Good morning, Friends!
Today is a very important day in the life of the Christian church. Today we remember an incredible event that took place right at the very beginning of the church, on a Sunday just seven weeks after the first Easter morning took place.
We celebrate other church holidays – Christmas, when Jesus was born, and Easter, when Jesus rose from the dead. We share Christmas presents and Easter candy for those days, and send cards and eat special foods.
But somehow, today doesn’t really register on most people’s thinking – not even most Christians. I find that really strange, because without the story of what happened this morning, we wouldn’t be here.
We wouldn’t be here if Jesus hadn’t been born. We wouldn’t be here if Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead. And we wouldn’t be here, if Jesus’ promise to send us the Holy Spirit – if that promise hadn’t come true. Here’s the story!
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.Acts 2:1-4
I can still remember the first time that I ever walked into a Quaker meeting. It was back in college, and my room mate invited me to come. My room mate was one of these guys who visit all kinds of different religious groups. He tried out everything!
He’d been to a Quaker meeting the week before by himself, and he came back and said, “Hey, Brown!” – he had this very raspy voice – “you’ve got to come with me to this church I found. It’s really different!”
So, next Sunday I got in his car and went with him.
It was a quiet Quaker meeting, the kind that doesn’t have a pastor. They didn’t sing hymns, or have a piano. The benches were arranged in a circle, and we walked in and found a place and sat down.
Springfield used to be that way, you know. All Quaker meetings used to worship quietly, up until the 1870’s. Quite a few still are that way.
There wasn’t a pulpit. There wasn’t an obvious leader. They didn’t have any bulletins or announcements. They were just – praying quietly.
There was a warmth about the meeting, a kind of quiet welcome. Nobody asked me what I believed. They didn’t ask any questions. They were just praying, and I was welcome to pray with them.
There was also a sort of quiet electricity in the room. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was a kind of expectancy. It was as if they were waiting for God to show up, and you could feel it. It didn’t look like any church I’d ever visited before. Nobody was dressed up. And yet I felt more at home there, in the first couple of minutes, than I felt in the church where I’d been going all my life.
Two or three people spoke during that quiet hour. All these years later, I don’t remember what they said. I remember it was simple, and it was short, and it was helpful. It felt like the whole room was listening, and it felt as though the person who spoke was speaking for all of us.
A few weeks later, I was browsing in the meeting’s library, and I found this quote which described exactly what I felt that first day. It was by a Quaker named Robert Barclay, and I wrote it down so I’d remember it:
“When I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people I felt a secret power among them which touched my heart, and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up, and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this Power and Life whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed: and indeed this is the surest way to become a Christian.” –Robert Barclay, Apology, Proposition 11, Section 7
That was my first experience of a Quaker meeting. I came and prayed with them for four years, all through college, and I went to quiet meetings like that for four more years, after I graduated.
When most people hear the word Pentecost, the first thing they think of is Pentecostal churches, where people speak in tongues. But for me, Quakers are a different kind of Pentecostal church, where we pay attention to the Holy Spirit.
It isn’t always obvious. We don’t always make a big deal about it. I think at Springfield, talk about the Holy Spirit sometimes makes people nervous. But you can feel, in the words that people share sometimes, that it’s not just words from us, but words from God.
There are times, in a committee or a business meeting, when somebody says, “Let’s just stop for a minute, and see what the Spirit says about this.” Or the clerk asks us to “wait upon the Lord.”
There are prayers when it feels like the whole church is praying. There are times when a little child says something or asks a question, and it feels like that little child is speaking for us all.
There are times in Bible study, or when we’re reading by ourselves, that the words feel like they just came alive. They’re not just words on a page, it’s God’s word to us.
I live for moments like those. I’m hungry and thirsty for those experiences when the Holy Spirit seems close to us.
The early Christian church was a really interesting place. They were still figuring things out, and there were a lot of questions that took generations to find the answers for.
But Jesus was the center of their lives. They listened to his teachings and his stories. They tried to imitate what Jesus did. They got together every week, and they prayed in his name.
They weren’t sure when Jesus was coming back, but they believed what Jesus said about a life that never ends. They took to heart what Jesus said about forgiving each other, and feeding the poor, and caring for people who were cast out by society. They believed with all their hearts in the love of God, and they saw God’s love at work, all around them, every day.
And one of the things that mattered most to them, was that they felt the Holy Spirit was with them.
They remembered and believed that Jesus said, “You’re going to get in trouble. You’re going to get beat up sometimes. You’re going to be dragged up in front of scary powerful people to witness to them. But don’t worry about what to say! When you get in trouble, what you need to say will be given to you in that very hour. It won’t be you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father will speak through you.” (Matthew 10:17-20)
They believed it, because they experienced it. They felt that the Spirit was with them in prisons. They felt that the Spirit was giving them words to pray.
They knew that sometimes they didn’t have the right words – the apostle Paul said, “We don’t know what we ought to pray, but the Spirit prays for us, with groans too deep for words. . .” (Romans 8:26)
I’m sure that some of you have had that experience – we don’t know what to say, but God gives us the words. Sometimes just being there is a prayer all by itself.
Not all prayers happen in church. A lot of the time, I go to visit someone in the hospital, and we talk a lot. People tell me about their illness or their injury. They tell me all about what happened to them. They talk about their fears or their hopes or their pain.
Sometimes people don’t talk about their illness at all – they want to talk about their real life, the life they really belong to outside the hospital. They talk about their family, or their work, or the next trip they want to go on.
But usually, we get to a place where we run out of words, and we’re just quiet. And the quiet is like a prayer. I always ask if they want me to pray, and people almost always say yes. Sometimes it’s a long prayer, sometimes it’s a short one. I always pray for healing, and peace of mind.
But it feels as though we’re not alone. In the middle of that busy hospital, with hundreds of people all around, it’s like we carve out a special space, where the Spirit can be present.
It doesn’t matter where we are – the Spirit can be with us here at worship, or at home, or at work, on vacation, out walking, resting, or at a meal. The great Christian writer, John Donne, who lived in the 1600’s, said, “We ask our daily bread, and God never says you should have come yesterday. He never says you must [come] again to-morrow, but to-day if ye will hear His voice, to-day He will hear you. . .all occasions invite His mercies, and all times are His seasons.”
In today’s reading, it says that when the Holy Spirit came over them, that tongues of fire were over their heads, and they all spoke in other languages.
In the Pentecostal church, people often experience what they call speaking in tongues, which are sounds that don’t make any sense to anyone else, but they feel that it’s the Holy Spirit speaking through them. It’s also called glossolalia, and it’s actually pretty well-recognized if you study this stuff.
But in today’s reading, it says that they spoke actual languages, and everybody around could understand them. And they did it instantly, without studying!
Of all the different gifts described in the Bible, I wish I could have that one. To be able to hear what other people from all around the world are saying, and to be able to talk to people from anywhere in their own language about God’s love. To me, that would be the greatest gift.
In today’s story, it happened instantly. Boom, and they could speak a new language. For most of us, it takes time and study, and it’s really hard. But I’ve noticed, whenever I meet with people from other countries, that so many things are the same.
We may not speak the same language, but we can show each other what we mean. And in every country, in every language, people care for each other. They care for their children, they care for their family, they care for their friends and neighbors.
Caring is like the universal language. Show people that you care, and they’ll understand you. Love is a language people understand everywhere, and they’ll respond to it. The Holy Spirit speaks the language of love, in every country.
If I could live for twice as long as I have, and visit every church in every country, I would never run out of people to listen to. The Holy Spirit is the great bridge builder. Every place I’ve ever gone, the Spirit has already been there ahead of me.
Part of the Quaker belief is that everyone we meet has a piece of the Holy Spirit in them. Everyone we meet has some of God’s light in their heart.
A lot of people try to cover it up. A lot of people do their best to stamp it out. It’s terrible, how many people you meet, who are doing their best to run away from God. What a waste!
But you know, Jesus says that all we need to do, is turn around. That’s literally what “repentance” means – it’s turning right around, and going back in a different way. And whenever we do that, Jesus says, God comes running to meet us. The very first step we take towards God, God is heading our way.
And the Holy Spirit is the one who lifts us up. The Spirit is our constant companion.
It’s kind of like tuning in a radio. God’s message is being broadcast to us, all the time. We just don’t listen. We’re not tuned in. And you know how, on an old-fashioned radio, people would have to fiddle with the knob, and make tiny little adjustments, before the signal would come in loud and clear?
Sometimes praying is like that. God is on the air. We need to make little adjustments, if we’re going to hear what God is saying. Sometimes big adjustments! But you know what I’m saying.
Last week, you heard me say that one of the simplest things we can do is to look up. Look up and see what God is doing. Look up and see miracles, all around us, every day.
Look up from the ugliness of the world, and see God’s glory. Sometimes we need to take a deep breath and go back into the ugliness again, in order to listen to somebody or help somebody. Jesus certainly did that!
But look up a little more. Look up, every day. And in the same way, we need to listen more. Not listen to all the noise and all the screaming craziness of the world. We need to listen to the Spirit. We need to listen to what God has to say.
And sometimes the Holy Spirit speaks very quietly. There’s an old advice, written by Quakers in London Yearly Meeting, which says, “Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts, which are the leadings of God.”
The Holy Spirit can speak quietly. Sometimes without any words at all. The Spirit uses the language of love, the language of grace, the language of peace, the language of reconciliation. The Spirit doesn’t always need words. Some things are beyond words.
I want to wish you all a great weekend, and a great week. I wish for nothing but blessings for everyone here. And I wish that each of you will hear the Spirit, or feel the Spirit, or sense the Spirit, in your own life, and that it will overflow in all kinds of wonderful ways.