Sermon for the Day of Pentecost, 2014
“he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.” John 20:22
What do we make of the Day of Pentecost?
Anglicans have traditionally seen their faith as being shaped by three strands: Scripture, Tradition and Reason. Depending on their theological tradition, they have tended to emphasis one strand over the other two, so, in rather simplistic terms, evangelicals have tended to favour Scripture, catholics have tended to favour tradition, and liberals have tended to favour reason.
Then in the 1960s, the charismatic movement began to influence the church. The spirituality of the Pentecostal movement, with its emphasis on the personal experience of the Holy Spirit, began to move into the mainstream churches. There was emphasis on being “baptized” in the Spirit in accordance with such Scriptures as Matthew Chapter 3 Verse 11, where John the Baptist says of Jesus, “He Himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”, and the experience of the disciples on the day of Pentecost and other later occasions. Charismatic experience became important for some Christians, but what is a charismatic?
A charismatic is someone who has a “charism”, a gift. For Christians, a charismatic is someone who has received the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The fullest list of these gifts appears in Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 12, Verse 8-10, the gifts include: receiving a word of wisdom; receiving a word of knowledge; having the gift of faith; having the gifts of healing; being able to perform miracles; being able to prophesy; being able to distinguish between spirits; being able to speak in tongues; and being able to interpret the words of those who have spoken in tongues.
A charismatic would point to Acts Chapter 2, the story of Pentecost, and say, “this is our experience, shouldn’t it be yours?”
When read the story of the Day of Pentecost, as we do on this fiftieth day after Easter every year, it leaves us feeling a little uneasy. Strong religious experiences are not part of being traditional Protestants; inexplicable supernatural events disturb us, they do not fit easily with our rational, scientific view of the world. 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? What difference does it make to allow charismatic influence in our church?
Perhaps being Spirit-filled is not so much about what one says, as it is about what one is. One of my favourite books about spiritual life is Arthur Robinson’s The Personal Life of the Christian. It was first published in 1902, and it still has much to say to us. 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 gifts of the Spirit: 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.
“Ah”, we say, “don’t we come to church and keep the Commandments? Isn’t that enough?”
The disciples went to worship week by week, they kept the Commandments, but it was only when they received the Holy Spirit that the church began. 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 may be 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 in the Acts of the Apostles, that can be something very disturbing, even very frightening. It can cause people to wonder about us. 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.
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, if we are open to receiving his gifts.
“They were all filled with the Holy Spirit”, they knew God’s presence and received God’s gifts. Dare we be people who receive his gifts?
I was intrigued with the three strands of Scripture, Tradition and Reason.
It brought back a book that did leave an impression here – Making Love by Tom Inglis
“And what of my own beliefs and practices during this time as I watched the love of my life slowly but surely dying in front of me? I was all over the place. Like Aileen, I grew up with God. He was a close friend for many years. I would love if he existed. Miracles can and do happen, but I have always thought that they were probably extraordinary cases of chance or mind over matter. Nevertheless, in those dark days as I walked around the local park in the early morning, I would scream out to God not to let her die. I hoped, but deep down I knew that there was as much chance of her not dying as her cut-off breast being restored.
God is hope. I live in hope that there is another meaning and explanation to all of this, to our joy and happiness, to our suffering and pain. I have no idea if there is life after death, or even what life after death means. I hope that we dissolve into a love supreme which is way beyond our imagination, which is way beyond human knowledge and understanding. But if God is infinite perhaps we should abandon thinking longitudinally and think laterally. He is by our side but we cannot comprehend him. Sometimes I think that trusting God requires letting go all that we think is solid, material and real, even reason itself. It is a tall order to give up the air of certainty, mastery and control which we breathe so easily.” (p 198)
The church is probably the biggest obstacle to Tom Inglis’ suggestion that we think “laterally”; institutions depend on longitudinal thinking, too much of the other and authority and status, and all the things church leaders so much value, begin to crumble away.