Come, Holy Spirit, come.
Today, as we remember the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise to send the Advocate; we join with the early church as we pray, ‘Come, Holy Spirit, come.’ Amen.
This morning I would like to begin with a very short exercise, and I will need you help to complete it. I would like us to take a minute and to turn to our neighbour and answer a simple question, ‘What do you enjoy about your birthday?’ So go on, take just a moment and tell your neighbour one thing you enjoy about your birthday.
Thank you for indulging me; I promise I will come back to the reason why we began there.
Today we celebrate the birthday of the church, a celebration that comes hand in hand when we receive the Holy Spirit, the Advocate. In Greek this word is ‘paraclete’ and means ‘the one who comes beside’. Today is all about our ability to receive, speak, listen and live in the truth and new life God has called us into.
Our first reading this morning is one that has been retold year upon year, within the church; it is our remembrance of where we have pinpointed the birth of what we now call the Christian church. The Holy Spirit came in a way never seen before, those who were baptised by the Spirit of God gave witness to the love of God as had never been heard before. It is a story that has been tried and tested for centuries but, if your experience is anything like mine, it is one of the many stories in our tradition that feels a little worn, a little two dimensional, a little more fictious than fact. People spoke in languages they did not know, the crowds gathered assumed they were drunk, and yet, we are told in Acts 2:41, that those who received the testimony of Peter and the other disciples, were baptised and were added to their number; ‘there were added that day about three thousand souls.’
If I were to hear, today, about that quantity of people coming to faith in a single day, or even a single event, I immediately become skeptical. I think there must be something up, and I question the longevity of the commitment of the new converts. But this is the story that lays the foundation to the start of one of the most influential and wide spread world faiths.
I had the privilege to preach for our joint ascension service with St Mark’s; in the sermon I made the comment that, having grown up in the Pentecostal wing of the church, the most important post-resurrection story was always the telling of Pentecost. Our church believed that we were a living expression of the early church that we hear of in Acts 2.
In a small church on Azusa Street, in Los Angles, in 1906, a revival began around, what has best been understood as, a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This revival was evidenced by people speaking in tongues, and signs and miracles like we read of in the New Testament. This evidence of people’s baptism in the Holy Spirit being confirmed by speaking in tongues (which simply is defined ‘as someone’s ability to speak in a language that they have no way knowing’), is something that has continued across the board of the Pentecostal church over the last hundred years. It is seen as a living link with what we have read of the early church’s experience that first day of Pentecost. But something more interesting happened before this evidenced outbreak in 1906 that, for me, connects with something more important that we have heard this morning.
In 1905 a white preacher, Charles Parham, was teaching in a holiness school in Texas and was developing a theology of baptism in the Holy Spirit. Parham expected to see the same outpouring in people of his day as was recorded in the Book of Acts. He believed that the evidence of this baptism would be found in the Christian’s ability to speak in tongues. A young black man, William J. Seymour, believed in what Parham was teaching and asked if he could be Parham’s student. Parham agreed to let Seymour come as a new student, but because he was black said Seymour would not be able to sit in the classroom with the other white students, instead he would have to sit outside and listen through the doorway. Parham was open to Seymour hearing his teaching, but it is seems he did not believe someone who was black could actually receive the same baptism of the Holy Spirit as he and his white contemporaries. Fortunately, for many reasons, Parham was not the one to decide on the movement of God’s Spirit.
The verses following our Acts reading tell of Peter’s proclamation of an Old Testament prophecy that can be found in Joel 2:28-29. In it Peter declares, (Acts 2:17-18) ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.’ When the Holy Spirit comes all people, men and women, young and old, Jews and Gentiles, all people can be baptised by tongues of fire and can see visions, dream dreams and prophesy.
It was this truth that the church had, in many ways, forgotten which was brought back to light at Azusa Street. It was not that the evidence of the coming of the Holy Spirit, our Advocate, was found in a person’s ability to speak in another language, it is evidenced by the inclusion of all people to the witness of Jesus and participation in new life. It is the time where God gives visions, dreams and voice to all their children. Power is shown not to be in the hands of the established, well educated, accomplished, wealthy, popular, the celebrity, or any other number of markers that we use to validate our choice for who is recognised and heard in our culture, power is given to all. All people have their voices heard and able to hear the good news in their own language. It was not just the disciples that received the baptism or the power to witness, it was, and continues to be, all people.
Parham, with many others, believed that they would experience this Acts 2 style outpouring of the Holy Spirit but believed it was meant for those in power, those with education and position in the church, those with the right theology; the White, western man. What happened was quite the opposite. When the experience began to match the theology, the Spirit of God had no regard for the divisions Parham believed in; men and women, black and white, young and old were experiencing the same baptism, and were found to be speaking in tongues and witnessing through signs and wonders.
All people are included and united in their difference by the message, power and witness of the Holy Spirit. Difference is necessary so that we can see God in ways we never expected, in ways outside of the norm for ourselves; in difference we are able to, by the Spirit, hear God in a voice other than our own, in words that we do not necessarily comprehend. This is the birth of the church, not a revelation of something previously unknown, but a fresh empowerment of inclusion and welcome into the new creation of God.
What is a birthday for? What do we do by both remembering and celebrating a birthday? Birthdays are our way of marking new life, celebrating the life that has been and looking forward to what life can be. I had us begin with answering the question, ‘What do you enjoy about your birthday?’ for two reasons. Firstly, I wanted us to think about the meaning and importance of birthdays, even if that was not what the question seemed to ask. Secondly, I wanted the room to be filled with the plethora of voices and opinions about what makes birthdays enjoyable. The question and the context were the same for everyone, and yet the answers would be, I would guess, widely varied. By hearing other’s experiences and opinions we open ourselves up to a bigger truth of what a birthday is and can be.
Today, as we celebrate the birthday of the church, we recognise that we have been given the Spirit of God which has come along side us in our life to bring us confidence in our own voice and in our ability to hear the voice of others. We pray for a fresh outpouring of God’s Spirit that we may have true life, wisdom, healing, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control. Our world is marked by the missing voices of the oppressed, outcast, victim, the marginalised, the weak, the broken, the needy, the hurt, the vulnerable, the sick and we have good news for them; not news that promises if they can do all the ‘right things’ then they can have the life they think they deserve, which many of us live without much thought. Our good news is that death is not the final answer, evil is does not get the last word, darkness is not what we were created to live in, and we are not alone.
When the Comforter comes we are empowered to proclaim the good news of the Most Blessed Trinity; the one who creates us, redeems us, sustains us and walks with us. The church was born in Pentecost not because God needed a new plan but because God showed, again, the depth of his commitment to all his children, to his creation, to his love for each and everyone of us. The Spirit has come that we might know true life, live in the fullness of life and proclaim this new life that we are receiving.
Come, Holy Spirit, come. Empower our voice to proclaim your truth, open our ears to hear the voice of others. Come afresh today and anoint your church as we celebrate our birth, thankful for the years that have been and looking forward to the years to come. Amen.