AS part of celebrating Pentecost this year we’ve been working our way through a three week series on the Holy Spirit in scripture. The series is called ‘The Promised Holy Spirit… In the Old Testament …in Christ…and in the church. ‘My hope and prayer has been that through this we will grain a clearer and greater understanding of the Holy Spirit and that we may experience the Spirit’s real presence and enabling in our lives, individually and as a Church.
Today we are looking at the Holy Spirit and the church. Specifically to look at the coming of the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost after Jesus death and resurrection as it is recorded in Acts 2 and how that was lived out by that earliest of churches.
Acts chapter 2 is split into three parts. We had two read out to us today, the first and the last. It starts with a record of what happened on the day. Then as the crowd gathers and some write it off as just too much wine, it gives Peter a chance to stand up and to explain what has happened… To witness to the coming of the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ and that what was happening as a result of that was God pouring out his spirit on all his people as he had promised. . In the third part we have people’s response, the crowd responds and it tells us over three thousand people become believers in Jesus Christ that day and Luke finishes with a picture of the life of the new faith community filled with the Spirit.
Luke starts by telling us that all the believers were gathered together, it is not just the twelve disciples but the wider group of about one hundred and twenty people we are told remained of Jesus followers in Jerusalem, who had met daily to pray and reflect on what had happened and to wait to receive what Jesus had promised. They gather and wait because it is what Jesus told them to do. We often think of the church as a very human institution and as they waited they went about the process of structuring themselves as a group, they replaced Judas Iscariot as a member of the twelve.
Then Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit came upon them. It happens in a very visual and audible manner… It’s a kind of special effects Moment. Wind and fire are symbols of the Holy Spirit, it is an event that is full of the symbolism from the Hebrew Scriptures of what we call a Theophany, God showing up in a real, tanagable and sovereign way. It’s like the burning bush or the pillar of fire and cloud as Israel is lead through the wilderness, the fire on Mt Sinai as Moses goes up to receive the law, Elijah on Mt Sinai, encountering God. The wind blowing through the valley of dry bones in Elijah’s vision, rising up the people of God again. While those events in scripture focus on God’s presence with his people, here we see that the tongues of fire move on to each person gathered, God is not only with his people the Holy Spirit dwells within and fills all his people: In Acts 1:14 the list includes men and women, probably young and old and rich and poor as was promised in the prophecy in Joel 2.
It tells us that they all began speaking in different languages as God enabled them. Pentecost was one of those festivals where Jews living in different countries would come to Jerusalem for. So there were people from all over, and they heard the disciples speaking in their own language. This was a prophetic sign about what was happening. God was empowering his people to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to all peoples, and as a sign of that they were given the ability to speak in those languages, to give praise and thanks to God. It’s interesting that it was in the vernacular of those different places as well, the everyday heart languages, not simply in the common language of Greek and Aramaic. The kingdom of God is not a colonising force or an empire that comes to dominate or conquer but a message of an alternative way of being human, in relationship with God through Jesus Christ, that comes not by might or by power but by my spirit says the Lord.
Some people think this means that to be filled with the Holy Spirit you must speak in tongues, that’s false. When we look through the different instances recoded in Acts of God pouring his Holy Spirit out on people, sometimes it is with tongues… in Acts 10 where the gentiles gathered in Cornelius’ house and the Spirit comes upon them, it tells us that they spoke in tongues, and it’s appropriate because the point God is making to the Jewish believers is that the gospel is for gentiles as well as Jews, they see God filling them with the spirit just as they were at Pentecost. Other times it is not mentioned, and Paul teaching in 1 Corinthians while affirming the gift of tongues says that God gives a whole lot of different gifts to his people for the common good. Now I believe in the gift of tongues, when I was prayed for to be filled with the Holy Spirit I received this gift, or at least I opened my mouth and another language came out, and can I tell you there are times when I think I’m mad and making it up. But I have had experiences of praying for people in tongues, usually because I just don’t know what to pray for them and have had people tell me I had spoken in their mother tongue. A Maori man called Dallas said I had prayed for him in fluent Maori. A cook Island man told me he didn’t speak his language fluently but had heard enough to hear God say… I know you by name which was exactly what he needed to hear.
Luke finishes his description of the coming of the Holy Spirit by recording the reactions of the people gathered, some are amazed and you get this wonderful line how could those backward Galileans, those hicks from the sticks be speaking and praising God in all these languages: It a very God thing to start this significant new thing this world wide mission with people who were written off by others as not very important or smart or powerful. Others simply write it off as too much wine. We are often faced with that’s same response today… it fits outside our understanding of things so there has to be a logical reason for it. We are not willing to equate such exuberant joy with God’s presence. Peter then has an opening to say, no we are not drunk its only 9 in the morning, and to begin to do what the Spirit had empowered them to do witness to Jesus Christ. While they may have spoken in tongues when it comes to addressing the crowd Peter uses a common language… There is a place for tongues but it does not take the place of sharing the gospel and using our god given and Holy Spirit inspired intellect to share with others. The man who had denied Christ three times even when challenged by a servant girl now stands up and preaches what is the first apostolic message in front of thousands of people. He points to Jesus, and we are told that after wards three thousand become followers of Jesus.
Luke finishes off his record of that day by looking at the Christian community in Jerusalem. It is a great summary of what it means for a group to be filled with the Holy Spirit. It tells us that they devoted themselves to four things, the teaching of the apostles, fellowship and breaking bread and to the prayers. There was a hunger to know more of Jesus and to know Jesus more in their lives. It wasn’t just a structured thing a weekly meeting for church but a daily thing, it wasn’t just a big gathering thing, but a at home small group thing. They are a community focusing on worship and giving thanks to God. We see that they were a community that loved each other, a community dedicated to caring for the poor, they were prepared to sell what they had to meet needs in their group. God was moving in amazing ways they saw miracles and healings. It was a group that actually had an impact on their society, it tells us that that they were held in high regard by everyone, there love their compassion had an impact. They saw God add to their numbers those who were being saved; they had a heart for other people and shared Jesus with people.
Now when you read through the rest of the New Testament and look at church history you see that it wasn’t always like that. Yes we see healings and evangelism and mission and transformation but also we see people struggling with pressure from within and without, wrestling to love one another, wrestling with false teaching and how to respond and keep the faith in face of persecution and assimilation into the culture around them. The Holy Spirit fire seems to almost fizzle out. We see the Spirit at work through apostles like Paul and James doing what Jesus said the spirit would do, calling to mind Jesus teaching and revealing truth. We see the spirit leading and guiding God’s people, sometimes through moving in history, like the persecution that pushed the church out of Jerusalem, and dream’s and prophecy like in Paul’s life. There are times when it seems to be on the wane and the way out, as one writer puts it a gerontological curiosity, and there are times when the Spirit reignites the flame and passion. There are times when the church has seemed content to enjoy and use the power of this world rather than be moved by the Spirit, (we've just been through a period in history like that which we call Christendom) and again times when the good news and kingdom of God have been stirred up again.
How does that impact us here today?
It is easy for us just to think of Church like that pre Pentecost group of believers as a human institution and yes it can be like any other organisation, it needs administration and management and people doing various tasks to make it function, regular meeting times but being church means being God’ spirited people enabled by God to witness to the Jesus Christ. I don’t know about you but sometimes doing church feels like the valley of dry bones in the reading from Ezekiel we had read out to us today. It can feel like it takes all our energy and strength just to keep the institution going. We need the Holy Spirit to blow new life into us again.
Often people seek revival and Holy Spirit experiences because it fills them with joy and praise for God. Can I be a little cynical here and say it's like there are people addicted to a sort of hyped up understanding of revival and the Holy Spirit, like the Holy Spirit was a drug or to get a hit of divine endorphins. But when you look at the church in Acts you see the effects of revival. A renewed hunger for God’s word, a passion for prayer, compassion for the poor, seeking justice and love and unity… they were more about the manifesto of the Holy Spirit rather than Manifestations of the Holy Spirit.
A representative from alpha came and saw me this week and gave me this little gimmicky think they use to help people think about sharing their faith. It’s a light bulb, and they invite people to think ‘whose life are you going to be a light to?’ And the thing that powers this light bulb is the Holy Spirit’s presence and filling in us.
This week the Holy Spirit has been encouraging me through people’s testimonies how the Holy Spirit can use us to be Christ’s light to people around us. The testimonies were of powerful encounters with Jesus but in each there was the story of someone who simply came and shared Jesus. A teacher telling a student about her faith, a little old Salvation Army lady spending an hour with a disturbed teenager in a prison cell. A women who spent 35 years praying each day for her husband to become a Christian.
Here is one of them… I was looking for a video for the start of the service this morning and I came across a video that someone had posted on youtube. The women called herself nikki and she shared not only the video but why it meant so much to her. She had grown up a victim of sexual abuse and rape since she was 4 years old. She talked of feeling dirty and damaged and ugly and unloved. When she had wanted to tell her parents her abusers had chocked her and threatened her. She decided to kill herself; she got everything she needed to hang herself. Then decided to give one last thing a go… a teacher had told her about Jesus so she prayed out of desperation and she said that she saw Jesus standing there opening a door for her, she cried out to him and he came and knelt with her. She said from that moment she felt loved, Jesus her enabled her to love and see the beauty in the ugliness she saw when she looked in the mirror. She was able to forgive the unforgiveable and find new life and liberty.
We need to be filled afresh with the Holy Spirit. We could do with a fresh encounter and filling of the Holy Spirit. We need revival. The promise of Pentecost and the promise of Ezekiel is that God’s spirit is moving that if we ask, God will fill all of us afresh by his Holy Spirit.