Sermon – We are all Pentecostals…
hough tonight we’re gathered together in an Anglican context, using the liturgical prayers of the Anglican tradition, we’re all Pentecostals. Though many here are more likely to self-identify as Mennonite or maybe Baptist rather than as Anglican, we’re all Pentecostals. Though many of us here would make no claims to have had particularly startling religious experiences—and many might even find the idea of charismatic expressions of faith to be utterly foreign or maybe even a bit off the wall—we’re all Pentecostals. To read aloud tonight’s text from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2.1-21), and to respond to the phrase “The Word of the Lord” by saying “Thanks be to God”, confirms it. We are a people formed—birthed—in the light of the fire of Pentecost.
I’m not playing word games here. Yes, there is a particular movement that had its start in the early 1900s on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, which over the years became what we know as the Pentecostal church. Beginning with a meeting in 1906 led by the African American preacher William Seymour, a revival movement characterized by ecstatic spiritual experiences continued there for more than a decade. Among the things that most scandalized outsiders about this revival movement was the prominent role it gave to women and the fact that it allowed and even encouraged fellowship between blacks and whites.
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Those experiences—and to some extent the way in which the movement stretched and challenged the set social norms and rules of the day—spread across the continent. In fact, a parallel movement took off at roughly the same time in Wales, almost as if the fire of the Holy Spirit had jumped the ocean. For people impacted by the movement, it was exhilarating. For those outside of it, it seemed a worrying thing… perhaps even heretical. Among those concerned by the movement was my great-grandfather, Sidney Smith, who from the pulpit of Elim Chapel actually preached against what he considered an unhealthy fixation on ecstatic experience. “The filling of the Spirit,” he preached, “really comes through the reading of God’s Word, accepting it in faith, and acting upon it. The Holy Spirit does not take control of us against out will.”
For those of you here who have a connection to Providence College, you might be interested to know that in 1930 a Pentecostal movement caught the imaginations of a group of students at what was then the Winnipeg Bible Institute. The school was divided into camps, and ultimately the principal—who had showed some decidedly Pentecostal leanings—was forced to resign.
It was something repeated in churches and colleges across the continent, as Pentecostal, Apostolic and Holiness groups splintered into smaller and smaller—stricter and more enclosed—churches and denominations. It also produced some rather bizarre variations, including the snake-handling churches of the American South, which took to heart an obscure verse from the end of Mark’s gospel: “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.” (Mark 16:18)
Yet we’re all Pentecostals. The Feast of the Pentecost marks the birth of the church. In Luke’s narrative, what had been a company of disciples, friends and followers of Jesus became on that day of Pentecost a whole new thing. After walking with him and learning from him; after facing the desolation of his execution and the surprising new day that was his resurrection; after experiencing his going forth from them and hearing his words of promise that God was about to do come upon them in a new way…
“The new day begins with an eruption of sounds from heaven and of wind,” writes William Willimon. “Things are coming loose, breaking open. Can it be the same wind that swept across dark waters, the wind of creation (Gen. 1)? The wind is once again bringing something to life.”
That something new is the church. Not a formal institutional, upper-case “C” Church, but what Paul would soon come to describe as the Body of Christ. A company of people whose hearts and minds had been transformed and whose lives had been reshaped in the Spirit and after the pattern of Christ. And it starts with a bang; or, more accurately, with wind and fire. “Luke goes to great pains to insist that this outpouring of the Spirit is anything but interior,” comments Willimon.
Everything is wind and fire, loud talk, buzzing confusion, and public debate. The Spirit is the power which enables the church to ‘go public’ with its good news, to attract a crowd and to have something to say worth hearing.
And according to Luke, when the church does go public with its good news, it is understood by everyone gathered in Jerusalem, regardless of what language they spoke. “Parthians, Medes, Elamites…” well, you heard the long, tongue-twisting list that Shauna read aloud to us from the Acts passage. All of these different peoples heard the Galilean disciples speaking not in Aramaic but in their own languages. The good news proclaimed in a dozen or more different languages; the good news as the mother tongue of every people.
That’s not the same thing as the ecstatic speech or the “tongues of angels” that Paul will later write about in his first letter to the Corinthians. Those experiences were clearly a part of the life of at least some communities of the early church, though Paul is very concerned that they not be pursued for their own sake: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Cor. 13:1) No, what Luke is presenting here in this second chapter of Acts is a boundary-breaking image in which the good news is be heard by everyone as his or her first language. It is an extraordinary event, but in different ways it actually keeps happening all the way through Acts; when Philip climbs up onto the chariot with the Ethiopian court official to help him to read the writings of Isaiah with Christian eyes; as Peter sits with the Roman centurion Cornelius and helps him to see Jesus; as Paul tells the story to Gentiles around the Mediterranean; again and again people are invited to enter into the Body of Christ, and the invitation is issued as the new mother tongue of each. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3.28)
It doesn’t end with the close of the New Testament. My friend Ben Arreak, an Inuit bishop in the Arctic, tells the story of how prior to the arrival of the missionaries his own grandfather was met by Christ. In the deepest coldest winter, hunting for a seal to feed his starving family, he saw an image of a wounded man and heard all around him music like nothing he’d ever heard before. As the sound and vision began to fade, a seal suddenly came up through the ice, and he was able to harpoon it and save his family from starvation. In the spring of that year, a missionary arrived in their camp, speaking their language and bringing both pictures of that wounded man and music—a hymn—that the hunter recognized from his long night out on the ice. That day he declared himself a follower of Jesus.
Two things. We must be open to being swept up by the same Spirit, perhaps even in extraordinary ways. And when we as a church born at Pentecost are called by the Spirit to ‘go public’ with the good news, the story we tell must not be limited by our own prejudgments and presuppositions. It might just be that the most extraordinary and revolutionary expression of the Spirit of God that took place on Azusa Street back in 1906 was the way in which the old prejudices and barriers of race and gender fell away. In Christ and through the Spirit, “the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.” (1 John 2:8)
Our God comes and does not keep silence,
before him is a devouring fire,
and a mighty tempest all around him.
We are all Pentecostals.