Filled with the Holy Spirit
Sermon preached at Enmore, Pentecost Sunday, 4th June 2017
Readings: Acts 2.1–11; 1 Corinthians 12.3–13; John 20:19–23
In June 1910, twelve hundred representatives of one hundred and sixty missionary societies met together in Edinburgh, Scotland. The World Missionary Conference as it came to be called, was arguably the high point of European Christianity. The Gospel had spread throughout the world and many of the delegates, who were predominantly white males, had a vision for a new era of worldwide Christian unity. The Edinburgh conference also marked the beginning of the ecumenical movement. Sadly, just four years later, that glimpse of unity was shattered by the First World War.
One hundred and seven years later the Church in the west has little of the confidence it enjoyed in 1910. There is a lack of enthusiasm for what used to be called ‘foreign missions’ and there is often uncertainty about the Gospel we proclaim. We are comfortable building schools and hospitals but hesitant to ask people to believe in the name of Jesus. To our surprise we now find that the countries where we once sent missionaries are sending missionaries to us and they are not hesitant or uncertain. So on this Pentecost Sunday it is instructive to pause and look back to the infant church that came to life on that first Pentecost and to understand what Pentecost means for us today.
For a first-century Jewish believer, Pentecost was the fiftieth day after Passover. It was an agricultural festival; the day when farmers brought the first sheaf of wheat from their crop and offered it to God in thanksgiving for another harvest. But neither Passover nor Pentecost were just agricultural festivals. These festivals reminded the people of their Exodus from Egypt when God led them out of bondage to a new life in the Promised land. The first Passover was celebrated on the very night that they escaped from Egypt and fifty days later they arrived at Mount Sinai where Moses was given the law. So Pentecost on the fiftieth day wasn’t just about the first fruits it was also about God giving his people the Ten Commandments which had shaped their way of life and made them different from all other nations around them. We can hear echoes of this ancient story as Luke describes the amazing events on the first day of Pentecost. Just as Moses ascended the mountain and returned some days later bringing the law with him so Jesus ascended into heaven and then returned, not with a written law carved in stone, but with the life changing Spirit who would breathe new life and energy into his disciples.
We note that the wind came from heaven. Christ’s ascension and the coming of the Spirit are linked. In John’s Gospel Jesus told his disciples that “If I do not go away the Advocate (the Holy Spirit) will not come to you, but if I go I will send him to you.” The ascension brought the earthly and the heavenly together in a new way. The pouring out of the Spirit on earth meant that God’s presence would now be experienced more vividly. One writer puts it like this: “the spirit on earth is the presence in our sphere, of the sheer energy of heaven itself.” (Tom Wright: Acts for Everyone). The signs that accompanied the arrival of the Spirit were evidence of this; wind, fire, and the ability to speak in other languages.
When we speak of the coming of the Spirit it is important to remember that the Holy Spirit was not a New Testament discovery. Although the term ‘Holy Spirit’ is found infrequently in the Old Testament there are many references to the Spirit of God or Spirit. The word, ‘Spirit’ is a metaphor just as the words, ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ are metaphors. The Hebrew, ruach, the Greek pneuma and the Latin spiritus all mean wind or breath. This wind or Spirit was present at creation and the Psalmist declares: “You send forth your Spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the earth.” Job reflects that: “the Spirit of God has made me and the breath of the Almighty is giving me life.” But apart from creation, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Spirit makes only occasional appearances. The spirit is poured out on particular individuals like Saul and David to empower them for special ministries. What is special about Pentecost is that the Spirit is poured out on all the believers not just on a chosen few.
Luke’s account of the first Day of Pentecost tells us nearly all we need to know about the Holy Spirit. First of all he wants us to know that the coming of the Spirit was in fulfilment of God’s promise. In Acts 1 Jesus told his disciples not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for the promise of the Father. What was this promise? “You will be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” Jesus also assured them that after the Spirit had come upon them they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. The theme of fulfilment is also prominent in John’s Gospel. Several times Jesus encouraged his anxious disciples that he would not leave them comfortless but would send the Advocate, the Comforter to be with them. In today’s Gospel from John 20, one of the first things the resurrected Jesus does for his disciples is to breathe the Holy Spirit into them. The Holy Spirit was God’s gift to the Church, to all the believers. Without the Holy Spirit there would be no Church. Furthermore we should notice in the Acts of the Apostles the Spirit’s coming is frequently referred to as fullness. On the Day of Pentecost, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit”. Later on in Acts 4, the whole company of believers “are filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the Word of God with boldness.” When Stephen is being stoned to death we are told that “full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God.” God’s desire is that we should be filled with his Spirit not just have the occasional sip. The great evangelist D.L. Moody was once asked by a very pious lady if he had been filled with the Holy Spirit, to which he replied: “Yes, Madam but I leak.” Like Moody we need to be refilled, refreshed frequently for the pressures of life make us spiritually thirsty. God’s Spirit is poured out on all who are thirsty and ask to be filled.
But what effect did this filling of the Spirit have on the believers? They saw the world with new eyes. In the resurrection appearances we have in the Gospels one of the things we notice frequently is that the disciples had trouble recognising Jesus. Mary thought he was the gardener, the disciples walking to Emmaus spent a few hours with Jesus in conversation but their eyes were blinded to his identity. Only at the end of the day with the breaking of the bread were their eyes opened. With the coming of the Holy Spirit they suddenly saw clearly. Saul of Tarsus blinded on the road to Damascus becomes an apostle when Ananias comes to him and says: “The Lord Jesus has sent me to you that you may recover your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts9.17) The Holy Spirit opens our eyes to the reality of Christ but he also opens our eyes towards other people. Some 40 years ago, Bishop John Taylor wrote a book called ‘The Go- Between God’ in which he suggested that the Holy Spirit is the invisible third party who stands between me and the ‘other’ making us mutually aware. In his words, “Supremely and primarily the Holy Spirit opens my eyes to Christ. But she also opens my eyes to the brother or sister in Christ or my neighbour, or the heart breaking brutality or the equally heartbreaking beauty of the world.”
The other thing we notice in Luke’s account of Pentecost is that the disciples were sent out. The coming of the Spirit opened their eyes but also opened their mouths. The theologian Emil Brunner said that ‘the Church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.’ Another way of putting it is to think of the church as like the fuel used by the Holy Spirit for her mission in the world. John Taylor argues that while it is true that the Holy Spirit is God’s gift to the church it is also true that the Church is God’s gift to the Holy Spirit. We too easily think of the Spirit as some kind of magic power equipping us for our mission whereas we are asked to be partners with the Holy Spirit in her mission. With the Holy Spirit dwelling in us we are enabled to embody Jesus Christ in the world. Much of what we do will be the same as everyone else is doing, earning a living, bringing up a family, making friends, celebrating occasions, helping our neighbour, comforting the sick, studying, reading and so on. But as Christians we do all of these things to the glory of God, meaning that we try to understand what God is up to in each of these activities and we will continually seek his help and guidance. So on this Pentecost Sunday let us pray that both by our words and our manner of life we will honour Christ and that the Holy Spirit will be able to work through us to show others the love of God. Amen.