Once again it’s Pentecost Sunday, and we all know what that means – we go through this every year – how does a Presbyterian celebrate Pentecost? Face it, we’re not very Pentecostal.
Just so we’re on the same page, Pentecost refers to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit about a month or so after Easter – fifty days after Passover, to be exact. According to Luke, about a hundred and twenty followers of Jesus were gathered in the Upper Room when the Holy Spirit came upon them and they began speaking in other tongues all at the same time. It caused such a commotion that folks came out of their houses to see what was going on. They figured it must be some drunken orgy. But Peter, in one of the most understated verses in all the Bible said no, they weren’t drunk, since it was only ten o’clock in the morning. Later that afternoon or that night, well, maybe. But ten o’clock in the morning? No way!
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost and the resulting chaos it caused has come to symbolized one whole segment of the Christian church – Pentecostals. Pentecostals are those who emphasize being filled with the Spirit and are known for speaking in tongues, shouting spontaneously whenever they feel like it, and even throwing themselves on the floor in a religious frenzy. In some circles, they’re sometimes referred to as “Holy rollers.”
All this leads me to say, while there’s nothing wrong with being Pentecostal, it’s not what we normally think of as being Presbyterian. Consequently, when you ask the average Presbyterian on the street, “What’s the meaning of Pentecost?” you get that deer-in-the-headlights look. And when it comes to celebrating Pentecost Sunday, like today, we’re not sure what to do.
Which reminds me of a story. A first-time visitor came to a Presbyterian church on Sunday morning. He walked in the door, picked up a bulletin and proceeded to sit on the front pew of the church. That, in itself, was enough to raise a few eyebrows! Then, during the singing of the first hymn, he lifted his arms high in the air; during the prayers, he mumbled incoherently; and when the preacher started his sermon, he shouted, “Amen!” and “Halleluia!” and “Praise the Lord” after just about every sentence. Finally, one of the elders came down and said, “Mister, what’s your problem?” The man looked up and said, “Problem? I don’t have a problem. I’ve just got the Spirit, that’s all.” The elder looked at him and said, “Well, you certainly didn’t get it here!”
Then there’s the story about the children on Confirmation Sunday. The pastor had them line up facing the congregation. As a sign of their faith, they were to say the Apostles’ Creed, each child reciting one phrase. When it came to the part that goes, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” there was silence. The minister looked around with a puzzled look on his face. A little girl spoke up and said, “The little boy who believes in the Holy Spirit isn’t here today.”
To be honest, Presbyterians score poorly when it comes to being Pentecostal. But that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate Pentecost, and that’s what I’d like for us to think about in the sermon this morning – how we can recapture the exuberance of Pentecost and come alive in the Spirit in a way that’s both true to the scripture and respectful of our long-standing tradition of doing things “decently and in order.” (1 Cor. 14:40)
Let’s call it, “Presbyterian Pentecostalism,” and let’s focus on Paul’s admonition to the Galatians, to walk by the Spirit. Here’s my thesis: The Spirit of God is dynamic, always on the move. It’s not ours to possess, but to follow. And the promise is if we’re willing to follow the leading of the Spirit, we’ll come to know ourselves as children of God, we’ll serve as instruments of God’s grace and love, and we’ll experience the first fruits of eternal life. Paul says,
“…walk by the Spirit, and you won’t fulfill the lust of the flesh.
For the flesh lusts against the Spirit,
and the Spirit against the flesh.
Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh
with its passions and lusts.
If we live by the Spirit, let’s also walk by the Spirit. (Gal. 5:16-25)
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To get an idea of where Paul’s coming from, let’s go back to the Letter to the Romans and follow his train of thought. He begins by saying we have no excuse. For the Gentiles, there is the natural law of creation by which anyone can know right from wrong; for the Jews, the Torah clearly outlines the demands of righteousness. The problem is we’re born into original sin. We know what’s good for us, but we choose evil anyway. This leads Paul to say,
“… both Jews and Greeks, that they are all under sin.
As it is written, ‘There is no one righteous;
no, not one… They have all turned aside.
They have together become unprofitable.'” (Rom. 3:9-12)
So, if it were up to us we’d be hopelessly lost. The Good News is God has intervened through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to save us from our sinful nature. Paul writes,
“A righteousness of God has been revealed,
being testified by the law and the prophets…
through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all those who believe.
For there is no distinction,
for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God;
being justified freely by his grace
through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus;
whom God set forth to be an atoning sacrifice,
through faith in his blood…” (Rom. 3:21-25)
This sets up the dichotomy of human nature we experience to this day; and that is, at the core of our being we’re both saints and sinners – forever sinful; yet, by the grace of God, forever forgiven.
So, there’s hope: We can choose the ways of Christ over our own natural inclinations. We can walk by the Spirit rather than by the flesh. Paul says,
“Therefore don’t let sin reign in your mortal body,
that you should obey it in its lusts…
but present yourselves to God,
as alive from the dead…
For sin will not have dominion over you.
For you are not under law,
but under grace.” (Rom. 6:12-14)
Two natures: One, human; one, divine. Both reside within us. The question is which are you going to choose? By which are you going to live? It’s up to you to decide.
Say, someone cuts you off in traffic. Are you going to flip them the bird or say a prayer for God to have mercy on their soul? A customer is desperate and in a bind. Are you going to make a killing off of his vulnerability or cut him some slack and lend him a helping hand?
At every turn, we have within us the potential for greed, lust, envy and prejudice; and we have the opportunity for love, service, forgiveness and self-sacrifice. The world says, “Look out for number one.”Jesus taught his disciples, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Only you can say who’s going to have the greater influence over your life.
Yet, here’s the problem: Most situations are not black and white. So often, it’s hard to distinguish between life in the flesh and life in the Spirit. For example, you have to make a living. Where do you draw the line between selfishness and healthy ambition?
In the comic strip, Peanuts, Lucy says, “Face it, Charlie Brown, in the Book of Life the answers aren’t in the back.” She’s right. We may want to choose a life of faith and live by the Spirit, but it’s not always clear what that means.
Who knows, really, what’s the will of God? How do you know what God would have you to do or say in any particular situation? This is where Pentecost comes in. Through faith, the Spirit can give us the inspiration and direction we need to act faithfully and live in accordance with God’s will for our lives.
When our oldest son, John, was five, he attended an Episcopal preschool in Greenville, Texas. One day he came home with this little “Children’s Creed” the children were to memorize. We made it a family project, and it’s stayed with me ever since:
“I believe in God above,
And in Jesus and his love;
I believe the Spirit, too,
Helps me know just what to do. Amen.”
So, what do you say? Does the Spirit help you know what to do? When you “just happen to cross paths”with a key person at a critical juncture in your life, is it just coincidence, or is this evidence of the Spirit of God at work in your life?
In premarital counseling, I’m always interested in hearing the story of how a couple first met. Each story is unique. It always intrigues me to ask the bride-to-be, “Of all the guys you’ve met and dated, what was it that set him apart from the others? How did you know he was the right one for you?”
It’s a fair question because, when you think it, what are the odds of two people from different backgrounds and, often, different parts of the country, coming together at a particular time and place and being so attracted to each other as to want to be married? Is this just circumstantial, or is there more to it than that?
I have a friend who, several years ago, went to visit her mother in another state. While she was there, her mother had a stroke. She sent me an email later in which she said,
“The timing of all this was really quite interesting.
I planned the trip almost at the last minute,
and I was the only one with her when she started having the stroke.
Had I not been there, I don’t know what she would have done.
As it happened,
we had her in the emergency room
within half an hour of when the stroke started.”
Coincidental or Providential? Theanswers aren’t in the back of the book. As often as not, you never know. It comes down to a matter of faith and a matter of choice: Walk by the Spirit or walk by the flesh. The more often you choose the former, the more often you perceive a spiritual dimension to the ordinary events of everyday.
For what it’s worth, here’s what it means to me to walk by the Spirit: I start off with the conviction that I’m a child of God, and that God has a plan for my life. I may never know exactly what God’s will is, but I choose to believe that God has given me a destiny that only I can fulfill; and so, I trust God to lead me in ways that are in accordance with his will. I try to start out each day by making myself available to God. Then, to the best of my ability, I listen for God’s voice, look for signs of God’s Presence and try to be flexible in taking the path God would have me to take, even though it may be different from the path I originally had in mind.
I don’t know of anyone who did this better than my buddy, Keith Hill. Keith was one of my early mentors in the Presbyterian Church. He was the one who dubbed me, “a Calvinist, whose heart was strangely warmed.”
In a word, Keith is thoroughly Reformed, and then some. He has a vital and active devotional life. I don’t know if he prays without ceasing, but I know he prays often, both deeply and spontaneously. He takes a full day each month to spend in silent retreat with God. He sees a spiritual dimension to every aspect of life. He names demons such as possessiveness, control, envy, spite and dares exorcise them in Jesus’ name. He reads the scriptures intellectually to gain insight and wisdom and devotionally for inspiration and comfort. His cognitive and affective abilities are as well balanced as anyone I’ve ever known.
Well, here’s what I hope you’ll remember: To walk by the Spirit is to know yourself as a child of God. It’s to be an instrument of God’s grace and love. And it’s to taste the first fruits of eternal life, which include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.
I was ordained on the Tuesday evening following Pentecost Sunday in 1975. As it happened, I was asked to lead the music for the ordination service. The anthem I chose, Veni Creator Spiritus, is one of my favorites. It was written by Rhabanus Maurus around 800 A.D. It goes like this:
Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
And lighten with celestial fire;
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
Who dost Thy sev’nfold gifts impart.
Thy blessèd unction from above
Is comfort, life, and fire of love;
Enable with perpetual light
The dullness of our blinded sight.
Anoint and cheer our soilèd face
With the abundance of Thy grace;
Keep far our foes, give peace at home;
Where Thou art Guide, no ill can come.
Teach us to know the Father, Son,
And Thee, of both, to be but One;
That through the ages all along
This, this may be our endless song:
Praise to Thy eternal merit,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2008, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.