A sermon preached (while wearing a mask) on
Pentecost Sunday: The Fiftieth Day of Easter at
The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete
May 31, 2020 11:00 am,
somewhat rewritten and expanded.
Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified. John 7:39
Is the Holy Spirit at work in us today?
The answer for us is undoubtedly yes, but for many centuries there was a strong current of thought that the work of the Holy Spirit was done about a hundred years after the time of Christ. Certain Protestant churches, and in Anglicanism, as well, it was believed that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were restricted to the Apostolic era. Once the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament were done, sometime around 120 CE or so, the third person of the Trinity retired. In fact, many Evangelicals across denominations continue to believe this.
So let us have a look at this belief and let me explain why I think it is wrong.
What, or Who, is the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is God, one person of the Holy Trinity. God the Father is understood to be the Source of all things, who “begets” the Son and from whom the Spirit “proceeds”. The First Person of the Trinity is the one to whom Jesus prayed and who he obeyed. The Second Person is the Word of God, through whom the world was created, and in who all living things dwell. This Word became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who preached. healed, drove out the evil things that posessed people, fed the hungry and reached out to the poor and marginalized, and ultimately was put to death by the Roman Empire and its collaborators among the Judean leadership and priesthood. This Jesus was raised from the dead to glory, and we believe him living still, and we look for his coming again.
So far so familiar (I hope). In the Gospel of John Jesus promises a Comforter for the disciples when he leaves them. This is the Spirit of God, which gives the people of God gifts for the building up of the church. Paul enumerates some of them in his First Letter to the Corinthians:
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. (1 Corinthians 12:7-11)
This is not an exhaustive list of the gufts, but you get the picture.
Now, we Christians believe that the Holy Spirit was also active in the eras before Jesus.
- Thus we hear in our first reading that the Spirit of God came upon the seventy elders, and even upon two who seemingly were not supposed to receive it.
- In Exodus 25:10 we hear of Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, who was filled with divine spirit to manufacture vessels and furnishings for the Tabernacle (i.e. the Temple).
- When Saul was king of Judah and Israel he was told that,
as you come to the town, you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the shrine with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre playing in front of them; they will be in a prophetic frenzy. Then the spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person. 1 Samuel 10:5-6
- When Saul anointed David “the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David” (1 Samuel 16:13), and he was seized with a similar frenzy when he brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem:
David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. 2 Samuel 6:5
- The prophet Isaiah looked forward to a king of the House of David, and believed that:
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. Isaiah 11:2
- The prophets experienced the Spirit. For example, Ezekiel wrote,
And when God spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. Ezekiel 2:2
While the Spirit came down upon a select few, one of the prophets believed that the ourpouring of the Spirit would be more general in the last days.
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit. Joel 2:28-29
The author of the Acts of the Apostles believed that this was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost after the resurrection of Jesus. And it does seem, both from this book of the New Testament and from many others, that the coming of the Spirit was something shared by all Christians.
That said, there was seemingly some wariness of the Holy Spirit in ancient times. After all, when the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus the first thing it did was drive him out into the desert to be tempted. The Gospel of John compares it to the wind, being equally unpredictable. Paul spends three chapters in his First Letter to the Corinthians addressing the relative importance of the gifts of the Spirit.
In the Second Century CE a man named Montanus lived in ancient Phrygia, in what is now Turkey. He claimed to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, and a new prophet. Perhaps more disturbingly to others, he had two female followers named Prisca and Maximilla, who became co-equal leaders of the movement with him. They had ecstatic visions, spoke in tongues, and claimed a lineage of prophecy going back to the daughters of Philip. They encouraged ordinary laity to practice fasting and other ascetic behaviors. They believed that their leaders could pronounce the forgiveness of sins without having to be ordained. All of this was very disturbing to the ordained leadership of the church, who were unsettled by the uncontrollable women and men of what became known as Montanism. It was condemned by various bishops and synods in the Second Century and subsequent ones, and slowly they died out by the Seventh Century.
Fast forward to John Calvin (1509-1564), the man who launched the Reformed or Calvinist stream of Protestantism. Calvnism is the historic theology and doctrine of the Church of Geneva, a large part of German Protestantism, the Netherlands, Scottish Presbyterians (and Irish), and many evangelicals. The Puritans in England sought to impose Calvinism on what they considered to be an only partially reformed church.
Jean Calvin (or Jehan Cauvin, as his mother would have known him) was a French lawyer, and renounced Catholicism for the reformed faith being preached by Martin Luther and Zwingli in Zurich. Calvin disagreed with Luther on several points, and when he was the leading pastor in Geneva he wrote the Institutes of Christian Religion, initially in 1536 and revised and massively expanded several times before his death in 1564.
Calvin disliked many things about the Catholicism of his time. One was the claim of authority by the church by virtue of the Holy Spirit For Calvin there was one authority only, and that was scripture. The claim that the Holy Spirit was active in the church legitimated Roman authority. Calvin held that ever since the canon was closed, some hundred years after Jesus’s death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit was less active. Therefore, real Christians have not needed anything since; just read the book. As well, Calvin hated all the miracles and visions of Catholicism. These were not spiritual, but probably demonic, in his opinion.
For historians and sociologists this exaltation of reason and text over the spiritual led to the disenchantment of the world. In becoming less spiritual and deeply sceptical about miracles, and more about belief and assent to propositions, Reformed Christianity created the context for the emergence of the sciences, regarding the material world not as miraculous, but as rational and subject to exploitation.
This disenchanted approach to the material world dominated Christian thought for the next four centuries. Even Catholicism became more reticent in the works of miracles among us.
But then, about 120 years ago, a group of protestant Christians, who probably had not paid much attention to Calvin, if they knew him at all, came into being in a poor part of Los Angeles. They were African-Americans, not exactly well educated by middle-class white standards, and their pastors derived from what is known as Holiness Movement that put a premium on personal sanctity.
It was led by William J. Seymour, an African American preacher at the Azusa Street Mission. It started in 1906 and continued until roughly 1915. On the night of April 9, 1906, Seymour and seven men were waiting on God. “Suddenly, as though hit by a bolt of lightning, they were knocked from their chairs to the floor” and the other seven men began to speak in tongues and shout out loud praising God. The news quickly spread; the city was stirred; crowds gathered; and a few days later Seymour himself received the Holy Spirit; services were moved outside to accommodate the crowds who came from all around; people fell down under the power of God as they approached; people were baptized in the Holy Spirit and the sick were healed and sinners received salvation.
This was the beginning of what we now call Pentecostalism. For much of the 20th century it was looked down upon by main-line denominations, especially Calvinists. They were Holy Rollers. They used popular music. Scandalously, many of their clergy were women. Could anything good come out of America – out of L.A.? They were accountable to no one, seemingly, because of their appeal that they were guided by God the Holy Spirit. They seemed less interested in theology than demonstrations of healing and speaking in tongues, which just seemed weird. It seemed wide open to abuse by fraudsters and hucksters. Their reading of the Bible seemed all too simple, with no nuance.
And yet, it grew. It spilled over into Catholicism and Anglicanism as the Charismatic movement, from the Greek word for “gifts” charismata. Arguably the majority of the growth of the church in the past 100 years has been due to the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements that had its source in Azusa Street in Los Angeles. As Christianity grew in Africa and Asia, and was remade in South America, Christians there looked back at North America and Europe and felt sorry for us here, seeing us as living in a spiritual wasteland. Finally, in the past twenty years, it has grown even in the Church of England, spreading through churches such as Holy Trinity Brompton and its Alpha course. We now have an Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who admits that he speaks in tongues and does so as part of his personal prayers.
So where might that leave us?
The Holy Spirit For All of Us
I am not a Charismatic. I don’t speak in tongues. I claim no special gifts of healing. I am probably rather skeptical of many claims of inspiration, wanting to test them against scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.
However, I cannot discount the power of the Holy Spirit.
- This is the same Spirit which propelled the small group in Jerusalem from some 120 souls to the current 2.3 billion.
- This is the same Holy Spirit which inspired the authors of the Holy Scriptures and inspires modern day prophets and activists.
- It is the Holy Spirit which reformed the church in the 16th century.
- It opened up ministry to women, and encouraged the laity to claim their baptismal ministries.
- This is the same Holy spirit that has allowed us in the past century to look across our differences as Christians and to create the ecumenical movements.
- This is the same Holy Spirit which is at work in Eastern Orthodoxy, calling the faithful into a union with Christ that allows for believers to become ever more like Jesus, thus allowing the human to become divinized.
- It is the same Holy Spirit we call down on the bread and wine so that it may be for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
- It is that Holy Spirit which allows us to be the Body of Christ, a mystery that goes beyond propositions and text.
And, I suggest, it is that same power which founded the church here some seventeen years ago, and which will carry us on for years to come.
So, yes, the Holy Spirit is at work in us, even if we do not speak in tongues. Come Holy Spirit. Maranatha. Come Lord, come.