Acts 2:1-21 Pentecost
Dale Matthews. He’s a doctor, probably retired now, but I’m not sure about that. He lived in McLean, where I used to live. Maybe he still DOES live in McLean, with his wife, Karen. His daughter was good friends with my daughter, and so we were acquaintances. I found out during our usually harried discussions, either dropping off or picking up our girls after playdates, that Dale had written a book. That’s cool in itself. But the topic of his book was especially interesting to me. It was about faith. I bought the book, read it. It was surprisingly good! It was about this believing doctor’s take on faith as a prescription for healing— If you’re interested, I found out this week, it’s still in print. The book is titled, The Faith Factor: Proof of the Healing Power of Prayer.
I thought the church I served would enjoy hearing from him. I invited him to speak, at an after-worship get-together. Dale graciously accepted my invitation.
Fast forward. We are meeting in our Fellowship Hall. It’s a large gathering of church folk. His talk is going well. Dale is an able speaker. But then, I think it was during the Q and A, that followed his talk-- Dale recounts his coming to faith. He says that early on in life he wasn’t particularly religious. However, as a young adult, he had been having some personal difficulties. He tells us he was visiting a small Pentecostal church. He was in worship, when(quote), “I was slain by the spirit.” Slain by the spirit? Remember we are in a Presbyterian Church fellowship hall. Listeners’ eyes get wide. Folks sit up a little straighter in their chairs—and lean in. Dale tells us he was thrown to the floor, I imagined he was writhing—but I am not sure he actually said that. Anyway, he began crying uncontrollably in that worship space. That was his moment of conversion.
I remember thinking, and forgive me for this, O Lord, yet did I think it: “Oh no! And Dale seems so normal!” And I wondered then as I still wonder, “What does his wife think?”
Dale’s talk was still very well received, but I heard comments from more than one church member, after. “That story about his conversion was odd, don’t you think?”
And yet, and yet, even we Presbyterians know—we know that being slain by the spirit, speaking in tongues, and other ecstatic happenings are part of our Christian faith tradition. The story in scripture we have before us, often referred to as the birthday of the church—has everything to do with the holy spirit—and the ecstatic nature of the Christ movement. You don’t have to read much of the New Testament, to conclude that the ecstasy at Pentecost wasn’t just a one-time event.
Apostle Paul, remember, fell to the ground, was blinded by a great light, and heard the crucified Jesus say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul also spoke in tongues. He writes in a letter to the church in Corinth, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.” Finally, Paul experienced trances. In Acts, he reports, “After I had returned to Jerusalem and while I was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw Jesus saying to me, “Hurry and get out of Jerusalem quickly….”
Peter experienced at least one trance, too. While in a dream-like state, remember, he sees a sheet come down from heaven, with animals on it—animals that were not considered “clean” or kosher by Jews. That trance convinces him that Gentiles—those eaters of unclean animals, should nevertheless be welcomed into Christian fellowship.
All to say, in New Testament times, speaking in tongues and trances were interpreted as manifestations of the Spirit.
So why do speaking in tongues and trances, shaking, quaking, and all the rest, why do they make good Presbyterians so uncomfortable? If someone were “slain by the spirit,” or started speaking in tongues here in THIS sanctuary, tell me that we wouldn’t quick call 911. That’s what I wanted to discover this week, the reason for our Presbyterian anti-Holy-Spirit bias.
Early on this week, I blamed John Calvin. You know John Calvin. He is the founder of Presbyterianism. He was trained as a lawyer. You’ve seen his picture before, but here it is again. He looks dour, severe, right? John Calvin definitely does not look like a holy roller type, does he? So was it John Calvin who sucked vibrant energy out of our religious lives? I wish we could pin it on him, but that wouldn’t be fair. John Calvin himself experienced a conversion—which he writes about:
God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame… which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, yet I pursued them with less ardour.
John Calvin, was inflamed? He says so. And actually that meshes with a lot else we know about him. He couldn’t, wouldn’t have put his life on the line, over and over again, unless he had a strong emotional commitment to God and Jesus--unless he was, as he himself says, “inflamed.” John Calvin’s looks, then, are deceiving.
But, but, John Calvin DID have a high regard for education. He believed that every Christian should be able to read the Bible for him or herself. In Geneva, where he served as pastor, he founded a public school, still in existence, the Collège de Genève.
And, when European Presbyterians came to America in the 1700’s—what did they do? They built Presbyterian Churches, yes, but they also built schools. The church I used to serve, founded in 1769, that’s BEFORE the Revolutionary War, isn’t that amazing?-- established a school right next door to its sanctuary. That was the norm, not the exception. It was also the norm, that the one learnéd person in the community, the pastor, was both the preacher and the school’s headmaster. Those early Presbyterian pastors stayed busy!
Could it be, then, that John Calvin’s emphasis on education is both a blessing and an unintentional curse? Have we Presbyterians decided that we can think and read and study our way into believing--into a relationship with God? Has our emphasis on education overshadowed what should be a high regard for the Holy Spirit?
Maybe. But then I thought to myself. If someone at St. Anne’s Parish, Scottsville United Methodist or maybe even Scottsville Baptist Church, in other words churches NOT so education focused—if someone at any of these churches were slain by the spirit, during worship, 911 would also be the go-to response. So this anti-holy-spirit bias is not JUST a Presbyterian thing. Hummmm.
Finally, as I sat at my desk thinking hard, I remembered something theologian Walter Bruggeman wrote. Maybe you’ve heard of him? He writes that church traditions can force out the Holy Spirit. Could it be? The Presbyterian Church has been around for centuries—we have lots of traditions. The Episcopal, Methodist and Baptist denominations are not quite as old, but they are still old. Again, lots of traditions.
How is it, that tradition interferes with the Holy Spirit? Well, let’s take for example the Lord’s prayer. We pray that every Sunday in worship. For good reason. In Matthew, we read that Jesus and his disciples climb a mountain. Imagine the disciples taking seated positions on soft grass, at Jesus’ feet. It’s spring. Birds are singing. Crickets are chirping. A gentle breeze plays with the disciples’ hair. Peter asks, “Jesus, how should we pray?” Jesus has the twelve bow their heads. Then Jesus says the words that begin, ”Our father, who art in heaven.” He pronounces the words thoughtfully, lovingly.
For the next 2,000 years in obsessive-compulsive fashion, we Christians do all WE can to recreate that moment. “We must pray the same prayer Jesus prayed, using the exact same words Jesus used! But wait a minute! Is it debts or is it trespasses? Or maybe its sins?” We argue about that. Finally, we agree on the words. Then, praying the Lord’s prayer becomes a worship tradition. Sometimes though, maybe most times, we recite it more than pray it, if you get my meaning. The Holy Spirit isn’t in it.
If that’s what is happening in our churches, can we reverse the trend? Might we re-infuse our worship with the Spirit? Brueggemann says we can. He encourages us to use our God-given imaginations. Maybe sometimes we pray the Lord’s prayer using no words at all. Now there’s a challenge for you! We use music notes instead; or maybe we capture the sentiments of the Lord’s prayer in art, poetry, drama, photography, quilting, cooking, woodworking, and of course by exhibiting good Christian traits like patience, generosity and joy—Paul refers to these as the fruits of the spirit.
I want to end this sermon, with one artist’s interpretation of Pentecost using HIS imagination, that is to say HIS fruits of spirit. John, a member at the last church I served, is an artist, a painter in oils. So, think creative, imaginative soul. That very old church established remember, in 1769—has a correspondingly old sanctuary— not quite as old as that, but still old--built in 1809. The arched ceiling in that sanctuary is secured with exposed iron rods. They are called scissor trusses—which may be more than you want to know, but anyway, there you have it.
Artist John thought that the church ought to have flames at Pentecost. So, he took strips of yellow and red fabric –flames--and tied those pieces of fabric to 10 very long lengths of fishing line—lines long enough to span the length of our sanctuary. If you held up a line, the yellow and red “flames” would dangle. Got that image? Then to one end of each of the 10 long fishing lines he attached a tennis ball. On the Saturday before Pentecost Sunday, 5 years running, John and I met at the church. John would go up to the balcony, which was at one end of the sanctuary, while I stayed below in the chancel area. John would throw into the air a tennis ball with the line and those “flames” attached. If he threw it just right, it would go over the trusses and land near me. I would secure the lines and tennis balls to the legs of the communion table. The final product was amazing to behold! Looking up, you saw, hanging from those scissor trusses, a colorful display of Pentecost tongues of fire!
Definitely Not a Presbyterian tradition, not even a Christian tradition, but the fruits of the spirit. And that’s ok. In fact, that’s what Pentecost is all about. Amen