In the Name...
The great statesman and lawyer, William Jennings Bryan, had a reputation for his passionate oratory. Once, as he closed a particularly grand summation speech at a trial, the judge remarked, "I'm afraid, Mr Bryan, that I am none the wiser." "Perhaps not, your honour," Bryan replied, "but, at least you have been better informed."
Today, we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, a day traditionally called the birthday of the Church. You may have heard this before. The birthday of the Church. Now we all know what a birthday is, it's a day when a new life enters the world. Each of us has a birthday. It's an important occasion marked by ceremonies, cakes, candles, cards. And birthdays have a powerful emotional attraction. The one thing that even the most non-religious person associates with Christianity is Christmas. How then can we speak of Pentecost as such a day? Because, it was on this day that a new life, a new life force, the Holy Spirit, entered the human experience.
Yet when we hear talk about the Holy Spirit, how do we react? Hey, let's be honest, don't we often raise an eyebrow with apprehension. Several of the words and phrases which are part of today seem troubling to many of us - the very name "Pentecost", "the Holy Spirit", being "born again", etc. - and often we tune out these words because they have been appropriated by denominations noted for undisciplined enthusiasm, high membership demands, and speaking in tongues. Yet, week after week, in our prayers, our liturgy, and our creed, we routinely declare our own belief in this self-same Holy Spirit.
Now, if the Holy Spirit was just for the lunatic fringe, surely after 2,000 years we could have quietly dismissed him. But, we haven't. Because, far from being marginal, he's central to our mainstream, mainline faith.
And today we are reminded of the centrality of this person of God. We are reminded that he is as central as Jesus and as important to each one of us if we are, indeed, to be fully Christians.
In the Book of Acts, chapter 19, we read of the day when St. Paul first came to the city of Ephesus, one of the largest cities in the Ancient World. The Christian congregation, which had been there for twenty years, was teeny-tiny. Nobody in Ephesus even knew there was a church there. So, Paul asked them, "Have you received the Holy Spirit?" Their reply was, "We don't know anything about the Holy Spirit." "We don't know anything about the Holy Spirit."
Now, consider what we have here. A group of devout Christians. They had all been baptized in the Name of the Trinity. They believed that God was creator of all that is, seen and unseen. They believed that He sent His Son, Jesus, to become incarnate, to die upon the Cross for our sins, to rise and ascend to prepare a place for us in heaven. They acknowledged the obligation of leading moral lives. They had all this and still something was missing. They had a creed. They had religion. They had information. But, they had no life. And they wondered why they were so small in such a great city.
The story goes on to tell that, when Paul prayed for them, the Holy Spirit entered their experience and in only three years they grew to become a force not only to be noticed, but reckoned with, in the community.
The creed speaks of the Holy Spirit as the Lord and Giver of life. What that means is that it is the Holy Spirit which rescues Christianity from being merely a dry and dusty history lesson, or an impersonal code of ethics. I know Jesus was God Incarnate, I know he rose out of a tomb, I know I should be honest and fair. But, unless I also know the Holy Spirit, then I am well informed, but none the wiser.
So, am I making the claim that I know the Holy Spirit? Doesn't that mean I must have been born again? Doesn't that mean that I am filled with gifts of the spirit? Yes, it does, and I am - and so is each one of you. You and I were born again and received the gifts of the Spirit the day we were baptized.
When we hear about an experience of being "born again" and a sudden empowering of gifts, that's the same thing that happened in Ephesus. St. Paul didn't give the Spirit to those Christians; they had it from the moment of their baptism. But, they hadn't used it. They had the gifts, but they hadn't used them. All St. Paul did was show them how to press the "play" button.
When I lived in Wales, one of our parishes, St. Mary's, Cardiff Docks, owned an old processional cross which was never used; in fact, it was kept in the basement near the boiler and was often lying on the floor buried under boxes of spare parts and junk. It had been around for a long time and was encrusted with grime and crud. It looked like tarnished brass with some green and red glass decoration. One day, the priest, Fr. Jordan, after worrying about the expense and whether it was worth the trouble, got it out, wrapped it in brown paper and mailed it to a metal restorer for cleaning. A few days later, he received a phone call from the company. They had discovered that it was, in fact, made of gold. The green stones were emeralds, the red stones, rubies. In fact, it was nothing less than a 17thC Florentine work - a museum piece. The gift of some long forgotten Victorian parishioner, unappreciated and neglected for generations. Needless to say, after restoration it was returned to the church in a security van and today it is in use.
The gifts of the spirit are just as precious but can become so encrusted from lack of use that we don't recognize their value. We don't recognize what they can do for us - how they can increase our abilities, deepen our insights, empower us in way we can't even begin to imagine. In short, how they can make us different to the way the world wants us to be. Let me repeat that - how they can make us different to the way the world wants us to be.
I heard this phrase once and it's stuck with me. The world doesn't care what we believe as long as we don't do anything about it. I'll say that again, too, and why don't you join with me in saying it. "The world doesn't care what we believe as long as we don't do anything about it." The Holy Spirit gives us the power to do something about our beliefs and the world hopes and prays we won't realize that.
It was quite a story we heard today - rushing wind, tongues of fire, multiple languages. Pretty weird. But, no weirder than a shining star, wise men from the East, and a choir of angels singing "Peace on earth."
Miraculous events surrounded the birth of the Saviour. Miraculous events surrounded the birth of the Saviour's people. It was the miracles Jesus made which convinced people that he was from God. It is the miracles we cause which convince people that we are from Jesus. They are the evidence of the life of God, the Holy Spirit, within us. And that is what makes the so-called unchurched become believers.
It wasn't anything the disciples said that day which made people take notice. What made people take notice was that, by a miracle, everybody could understand what it was they were saying. It was the evidence of new life and that is what is so desperately needed in our world today. Evidence that the world may be the wiser and not just better informed.
A great many Christians are like the ones Paul found in Ephesus. Baptized, believing, but not realizing the fullness of the words they ritually speak.
Today is the birthday of the Church, the day a new life force entered the world and filled God's people.
Today is the birthday of the Church. Is it also yours?
In the Name...