On 4 June, the feast of Pentecost, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 104:26-35, Acts 2:1-21, John 7:37-39.
Many years ago, I followed a correspondence course on the Christian faith. It was provided by a Pentecostal church with a very strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit. I had a tutor to whom I sent the responses to the questions in the course. She sent feedback to me.
At one point in the course, there was a question about being baptised in the Spirit. It assumed that evidence of that event would be speaking in tongues. In my response to the question, I was honest and wrote that I had not experienced speaking in tongues. The tutor was rather perplexed as she considered that my previous answers on the course had shown evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in my life. Her theology considered that if the Holy Spirit had been received by a person they would most definitely speak in tongues. I had to confirm that that had not been my experience. Perhaps she went away from our correspondence and had a rethink. Who knows? What I do know is that I didn’t fit what she had been taught.
When we look at the first Pentecost as described in Acts, those on whom the Holy Spirit alighted did indeed speak in various tongues. So, was the Holy Spirit creating a pattern which would hold for all time? According to Peter as he addressed the crowd, what they were witnessing was the fulfilment of prophecy. The prophecy of Joel says nothing about speaking in tongues, in the sense of using an unknown language. It does tell us that
“your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.”
That suggests there would indeed be speaking, but the speaking would be words given by God, prophecies (and presumably descriptions of dreams and visions).
When Jesus pointed his disciples and others listening to him to the future coming of the Holy Spirit, he also did not mention speaking in tongues. Instead he said: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”
When the Psalmist mentions the Spirit, he refers to the renewing work the Spirit will accomplish. No mention of speaking in tongues.
When it comes to considering who might receive the Holy Spirit, Jesus said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” And Peter told the people, quoting Joel: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Here is something very important indeed. My experience with the course I followed made it plain that receiving the Holy Spirit, and manifesting that in a particular way, was the mark of a real Christian. Anything else was a counterfeit. Jesus and Peter confirmed what God had said throughout the Old Testament, though it seemed to be lost at times. He is the God of all people. Abraham was blessed in order that everyone should be blessed through him. Isaiah saw all nations heading up to the mountain of God. Jeremiah saw all nations gathering in Jerusalem in the presence of God.
Jesus, the Son of God, the bodily form of God for our benefit, spent his time on earth with those who somehow didn’t seem to fit. Those like tax collectors who were rejected due to their job. Those with diseases that cut them off from society and worship in the synagogue or temple. Women, the poor, the foreigner, prostitutes, sinners, adulterers – these were the people he reached out to and taught. When he ascended to heaven, his last instruction to his disciples was to go to all nations, preaching, teaching and baptising in Jesus’ name.
How could the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity, go off in a different (and divisive) direction? That would be like God being torn apart. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one God. It follows that the coming of the Holy Spirit concerned inclusion of all people, not division or rejection. The fact that people of so many languages could hear the word of God only seeks to underline this fact. Pentecost is a sort of reversal of the Tower of Babel. At the Tower God separated people by confusing their languages. At Pentecost, different languages were no barrier to any person hearing the Good News that Jesus offers eternal life to all who want it.
The work of the Holy Spirit was more than just that one stunning event, of course. Peter’s words would have been very hollow indeed if there had been no evidence of the work of the Spirit in the lives of the disciples. People stuck around because they saw the genuine nature of the renewing that the Psalmist mentions. The rivers of living water which Jesus refers to were refreshing for those around, full of love and compassion. That work continues now in each of us.
I wouldn’t like you to think that I am dismissing speaking in tongues as a phenomenon. Eventually I did actually receive that gift and I also had a profound encounter with the Holy Spirit in which I felt the deep love and peace and acceptance which he or she brings. The two events were separate, so even then I did not fit the pattern that my tutor years before had expected.
And what if I had not had that experience? What if the best I could do in languages was my human accomplishments – English, a bit of French, a smaller bit of German and a smattering of Latin and Greek? Does that actually define me as a Christian? Of course not!
What matters is that we have love, God’s love, growing in us through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It is that which will draw others to God.
The traditional prayer used between Ascension Day and Pentecost sums up all we need to ask of the Holy Spirit:
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor