“I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” Acts 2:17
The story is told of a travelling evangelist who made the circuit of little Southern towns a few generations ago. A dramatic preacher, he knew just how to bring the crowd to their knees. His great method was to call out, at the height of his sermon, “Holy Ghost, come down.” He had conveniently stationed a little boy up in the rafters with a dove in a cage, and at that signal, the boy would open the cage, and the dove would flutter down upon the assembled congregation.
Well, the preacher had made the customary arrangements one sweltering Sunday evening in June, and when he had his crowd just where he wanted them, he shouted out, “Holy Ghost, come down.” There was silence. Again, “Holy Ghost, come down.” The preacher cleared his throat and glanced nervously toward the ceiling, and—“Holy Ghost, come down.” Finally, a little voice chimed from the balcony, “The yaller cat done ‘et the Holy Ghost. Shall I throw the yaller cat down?”
Well, showmanship aside, the preacher wasn’t wrong to associate the coming of the Holy Ghost with a dramatic spectacle. I expect he had this day, the Day of Pentecost, in mind, when he was engineering his stagecraft, and if he’d been able to manage a mighty rushing wind and tongues of fire on his limited budget, he probably would have used them as well. Pentecost is the day when the Holy Spirit came down upon the Church to announce the truth of the Gospel in mighty signs and wonders. Peter announces to the crowd gathered from all lands that the Day of the Lord has come. The risen Christ has defeated all the power of death and sin, and now salvation is offered freely to the whole world.
The Spirit does not come quietly. There are messages in a dozen languages, a frenzied joy and dramatic response of faith. Three thousand people, we learn later in Acts 2, were cut to the heart, repented of their sin, and were baptized.
There was, of course, no stagecraft at the first Pentecost. The apostles had been told by Christ before his Ascension to wait in Jerusalem and to remain in prayer until He sent the Spirit, but He didn’t say precisely when or how the Spirit would come. This was all a great miracle, entirely in God’s control. But in another sense, it wasn’t entirely unexpected. At various times in Israel’s history, God had sent His Spirit on to individuals, and it was always a dramatic event. The Spirit descended on the seventy elders that Moses gathered and they began to prophesy, to speak a wild and unpredictable word from God. When the Spirit descended on Saul, he went into a kind of trance, changed into a different person. The Spirit came on Samson to give him superhuman strength, so that he could kill a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey.
And in our own time, our brothers and sisters who call themselves the Pentecostals are known for their dramatic, supernatural forms of worship and spiritual activity. The Spirit comes and they speak in unintelligible tongues, they see visions and utter miraculous words. Some of you have had these kinds of powerful experiences as well, and they have helped you to understand God’s love and strength. They have given you a new kind of evidence, a deep personal experience to assure you that the message is true. I’ve been asked before if Christ Church is a Spirit-filled church, and the questioner means this kind of drama and power. If I show up at Christ Church at 8:00 Sunday morning, will it look like the first Pentecost: frenzied words, rushing winds, and three thousand cut to the heart?
Well, not most of the time, I have to tell them. But the Holy Spirit is still present at Christ Church, even when the way we worship is rather more reserved and the gifts we receive generally reveal themselves a bit more quietly.
It’s important to remember, I think, that the Spirit was poured out in a new and different way at Pentecost than ever before. God had sent the Spirit on individuals in the Old Testament, to empower them for a particular task. That dramatic display showed that something unique, but temporary, was happening. But Jesus was the One on whom, as Saint John the Baptist recognized, the Spirit descended and remained. He was filled with the Spirit from the moment of His conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And when He sent His Spirit at Pentecost, it may have arrived in signs and wonders, but it remained forever on His people, the members of His Body. The Spirit was there in the dramatic moments, to be sure, but in the ordinary ones as well.
Our Epistle lesson from Romans describes how the Spirit is at work in us even “in our weakness,” when we feel very far from God, and don’t know how to pray. In our darkest times, when any kind of belief seems difficult, we can trust that the Spirit within us is interceding for us, calling out for God’s help and renewing us from within. These moments are Pentecost’s opposite—the night of weeping instead of the morning of joy, simple grace instead of blazing glory, simply holding on instead of reaching out in signs and wonders. But the same Spirit is present in both times, and God sustains us through both kinds of experiences so that we may continue to grow in our love for Him and develop His fruit in our lives.
The last time I was leading worship services at the jail, one of the inmates asked me afterwards if I would pray for him to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. From the way he made his request, I was pretty sure he was asking if I could pray that he have a Pentecost-type experience, that the Holy Spirit would make Himself known dramatically, by helping the man speak in tongues or have visions. But I wonder if what He didn’t need much more, in that dark place full of so much trouble and pain, was the Holy Spirit’s presence in the way that Saint Paul was describing, the Spirit active in our weakness, giving us hope when all seems lost, praying for us when it is so very hard to pray at all. When I prayed for him, I asked that God would renew the Spirit’s work in him, the Holy Spirit who had always dwelt within him since he was baptized. I asked that he would receive the sign he needed, the blessing that would help him know God’s love and goodness.
I’ll have to ask him the next time I go back to the jail which kind of experience he had. If he’s like most Christians I’ve known, it will probably be a bit of both—the Spirit in power one day, and in weakness the next, but never absent or indifferent. The Spirit always giving us just what we really need to live in fellowship with our good and gracious Lord.