The Coming of the Holy Spirit ( 2012)
Acts 2 : 1 - 21
What was the Day of Pentecost? There were three great festivals which every male Jew who lived within 20 miles of Jerusalem legally had to attend, Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. ‘Pentecost’ means ‘fiftieth’ that is, the fiftieth day after Passover. It was usually about the beginning June, each year. Summer had arrived and travel conditions were good. People came from a lot further than the 20 miles. Jews from all over the Mediterranean came on pilgrimage. The closest thing in Christianity is that many Roman Catholics go to Rome for Easter - to hear the Pope speak and give his blessing. Islam has its annual pilgrimages to Mecca and Hindus have their Kumbh Mela Festival to which sixty million come - every 12 years. The Church of Scotland has its General Assembly, just completed - a modest affair of about 700 folk. The new Moderator Albert Bogle from Bo-ness was instrumental in organising a national gathering of Church of Scotland people at Ingliston in 2008 and John Chalmers has inspired a new successful Sunday afternoon Festival in Princes St Gardens during the Assembly itself. But - there are no other national gatherings or pilgrimages within our Church life. The Reformers gave up pilgrimages on the grounds that you didn’t need to go to a special place to meet God because you can meet God every day in your own heart in your own place wherever you stay and live and work.
The Jewish Festival of Pentecost commemorated the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. It was also a Festival of Harvest Thanksgiving for the first of the barley crop. And it was a holiday for everyone including slaves. It was naturally a joyful occasion. Jews were good at having parties. Jewish weddings are joyful. It is the sense of collective identity, spiritual underpinning and divine blessing that matters for them at their best. They didn’t need alcohol to be happy. It is often said that Presbyterians don’t do celebration - much. We don’t need enforced and unnatural bonhomie - that is not what Christian joyfulness is. It is a gift of the very presence of the Lord Jesus within us and only that which is the mainspring of true celebration. It should be present here every week. Worship is not entertainment. It is the actual primeval creative redemptive power of God in our lives. How strange that for visitors and for some members this can seem like boredom. What are they missing? What they are missing is within themselves.
The text says that the 120 or so first Christians were all together in one place. They were united, they were one. And that is important because the Holy Spirit came on everyone there present. Unity in Church life has never been quite the same. And it was not long afterwards before trouble arrived and confrontation with evil had to take place within the fellowship. But at its birth, the Christian Church was one. It had a common understanding and a common purpose. The Church of Scotland does not have that today and this is a major weakness in its witness. Apart from issues of homosexuality there are other fault lines. On Saturday Ian Watson, Minister of Kirkmuirhill asked the Assembly to disapprove the letting of a church hall in Aberdeen to Hindus for their worship. But he lost the vote by 253 to 289. It was a classic evangelical v liberal split. Voting was on party lines. The Anglican Church is split on the issues of homosexuality and the consecration of women as bishops. The Church of Rome preserves unity at the cost of individual freedom, the authority of the Pope being the focus of unity. In America there are lots of independent churches emphasising one aspect of the Christian Gospel. In Africa in addition to the obvious well known Christian Churches from the west, there are thousands of Christian denominations largely of charismatic emphasis with noisy, energetic and unpredictable worship. They have names like, Zionist, Apostolic and Messianic. Events parallel to the first Pentecost happen in Africa to this day.
During 1918 a semi-literate African called Simon Kimbangu had a vision. He had been converted to Christianity through the work of British Baptist missionaries and baptised by immersion in a local river. In his vision, Kimbangu received a call from God to be a prophet and a healer. Like the Old Testament prophet, Jonah, he ran away from his vision, leaving his small home village of Nkamba in the Congo (now Zaire) and trying to find a job in Leopoldville (modem-day Kinshasa). But in 1921 he returned to the village he had fled from and began preaching and healing the sick. In six months his following grew to over 10,000 and stretchers were piled high wherever he went. One day, he stood on a hill near his village and prophesied that a large church would be built on it. and that leaders from all over the world would come and worship there.
With the sudden growth of his following, Simon Kimbangu posed a threat to both the Belgian colonial government and the Roman Catholic Church. He was thought to be dangerously subversive. Kimbangu fled, but later gave himself up - only to be tried before a military tribunal, which was a travesty of justice. He was allowed no defence; after a flogging he was condemned to death. The Belgian king commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Kimbangu spent the whole of the rest of his life in prison. Deported to the other side of the country, he never saw his wife or three sons again. He died in 1951. His followers went underground. The movement he started was proscribed by the colonial administration and largely led by the prophet Kimbangu's wife. When it eventually emerged and was recongnised by the government after the overthrow of the colonial administration, it numbered several million members.
In 1969 the church now called 'Eglise de Jesus Christ sur la terre par le prophete Simon Kimbangu', applied for membership and was admitted to the World Council of Churches On the hill of Nkamba a huge church has now been erected, and in November 1981 a party of church leaders from all over the world came there to worship with the Kimbanguists, so fulfilling the vision of sixty years before. The Kimbanguist Church now numbers over five million members and has expanded into neighbouring states such as Angola and modem Congo.
In Scotland we have had 1500 years of Christianity. We have lost the cutting edge. Radical Christian preaching is no longer tolerated. We have a settled way, a low key expectation, a quiet and more peaceful worship. But - it is worthwhile remembering that the fires of Pentecost blew more gently over the Christian centuries. Most of the greatest Christians lived lives of gentler experience and of calmer disposition. The Old Testament has the charismatic Elijah and Elisha but it also has Isaiah and Jeremiah whose influence has been longer lasting and greater in scope and reach and application.
The simple fact is that these first Christians were filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered to speak joyfully and witness without fear. They were transformed people. They became active agents of Jesus Christ. And the energy was so great that it spilled out into the streets of Jerusalem and those out with the Church felt something special was happening though they did not know what it was. The speaking in tongues is confusing for us today. Was it the same as the speaking in tongues in some current Pentecostal Churches? Perhaps not. Was it actual languages as the text suggests? Professor Barclay thinks not. He thinks the verbal communication that was understood would have been in Greek or Aramaic which most folk spoke. Of course that is not what the text says. How is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? But God speaks to all of us humans in our own language. God speaks French to French people and Swahili to people in East Africa, German to Germans and Portuguese to Brazilians. And that is all that happened. The Holy Spirit moved out of the Church and spoke to many around the city. It is straightforward and reasonable to understand. These people were meeting God the Holy Spirit for the first time in their lives. They had no context for it because they had not been members of the Church. That’s why they did not know what it meant and said so. 'What does this mean?' But others who had not been touched by the Holy Spirit in this way mocked the whole thing and said 'They’ve had too much wine'.
Peter got up and explained what was happening to anyone who wanted to listen. The prophet Joel had prophesied this very thing happening. The Holy Spirit was not to be reserved for great individual prophets. Children, boys and girls, men and women into old age would receive the Holy Spirit and be revived and refreshed in spirit, mind and soul. And 'everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved'. That is - those who respond to God’s initiative, God’s touch, God’s calling. What is God asking of you today? It is not nothing. Christianity is for life. There’s no pension. There is heaven to look forward to.
Pentecost is the birth of the Church as we know it. There are more than 120,000,000 Christians in Africa today. Millions more in China. But be not discouraged if our own numbers are not great. The Holy Spirit has passed on to people willing to listen and respond in other places. Neither can we conjure up the Holy Spirit for ourselves. Nor by our own energy, genius or commitment take the Holy Spirit’s place. We can though give of our best to Jesus Christ and trust in Him for his own future witness in our land.
We could do with the Holy Spirit shaking us up. But we could do with the Holy Spirit filling us up too. We could do with the Holy Spirit healing us. And - the open hope and possibility is that the promise is still true - whoever seeks the Lord will find Him. Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. That is as true for you today as it was that first Pentecost.