In an upper room, tiled and covered with dirt and sand, I sat in those cheap plastic outdoor chairs that constantly break. This is what made for a classroom in Venezuela as I worked with the World Methodist Evangelism Institute to run a week-long workshop for Wesleyan pastors from across that country. My job was to operate the translation equipment. And so I sat in the back, near Henri, who did the translating. Those who needed the translation listened in on headsets.
One evening, my headset just wouldn’t work. I checked with others and theirs were okay, so I knew the problem was isolated. The speaker presented in English, so it wasn’t too big of a deal for me. After the presenter had finished, he opened a time of prayer, indicating that those around the room could pray after he’d finished.
Here, in this room, the invitation was met immediately. People were eager to pray! And when the first person to pray spoke, I listened carefully to his words. They were beautiful, they were heart-felt, they were simple and yet powerful. The same was true for the next several people who prayed. All of them blew me away with their sincerity, the gift of their expression, and the courage of their conviction in this oppressive country. As I listened along, it suddenly occurred to me that the people praying were doing so in Spanish.
And I don’t speak Spanish.
But I understood every word they said.
Today is Pentecost. It’s as important a day as Christmas Day and Easter. It’s a high, holy, day in the life of our church and churches everywhere. Today can be rightfully understood as the birthday of the church! When the Spirit came at Pentecost, it was the IPO of the church: our initial public offering of the power of the Spirit to transform us and, through us, the world.
And yet, we do not tend to celebrate Pentecost as we do Christmas Day or Easter. That is, perhaps, because the event, the work, and the very nature of the Holy Spirit itself is hard to define, hard to grasp, and tempting to explain away.
Let’s hear the story of the First Pentecost: Acts 2:1-13
My favorite line in the whole passage is the last one: “But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’” In other words, they’re drunk.
Those who couldn’t understand what was happening explained it away by claiming the disciples were drunk. Their explaining it away is understandable: anytime we encounter something we cannot explain, or we cannot believe, we do our best to explain it away.
Can’t believe that the disciples could speak in so many languages? Can’t understand why they’re acting so oddly? Can’t understand why they’re preaching with such vigor, prophesying with such intensity, which is one way to think of the tongues of fire reference: if you can’t understand it, then they must be drunk.
They must be, for what other reasonable explanation is there?
What reasonable explanation is there for my ability to understand the prayers of Spanish speakers that night in Venezuela when I don’t speak Spanish?
We Methodists have, historically, loved the Holy Spirit more than other protestant denominations. The Holy Spirit gets prominence in our symbols, for example. On the Table, like all Christian traditions, we keep candles lit: the flame signifying the presence of the Holy Spirit. Today, the paraments are red, the color that signifies the Holy Spirit. And in our denomination’s symbol, the flame next to the cross and it’s red color signify the Holy Spirit.
We, as a denomination, come from two parents: the Church of England and a holiness movement spurred on by Philip Jacob Spener. That holiness movement put much emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit. We married the two until the Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles in 1906 that birthed the modern Pentecostal Church. In fact, it was at a meeting of Methodists and other Wesleyan folks that the Azusa Street revival occurred. We’re closely related to the Pentecostals, the Christians famous for their focus on the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers.
Which might strike us as odd because we certainly don’t worship like them with their energy and Spirit-led divine signs during services. We don’t believe that you must speak in tongues or show other supernatural divine signs to confirm your salvation. And that is an important distinction: we don’t need signs to prove that you’re saved. If you have confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord and been baptized, you’re saved, period. God’s grace is sufficient for your salvation by confession, according to what we believe as United Methodists.
But we’re still closely related to the Pentecostals. We believe deeply, as they do, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
But do we act like it? What does it mean to even act like it? Or do we simply fall prey to the temptation to explain the Spirit away, saying that any inclination of the Spirit in our lives or our world must be some explainable phenomenon. Maybe we’re tempted to say, like the people at Pentecost, those filled with the Spirit must be high or drunk.
Back in my own upper room, when the prayers were over, I could not believe what had just happened. I do not speak Spanish, and yet I understood every word. I was tempted to think that I had simply been in Venezuela long enough that immersion had worked: I could understand the language because I’d been surrounded by it. But that quickly faded when the next speaker got up and began to present in Spanish. I could only pick up a few words.
My moment of understanding was gone. Immersion was not the explanation for that moment. Indeed, I could not explain the phenomenon. To this day, I cannot explain it except to say that it was the work of the Holy Spirit.
Initially, I reacted like those at the end of the scripture who accuse the disciples of being drunk. I, like them, said there must be a rational, reasonable, explanation for such a crazy phenomenon.
But there’s not.
There’s only the Spirit.
That is what we celebrate today. At Pentecost, the very power and presence of God came down to earth to live among us and within us who claim the name of Jesus. That Spirit empowers us to do the work of the church, very often in ways that defy reason. it cannot be explained, it cannot be contained. We have, within us, empowering us, the very power of God.
But do we act like it? Or do we try to explain it away?
What does it mean to act like we believe deeply in the power of the Spirit? What does it mean to stop trying to explain away the Spirit with rationality, believing fully that the Spirit of God is irrational because it is God; we cannot explain it, we cannot fathom it, we can only be obedient to it?
What does it mean? It means we embrace that the work of being a Christian, the work of being a part of the church, is the work of the Spirit moving through us, not our own work. We embrace a Spirit, the third member of the Trinity, who is wild, untamable, and the very empowerment of our lives and our church.
The Spirit is wild. A violent wind is the first indication that the Spirit has arrived on the scene. It breathes into the disciples just as God breathed life into Adam when God made human beings. The disciples then go and do the work of God, the work of the church: evangelism. They preach, they prophesy, they make known the powerful work of God in their midst.
The Spirit is also untamable. It does what it wants, when it wants, where it wants, for the benefit of the Kingdom of God. The Spirit has no rational explanation because the Spirit cannot be controlled. It hovered over the primordial waters of creation, before there was earth and sky, according to Genesis 1, going wherever it pleased. The Spirit is the very breath of creation itself; it is God’s creative power among us.
This same Spirit, wild and untamable, is at work within us and our church today. The Spirit is the empowerment of the church. The work of the church is the work of the Spirit, not our work.
The church exists to create justice, to bring life and life abundant as we say, to witness to the saving power of Christ in the world. In the United Methodist Church, we say the church exists “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” But this is not something we do under our own power; we do it through the leadership, empowerment, and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit is the power for the church, the lifeblood of our work, the motivation to go and do on behalf of the Kingdom of God. That’s what it means to act like we believe in the Spirit. That’s what it means to be Methodist.
It means to cede our lives to the work the Spirit wants to do through us.
So when you feel moved by a sermon and your life is changed, that’s not me; that’s the Holy Spirit urging us to respond, to be changed, to be more empowered in our faith.
When you feel that inclination to go to the altar rail, whether or not I issue a call, that’s the Holy Spirit moving in power to get us to act, or to cede a part of ourselves, or to confess a sin, so that it can do amazing things through us on behalf of the church.
When you feel overwhelmed by a sin in your life and experience the need to confess it, that’s the Holy Spirit sanctifying us so that we can be even better disciples through whom the Spirit transforms the world.
When you want to sing and be joyful during a church service, that’s the Holy Spirit filling us full of the joy of the Lord that should pervade all we do.
When you experience supernatural inclinations of any kind: to go and give someone money, to go and speak to someone, to call someone out of the blue, and anything like that; that’s the Holy Spirit.
If you’ve had experiences like I have, or if you’ve spoken in tongues, or if you’ve laid hands on someone and they’ve been healed, or if you’ve spoken a prophetic word; that’s the Holy Spirit doing what it does: empowering the work of the church so that we can be a part of how God is healing the world.
The Spirit is powerful. The Spirit can do amazing things beyond our imaginations. But the Spirit will not coerce.
We can suppress the Holy Spirit. It may create within us urgency to do something, or give us supernatural abilities, or otherwise motivate us, but the choice of whether or not to respond to the Spirit is ours. The Spirit won’t force us.
That’s because God’s love won’t force us to do anything. The choice of response is always ours. We have free will. God will not force us to participate in anything that God is doing.
So the question is whether or not we will give ourselves over to the Spirit by responding to the prompting of the Spirit in our lives; promptings that feel like urges, senses, motivations, or understandings. Will we cease to try and explain away those things, denying that the Spirit is working in our lives? Will we embrace that what we cannot explain, but what we know to be true anyway, is the Spirit moving powerfully in our lives?
Not to prove your salvation. Hear me clearly on that point. Unlike our Pentecostal brothers and sisters, we do not need to demonstrate supernatural gifting in order to demonstrate salvation.
I have no supernatural gifts to demonstrate. I’ve had the occasional supernatural experiences, like hearing Spanish as if I spoke it, but I do not speak in tongues, I do not prophesy, I do not heal people; I don’t have any of those special gifts.
But what I do have are those urges, those senses, those motivations, those understandings that come from the Holy Spirit urging me on to do the work God has called me to do. And that, I think, is universal to the Christian experience. We should sense the Holy Spirit at work in our lives; we should natively know its presence without being able to explain it. We should be aware when the Spirit is powerfully present.
And I wonder if you’ve had that awareness? Whether or not you explained it away?
I’m going to issue an altar call now for after you have received communion. If you feel prompted by the Holy Spirit to respond, just respond. Don’t worry about what others might think, don’t worry about what they might say over the lunch table after church. Worries about gossiping, fears of being looked at, shouldn’t prevent you from what the Spirit wants to give you down here at the rail. There’s a power that comes from submitting yourself to that urge you might feel because of this sermon and, in particular, this altar call.
You have a choice this morning, as you do every time I issue an altar call and you feel that urge inside of you: respond and receive whatever gift or empowerment the Spirit wants to give you, or suppress the Spirit, explaining it and the moment away. What choice will you make this morning?
If you haven’t experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in your life in some shape, form, or fashion, come down here and ask to. Submit yourself to God and pledge that you will be submissive when you experience the Spirit come on in power. And you will.
And if you have, but you haven’t been submissive, then come down here to the rail and pledge that you will be. If you’ve felt those urges before but you haven’t responded, or if you’ve been likely to explain away things you can’t understand but realize now it was the Holy Spirit, come down here to the rail.
And, mindful that creating the work of the church is the Spirit’s, not ours, if you’re in leadership here or volunteer here or are a part of the work of this church in anyway and you need to be more obedient to the Spirit’s leadership, come to the rail. For me, when I realize I haven’t been obedient to the Spirit, it’s been because I’ve decided what the priorities should be or I’ve gotten so wrapped up in the day to day work that I’ve forgotten to prayerfully talk to God about what the Spirit wants to do here. We exist, as a church, not to survive, not to keep buildings operational, not to make ourselves look good, but to witness to the saving power of Christ, to share the love of God, so that through us, the Spirit can heal our community and world.
If any of that relates, come to the rail after you have received communion. And if it doesn’t, but you feel that urge anyway, come to the rail. Don’t let fear impede you. Remember, fear is not of God. Don’t try to explain away the urge. Remember, those urges aren’t rational but they are the very essence of God himself! That urge means the Spirit wants to empower you somehow this day. Don’t squash the Spirit; respond, and discover the power of God in your life in ways that exceed your imagination.
At Pentecost, the very power and presence of God came down to earth to live among us and within us who claim the name of Jesus. That Spirit empowers us to do the work of the church, very often in ways that defy reason. It cannot be explained, it cannot be contained. We have, within us, empowering us, the very power of God, ready to move through us to offer healing to the world.
Resist the temptation to explain away the work of the Spirit. It is powerful and active still today to empower us to bring forth life and life abundant to Eastman and Dodge County. Remain open to what the Spirit wants to do in you and respond with obedience to those promptings, so that we may be “disciples of Jesus Christ” who “transform the world.”
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and especially the Holy Spirit; Amen.