God, Go It Again!

We find ourselves in the first four verses of the second chapter of Acts. The scriptures say it clearly. It was Pentecost. To the Jewish world, it meant it was fifty days after the Passover. It was also called the Feast of Weeks (Deuteronomy 16:10) or the Feast of the Harvest (Exodus 23:16). It was comparable to our Thanksgiving Day, a celebration of the harvest. To the Christian world, it meant it had been fifty days sense Jesus was resurrected. It also meant; it had been ten days sense Jesus ascended into heaven. Ten days is a long time to wait. They must have wrestled with Jesus’ last words about evangelizing the world. However, they also obeyed Jesus. They stayed in Jerusalem. They waited for something to happen and on the day of Pentecost, it did. While the rest of their world was celebrating the harvest, Jesus kept his promise. No longer reserved for select political or religious leaders, the Holy Spirit was unleased on all believers. Without warning the Holy Spirit blew into the disciples lives and everything changed. They were transformed. They did not change physically; they changed spiritually. The lessons they wrestled with in the past suddenly became clear. The things they could not do in the past became easy. It was an amazing moment. The words printed in your Bible are only shadows of the actual event. The first revival in the history of the world had begun and the church was born. The Methodist tradition should never wrestle with the Holy Spirit because we are a product of the Holy Spirit. Do you remember the story?

John Wesley (1703-1791) was the founder of the great Methodist movement. He was born in Epworth, England. His father, Samuel, was an Anglican priest. His mother, Susannah, was a stay-at-home mother, who set the standard high for all parents. She taught John and his siblings how to survive in this world and be prepared for eternity. John Wesley had everything he needed to be successful, but he didn’t have a clue. Until he was thirty-five years old, he only knew failure. He failed as a pastor, and he failed as a missionary. Tired of defeat, John Wesley went on a great spiritual quest. That quest ended on May 24, 1738, on Aldersgate Street, London. There is no other way to say it, John Wesley was touched by the Holy Spirit. We call it his sanctification experience. He was touched by God for a divine purpose. The only thing he ever wrote about that day was a simple phrase in his personal journal, I felt my heart strangely warmed. Those words are not impressive, but his life after that experience was. From that point on, he only knew success. He took the whole world on as his parish and changed history. When he died in 1791, he left behind 135,000 followers, plus another 541 itinerant preachers. Today, there are millions of people around the world who proudly claim the title Methodist. If we could resurrect John Wesley, then he would tell you that the Holy Spirit changed everything! Let me state the obvious.

I was not in the ministry on May 24, 1738. However, I was in the ministry two hundred and fifty years later, on May 24, 1988. I remember that year, because it was the first year, I was under a United Methodist appointment. I was serving in the old Morristown Charge in the old St. Clairsville District in the East Ohio Annual Conference; the congregations in Morristown, Lloydsville and Bannock. As May approached, I was looking forward to the anniversary of the great Aldersgate experience, because I had had my own sanctification experience. This is the truth. I was disappointed. Except for a few men riding on horses and dressed like circuit riders, there was no celebration. That year at Annual Conference, I expressed my disappointment to my District Superintendent. He was a spiritually mature man by the name of Abraham Brandyberry. He felt as I did. I asked him why the famous date was overlooked. He simply said, “Russ, there was no celebration, because no one in our time understands Wesley’s sanctification, because no one in our time understands the Holy Spirit.” There was no debate because I knew he was right. Many are ignorant of the work and power of the Holy Spirit. Fewer have experienced the Holy Spirit. Can I ask you a spiritual question?

Have you experienced the Holy Spirit?

For many it is not an easy question to answer. To help you answer that question I am going to ask you two other questions. The way you answer those two questions will be very revealing. Both deal with your priorities. Are you motivated by earthly things or are you motived by God? Be honest with yourself so you can answer the question, Have you experienced the Holy Spirit? If you are ready for my two questions say, “Amen!”

Question #1: Are you more passionate about people or property? The answer should be obvious. However, it is not obvious to everyone. What we say and what we do are often two different things. For example, I have never been in the middle of a church debate about human need. I have never been part of a church debate to borrow money to help the forgotten. I am still waiting for the first person to fundraise to fight world hunger or homelessness. However, I have been in the middle of church debates to improve our church property. Ask yourself the question again. Are you more passionate about people or property? If you have been touched by the Holy Spirit, then the only thing that really matters is people.

In the creation story, God created everything, and everything was good. He made the earth and the sky. He made the seas and the dry ground. He made the fish and the animals and the insects. When God created those things, he said they were all good. However, when he made mankind, he said something different. God looked at mankind and said it was very good. Every person is made in the image of God. Every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. What is more important to you people or property? Once you have experienced the Holy Spirit the only thing that matters is people! And all of God’s people said, “Amen!” Have you experienced the Holy Spirit?

Question #2: Are you more passionate the invisible or the visible church? In other words, are you more interested in Jesus or the organizational church? Do you have an easier time quoting church rules or Bible verses? Are more comfortable talking about local church history or what God has done for you today? Do you have an easier time listing past pastors or disciples? The Holy Spirit only cares about the invisible or spiritual church. Have you stop to consider the word Methodist isn’t even found in the Bible? 

Years ago, I was texting a regular worshipper of this church. They have been coming here for years and I consider them one of us. The problem is she and her husband have never joined. I was trying to correct that situation. She texted me this question, what do we have to do to join? She meant classes or something. I responded, “Nothing. All you need to know is Jesus and me.” How do you feel about that response? Maybe you do feel like we need classes or something? I do not require classes because my goal is not to make good church members or great United Methodists. My goal is to make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The mission statement of the United Methodist Church. It really doesn’t matter if you know how many annual conferences exist or how long a bishop serves. It really doesn’t matter if you know about the history of Western Reserve? It only matters that you know Jesus. If you know Jesus, then you are part of the invisible church. Are you more passionate about the invisible or the visible church? The Holy Spirit only cares about the invisible church.

Have you experienced the Holy Spirit? How do you answer the question? There is only one correct answer. Your answer can not be, “Maybe.” Your answer cannot be, “I hope so.” In the life of the church, “No,” is not an option. The only acceptable answer is, “YES!” It is the question that will not go away. Have you experienced the Holy Spirit?

Wilmore, Kentucky is a small town, located seventeen miles from Lexington. It is not much of a place. According to the 2010 census, it has a population of less than 3,700 people. The only thing noteworthy about the place are the two academic institutions that call Wilmore home. They sit on either side of Lexington Avenue. On the south side of the road is Asbury Theological Seminary, my seminary. On the north of the road is Asbury University. Both schools are steeped in the Christian tradition. In my younger days I used to call Wilmore, Jerusalem west. Historically, an event happened in Wilmore that should not be forgotten.

On February 3, 1970, a revival broke out at a chapel service in Hughes Hall at then Asbury College. Chapel was scheduled to last fifty minutes, it lasted eight days. The students had been praying for a revival for some time. God heard their prayers. On that day, the academic dean, Custer Reynolds (1915-2005), was scheduled to speak. The problem was he did not feel led to speak, so he gave his witness and invited the students to share their personal experiences with God. Several students spoke. One young man came followed and told how he had been recently touched by the Holy Spirit. It was his Aldersgate experience. For the first time in his life, he was proud to be a Christian. There is no other way to say it. Like John Wesley, the Holy Spirit transformed his life. Other students followed him. They confessed their sins and told of similar experiences with the Holy Spirit. The altar was opened to anyone who wanted to pray. Hundreds of students rushed forward to pray and the crowd was washed by the Holy Spirit. People traveled from other time zones to be part of the revival in little Wilmore, Kentucky. Nothing else really mattered but God!

Seventeen years later, I enrolled at Asbury Theological Seminary. I sat in chapel regularly with my fellow students. I can still hear all those men sing the hymn, And Can It Be. It was powerful.Regularly, the revival at the college was mentioned. Regularly, the words were uttered, “God, do it again. Regularly, in my prayers I uttered the words, “God, do it again.” If it can happen in Wilmore, Kentucky, then it can happen anywhere. It can happen here. It can happen to you! God, do it again!

600 Years Later

It was called Youth Jam. It was an evangelistic event sponsored by the East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church. It was a Christian conference held annually, rotating between Akron and Cleveland. Their target audience was teenagers. Their goal was to win souls and mature disciples for Jesus Christ. Their agenda included a series of Christian singers and speakers. For several years, this church sent youth to Youth Jam. I am glad we did.

One afternoon at Youth Jam, the Christian speaker was a former beauty pageant winner. No one in my family can remember her name, but everyone one agrees she was a powerful speaker. She told some stories about the pageant and she gave her witness. As she spoke the spirit in the auditorium began to change. By the time she was done speaking, the Holy Spirit was thick in the room and everyone knew God was going to do something special. It was at that moment she did it. She encouraged everyone to stand up and look to the back of the auditorium. Then she asked everyone to get on their knees, placing their hands on their seats. From that position, she led them in prayer and the Holy Spirit rolled over the crowd. Words cannot capture the experience. She closed that prayer with an invitation. All those young people would have to do, is raise their hands if they wanted to accept Jesus Christ. I do not know how many hands were raised on that day, but I do know one hand was raised. That hand belonged to my daughter. It was not an emotional response to the moment. It was a commitment that changed her life. Today, her faith is genuine and sincere. I am thankful the Holy Spirit attended Youth Jam that day. Heaven would not be the same for me if Anna were missing. Things happen when the Holy Spirit is in the house. Do you believe the Holy Spirit is with us today? Let us look at this morning’s scripture lesson.

We are in the second chapter of Acts. The first verse tells us it is the day of Pentecost, on the Hebrew calendar it was a festival to celebrate the harvest, based on Leviticus 23:16. The disciples had no clue what was about to happen. The twelve are all together, including Judas Iscariot’s replacement, Matthias. They are in Jerusalem because Jesus told them to stay in Jerusalem (Acts 1:4). For it is in the Golden City that they will be baptized by the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5). According to the Bible, the baptism happened suddenly.

The author of this text, Luke, tells us the Holy Spirit was evident in two ways. First, there was a violent wind. The Holy Spirit was always symbolized by wind in the Bible. (Ezekiel 37:9, 14, John 3:8) Second, there seemed to be tongues of fires that separated and came to rest on each one of them. Verse four explains what had happened. It says, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit…”  The word ALL is important because it was the first time the Holy Spirit was given to everyone. In the Old Testament it was limited to a select few. The manifestation of the spirit was that each one began to speak in different tongues. It was just as the prophet Joel had predicted six hundred years earlier. The Holy Spirit changed everything. The church was born and the world we never be the same again.

Pentecost is one of the great days in the history of the church. However, let us be completely honest. It does not stack up with the rest of the other church holidays. You know it is true. We all love Christmas. We love seeing the decorations and singing the carols. We love collecting a variety of things to ensure everyone has a Merry Christmas. I love the poinsettias and preaching to the crowd on Christmas Eve. I love preaching to the big crowds on Easter morning. I like the Easter flowers and remembering the various events of Holy Week. Those are great days in the life of the church, but let us be honest, Pentecost cannot hold a candle to Christmas and Easter. The best we can do is bring in a few geraniums. Even Mother’s Day generates more excitement than Pentecost. Yet, that does not mean Pentecost is not important. Pentecost is very important. Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) once said, “Without Pentecost, the Christ event -the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – remains imprisoned in history as something to remember, think about and reflect on. The Spirit of Jesus comes to dwell within us, so we are Christs here and now.” In other words, Pentecost is important! So why is Pentecost important? So why is Pentecost important?

There are six reasons why Pentecost is still important. These thoughts are not original. They come from Christian blogger Daniel Threlfall.

  1. Pentecost reminds us of the Holy Spirit. Francis Chan (born 1967) has said,for some Christians, the Holy Spirit has become the forgotten God. We talk about God and we talk about Jesus, but the Holy Spirit is seldom mentioned. It maybe that we are afraid of the Holy Spirit or ignorant of the Holy Spirit. When we celebrate Pentecost, we must accept the existence of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is about the Holy Spirit.
  • Pentecost reminds us of the power of the Holy Spirit. The one word that summarizes the events of Pentecost is power. There was the mighty wind, the strange appearance of flame, zealous evangelism, and the speaking in foreign tongues. They all happen because of the power of God. Things happen when the Holy Spirit is in the house. Pentecost is about power.
  • Pentecost reminds us of the importance of the Great Commission. There is a direct connection between the Great Commission (Matthew 28:1-10) and Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is not in our lives to entertain or amuse us. The Holy Spirit is part of our lives to help us make disciples for Jesus Christ. It is impossible to make disciples for Jesus Christ without the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was part of your conversion. Pentecost is about the Great Commission.
  • Pentecost encourages us in our labor. The Book of Acts begins with a bang – the Holy Spirit arrives. The rest of the Book of Acts is a grind. Have you ever served on a church committee and you began to feel like your term would never end? Have you ever agreed to teach Sunday school for a year, and it turned into a decade? Have you ever spent hours writing a sermon and no one comes because the weather is too cool? (Wait, that is my story!) It is not just true of the disciples. It is true of you and me. Church work is a grind. In God’s church, disciple making is a never-ending task. It is our preoccupation. The Holy Spirit encourages us to keep going. Pentecost is about encouragement.
  • Pentecost gives us hope. The disciples hide out for ten days after Jesus’s ascension. That is a long time just to wait. Perhaps, they needed that ten days to rest. Perhaps, they needed to think? They knew their human limitation and they know their great challenge waiting for them. Prior to Pentecost, they were hopeless disciples. After Pentecost, they were hopeful Apostles. Our world has a shortage of hope. Pentecost is about hope.
  • Pentecost overwhelms us with awe. The Holy Spirit makes us hungry for God. The Holy Spirit reminds us there is more than just this world. The Holy Spirit reminds us this world is not big enough. Would you like to see the face of Jesus when you get to heaven? Pentecost overwhelms us with awe.

Pentecost is important because Pentecost is about the Holy Spirit. Let me end with this story.

I was not born into the United Methodist Church. My parents were members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It had been my father’s family denomination for decades. I have very little negative to say about that denomination. It is not my place to judge them. I have known many fine people within their ranks. I left that denomination for a variety of reasons. One was social. Everyone I knew in college was going into the United Methodist ministry. One was practical. I found the guaranteed appointment appealing. I may move occasionally but I would always have a job. It did not work out that way. I am not the poster boy for itineracy. One was theological. My understanding of the Holy Spirit, based on my experiences, did not match that denomination’s understanding of the Holy Spirit. I find the Holy Spirit to be vital to my faith. Some within that denomination find the Holy Spirit optional. It was a hard decision, but I am glad I left. The United Methodist Church has been good to me. My final decision to leave the Disciples was based on something that came in the mail. This is the story.

When I in seminary, my mother would write me letters. There were no cell phones at that time. No email. She would write about things that were happening at home and sent newspaper clippings. There was always a twenty-dollar bill enclosed to encourage and help me. One day she sent me an article from a national magazine. It was quite impressive. It was in full color and well written. The article was about my childhood denomination. The author of the article had interviewed the national head of that denomination. It was interesting. He gave some history and was excited about their bright future. According to the article, that denomination is non-creedal. In other words, they did not have any creeds. I never recited any creeds, including the Apostle’s Creed, until I became a United Methodist. They have a famous line in that denomination, no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible. When I was younger, I found that line liberating. Then, I met people who abused that freedom. There are some within that denomination who are non-trinitarian. That means they believe in the existence of God, the creator of the universe, and they believe the historical Jesus, the redeemer. However, they do not believe in the existence of the Holy Spirit. I find that part of their theology to be repulsive. The Holy Spirit gives us life. The Holy Spirit makes us relevant. I have never been able to answer this question. How do you not believe in the Holy Spirit? When the Holy Spirit is in the house things happen. When the Holy Spirit is not in the house nothing happens.

Do you remember the quote from Henri Nouwen? He was correct. He once said, “Without Pentecost the Christ event -the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – remains imprisoned in history as something to remember, think about and reflect on. The Spirit of Jesus comes to dwell within us, so we are Christ’s here and now.” May we take this Pentecost and celebrate the difference he has made in our lives!