Tag Archives: Pentecost

The Pushy Holy Spirit

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 There’s an old saying about how God in Jesus Christ “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable,” and I see this clearly in the Biblical symbolism of the person and work of the Holy Spirit.  Some of the images are tender and mild.  Others are “strong and pushy and relentless.”  The Holy Spirit “doesn’t just coddle and comfort” us, the Holy Spirit also confronts and challenges us.

The Bible opens with the Spirit of God moving on the face of the deep (Genesis 1:2), “bringing order and beauty out of chaos, bringing light into the darkness… That’s what the Spirit of God does. The Spirit of God moves! God’s Spirit is not inert or unmoving or static… God’s Spirit is not distant or aloof or imperceptible…  The Spirit of God moves!  The Spirit of God is living, moving, dynamic, connected, involved, even intrusive. It comes close to us, brushes up against us, blows through us, breathes into us”  (Ensworth).  And this is the Holy Spirit that we bump into in the Book of Acts on the day of Pentecost.

 The description of what happened on the first day of Pentecost is not quiet and peaceful.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. (Acts 2:1-3)

It was noisy and chaotic. People were frightened and confused.  There was wind and fire.  The church was pushed out of its comfort zone and right into the mission of God.  One of the first things that Pope Francis said after his election was that when the Holy Spirit shows up the church is going to be pushed outward and onward, and chances are pretty good that the church is not going to like it one little bit.

The Holy Spirit annoys us. The Spirit moves us, makes us walk, pushes the church to move forward. [But] we want the Holy Spirit to calm down. We want to tame the Holy Spirit, and that just won’t do. The Holy Spirit gives us consolation and the strength to move forward and the moving forward part is what can be such a bother. People think it’s better to be comfortable, but that is not what the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit brings.

What the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit brings is momentum. Jesus told His disciples right before Pentecost that they would receive “power” when the Holy Spirit came upon them, and that they would then become His witnesses beginning in Jerusalem, and then expanding outwards to Judea, and then expanding outwards again to Samaria, and then finally expanding out to the very ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).  These ever widening circles of influence and impact are the work of the Holy Spirit. As John Howard Yoder pointed out, the church never sat down to strategize her mission, to work out the logic and logistics of it all.  No, Professor Yoder said, the church’s mission was subject entirely to the Holy Spirit’s initiative. In the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit was always pushing the church past its present borders and across the thresholds to those who were standing just beyond its doors.

dove

The above image is, in my mind, the nearly perfect expression of what the Holy Spirit does. It’s abstract enough for different people to be able to see different things in it, but what I see is a boat on the crest of a wave with its sail set to catch the wind in a storm, and the shape of that billowing sail in the wind is the image of the Holy Spirit as a dove.  The way it looks to me, that boat has deliberately set its sail to catch the wind that is the Spirit in order to be propelled onward, and this has been, for me, one of the big defining images for my spiritual life.  In fact, it’s the basis for one of my favorite hymns, “I Feel the Winds of God Today”

I feel the winds of God today, today my sail I lift.
Though heavy, oft with drenching spray and torn with many a rift…
If cast on shores of selfish ease or pleasure I should be,
Lord, let me feel Thy freshening breeze, and I’ll put back to sea…                    

The Holy Spirit does not drag us as a passive weight to go where God needs us to go to do what God needs us to do. To be sure, when the Holy Spirit “comes close to us, brushes up against us, blows through us, breathes into us,” it is as an active agent with a predetermined outcome in mind. The Holy Spirit pushes. But whether or not we let out the sail and catch the wind of the Spirit that’s blowing is a decision we’ve each got to make, and it is one of the great and painful truths of the Bible that we can “resist” the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51), and we can “grieve” the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), and we can “quench” the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19).  I’m pretty sure that he was overstating the case for effect, but Morton Kelsey used to say that there is something that is even stronger than God in this world, and that it’s you and me, for we can shut God out should we so choose, and Pentecost is all about that choice.

Pentecost is about how the Holy Spirit blows into our lives – pushing us closer to Jesus, pushing us deeper into the Word, pushing us nearer to each other in love, and pushing us outward in God’s mission to the world. And so Pentecost leaves us each with a decision.  The next time we “feel the wind of God” blowing through our lives, pushing us in new directions, can you, will you pray – “Great Pilot of my onward way… today my sail I lift”?    Our faithfulness as individual Christians and the very future of the church depends, in no small measure, on how we respond when the Holy Spirit starts pushing. DBS +

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“Something More”

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I actually have a certificate signed by the Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles that says I received the Holy Spirit together with His Sevenfold Gifts (Isaiah 11:1-2) when he laid his hands on me at my Confirmation in 1965 when I was 12 years old. But up to that point, and for a number of years afterwards, my experience of the Holy Spirit was just about as flat as that piece of paper.

In 1974 Catherine Marshall wrote her book Something More in which she explained that there is “a big difference between being indwelt by the Spirit and being ‘filled’ with His presence.” She explained that “for years (and sometimes for a lifetime) a Christian can keep the Spirit at a sub-basement level by the insistence on running one’s own life. Then through teaching or need – or both – that person recognizes his divine Guest’s presence, opens hitherto closed doors into crayon rooms in his being so that the Spirit can enter there too… It is not God’s attitude toward us that needs to be changed, but our attitude toward Him.  He will not give us anything new; rather we are to receive in a new and far fuller sense that which He has already given us at Pentecost… Sunlight can be kept out only by erecting barriers against it.  All we need do then, is take down our shutters and barriers and walk out into the sunlight already given” (276).  Until and unless this happens, she said, we will operate at a level well below what God intends for us spiritually, and we will experience this deficit as “an aching void in our hearts.”

It was a feeling of this kind of emptiness that brought J. Rodman Williams, a well-known and highly respected Presbyterian theologian, to the place of seeking “something more.”  In his 1972 book The Pentecostal Reality he wrote –

At the heart of much of our life and activity a deep spiritual crisis exists. Despite multiple attempts by the church at reassessment and relevance, there remains the haunting sense of something lacking or unfulfilled and a feeling of spiritual impotence… Where, many are asking, is the dynamic reality of God’s presence? In an article appearing in “The Christian Century” (May 13, 1979) entitled “The Power of Pentecost: We Need it More Now Than Ever,” the author asks, “Why in every sector of Christianity today… [is] there so little evidence of spiritual power…?” “I am haunted,” he continues, “by the memory of Pentecost and its power surging into the hearts of the disciples long, long ago.  Where is that power today?  Can it come among us again?”  Then, finally, he adds, “It is time we took Pentecost seriously and eagerly received a new infusion of the Holy Spirit.”

I believe that it is this awareness of “something missing” that prepares us for the “something more” that the experience of the fullness of the Holy Spirit brings into our spiritual lives.  It’s when we hunger and thirst for the reality of the things that we believe are true that we will start to ask, and knock, and seek, and that’s when Jesus said that the fullness of the Holy Spirit will be given to us (Luke 11:13).

My spiritual awakening happened in 1965.  That’s when I was “born again,” and I believe that it was at that time that I was forgiven and given the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is just “part of the package” of Christian conversion Biblically.  You can’t be a Christian and not have the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38; Romans 8:9; I Corinthians 12:3; Galatians 3:1-5). But in my experience it wouldn’t be for another six years that I would “receive” or “make welcome” the Holy Spirit who indwelt me when I first believed.  For six long years the Holy Spirit had been living in the house of my life, but I wasn’t aware of His presence or consciously plugged into His power.  This happens because, as the Reformed Biblical Theologian Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) explained –

In (the) great redeeming process two stages are to be distinguished. First come those acts of God which have a universal and objective significance, being aimed at the production of an organic center for the new order of things. After this had been accomplished, there follows a second stage during which this objective redemption is subjectively applied to individuals.

I’d believed the objective work of God in Christ to save me, but I’d not had a conscious experience of this saving work of God in Christ subjectively applied to me. I see this dynamic at work in the great “Apostolic Benediction” of 2 Corinthians 13:14 –

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.”
 

Salvation is the work of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It originates in the love of the Father.  It is accomplished by the grace of the Son in the finished work of His atoning death, burial and resurrection.   And it is applied by the communion of the Holy Spirit, by the way that the Holy Spirit communicates God’s grace in Christ to us and facilitates our sharing in it.  When we resist (Acts 7:51), quench (1 Thessalonians 5:19), and grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), we close the door on the Spirit’s indwelling and empowering presence in our lives, and miss the conscious experience of the adequate spiritual dynamic for the living of the Christian life that God in Christ intends for us.

Jeffrey Simmons was an Episcopal Priest who was irritated when some members of his parish kept urging him to go to a certain conference where he could “get the Spirit.”   He finally wound up going, but resolved that he wasn’t going to let anybody pray for him while he was there.  Dodging offers to be prayed over at every turn, and becoming increasingly irritated by the whole idea, he finally retreated to a quiet garden where he could hide.

Sitting with my back against the trunk of a tree, I tried to sort out my feelings. I felt trapped (someone else had driven and I didn’t have a car.)  I felt pressured and manipulated… But as the sunlight sparkling through the cool green leaves started to calm me, I became aware that I (also) felt curious and a little ashamed of myself for not being more adventurous.  The theme of the conference, boiled down to the essentials, was nothing more than, “God wants to have a closer and more productive relationship with you, if you will just open yourself to receive it.”  I couldn’t argue with that… so I sat under that tree fir an hour and a half praying the hardest I had ever prayed in my life, “Dear God, if you have something for me that I don’t have, I’ll take it.”

Several decades later, I still look back at that time of prayer with gratitude. I was not aware, when I emerged from under the tree, that anything had changed.  It was not an emotional experience at all.  The changes happened gradually over the next six months.  Prayer became a hunger, and the sense of God’s presence far more intense.  The amount of money I spent on Christian books increased dramatically. The biggest change, however, was what happened when I read the Bible.  Passages I had read fifty times took on a vividness and urgency that were almost disorienting.  All I had said was, “God, if you have something for me that I don’t have, I’ll take it.” …It simply says, as I think Christians should always say, that God always has more for me, and I am standing before him with empty, receptive hands.

Biblically, I believe that the normal Christian life consists of both being “born again” (John 3:3) and of being “Spirit-filled” (Ephesians 5:18). Jesus Christ as the Savior came to do both.  He is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and He is the “One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33).  But my spiritual life had been artificially truncated because nobody ever told me this, or showed me in Scripture how this was so.  As the disciples of John the Baptist told Paul outside of Ephesus in Acts 19:2 – I hadn’t even been told “that there was a Holy Spirit!”  And then, everything changed for me when at a prayer meeting when I was encouraged to “receive” or “make welcome” the Holy Spirit.  I did, and what I had known for a long long time was true suddenly became just as real to me, in me, and that’s the promise that Pentecost holds for each one of us.  “Come Holy Spirit, Come!DBS +

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Why don’t we Celebrate Pentecost like we do Christmas and Easter?

The Absence of a “Conscious Experience” of the Holy Spirit
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doveThe next big “event” in our life of faith and worship as a church will be Pentecost – Sunday, June 4th.  Pentecost doesn’t get the attention that Christmas and Easter do.  If the truth be told, Pentecost doesn’t even get the attention that Mother’s Day and the Fourth of July get in most of our churches.  And that’s a shame because this thing that we call Christianity just doesn’t work without what it is that Pentecost promises to provide.

In memorable language, E. Stanley Jones called the Holy Spirit the “adequate dynamic” we are offered for the living of the Christian life. He wrote – “I cannot imagine that Jesus, whose coming was specifically to baptize with the Holy Spirit, would lay before us the amazing charter of the new life [in the Sermon on the Mount] and then fail to mention the one power that could make the whole thing possible, namely, the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Pentecost marks the occurrence of an unrepeatable event in salvation history like the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, or the death of Christ on the cross, or His resurrection from the garden tomb. These things happened just once.  They have profound and continuing implications for our thinking, being and doing – to be sure – but they are events that happened in time and space once and for all.   Alister McGrath, the British Theologian, described them as “hard historical facts,” events, which if they did not happen, destroy the credentials and claims of Christianity.

The unrepeatable event of salvation history that Pentecost marks was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as the sign of the inauguration of the new covenant that God’s Messiah came to establish. When the dramatic events of Pentecost Sunday began unfolding in Jerusalem 50 days after Easter (Acts 2:1-4), and people were beginning to ask what it all meant, Peter connected the dots between what was happening right in front of them with the promise that God had made to them long before through the Prophets about a coming day when God would pour out His Spirit on all flesh and a new way of relating to God would be created thereby (Joel 2:28-32//Acts 2:14-21).  The indwelling presence of God in each believer was part of the promised blessings of the new covenant (Ezekiel 36:22-27; Jeremiah 31:31-34), and it was part of the work of Christ as a “Spirit-person” who operated Himself in the fullness of the Spirit’s presence and power in the days of His public ministry (Matthew 3:16-17 ~ 4:1; Mark 1:10-11 ~ 1:12; Luke 3:21-22 ~ 4:1; John 1:32), and who promised to then bestow this same gift on His disciples (“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” – Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16 ~ 24:49//Acts 1:8; John 1:33; 7:39; 14:16-17; 15:26; 16:7) just as soon as He went away.

Pentecost marks the moment of the initial fulfillment of this promise in salvation history, and it signals the beginning of a new dispensation in our relationship with God (2 Corinthians 3:3; 5-8). The new thing that God did for the very first time on Pentecost Sunday has become a standard part of the normal Christian life ever since.  When we repent and are baptized, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).  The gift of the Holy Spirit when we first believe is now part of the normative pattern of conversion in the New Testament (Acts 19:2; Romans 8:9; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Galatians 3:1-5; Ephesians 1:13-14; I John 2:20-27).  It’s part of the standard package.

The problem is that this is not something that most of us were told anything about when we became Christians.   Oh, the Holy Spirit was named in the baptismal formula (Matthew 28:19) that was spoken, and I believe that we were all given the promised gift of the Holy Spirit at that moment because that’s what the Scriptures say happens, but experientially, it seems to me that the gift of the Holy Spirit was something that arrived without instructions and that therefore got left unopened on the front doorsteps of our Christian lives, leaving us to try to manage the continuing Christian life and the church’s mission in our own strength without the “adequate spiritual dynamic” that that makes the whole thing possible in the first place.

wrapI had two great spinster aunts from out-of- state who sent me ties for Christians throughout my childhood and youth. Every year, it was a tie – hardly the heart’s desire of a little boy at Christmastime.  And so in the annual frenzy of present-opening on Christmas morning, when it came to their package, I’d smile, shrug and throw it, still in its holiday wrapping, onto the pile of presents that I’d amassed.   And then when all of that loot got transferred to my bedroom, that unopened box with its tie in it would get tossed into the closet where it disappeared in the detritus of a boy’s life that inevitably winds up on the floor buried under layers and layers of stuff, not to be seen or heard from again, that is, unless those spinster aunts suddenly make a surprise visit to Southern California!  Then you were sent scurrying to find one of those ties so that it could be worn appreciatively at a big family dinner.  This has become something of a parable of the Holy Spirit’s presence in my own life as a Christian.

I believe that I was given the Holy Spirit when I first believed, but I sure didn’t know who, or what, or why? I didn’t have a clue about what to do with the Holy Spirit that I had been given, so I just pushed the Holy Spirit to the side like an unwanted and unopened present on Christmas morning, and then I didn’t give the Holy Spirit another thought until years later, when spiritually exhausted and frustrated, I got to the end of my own natural abilities and capacities, and I went scrambling through the detritus on the floor of my soul for that gift that I had been given long before but had cast aside as my journey of faith had begun. It was only when it had become agonizingly clear to me that I wasn’t strong enough or smart enough to “run” either the church or my own life, that I went back looking for the “adequate dynamic” that had been offered to me when I first believed, and that had been refused by me in my ignorance and pride.

A.W. Tozer, one of my most trusted and enduring spiritual directors, wrote –

…Let me shock you at this point. A naturally bright person can carry on religious activity without a special gift from God. Filling church pulpits every week are some who are using only natural abilities and special training. Some are known as Bible expositors, for it is possible to read and study commentaries and then repeat what has been learned about the Scriptures. Yes, it may shock you, but it is true that anyone able to talk fluently can learn to use religious phrases and can become recognized as a preacher. But if any person is determined to preach so that his work and ministry will abide in the day of the judgment fire, then he must preach, teach and exhort with the kind of love and concern that comes only through a genuine gift of the Holy Spirit—something beyond his own capabilities…

…The Christian church cannot rise to its true stature in accomplishing God’s purposes when its members neglect the true gifts and graces of God’s Spirit. Much of the religious activity we see in our churches is not the eternal working of the Eternal Spirit but the mortal working of man’s mortal mind.” (A. W. Tozer – Tragedy in the Church: The Missing Gifts – 1978)

A church that fails to celebrate Pentecost, or that obscures the outpouring of God’s empowering Spirit on Christians and the church in the way that it actually does celebrate Pentecost, is a church whose “conscious experience” of the Holy Spirit is weak and at real risk.  It’s a month now until Pentecost on the church calendar. And just as the season of Lent prepares us spiritually for the event and experience of Easter, and just as the season of Advent prepares us spiritually for the event and experience of Christmas, so these next four weeks provide us with an opportunity to prepare ourselves spiritually for the event and experience of Pentecost. The monastic community with which I have had an association has a guide that they offer to people as a way of getting them spiritually ready for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The Risen Christ told His disciples to “tarry” in Jerusalem “until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:48), and it is my observation and experience that this fullness of the Spirit is something for which we must get prepared.  It’s something that must be sought –

“So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish?  Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion?  If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Luke 11:9-13)

Again, A.W. Tozer is helpful –

fly…It is in the preparation for receiving the Spirit’s anointing that most Christians fail… No one can be filled with the Holy Spirit until he is convinced that being filled with the Holy Spirit is a part of the total plan of God in redemption; that it is nothing added or extra, nothing strange or queer, but a proper and spiritual operation of God… The inquirer must be sure to the point of conviction. He must believe that the whole thing is normal and right. …Unless he is persuaded from the Scriptures he should not press the matter nor allow himself to fall victim to the emotional manipulators intent upon forcing the issue. God is wonderfully patient and understanding and will wait for the slow heart to catch up with the truth.

In these next few weeks leading up to Pentecost I will be sharing in my blog some of the things that I have learned about the Holy Spirit through my “conscious experience” of the Holy Spirit through the years.  And then in the nine days immediately before Pentecost this year, I will be sharing a day-by-day prayer experience designed to prepare all of us for afresh outpouring of the presence, power and provision of the God in us and on the church.  I invite you to join me on the journey. DBS +

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A Prayer for Revival by C H Spurgeon

O God, send us the Holy Spirit! Give us both the breath spiritual life and the fire of unconquerable zeal. You are our God, answer us by fire, we pray! Answer us both by wind and fire, and then we shall see You are God indeed. The Kingdom comes not, and the work is flagging. O, that You would send the wind and fire! You will do this when we are all of one accord, all believing, all expecting, all prepared by prayer. Lord, bring us to this waiting state! God, send us a season of glorious disorder. O, for a sweep of the wind that will set the seas in motion, and make our ironclad church, laying so quietly at anchor, to roll from stem to stern! O for the fire to fall again – a fire which shall effect the most stolid! O, that such fire might first sit upon the disciples, and then fall on all around! O God, You are ready to work with us today even as You did then. Stay not, we plead with You, but work at once. Break down every barrier that hinders the incoming of Your might! Give us now both hearts of flame and tongues of fire to preach Your reconciling word, for Jesus’ sake! Amen!”

 

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The Holy Spirit is like a Donkey

Mark Moore, a Stone/Campbell theologian who teaches at a Christian College in Missouri, explains the symbolism of the Holy Spirit as a donkey like this –

blueThe Holy Spirit acts like a donkey. Sure there may be many other and perhaps even better metaphors for the Holy Spirit, but this one just fits so well. For if the Christian life is a pilgrimage or long journey, then the Holy Spirit is what makes the journey possible. On such pilgrimages, it wasn’t uncommon for the person making the trip to take along a donkey as a pack animal. That animal carried the burden of the needed supplies and materials to make the journey a success. In a sense, the donkey was the real secret to making the journey possible. And in exactly the same way it is the Holy Spirit who makes the Christian life possible and successful for us.

 I’m pretty sure that this is what Jesus meant in John’s account of the Upper Room when He repeatedly called the Holy Spirit the “Paraclete.” Between John chapter 13 and John chapter 17 – the section of the Gospel of John that the scholars call the “Farewell Discourse” – Jesus named the Holy Spirit the “Paraclete” 4 times – in 14:14-17; in 14:25-26 in 15:26-27 and in 16:7. Depending on the translation of the Bible that you use, the word that Jesus used to talk about the Holy Spirit – the “Paraclete” – shows up as “comforter,” “advocate,” “counselor,” intercessor”, “teacher,” “helper” or “friend.” But to the best of my knowledge, no modern translation of the Bible ever renders the word as “donkey,” but that really wouldn’t be very far from the actual meaning of the word.

paraclete

In the Greek of the New Testament, the word “Paraclete” that Jesus used four times in the Upper Room to talk about the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John, is a compound word that consists of a preposition – “para” meaning “”from close-beside” and a verb “kaléō” meaning “to make a call.” A “Paraclete” is literally someone who is called alongside to help – like a donkey that carries the supplies that sustain you on a long and difficult journey.  My favorite explanation of the meaning of this word was the way that E. Stanley Jones described the Holy Spirit as the “adequate spiritual dynamic” for the living of the Christian life.  He was very clear that Christianity just doesn’t work without the Holy Spirit’s empowering presence. He wrote –

jonrd I cannot imagine that Jesus, whose coming was specifically to baptize us with the Holy Spirit, would lay before us the amazing charter of the new life [in His Sermon on the Mount], and then fail to mention the one power that could make the whole thing possible, namely, the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. It is unthinkable! (257)

 …There must be a transfusing in order for there to be a transformation. And so Jesus provided the one thing that makes effective everything He said about the new and different way that He was calling His disciples to live, the inner re-enforcement of our moral [and spiritual] natures with an immediate and saving contact with the divine. (258)

The tragedy of the Christian life for so many of us is that we have never been told this. We hear the Gospel, we become disciples of Christ in the waters of baptism, we are told to observe everything that Christ commanded, and then we get patted on the head and pushed out the door while being wished good luck.  It’s not long before we are spiritually exhausted and discouraged. The experience of the Christian life that many of us have had has been compared to a schoolroom full of eager students who are given a difficult assignment by a teacher who then steps out of the room and leaves her students to try to get it done all by themselves (J.D. Greear).  This is not New Testament Christianity.

birdNew Testament Christianity is Holy Spirit-inspired, Holy Spirit-prompted and Holy Spirit-empowered. Jesus Christ never intended us to be Christians or to do church all on our own. This is why on the night before He died one of the last things that Jesus talked about with His friends was the advantage that would be theirs just as soon as the Paraclete – the “Helper” – the “Adequate Spiritual Dynamic” for the living of the Christian life and for the doing of the Church’s Mission – came.

Pentecost is the day in salvation history when the advantage that Jesus Christ promised would be ours just as soon as the Paraclete was given became a reality. But we are missing of Pentecost if we think of it only as a day when we are remembering something that happened a long time ago. “Pentecost is repeated in the heart of every Believer.” That’s what Charles Spurgeon used to say, and this, it seems to me, is the crucial spiritual discovery that every Christian and every church eventually has to make.

F.B. Meyer was “probably the most celebrated Baptist minister of the early 20th century.”  He was a man with an active, and to all appearances, quite successful ministry.  But deep inside he knew that he was like a false front building on a studio movie lot.  From the outside everything looked great, but on the back side there was nothing but a bunch of 2×4’s propping up the facade. And so, one night at a preaching conference he got up and went for a long walk.

Meyer

 As I walked I said, “My Father, if there is one soul more than another within the circle of these hills that needs the gift of Pentecost, it is I. I want the Holy Spirit, but I do not know how to receive Him…” Then a Voice said to me, “As you took forgiveness from the hand of the dying Christ, so now take the Holy Ghost from the hand of the living Christ…” So I turned to Christ and said, ‘Lord, as I breathe in this whiff of warm night-air, so breathe into every part of me Thy blessed Spirit.’ I felt no hand laid on my head, there was no lambent flame, there was no rushing sound from heaven: but by faith without emotion, without excitement, I took, and took for the first time, and I have kept on taking ever since.”

In that moment Pentecost went from being an historic event of the Christian faith to the most urgent necessity of his life, and nothing was ever the same for F.B. Meyer or his ministry again. And this is the promise that Pentecost holds for all of us, but we’ve got to want it, and we’ve got to ask for it.  Jesus said that our “Heavenly Father gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.”   Isn’t it time to ask?  DBS+

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Breathe in me O Holy Spirit that my thoughts may all be holy;
Act in me O Holy Spirit that my works, too, may be holy;
Draw my heart O Holy Spirit that I may love what is holy;
Strengthen me O Holy Spirit to defend that which is holy;
Guard me then O Holy Spirit that I may always be holy.

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St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430)

 

 

 

 

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“The Presence that Pentecost Promises”

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“Some churches still prefer churchmanship without any supernatural dimensions…
they have become hollow museums whose curators grow content to speak God’s name
without the slightest danger of experiencing His presence.”

                                                                                                                     ~ Calvin Miller                      

It hit me with the force of a 2×4 up the side of the head when I was maybe 15 years old. I was in church, the church of my childhood and youth. I was serving as an acolyte, an altar boy.  I was performing the intricate liturgical choreography exactly as it had been so carefully rehearsed the day before.  I was bending and bowing, pouring and wiping, ascending and descending the altar steps.  And right there in the middle of all that pomp and circumstance, a question popped into my head as if it had been asked of me out loud – “What are you doing?” – or, more accurately – “Why are you doing what you’re doing?”

Paul critiqued those who held to the form of religion in his day while denying its real power (2 Timothy 3:5), and standing there in church that day, I had the sense that he was talking about me… to me. You see, I was terribly concerned about getting the ceremony right, but I was completely oblivious to the real presence that made all of that activity meaningful and all of that effort purposeful. To use Sam Shoemaker’s wonderful metaphor, I was tending to a rather ornate fireplace that didn’t have a fire burning in it!  I had the form of religion, in fact, a very fine version of it, but I was missing its power.

This was the realization that pushed me out of my familiar ecclesial nest when I was a teenager and into the spiritual quest that has been the direction and destination of my life ever since. Just like Jacob wrestling the mysterious presence at Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-31), I wanted God, the living, loving God, and I wasn’t going to settle for anything less until I had tasted and seen the goodness of God for myself (Palm 34:8).

pietyA rather unsettling book that I’ve been reading lately is Ian Stackhouse’s Primitive Piety (Paternoster – 2012).  This is his invitation away from the safe and pleasant world of suburban piety with its stress on moderation and politeness, and into the extreme and paradoxical world of Biblical faith.  He begins it by quoting the Scottish Congregationalist theologian P.T, Forsyth (1848–1921) –

“We tend to a Christianity without force, passion, or effect; a suburban piety, homely and kind but unfit to cope with the actual moral case of the world, its giant souls and hearty sinners. …We have churches of the nicest, kindest people, who have nothing apostolic or missionary, who never knew the soul’s despair or its breathless gratitude.”

This was the kind of Christianity in which I was a participant and of which I was a steward when I was 15. Later I would sometimes hear it depreciatingly described as “churchianity,” and while there was certainly some truth in that, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that designation of it then, or now.

I don’t like the implication that Christ and Church are two separate things. I wholeheartedly agree with Irenaeus of Lyons (born c. 120/140 – died c. 200/203) who said that anyone who has God as his Father has the church as his mother, whether they like it or not, and even whether they know it or not. And I’m just not comfortable with the accusation that my personal spiritual emptiness was somehow the fault of some kind of failure on the part of that church of my childhood and youth.  I can now see quite clearly how Jesus Christ was named as Savior in word and sign every Sunday morning that I was there growing up. The problem wasn’t that the Gospel of God’s redeeming love for me, and for all in Jesus Christ, wasn’t being proclaimed in that place in those days, it was rather that, for whatever reason, it just wasn’t getting through to me.  But one day it did, and it happened while I was in a worship service at that church!  That’s where God found me.   And while my journey has since led me away from that place, and that way of being a Christian, I now understand that it was where my spiritual journey began, and I can appreciate the way that it set the table for my soul.

What I went looking for when I was 15 was the reality of Christianity, the God who was behind the creeds, beneath the rituals, and before all of the structures and systems. I wanted the fire and not just the fireplace, and where I found it was in the presence that Pentecost promises.

I am always a little troubled by the way that Christmas and Easter pack the church, but Pentecost passes with hardly a ripple. The Gospel event and experience that Pentecost marks is no less central to Biblical Christianity and no less critical to our salvation than are the events and experiences that Christmas and Easter annually commemorate.

When John the Baptist saw Jesus approaching him to be baptized, John said two things about what Jesus had come to do as the Messiah. “Behold that Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29) was the first thing.  This is how Jesus Christ saves us from what’s in our pasts.  And, “this is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33) was the second thing that John the Baptist announced that Jesus as the Christ had come to do.  This is how Jesus Christ saves us to a different kind of future.  The forgiveness of our sins and the renewal of the Holy Spirit is what Jesus Christ came to accomplish, and they are what were in fact offered to people on Pentecost Sunday morning when Peter preached the Gospel in the power of the Spirit for the very first time (Acts 2:38).

Our failure to embrace Pentecost with the same interest and enthusiasm with which we embrace Christmas and Easter is a problem. In fact, I would argue that it is the reason why we have such a truncated Gospel in the church and a spiritual experience as Christians that is so far below what the New Testament describes and offers.  And the only remedy to this, as far as I can see, is for us to consciously and consistently embrace the presence that Pentecost promises.

It is the work of the Holy Spirit to take the objective work of Jesus Christ as Savior and to subjectively apply it to our lives and to the world. The Holy Spirit comes to kindle the fire in the fireplace of the church, and in the fireplaces of our hearts.   But this doesn’t just happen.  The Holy Spirit can be quenched, grieved, resisted and even blasphemed by us, and so we’ve got to ask.  God gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him (Luke 11:13).

If you, like me, are discontent with the “mechanical sacramentalism” and the “dead biblicism” of so much of the church, and if you, like me, ache for “the dynamic reality of God’s presence,” then “it is time that we took Pentecost seriously and eagerly receive a new infusion of the Holy Spirit.”

Pentecost is this coming Sunday – May 15th. Come to church as if it were Christmas or Easter, and come expectantly.

DBS +            

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Why I Got Baptized by Immersion

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It was just Easter in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Now, there are two reasons why we observed Easter as a church way back on March 27 and why our Orthodox brothers and sisters just got around to observing Easter last Sunday (May 1) –

The first factor, the calendar, has to do with the fact that the Christian Orthodox Church continues to follow the Julian calendar when calculating the date of Pascha (Easter). The rest of Christianity uses the Gregorian calendar. There is a thirteen-day difference between the two calendars, the Julian calendar being thirteen (13) days behind the Gregorian. The other factor at work is that the Orthodox Church continues to adhere to the rule set forth by the First Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in 325 AD, that requires that Pascha must take place after the Jewish Passover in order to maintain the Biblical sequence of Christ’s Passion. The rest of Christianity ignores this requirement, which means that on occasion Western Easter takes place either before or during the Jewish Passover. http://usa.greekreporter.com

On the grounds of tradition (This is my SJ “Ignatian” spiritual inclinations coming out – see: Prayer and Temperament – Michael & Norrisey -The Open Door – 1991), I’m much more Eastern Church than I am Western Church on this, but not enough to make a big fuss about it.  In fact, in recent years I have found that this calendar variation between when Eastern Christians and when Western Christians observe Holy Week has actually proven to be spiritually beneficial for me. You see, I’m a little busy during Holy Week when we observe it as a church.  And so getting another chance to walk the way of the cross from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday each year when I’m not the one who is responsible for planning, preparing and presenting the worship services has been a real gift to me.  By lurking at the edges of the Eastern Orthodox community of faith during their observances of the events of our salvation in Christ accomplished during their later Holy Week services, I have found that I have been able to worship myself.

This is what I was doing in a Greek Orthodox Church on a Good Friday afternoon. I was there to hear the Gospel story of Jesus Christ’s saving death read in its entirety in a harmonization of what Mathew, Mark, Luke and John told us, and to witness all of the ritual acts which embody it for those faithful Christians in that spiritual tradition.  I followed along in my copy of the Holy Week Orthodox Service Book that I have, and watched with fascination as the icon of Christ on the cross was venerated and then eventually taken down.  Nails were literally pulled from the wood and the image of Christ that hung there was reverently detached, shrouded and carried through the Sanctuary in a symbolic burial procession.  It eventually wound up on a table in the front that was meant to be symbolic of the tomb, and then a curious thing happened.

prayWorshippers – the young and the old, men and women, the strong and the infirm – began to line up, and when they got to that table in the front that was symbolic of the tomb where the body of Christ had been reverently placed, they got down on their hands and knees and crawled beneath it! Now, I had not anticipated this, but watching it happen, it was clear to me what was going on.

By passing under that table these faithful people were personally identifying themselves with Christ’s death and burial in full anticipation of His resurrection. This was their symbolic way of entering into Christ’s death.  I get this, in fact, this is why I was baptized myself by immersion when I was 17 years old after I had crossed the threshold of “owned” faith after having been baptized as an infant by my parents in their genuine act of “affiliative” faith. My parents brought me to church long before I was even capable of knowing what was happening to me and they had me ritually marked as already being the object of God’s affection and attention in Jesus Christ.  It was a promise that they made then and there, a promise that they would raise me in the faith of the church so that I would one day have the opportunity to make it my own.

To that end they had my sisters and me in church every Sunday morning, and when I was 12, they had me confirmed. I didn’t resist, but this was still more about them and their hopes for me than it was about me and what I actually believed.  But God was faithful in this gradual unfolding process as well, and the moment eventually came when what I had been so carefully taught was true through all those years of going to church became real for me.  I crossed the threshold of personal faith nurtured by the community of faith.  The promise of my baptism as an infant with all of its hope for my faithful future became the defining fact and experience of my life as an adolescent. I finally accepted Jesus Christ for myself as Lord and Savior.  I gave the title of my life over to Him.  I committed myself to trying to be who He wanted me to be and trying to do what He wanted me to do.  And with that decision of faith made, I believed that a fundamental change occurred inside me.  I had been born again.  The person I had been died and the person God in Christ always intended me to be was brought to life, and the more I thought about this, and experienced this, the more what the New Testament said about baptism by immersion began to make sense to both my head and my heart.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5)

blueIt was believing this, and experiencing this, that finally led me to be baptized by immersion during my senior year of High School. Now, I wasn’t immersed because I thought that I had to be in order to be truly saved. No, I was immersed because the New Testament said that it was a command, and because the New Testament said that it involved some really important promises. Years and years after my baptism by immersion I read the Radical Reformer Menno Simons’ observation about baptism being the least important thing that Christ commands us to do as our Lord.  The commands of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-6-7), in the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:27-40) and in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) are all so much more important than His command for us to be baptized.  But because the command to be baptized comes first in the Christian life, at its very beginning, on its very threshold, our obedience to it establishes the proper disposition of our hearts to be obedient to all that Christ has commanded.  If we are evasive and resistant about the very first thing that Jesus Christ asks us to do as Lord, what will we do when the things that Christ asks us to do start getting really serious (e.g. – “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” – Luke 9:23)?

And then there are the promises.

“Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)

According to Peter in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Christian Baptism has reference to both forgiveness – being saved from our sins; and the gift of the Holy Spirit – being saved to newness of life. Just as water cleanses and refreshes, so water baptism is a symbol of both purification and renewal.  Water baptism points to the forgiveness of our sins as the “washing” or “bath of regeneration” (Titus 3:5).  But water Baptism also points to the Baptism of the Spirit that is often compared in Scripture to a well of life-giving water gushing up and flowing out from somewhere deep inside us (John 4:14; 7:38; Isaiah 44:3; Ezekiel 47:1-12; Revelation 22:1-2).

My decision to be immersed in 1970 when I was 17 was not just a decision that was born of my strongly felt need to be personally obedient to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, but it was just as much a decision that was born of my deep need to be consciously rooted and continuously grounded in the promises of forgiveness and renewal in the Holy Spirit that are instrumentally attached to the act of Baptism in Acts 2:38.

Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, said “there is on earth no greater comfort than baptism” and he proved this in his personal life and experience. Luther admitted that when he was in the distress of affliction and anxiety he comforted himself by repeating, “I am baptized! I am baptized!” In so saying, “I’m baptized!” Luther affirmed, and rightly stated that he belonged to God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By this we learn that who you are, and whose you are, are important components of baptism. (http://pilgrimindy.org)

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And this same desire is what I saw in the act of all those people who were passing under the table of Christ’s tomb on Good Friday afternoon. It was an act motivated by their profound awareness of just how much they desperately needed what it was that Christ had accomplished by dying on the cross and then by being raised from the dead.  I need it too, and that’s why I am so glad that I can say, “I am baptized! I am baptized!” And if this is something you think you want, or need, then let’s talk.  Water Baptism may be something that you really need to consider for your comfort and assurance. DBS +

 

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Our Pentecost Novena, Day 5

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Northway Christian Church – Dallas, Texas
Day 5 – Tuesday, May 19, 2015
The Proof of the Holy Spirit’s Presence is Kindness
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Scripture – I Corinthians 13:4

Love is kind…

Thought

Andrew Blackwood, Jr. wrote, “Usually when God speaks He speaks through the human voice that is kind.  Nothing stops the sound of His voice so quickly as criticism, carping, unkindness.” “The greatest thing a man can do for a heavenly Father,” said Henry Drummond, “is to be kind to some of His other children.”  And Frederick William Faber said, “Kindness has converted more sinners than zeal, eloquence or learning.”

Gordon M. Forgersen tells of meeting a Filipino Methodist Bishop on a Europe-bound ship.   The Bishop told of his experience when he came to North America as a student years before. The first Sunday his roommate appeared in the doorway, an umbrella under each arm.  He offered to show him the way to his own place of worship and then he planned to go on to his own church.   As they stated down the street he thought, “If this man has this kind of faith and interest in my spiritual life, surely I should find out what his faith is like.”  He asked his friend to take him to his church and he attended it for the next four years.  As a result he went on to Drew Theological Seminary and years later became a Bishop in this church.   Forgersen concluded his story be saying: “There is such a thing as a direct call rom God without intermediaries, but rarely.  Usually there’s just a man with two umbrellas.”

Prayer

Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, ignite in us your holy fire;
strengthen your children with the gift of faith,
revive your Church with the breath of love,
and renew the face of the earth,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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