OK, here is the sermon for Sunday fortnight:
The 1970s were a time of great liturgical change in the Church of England, with
different forms of service coming out on a trial basis at regular intervals.
The then Bishop of Kensington is said to have turned up to lead a confirmation
service which he began with the words; ‘The Lord is here.’ In line with the
latest liturgy, he was expecting the response, ‘His Spirit is with us,’ but
instead there was a stony silence. He tried again, a little louder: ‘The Lord
is here!’, but again there was no reply from the congregation. So he said it a
third time, this time with still greater emphasis. When this once again failed
to produce any response from the congregation, he turned to the vicar and said:
‘The Lord is here, isn’t he?’ To which the vicar replied: ‘Not in our book he
The Lord is here: his Spirit is with us. This we celebrate
at Pentecost. In this sermon I want to look at some of the big themes
associated with the coming of the Holy Spirit. (I’ve dealt separately
with the question of speaking in tongues.)
The story begins with a note of unity:
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in
Whether the ‘they’ is the hundred and twenty disciples of
Acts chapter 1 or just the apostles, what matters is that ‘they’ – a corporate
group of Christ’s followers – ‘were all together in one place.’ Jesus had told
his disciples to stay in the city of Jerusalem until the power of the Holy
Spirit came upon them. The blessing falls on disciples united in prayer. It is
the New Testament fulfilment of Psalm
133, where those who live together in unity receive the Lord’s commanded
It is the same thing seen among groups of Christians who
desire to see God’s Holy Spirit work powerfully today, both within and beyond
the church. They seek to live in unity, and pray together. I was part of one such group in my last
appointment. Every Wednesday lunch-time there was a united act of worship,
preceded by a prayer meeting. It was not a gathering that sought to deal with
all the institutional differences between various Christian denominations, it
was a movement that tried to build united relationships and reconciliation across
the Body of Christ, and to see this as a springboard for spiritual renewal and
change. There were odd bits of theology where I disagreed with some of the
founders, but the basic vision – united relationships and prayer for the sake
of church and social transformation – seemed sound to me.
The testimony is similar from countries where the Gospel is
spreading to many people. I have had the privilege of meeting several Ugandan
Christians, and while their cultural style of praying might be different from
ours, the same truth remains: a church united in prayer is one either already
empowered by the Spirit or it soon will be.
It is not that in unity we manipulate the Spirit, but it is
that unity pleases the Spirit and discord grieves the Spirit. Unity in our
relationships and praying together is a way of saying that the work of the Holy
Spirit is welcome here. Opposite trends – be they Christians remaining in
isolation from one another or worse, fighting each other – are ways of saying
that we care little for the power of the Holy Spirit.
I am not suggesting that people here do not pray. But I am
suggesting that a coming together in prayer that is for more than just the
‘enthusiasts’ would be quite an indication of our desire to meet with the
Spirit of God. It will be good, therefore, if our forthcoming Sunday morning
prayer meeting becomes a gathering not merely of the faithful few but has a
wide membership. That would be an indication that we wanted to do business with
Luke, the writer of Acts, wasn’t present at that first Christian Pentecost. He
must have relied on eye-witness testimony for his account. But clearly those in
attendance when the Spirit fell struggled to describe what happened. Listen
again to some of the language:
‘a sound like the
rush of a violent wind’ (verse 2, italics mine);
‘Divided tongues, as of
fire’ (verse 3, italics mine).
It’s mysterious stuff, beyond capturing in human words. There
is something elusive and beyond our control about the Holy Spirit. Jesus hinted
at as much in his famous conversation with Nicodemus:
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of
it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with
everyone who is born of the Spirit.
I have listened to preachers tell congregations that the
Holy Spirit is a gentleman, as if he is some kind of souped-up spiritual
epitome of Britishness – that he will play by the rules, never force himself on
us, and only do things when invited, a sort of ‘You first’, ‘No, after you’
kind of spirituality. It seems to me this is nonsense when confronted with the mysterious,
can’t pin him down behaviour of Acts 2 and elsewhere. John Wesley, for one, had
to come to terms with the fact that the Spirit’s work and leading did not
always coincide with English manners: take the struggle Wesley had to accept
that he was being called to preach outdoors, not just inside church buildings.
But then see the spiritual fruit that resulted when he followed the Spirit’s
I have equally listened to preachers who effectively claim
that the Holy Spirit only works in wild and wacky ways. But that, too, is to
limit the Spirit: it is to tell the wind of God where he may or may not blow.
The mystery of the Spirit is that he may work in ways we
find strange or uncomfortable (the gift of speaking in tongues, people falling
down when prayed for, to give two quick examples) or he may choose to work
quietly and gently. The manner is up to him. He is the third Person of the
Godhead, and he shares the divine characteristic of sovereignty. He chooses,
not us. The guideline we have in discerning what is the work of the Holy Spirit
and what isn’t is not to ask whether an experience ticks our boxes (whether we
prefer the spectacular or the polite); the test is whether what happens gives
glory to Jesus Christ, promotes his Gospel, and leads to changed lives. Our
response, simply, is to let the Holy Spirit be God and work as he sees fit,
glorifying Jesus however is best – whether that suits our tastes or not.
I find people often assume that when the disciples spoke in tongues, they addressed
the assembled crowd. But my reading of the story is different: I think the
crowd overheard the disciples:
‘in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds
of power.’ (verse 11)
What did they overhear? ‘Speaking about God’s deeds of
power.’ I suggest that in the context this is a description of worship. Worship
declares God’s mighty works. It proclaims his acts of salvation, just as we do
in the Holy Communion thanksgiving prayers. It says he is worthy of praise,
because he has been at work decisively in history and is still at work.
It is not surprising, then, that great movements of the Holy
Spirit have frequently been accompanied by, or even characterised by, worship.
Surely this is why Charles Wesley wrote something like ten thousand hymns and
poems. Is this not why the Welsh Revival of a hundred years ago is remembered
as much for its singing as for the accounts of judges leading penitent
criminals to forgiveness in Christ? I submit it is also why the Pentecostal and
charismatic movements of recent decades have had sung worship at their heart.
Of course, worship is not to be limited to singing (nor even
to our gatherings on Sundays) and the work of the Holy Spirit goes beyond worship,
as we shall see when we come to the fourth and final theme of this sermon.
Equally, there are some Christians who practise a form of religious escapism
into worship events and services, and there are others who doggedly defend the
great hymns while not living out the doctrines those hymns describe.
But at the same time the 1936 Methodist Hymn Book was right
to say that ‘Methodism was born in song’ and Brian Hoare in his hymn ‘Born in
song’ was correct to say that ‘God’s people have always been singing.’ When the
Holy Spirit is at work in individuals or in communities there is a note of
worship in the air. A popular story in recent years has been about one Chinese
Christian who was imprisoned for his faith. He asked to be put to work clearing
out the open latrines at the jail. When asked why he should volunteer for such
a putrid task he replied, ‘Because if I work there I can sing praises to God as
loud as I like and no-one will stop me!’
When our lives are not full of praise, there may be more
than one reason. It does not necessarily mean we are insensitive to the work of
the Holy Spirit. We may be distressed, depressed, grieving or stressed, for
example. And equally we cannot live our entire lives on a spiritual ‘high’. But
if our spiritual lives have become characteristically dull and monotonous,
might that be a sign that it is time to seek a refreshing touch of the Holy
Spirit? Jesus did after all refer to the Holy Spirit as ‘rivers of living
water’ (John 7:37-39).
The speaking in tongues may not be mission, but what follows is. When the crowd
is amazed and the scoffers pooh-pooh, mission follows. Peter stands up with the
eleven, and addresses the crowd (verse 14). In our reading, we heard the first
part of Luke’s summary of his speech.
For Peter, then, mission is not a technique he has learned
and practised: it is an overflow of spiritual experience, as the Holy Spirit,
the rivers of living water, cannot be contained within him but inevitably flow
out and touch others. Granted, there are things to learn – note how Peter knows
his Bible and his message – but these are futile unless in the first place
there is a living experience of Christ through the Spirit that bubbles up and
out of us.
At the age of four, our daughter has her first obsessive-compulsive
disorder. She loves to wash her hands. Any excuse, it doesn’t have to be after
a visit to the loo. But she cannot always turn off the taps completely. If she
has had the plug in the basin, we are grateful for the overflow pipe. Mission
is our overflow pipe; the problem for many of us is we have learned how to turn
off the taps. Being open to the Holy Spirit is about turning on the taps again,
and not worrying too much about the mess!
Often I hear Christians say, ‘I couldn’t possibly talk about
my faith to others: I don’t have the knowledge. I wouldn’t be able to answer
their difficult questions.’ There are a number of responses to this. The most
important thing to say is that the one non-negotiable attribute of a Christian
witness is to have a live experience of Christ through the Holy Spirit. You
don’t have to have all the answers, that’s God’s job. In any case, not
everybody is argued into the faith by persuasive debate. Do read up and learn
more about your faith, of course – there is no excuse for ignorant Christians –
but get your priorities straight. And the first priority in mission is not to
be clever and have alphabet soup after your name, it’s to have a life that is
manifestly influenced by Jesus Christ. And that is the work of his Spirit. Do
not despise the intellectual aspect of Christianity – there is a proper place
for it – but place it in the service of your relationship with God in Christ,
not the reverse, which is putting the cart before the horse.
What are we to do, then? I think the answer is to be some kind of Christian
Oliver Twist. We come with our bowl and ask for ‘more’. The difference is, our
heavenly Father is no mean Fagin character, looking scornfully upon such
requests. No, he delights when we want more of him. In Ephesians 5:18 Paul
calls us to continue to be filled with the Spirit – and I take that as an open
invitation to come back to the Father’s table with an empty bowl and say,
‘Lord, fill me up again.’
Do we dare to pray that? May it be our regular and persistent
request. Heaven will be thrilled.
Simon Coupland, A Dose Of Salts,
Crowborough, Monarch, 1997, p70f, #68, citing Mark Stibbe.
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