Many churches these days, like our own, use – instead of ordinary candles – oil-filled ones. The advantages are that they are cheaper, cleaner, they’re not carcinogenic, and they never burn down. However long they burn for, they always look just like new.
There is a downside though. You buy your oil-filled candle, put it in the candlestick, fill it with oil and light it. It looks wonderful. It burns away and never drips or gets any shorter. But that presents a problem – because you can’t see when it needs refilling from the outside. And unless you regularly top it up with more oil, although it always looks alright it is getting emptier and emptier. And in the end it will just go out. Unexpectedly.
Christians are like oil-filled candles. They look fine on the outside. But they need regularly filling up on the inside – and you can’t tell from just looking at the outside when they’re getting empty. And just as oil-filled candle needs regular refilling, a Christian needs a regular filling of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, although outwardly we may look fine, we just get emptier and emptier – and in the end we stop burning. And simply not notice that we’ve gone out!
Pentecost Sunday – the day the Spirit came. Luke has told us in chapter one of Acts how the apostles have been gathering together to pray, along with Mary the mother of Jesus, the other women and the brothers of Jesus. They weren’t just sitting around waiting for something to happen! They were praying for something to happen!
And then on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit comes with the sound like the rush of a violent wind. And tongues of fire appeared on each of them. They are filled with the Spirit, and – quite literally – appear to be set alight by the Spirit. The Church is born!
Pentecost – the day that Jesus did as he had promised, and sent the Holy Spirit from the Father to fill up his disciples – not just the apostles, all of them including his mother! Why don’t we, today, seem to experience the Holy Spirit in the way that the disciples did then?
Let’s start with a question – who is the Holy Spirit? I expect many people in the Church would be hard pressed to answer that question with any clarity if it were put to them. We are clear about God the Father. We know who Jesus, the Son, is. But not many really know who the Holy Spirit is. We talk about one God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – or Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier – but there is a tendency to have rather vague ideas about the third person of the Trinity.
The New Testament tells us that the Holy Spirit is the person of the Godhead who dwells in us day by day. We are told that the Holy Spirit gives gifts to the Church. There are several lists in the New Testament of gifts given by the Holy Spirit. They include such gifts as prophecy, miraculous powers, speaking in tongues as well as more down to earth gifts such as teaching, administration and helping others.
This is the Holy Spirit who is at work in the Church – not just then, but now as well. This is what Jesus promised. The Spirit who comes to stir up the people of God – those first disciples discovered that on the day of Pentecost when the Spirit came not like a gentle breeze, but a violent – think about that word – a violentwind. Not some abstract concept but a Spirit of power, a Spirit who acts in the lives of God’s people.
But if this is what the Holy Spirit is like, what does it mean for us as a group of Christians here at St John’s?
Peter and the others experienced something dramatic – and Peter, as he preached to the crowds in response to those accusations of drunkenness, told them that God has poured out his Spirit as foretold by the prophet Joel.
And many Christians today would testify to having experienced the Holy Spirit in this way. A Spirit that fills you and empowers you and changes your life. And yet an average person looking at the Church today might be forgiven for not noticing the Holy Spirit at work in it. No-one would accuse an average Church of England congregation of drunkenness, unlike those the Spirit filled on the Day of Pentecost. And I’ve even heard people say, “But the Church isn’t supposed to be like that any more, is it?”
To which my only response can be, “Why not?”
A report of the General Synod of the Church of England published in 1981 had the following to say – and it’s just as relevant today – about the difference between the Early Church and the Church of today and the way in which we attempt to devalue the message of Acts that the Church should be alive in the power of the Spirit:
No amount of sterilisation of the Biblical message, and no amount of critical scholarship, have ever managed wholly to conceal the flow of the Acts narrative, and its message of a Spirit filled community facing persecution, working miracles, rejoicing in the power of God, and generally living a corporate “Pentecostal” life.
No matter how hard we might try, we cannot explain away the fact that the Early Church had something that the Church on the whole does not seem to have today. It had a freedom, a joyfulness, a carefreeness, a dimension of living in the Spirit, a willing self-surrender, an overflowing love, that does not seem to be evident in our Church today. The difference is highlighted by the fact that following Peter’s sermon more than three thousand people became Christians, yet today Churches in Western Europe are shrinking.
We are so accustomed to small churches that we accept them as normal. Church going in Western Europe is the lowest in the Christian world. All over the world the Church is growing – in some places at a phenomenal rate – but not here in the prosperous West.
We need to discard the idea that the behaviour of the apostles at Pentecost and the gifts that they used in their ministry were unique to the Early Church. We need to allow the Holy Spirit of God to guide us and strengthen us, to give us the gifts we need and to unlock those gifts so that God’s kingdom might be glorified.
So let us allow the Holy Spirit to direct our lives as individuals and as a community. Let us pray – as Jesus’ followers did following his resurrection – for the Spirit to come. Because if we allow the Spirit to take control then the Church, in the words of Canon John Gunstone in his book Live by the Spirit will:
be pulsating with the life of God, subject to his Word, anointed with his Spirit, constrained by his love, preaching his Good News, and ministering with his power.
Let each one of us, on this day of Pentecost, rededicate ourselves to God, pray that God will fill us anew with the Holy Spirit just as those first followers of Jesus were filled on that Day of Pentecost so long ago.
Let us pray that we may be open to the work that Jesus wants to do among us, so that this Church may pulsate with the life of God, as the Holy Spirit fills us with power from on high.
It’s risky, praying for the Spirit – life can never be the same again once you open yourself to the Holy Spirit. We see that all through the book of Acts, in the life of the disciples, and in the life of the Church, born on the Day of Pentecost.
But if we pray, then we can truly in God’s power be living out our mission statement – which if you don’t know, you’ll find right at the top of the first page on our website: