11 May 2008
I wonder what it must have been like. It almost beggars imagination, doesn't it. There they were, in that upper room. One hundred and twenty of them, they say, including Mary the mother of Jesus and several other women. Waiting. Waiting for what must have felt like simply forever.
They'd been told, in Luke's version of the story, to wait in Jerusalem and they would receive power when the Spirit came upon them. So they waited, and waited. At least ten days, we don't, I think, know exactly how long, until the Day of Pentecost dawned. I wonder how many of them had felt like giving up and going home, and celebrating Pentecost, which back then was a sort of Harvest Festival, celebrating the first fruits of the harvest, celebrating Pentecost with their neighbours?
But they didn't go home. They stayed. And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, the Spirit came on them.
It must have been a pretty dramatic visitation. The tongues of flame, the rushing mighty wind. And the immediate explosion of praise, and when they ran out of words those other words, words of praise that, in this instance, turned out to be words in "in our own native language?
Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs - in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." Thus the bystanders. They might not have seen the tongues of flame, or heard the rushing mighty wind, but they certainly saw the results.
But some people thought of a certain advertisement for a certain brand of lager, which, you may remember, used to be said to refresh the parts other beers cannot reach! And they said, oh, these people have been on the booze; they're bladdered; they're lathered..... And I can think of several rather ruder things they might have said, and so, I expect, can you.
So Peter, glorious, wonderful Peter, who never used to be able to open his mouth without putting his foot in it - they used to say he only opened his mouth to change feet - Peter jumps up and lets out this terrific bellow which shuts everybody up, sharpish. "No, no, no, no, no, no, no," he goes, "we're not on the sauce - come off it, it's only nine a.m., what do you take us for?" And he goes on to explain that this is what Joel was talking about, this is what they'd all been expecting. And, as you know, he preached so powerfully, and God's presence was so overwhelming, that three thousand people got converted that day alone!
Thus the story. We know it so well, don’t we? Every year, this passage from the book of Acts is read. We could probably quote a great deal of it off by heart, and the bits we can’t quote – all those nationalities, I can never remember them without looking – we know what they say, even if we don’t know the words!
Obviously, then, it is an important story – as important as those other stories we hear every year, the stories of Jesus’ birth, the coming of the magi, the presentation in the Temple, and then the gap to the adult Jesus, his arrest, death, resurrection, and ascension into Heaven. And then the coming of the Spirit.
One way of seeing it is that it’s the Church’s birthday. The day we celebrate the anniversary of the explosive growth from a tiny handful of believers – barely over a hundred – to several thousand, and on down the millennia to the worldwide organisations and denominations that is the Church today. But there again, that’s just history, rather like we celebrate our own birthdays.
Pentecost is more than that. I think that much of it is one of those things that doesn’t go into words very well – what is officially called a “mystery” - the Church’s word for something that words can never fully explain.
After all – a mighty wind, and what looked like tongues of fire? We know the damage that both wind and fire can do – we’ve been seeing on the news this week about the dreadful death-toll in Burma from the cyclone there, and some of us remember all too clearly the dreadful damage that was done during the Great Storm of 1987. And just think of that shop and flats next door to Morley’s that were gutted – and even the roof destroyed – the other week.
But the wind and flame from God were not sent to destroy, but to cleanse, to heal, and to empower. Some of the empowerment was pretty spectacular – the speaking in other languages, the healings, the preaching that brought thousands to Christ in one go.... some of it, of course, would have been less so. And then there were the other side-effects – the changes in people’s character to become more the people God meant them to be. The fruit of the Spirit – Paul, in his various letters, reminds us both of the various gifts he saw in use (the tongues, the prophecies, the healings and so on) and the fruits he saw develop in people’s characters: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" .
The thing is, of course, that it wasn’t and isn’t just those few people in the Upper Room in Jerusalem who received the Holy Spirit. Nor was it just the three thousand people who were added to the church that day! Right down throughout history, and right down to today, God has sent his Holy Spirit on to believers. And that includes you and it includes me.
But some of us will say, oh, help, no, not me, I'm not worthy. I'm not clean. Well, you're no more and no less worthy than anybody else. But there are things that can stop you being filled with the Holy Spirit. The first is if you are not walking God's way. You do need to be God's person and that is not something that happens automatically. You have to consciously commit yourself to God. We Methodists do this formally each year in the Covenant Service, but you don't have to wait until then!
And you may say, well, yes, years ago – but these days? I’m all dried up and God doesn’t use me any more.
Well, look at my cup. June will tell you how thirsty I’m apt to get while I preach; she reckons I’m one of the few preachers who’ll drink the whole carafe of water during the service! But supposing I wanted to put some coffee in a cup like this? I can’t, can I, as it has the lid on!
Okay, let’s take the lid off. Hmmm.... still can’t put any coffee in here, just look at it. All sorts of bits and pieces in here...... Hair-grips, a hamburger, cotton buds, a kitten.... think this mug must be rather elastic! The point is, it doesn’t really matter what’s in there, but they shouldn’t be there. Perfectly good, valid and worthwhile things in themselves, but they don’t live in a coffee cup.
And thank you, but I don’t fancy drinking my coffee out of a mug that a kitten has peed in... or covered with hamburger grease, for that matter. So we need to wash the mug, and rinse it, and dry it.... and now, at last, we can put coffee in it!
That’s a very old illustration; I first heard it over 30 years ago. But it’s still valid today. You see, we can thwart God completely by refusing, if you like, to “take the lid off” yourself and allow God in there to work. And yes, it’s scary doing that. Horribly so. We really do have to trust God and trust that He loves us. And once we have “taken the lid off”, we have to allow God to search for those things that are filling us up wrongly – perfectly valuable, valid things in their own right, but things that aren’t right for us. A kitten doesn’t belong in a coffee-mug.
That, too, is hard. We are so afraid that God will take all the things we love from us, and leave us with boring Church things.... I doubt it. Most of us love what we do, or we wouldn’t do it! God doesn’t call us to be bored and miserable, but to be fulfilled and happy.
And then finally we need to be washed – cleansed, forgiven, made whole. Again, sometimes it’s difficult to allow that to happen, which is largely because we often find it very hard to forgive ourselves when things go wrong. And that makes it hard for us to believe that God has forgiven us.
But when all that has happened, then we become fit for purpose. We can be filled with God’s Spirit.... not only filled up, as we would fill a coffee cup, but filled to overflowing, pouring out everywhere, a sort of coffee-fountain, if you like....
And once we are filled, what then? That, of course, is up to God, who knows us far better than we know ourselves. He knows our characters, our desires, our needs, our failings.... It’s not our job to worry about the “what then”. If there’s something specific God wants us to do, you can be sure we will know it, one way or the other. Otherwise, we go on with our lives, just being! God does the rest – we very often don’t know
So – how? That one’s easy – just be willing! That’s all we have to do – be willing. God does all the rest.
To help us find the words to be willing, let’s sing Spirit of the Living God
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