. It reports the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as a fact. The church is born in this action. Verse 11 tells us that some heard them speaking “about God’s deeds of power.” As Peter speaks/preaches, they understand that the prophecy of Joel has been fulfilled, that God is pouring out His spirit on all flesh.
A True, Full, Heartfelt and Mind-Shaping Commitment
One of the most memorable incidents that came out of the immense tragedy of September 11, 2001, is the story of United Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field. Tom Burnett, one of the passengers called his wife from the hijacked plane, realizing by then that two other planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. “I know we’re going to die,” he said. “But some of us are going to do something about it.” And because they did, many other lives were saved. Since that awful morning, the memory of their heroism has inspired us. It should also instruct us.
The question asked so long ago is asked again this day. What does this mean? The pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost then and now demands a response. A true, full, heartfelt and mind-shaping commitment to God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit leads not to an easy life, but to a life of incredible purpose and adventure. It leads to a life of worth and purpose. The true meaning of life lies not in its length but in its breath, not in its duration but in its donation. This day, this is what God offers you and offers all of us in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. What will be? What choice do you (and we as well) make? What does this mean for you, for us?
Almost two millennium ago the first Christians gathered on this day called Pentecost with this question staring them in the face. These were men and women scorned and mocked by friends and neighbors in their surrounding society. They were soon to experience rabid persecution by the government and by the civil religions of their day. As the question “What does this mean?” hung like a dense low fog over their gathering, Peter rose and preached about Christ. These, he said, are the days the prophet Joel was talking about.
“I will pour out my Spirit on all people.”
“I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.”
This same question once again hangs over our lives like a dense low fog. We need more than just good advice; we need good news! This day, this very day, that good news is offered to all of us in the person and work of Jesus Christ. God is with us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the Holy Trinity of God.
The words of Peter’s Pentecost sermon are given again to us. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Let it be so!