God is so far beyond our imagining, He is more powerful than we can contemplate, He is more loving than we can even comprehend.
‘When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.’ Acts 2:1-6
Boom! I was knocked to the ground in a daze, and I remember someone hastily putting out the flames. I was in my early twenties, part of a musket block in the Sealed Knot, when a stray spark entered the gunpowder flask of the person next to me. Bizarrely they were not hurt at all, but the blast hit me in my leg, burned a large hole in my trousers and caught my socks alight! It was only a small explosion, yet it knocked me off my feet. No harm done and a good story for recounting later in the pub.
October 2012, Superstorm Sandy reaches the United States. We were given a warning to brace ourselves for its coming; the wind would rip out trees, force the sea levels to rise several metres and tear down the old power lines. The epicentre was expected to make landfall in the evening, and in the early afternoon as I sat in my office working, the sound of the wind blowing stronger and stronger became so great and ominous that I left the church building. I struggled to walk the few yards to the rectory where we gathered in a safe part of the house to wait out the storm. I had never, and have never since, heard a sound like it. The wind blowing constantly – on and on and on. We were fortunate in that it had lost strength by the time it reached our town, yet even so, boats in the harbour were shattered, trees had fallen slicing houses in two and many in the town were without electricity for several weeks.
‘Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.’ Acts 2:2-3
We have probably read those words from Acts many times. We may have looked at them in Sunday school and made little cut outs of flames to stick above the heads of smiling disciples in flowing robes. Yet, the events of Pentecost were world changing, dramatic, and beyond imagining. Explosive!
The anointing received by the disciples was not just for themselves, but signalled God’s presence available to the whole world. It would be immediate, noticeable, and powerful as the disciples went out into the city and proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ in a language everyone could understand. On that day 3000 people turned back to God.
Before He died, Jesus said:
‘But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you’ John 14:26
And Jesus, shortly before His ascension had commanded the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the promise, the gift of the Holy Spirit.
‘After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Acts 1:3-5
One of the symbolisms of baptism is rebirth, as we go down into the water we die to our old selves and come up again reborn, cleansed, renewed. (This is why fonts are the size they are, so babies could be dipped into the water and why it is a good idea for adults being baptised to be baptised by total immersion, so the sacrament – the outward sign – more clearly matches the inward sign of what God has done.)
For the disciples, the baptism in water and the baptism in the Holy Spirit came at different times. For us, this is often the case too. Our salvation comes from God, it is a gift, it has been already accomplished by Jesus dying for our sake, for our sins, on the cross. Nothing we do, no works or words can buy us our salvation – it comes from God. But we do have to make the decision to accept this gift from Him.
On the day of Pentecost, the disciples were gathered in a house. They were doing what Jesus had specifically told them to do, they had not gone out to preach or proclaim Jesus in their own strength or return to fishing and their old ways, but they waited as Jesus had commanded them. They had probably all been baptised in John’s baptism of water, as Jesus was, but now they were going to be baptised with the Holy Spirit – a totally life changing experience. This was something worth desiring and waiting patiently for. They did not know how long they would have to wait. Jesus had told them it would be a few days, but He was not specific. God rarely is with timings.
‘Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.’ Psalm 27
As it happened it was the day of Pentecost, the Jewish festival of Shavuot, which came 50 days after the Passover. It is still celebrated today. For Jews this is a festival that remembers the wheat harvest, and when God gave the Torah – the first five books of the Bible. The disciples would have been celebrating this festival as they were gathered, remembering the commands God had given them in books of the law, and waiting in obedience to Jesus’ command for the Holy Spirit.
Then the world changing explosion happened – the blast of wind and tongues of fire came upon them, they were immersed by the Holy Spirit and reborn. We see the immediate result of this in how their actions and nature change. Before Pentecost they were afraid and fearful, after it they spoke boldly and travelled throughout the land spreading the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
The Holy Spirit is our comforter, He is our teacher, He is the sign and seal of our salvation, He is the presence and power of God within us.
‘After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.’ Acts 4:31
The church was born as the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and went out to people of all nations with the message of Jesus; there were no church buildings, no special clothes, structure, or formal liturgy.
‘We wait in hope for the LORD; he is our help and our shield.’ Psalm 27:14
In these days when we are outside of our church building, we have an opportunity patiently to seek God and his Holy Spirit so we can recapture that driving love of Jesus that sent the disciples out to the people. I don’t know about you, but I often do things in my own strength, and only afterwards wonder why I hadn’t sought God’s wisdom, listened more closely to Jesus, and waited for the gentle but persistent promptings and guidance of his Holy Spirit.
We go out in His name, but only after we are filled with His Spirit. Do we deeply desire this gift, this power of God within us, or are we happy to remain as we were?
We are the church, we are adopted by God, loved by Him, saved by Him. The Church is the body of Christ and we are part of His body. We need his Holy Spirit to fully live.
After the crucifixion, the disciples stayed in the upper room out of fear, then Jesus came to them and spoke ‘peace’ and gave them a foretaste of His Holy Spirit when He breathed upon them. I don’t believe that after the Ascension the disciples were in the house out of fear, but they were waiting in obedience – they were listening to Jesus’ instruction.
The Archbishops shut the churches on the 23rd March, I believe this was a prophetic act. An act of God to make the churches stop. To force us to refocus on Him. For the churches of all denominations have become less relevant to the nation as a whole, its voice has been lost in the moral decisions we face, we have forsaken our first love in Jesus, we have become lukewarm, neither hot nor cold. We have continued to operate in our own strength, doing what we are comfortable doing, no longer being counter cultural, radical in love, reaching out to everyone around us, proclaiming the truth of Jesus our only saviour and welcoming everyone into His love and fellowship. I hold myself complicit in this. So, I think we have been asked to wait in our homes in obedience until the Holy Spirit fills us anew and the church can be reborn. God comes in the quiet, but He also comes in the storm. I believe God’s desire is for the churches to be reborn in the power of His Holy Spirit, not longing to go back into the buildings, but blown out with a fiery passion to declare the truth of Jesus. God comes with power and with force. His love is unstoppable.
‘And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.’ Acts 13:52
As we open our hearts and minds to Christ and his love, as we give ourselves in total obedience to Him, we are filled with His Holy Spirit. We can all be filled to overflowing, with the powerful, explosive, transforming presence of God.
It is a promise to us from Jesus, and God’s love never fails.
‘I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.’ Psalm 130:5
Revd Stuart Huntley