The church that didn’t get the memo

Good morning, Friends!

I want to start off this morning by asking you all a question. When I say the words, “Holy Spirit”, what does that mean to you? What is the Holy Spirit?

Have you ever felt like the Spirit was present or close to you?
What did it feel like?

The reason I’m asking this, is that the Holy Spirit often feels like one of the more mysterious things in Christianity. We feel it, sometimes, but we can’t see it. It’s invisible and outside our control.

The word holy often leaves people puzzled, too. I remember one time my wife was teaching a Sunday School class. She asked the kids if they knew what the “holy” part of the Holy Bible means. One of the kids said, “Well, my mom told me my jeans were holy, cause they were full of holes.”

I’ve got a feeling that a lot of grown-ups don’t understand anything more than that kid in Sunday School knew

Holy means special. It means set apart and different from things which are ordinary. Holy means devoted to God, or dedicated specially to God. Holy means pure.

A holy place is a place of worship, whether it’s a church or anywhere else. In the old days, a holy place was a place of sanctuary, a refuge where a person could flee to for safety.

When the Lord spoke to Moses out of the burning bush, the Lord said to Moses, “Take off your shoes – the place you’re standing is holy ground.”

Sometimes holiness makes us feel nervous, because it’s unfamiliar and different. We often feel we don’t belong, or that we shouldn’t be here. We feel a sense of awe and wonder, but holiness shouldn’t feel strange or threatening. Some people say that holiness feels inviting, something good that they want to get close to.

But the Holy Spirit – now that’s something else again.

One of the many promises Jesus made, was that he was going to send the Holy Spirit to be with people, after he left. The book of Acts is almost like a diary of experiences of the Holy Spirit.

50 days after Easter – 7 weeks – the disciples had a special experience of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit shook the house where they were staying, with a mighty wind like a hurricane. It was terrifying and exhilarating.

Before the wind died away, the room was filled with fire. The fire came to rest over the heads of each of the 12 disciples. It says they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and suddenly they were all speaking in different languages.

They must have run outside into the streets, because people heard them speaking in these foreign tongues. Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims and travelers from all over the entire Mediterranean world. And all the visitors were astonished, because they heard the disciples talking in their own native languages, about the teaching and resurrection of Jesus.

Today is the anniversary of that incredible day. 50 days – 7 Sundays after Easter. On the church calendar, they call it Pentecost. It probably ought to have at least as much celebration and publicity as Christmas and Easter. Pentecost is the day we remember the coming, the gift, of the Holy Spirit.

It was an amazing day. Most years, we read the story of Pentecost from Acts chapter 2, with the mighty wind and the fire and all the different languages. Acts goes on to tell a bunch of almost unbelievable stories about the Holy Spirit.

But there’s one story we almost never read. It’s about a group that hadn’t experienced the Holy Spirit, a group that didn’t even know what the Holy Spirit is.

Paul took the road through the back country and he arrived at the city of Ephesus. There Paul found some disciples and he asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”

They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

So Paul asked, “What baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.

Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. John told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.”

On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve people in all.

Acts 19:1-7

For some reason, this group of people called themselves Christians, but somehow, they hadn’t received the whole message.

They were followers of John the Baptist. John was very famous. Even though John had been murdered in prison by King Herod, John still had many disciples. John’s disciples had spread the word, outside Palestine, and there were small groups of John’s followers in many other countries by now.

John had a very distinctive message. “Turn your life around!” John said. “Turn yourself around 180 degrees, and head back to God!”

John told people off. He named names, and he called sin for what it is. John was what you could call the original old-time Baptist preacher. “Prepare the way of the Lord!” John said. “Make God’s way straight!”

“Don’t be saying, ‘Oh, we’re good people, our ancestors go all the way back to Abraham!’ I tell you, God can make a whole new bunch of descendants of Abraham to take your place. God can raise them up right out of the stones all around you!”

People took John’s message to heart, and they said, “What should we do?”

John said, “Turn your lives around, and as a sign of that turnaround, get baptized!” And people did, by the thousands. And John became famous everywhere.

This group that Paul met in today’s story were a group that had heard about John, and tried to follow him. But they were living in Greece, a long, long way from Palestine. And they didn’t have the full story.

One of the things John had also said was, “I’m just a messenger. I’m just the advance man. There’s someone coming after me, who’s so much greater than me, I’m not even worthy to untie his shoes. I’m baptizing with water,” John said, “but the one who comes after me is going to baptize with the Holy Spirit, and with fire!”

This group of people in today’s story didn’t know about that part of John’s teaching. They didn’t get the memo.

They got the turn around part, and that’s important. But they didn’t get the part about the Holy Spirit. They’d never even heard about the Holy Spirit. And Paul must have been some kind of surprised.

From Paul’s point of view, having a church without the Holy Spirit was kind of like going to the zoo and not seeing the elephants. It was like going to the beach and never getting your feet wet. It was like – missing one of the best parts of the whole thing.

The Holy Spirit, for Paul, wasn’t something rare or imaginary. The Spirit is reality. The Spirit is one of the things that put the final proof on what Jesus was talking about.

Jesus had to go back where he came from. But when Jesus left, he sent the Holy Spirit to be with us forever.

The Holy Spirit is the spirit of love. It’s the spirit that gives us faith. It’s the spirit of hope, of courage, of freedom. You can be locked up in jail, Paul said, and the Spirit will set you free, even if you’re in chains.

The Spirit is the one who gives us the words to say, when we’re tongue-tied and when we’re in trouble and up against it. The Spirit helps us to understand and remember all the teachings of Jesus, and to remember and put our trust in all the promises of God.

The Spirit gives us strength to keep trying, when we’re discouraged or depressed or ready to quit.

It’s the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s the dawn of the new day. The Spirit is the guiding star on the darkest night.

The Spirit is Light, Paul said. God who made the world and said, “Let there be light!” and there was light for the whole world, God makes that same light shine into all of our hearts, through the teaching and life of Jesus, and through the light of the Holy Spirit.”

The Spirit is what inspired the songs and prayers of David. The Spirit is what gave Samson the strength to destroy his enemies. The Spirit was what gave words to all the prophets.

And the Spirit is what set peoples’ hearts on fire, and made them want to reach out across every barrier, to every nation, and share the good news of Jesus.

The Spirit is the Light-bringer. The Spirit is the Truth-teller. The Spirit is the Comforter, the Counselor, the Holy Wisdom of God. The Spirit cleans the cobwebs and confusion our of our brains, and the fear out of our hearts.

The Holy Spirit is the spirit of mercy and reconciliation. “Any time two or three of you are met together in my name for forgiveness,” Jesus said, “there I am in the midst of you. . .”

Sometimes the Spirit speaks in a shout or a song. Sometimes the Spirit speaks in a whisper, or in a kind word.

Quakers, whatever else we are, are called to be people of the Spirit. One of the earliest advices of the Quaker movement is, “Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts, which are the leadings of God. . .” (London Yearly Meeting)

We don’t always live up to our special calling. It’s in our history. It’s in our memory. But we don’t always walk the walk as a Spirit-led people.

Speaking for myself, I would cheerfully preach less, if we would pray more, and if we would speak from our hearts, as the Spirit leads us. Somebody asked me this week, if I ever throw away my prepared sermon, and say something else.

I do that, once in a while. I would do it more often, if people would say, “God really laid something on my heart today, and I’ve got to share it.” I’d be happy to spend hours with anyone, who feels that the Spirit is calling them to share a message, and give up my time to listen instead.

If you feel the Spirit calling you to any kind of ministry, I want to hear from you, and I want to pray with you. If you feel like the Spirit is pestering you with an idea or a question that won’t go away, I want to pay attention to that.

The people Paul talked with in today’s story were good people. There was nothing wrong with them. But Paul was surprised that they didn’t seem to have even heard of the Holy Spirit.

Because being touched by the Holy Spirit, immersed in the Holy Spirit, set on fire by the Spirit and led by the Spirit – isn’t that what it’s all about?

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