© 2010, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2010
© 2010, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2010
How can we know if ours is a Spirit-filled church? If we are Spirit-filled people? The very first two verses of the second chapter of Acts give us a significant clue: Here the evidence of the presence and power of the Spirit of God is both as audible as a mighty wind and as visible as flames of fire. The work of the Spirit is heard - as in mighty winds and in the brave proclamation of the message of the apostles to an unbelieving world, and seen - as in the tongues of fire distributed to every believer and in the lives of incredible compassion and risk which the the believers undertook from that Pentecost Day onward.
Whatever else we may know when we read this particular passage, we may be assured that where we neither hear nor see evidence of the Holy Spirit, we can be reasonably certain that the Spirit of Christ has not yet successfully invaded that person or gathering. Not yet. By the same token, where we hear and see Spirit-empowered ministries of proclamation and care taking place, we may be assured that the Spirit of Christ has graced that person or gathering.
Isn't it somehow surprising - given a natural tendency to human activism - that instead of concocting a plan of attack and inflicting themselves on the world by sheer human effort, the church began instead by withdrawing to wait and pray to see what God had in store and to ask that God live up to God's promises? “The next move was up to God, and the church recognized the wisdom of waiting for God's time to act.”1 When we pray the Lord's prayer, we are simply praying that God will be true to God's promises: “Thy kingdom come...thy will be done.” What could appear to be a swaggering or even a manipulative prayer for kingdom and power is in reality a deeply humble prayer, recognizing as it does that only God can give the church what it most desperately needs. All our human maneuvering is pointless unless it is empowered by the Spirit of God.
One preacher said, “[God] is never nearer than when [God] excavates a sense of emptiness in us.”2 Whenever we gather for the Lord's Supper, for example, our invitation includes these words like these: “And so our Savior invites us to come and feed the hunger which bread alone can never fill.”
Filled as they were with the gift of Jesus' companionship for three years of ministry, the grief of the crucifixion, the exaltation of the resurrection, one thing was lacking in the hearts of the disciples, an emptiness remained. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, those who were disciples and apostles were empowered to become the one thing they had not been: witnesses. And what is witnessing, really, but the audible and visible willingness to say what we believe to be true, and to try to live by the guidance of that Word?
As if to give special emphasis to that dramatic empowerment, unlikely Peter - the one who, when Jesus was arrested, could not find within himself the boldness to own up to his discipleship to a serving girl in the courtyard of the High Priest's house - suddenly Peter, of all people, found within himself the courage to witness to thousands in the middle of Jerusalem on one Spring morning. Whatever else we may not be sure about, there is little question that the Holy Spirit empowers us to be what we had not had the strength within ourselves to be before.
Finding ourselves at a gathering where the good name (or even the questionable name) of someone else is being trashed, being a faithful witness to Christ might mean no more than turning away and refusing to participate in hurtful gossip, but it might also mean speaking up. Only each of us knows the call to which the Spirit is leading us. But we can rest in this assurance: No matter how bad the consequences of faithfulness in the face of opposition might seem, the Spirit continually gathers the church around us, the Spirit will never forsake us.
How can we comprehend this presence of the Holy Spirit?
Right there in the Bible it talks about it like a sort of liquid presence, “I will pour out my Spirit on everyone.” In our neat, family-kitchen-thinking we may imagine this to be a pouring like pouring a glass of milk from a pitcher. But I think that mental image is much too tidy for us to use as a mark of the work of the Holy Spirit. I think there are much better ways to conceive God's Spirit being poured over God's people. Think of other ways we generally use the word “pour”:
- When we have been estranged from one another, our emotions all bottled up, when we have suffered the emotionally constipating effects of a heart filled with sorrow and anxiety combined with a mind and mouth that refuses to allow us to share what consumes us from the inside, when after that the dam has finally broken and in tears we have been able to tell another human being about the fears and emotions that have been eating us alive, have let go a torrent of hurt and heartache, we call that pouring your heart out.
- When our team is ahead of the other team 65 to 7 and there is only one minute left in the final period, and we score yet another touchdown, and the coach sends in the play from the sideline telling his team to go for 2 extra points instead of 1, the fans turn to each other and say, “Wow, they're really pouring it on!”
- When the sky turns not grey but black, the lightning creases the thunderheads, the thunder cracks like a volley of canon fire, we run for cover, saying to each other, “We'd better hurry; any minute it will be pouring down rain.”
Pouring out his Spirit, God gives to people the power of God's love not in sufficiency, but in superabundance. There is enough, there is more than enough of God's Spirit to empower the work of the church. It is not a zero sum game. God's Spirit is available in such plenty that to be touched by it can mean being overwhelmed by it and changed completely and absolutely.
The late Clinton Marsh served for years as president of Johnson C. Smith Theolgical Seminary in Atlanta, and was once moderator of our Presbyterian Church's General Assembly. Jokingly, he characterized himself as one half Presbyterian, and one half African American. About 35 years ago at the meeting of the General Assembly I heard Dr. Marsh say to the assembly that he hoped the Spirit would change us so that, if we could not be one half Presbyterian and one half African American, some of us could at least develop a little better suntan. The Spirit, poured over the people, drenches us, changes us, so that we are not the same people we once were.
Dr. Martin Marty has served for decades as a contributing editor of Christian Century magazine, a journal highly respected among clergy and lay leaders. He also once taught second grade Church School - one wonders which is the greater honor! He tells a story that shows the pouring-out of the Spirit can even come upon 8 year-olds, demonstrating that the Spirit is alive and working in places we might never expect. His story is about an 8 year-old boy who once attended his classes. Stephen was a special child, and by the time he had reached second grade, his progressive mental and physical disabilityies had become obvious to his friends. Dr. Marty said that one of his greatest concerns in teaching Stephen's class was whether the other eight students could hold on to their love for Stephen as they came increasingly to realize he was falling behind them and that he was different. In April of that year, he asked his students to bring to class a small object they could hide inside one of those plastic egg-shaped containers that some products are packaged in, something that represented the gift of new life. But because he was afraid Stephen might not have understood, he placed all the unmarked containers in the center of the table, and asked Stephen to open them, one at a time.
The first one held a crocus, and one of the students erupted with the pride of possession, saying, “I brought that one!” Next came a rock which Dr. Marty thought would surely be Stephen's, since rocks don't symbolize new life. But one of the other students shouted, “That's mine! The rock has moss on it, and it has just turned green again!” A butterfly flew from the third container, and another student beamed that her choice had been the best so far.
But the fourth container was empty. Dr. Marty thought it had to be Stephen's and was going to move quickly to the next egg, but Stephen objected and said, “Don't skip mine!” You know how second graders can be; they all shouted with one voice, “But it's empty!” “That's right,” Stephen said. “The tomb was empty. New life for everyone!” Stephen knew.
That Summer, Stephen died. At the grave, mourners found eight small egg containers. All of them empty. The story is true. So is the mystery, and Stephen knew.
What Stephen knew was that when God's Spirit is poured out, there is no controlling it. The black, the white, the blind, the lame, the healthy, the sick, the disabled, the frail, the husky, the slender, every one can be drenched in the Spirit. It was poured out on all believers without discrimination. There's more than enough. There's no limit to the power of God's Spirit to reach us and make us understand, even by means we might never have anticipated.
The disciples were drenched in the Spirit that first Pentecost day. Not dribbled, not sprinkled, aerosolled, misted, dampened, daubed or dipped, but drenched. They were overcome with the power of God's Spirit, poured out upon them. May God drench our fellowship with his Spirit in our own day, in our own times.
1 Acts, by William Willimon, John Knox, 1988, p. 27.
2 Drumbeat of Love, by Lloyd Ogilvie, Word Books, 1976, p. 23.