WHEN THE HOLY SPIRIT COMES TO TOWN
Our idea of waiting on God is like a stressed out waitress buzzing hyperactively from one table to another. We need a cool look at why the Holy Spirit is so sparsely felt in such a restless culture.
The Church was born in such chaos on the Day of Pentecost that no-one really understood what was happening. Peter was able to explain to cosmopolitan marketplace Jerusalem that they were not witnessing the embarrassing boorishness of drunken men and women but the first public event to symbolise the power of the Gospel; yet even he would have struggled to understand where this ancient flash mob would lead. If the 24 hour news channels had existed then and reported on events as it happened, the rolling news bar would have said ‘disturbance in Jerusalem’ not ‘the Church is born’. Only hindsight could afford this.
The disciples had no thought of the Church as we understand it; only of the fulfilment of the Jewish religious tradition. When Jewish leaders rejected this, the faith still remained close enough to the heart of Judaism to be considered merely a sect within it. Only when persecution erupted and they made the cataclysmic decision to include the Gentiles did the early Christians take the roads out of Jerusalem that would lead symbolically to Rome and Athens.
So what do we learn from the first Pentecost? The first inescapable conclusion is that this is not unreachable history. The historian Simon Sebag Montefiore’s recent biography of Jerusalem opens with the horrendous siege of the city in 70AD. This is history, pure and simple. There is no sense that we can reach back and inhabit those events and no manner in which we wrench them out of time and make them our experience today. Yet this event of Pentecost, only a few years prior to the siege, is ours for the taking. The same Holy Spirit who filled Peter and James and John is breathes in and out in our churches today. Their experience can be ours; their vibrancy, their joy.
There is no magic formula to the receipt of the Holy Spirit. To suggest there is diminishes God and makes him prey to manipulation. There is a freedom and rugged sovereignty to the Spirit that defies our crude attempt at capture. However, Luke wrote his history to share some timeless thoughts with people like us and here are just a few.
The beauty of the gift of the Holy Spirit is his accessibility. Every believer has the promise of being personally filled with the life of God. This speaks more eloquently of the equality of all people before God than anything else we could point to; yet the way we think and live now makes us careless. We perceive the Holy Spirit as a gift first and foremost to us as individuals. The moving and popular song ‘My Jesus, my Saviour’ inspires great praise but it is like singing ‘my Holy Spirit, my Sustainer’. Neither Jesus nor the Holy Spirit belong to us first and afterwards to others. They are God’s gifts to the world, the Church and then to us. When Jesus left the earth he compelled his friends to stay together in one place. In this way, when the Holy Spirit came in power he was able to spill over one to another in a glorious and unpredictable ferment. If the disciples had been scattered across the Middle East, what kind of target would this have provided? There was discipline about their togetherness which paid dividends.
Allied to their solidarity was a patient commitment to prayer. The scriptures spoke repeatedly of waiting on God. In today’s attention-deficit culture, our idea of waiting on God is analogous to a stressed out waitress in an understaffed restaurant buzzing from one table to another, unable to offer more than cursory time to each customer and forgetting what she was told. Usually the waitress is blamed for this, but she is trying to cope with the burden the surrounding environment has laid on her. In the same way, the persistent inability to wait patiently for God often feels like a personal failing but owes much to the shallow and restless culture we inhabit. Only by staying together in one place and seeing this as a duty to one another are the stress and the understaffing we find in ministry properly countered. If we want to know why we do not experience the Holy Spirit as much as we might, a cool look at how broad and deep the commitment is to praying together proves a telling place to start.
The duty and privilege of shared prayer gave the disciples the kind of readiness you find on the starting blocks of an Olympic final. They were trained, primed and trembling with anticipation. When the Spirit came, he propelled them outwards into the marketplace and beyond. An authentic mark of the movement of the Holy Spirit is the centrifugal force involved – people are thrust outwards into the world to demonstrate God himself. A centripetal force which pulls people away from their surroundings into an ever smaller centre should be questioned. The final words of the communion service – ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord’ – articulate just what God is wanting from us. Our fellowship may be in church but our service is outside. The size of a church’s footprint is measured by where the people disperse from Monday to Saturday. That is where our mission lies.
At Pentecost, the first Christians were visible and able to explain what was happening in their lives. St. Peter expressed this well for all time: ‘always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you’ (1 Peter 3:15). Not all, like St. Peter, are able to give such a coherent account of God’s saving work, but with the Holy Spirit in us we can offer a credible account of this work. This is all that counts.
There is one unavoidable and perhaps uncomfortable dimension to the work of the Holy Spirit. In the early Church we see the first Christians take one breathtaking risk after another. They face persecution and prison; they traverse land and sea; they forsake aspects of religious law they see no longer as consistent with the faith; they allow Gentiles to share this faith on an equal footing. These and many other events show how deeply the life of God had penetrated their fellowship. A church which is full of the Holy Spirit is willing to dream it all up again when it comes to mission and ministry. It would be slippery of us to deny that the historic churches of our country are steeped in rules and bureaucracy. This is the nature of established institutions. Together we need the courage and the readiness to follow where God leads. A sailing ship drifts indolently on the sea when there is no wind to propel it; when the wind whips up, the sailors must be ready for action. The thing about the wind is: you never know where it will blow or where you will end up.
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