“They were all filled with the Holy Spirit” Acts 2:4
Being good members of the Church of Ireland, we read the story of the Day of Pentecost on the fiftieth day after Easter each year, and it leaves us feeling a little uneasy. Strong religious experiences are not part of being traditional Protestants; inexplicable supernatural events disturb us. What we cannot do, however, is to try to ignore this story. The disciples “were all filled with the Holy Spirit” and, if we are to be faithful to Scripture, we must ask what it means to be filled with the Spirit, what difference does it make to the life of ordinary members of an ordinary church?
Perhaps being Spirit-filled is not so much about what one says, as it is about what one is. Arthur Robinson’s book The Personal Life of the Christian was first published in 1902, republished in 1980 and, more than a century after it was written, it still contains a lot of common sense. Robinson recounts two stories of Spirit-filled people:
A mission was being conducted in a pit village of the county of Durham. The schoolmaster of the place was a hard-headed north countryman; and it might have seemed that he was inclined to be somewhat hard-hearted too. At any rate, he had no great belief in missions, and did not think much of emotional religion. He was extremely reserved about the whole matter. But there was one topic upon which he was always ready to talk. Speak to him of a man who five-and-twenty years before had been the vicar of the district, and at once a chord was set vibrating within him. Asked one day whether he thought that his old vicar, who had become famous in the Church, was still the same humble and genuine man that he had been in the days when he had known him first, he replied at once in tones that were almost indignant; ‘Why,’ he said, ‘you have only to shake that man’s hand to feel that he is full of the Holy Ghost!’ He could not have explained it, but he could quite well recognize the fact.
Not indeed that it has always been necessary to shake a man’s hand before coming to a similar conclusion. An Archbishop of York told his Ordination candidates of a young clergyman who had been appointed to a country parish. His stay in it, as it proved, was not to be for long. He was scarcely more than thirty when he died. After an interval had passed, a friend who known him well visited the place, eager to discover what kind of impression he had made. Meeting a labourer, he asked him the question, ‘Did he think Mr. – had done any good?’ Again there was no sort of hesitation in the answer, ‘I never saw that man cross the common yonder, sir, without being the better for it.’
Ordinary people in ordinary places who seemed somehow to possess extraordinary qualities: imagine a handshake being sufficient to convey a sense of the Holy Spirit, imagine being seen walking in the distance being enough to create a sense of well-being in the person who catches sight of you. It is very hard to live out such lives, but that, by the grace of God, is what we are being called upon to do. Being a faithful member of Christ’s church is about bringing forth the fruits of the Spirit.
The fruit of the Spirit, says Saint Paul, in writing to the church at Galatia, is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are the things that we, the ordinary members of the Church of Ireland, are meant to be showing in our lives.
“Ah”, we say, “don’t we come to church and keep the Commandments? Isn’t that enough?”
Do you remember the story of the rich young ruler who comes to Jesus? He would have been in the synagogue every Sabbath, he had always kept the Commandments, but still his heart is in the wrong place.
If we do not produce the fruits of the Spirit that Saint Paul writes about, then we have to ask ourselves whether we are Spirit-filled people, if our hearts are really in the right place.
The story of that first Day of Pentecost is the story of lives being changed by God’s presence because it was only through God’s presence that the disciples could fulfil what God had planned for them.
Perhaps we are like the Durham schoolmaster in Robinson’s story, being a hard-headed lot; hard-headness is part of our Protestant upbringing. But perhaps we are worse than the schoolmaster in being hardhearted as well as hard-headed, if we hear the Gospel story and remain unchanged by what we hear.
Jesus encountered some very hardhearted people. He looks down on Jerusalem and says, ‘O Jerusalem, O Jerusalem . . . how often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not’.
Jesus does not compel; those who turned away from him were free to do so. Similarly, the Holy Spirit does not compel, the Spirit will work where hearts are open in welcome.
We are familiar with Holman Hunt’s painting The Light of the World, the picture of Jesus standing at the door and knocking, but there being no handle on his side of the door, he can only come in when the door is opened to him.
But to open the door is a risky thing to do, it means the Holy Spirit coming into everyday life and, as we read this morning, that can be something very disturbing, even very frightening.
Perhaps it is easier to think we can be a part-time Christians, appear on a Sunday and try to keep the rules, but to keep God at arm’s length for fear he will make too many demands—that was the preference of the rich young ruler, and Jesus said that’s not enough.
Being Spirit-filled people is to be like the people Robinson described, recognized as Spirit-filled by no more than a handshake or being seen walking across the common. It’s not something easy, in fact it’s not something we can do at all, it’s something that God does through us, if we will let him.
“They were all filled with the Holy Spirit”, dare we be?
Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 31st May 2009