The Day of Pentecost                                                                                      Acts 2:1-4

May 20, 2018

 

Flaming Presbyterians

 

            In my junior year in college I experienced a kind of spiritual reawakening. As these things go, it was not very dramatic. No blinding light on the Damascus road. No voice from the enveloping cloud. It was a Presbyterian reawakening – decent and in order with only the slightest whiff of Pentecostal pyrotechnics.

 

          Like many a philosophy major before me, I had spent a semester trying hard to be a cultured despiser of the faith, and another semester attempting to be an agnostic. I failed at both. To be sure, I was embarrassed by the way so many Christians supported the war in Viet Nam and by the antics of television evangelists, who were coming into their heyday in my college years. I knew I wasn’t that kind of Christian, but I also knew I didn’t want to stop being some kind of Christian.

 

          In my junior year I discovered Søren Kierkegaard, the Christian existentialist philosopher whose gloomy critique of Christianity led me to my own dark night of the soul. What did I believe? Who is Jesus Christ? Can he be found in the church?

 

          I took my dilemma to a professor I respected, a man named Larry Lacy. I was already in awe of his intellect, but I went to him for another reason. Dr. Lacy was an unabashedly pious Christian. He prayed. He read his Bible. He went to church. The word round campus was, he actually spoke in tongues.

 

          Dr. Lacy invited me to attend the group that met at his house every Friday night. I expected to find there a gathering of people much like me, WASP-ish collegians eager to engage in intellectual debate. Instead I found an odd assortment of people with ostensively little in common. There was one other Ph.D., but many were working folk who had never been to college. Several spoke with uncultured accents and used bad grammar. We sat on cushions in Dr. Lacy’s living room, drinking tea and eating ginger cookies. The meeting was about to begin.

 

          A lady in a loud floral print began a song. The rest took up the tune: “Spirit of the God, blow afresh on me . . .” It sounded so different without an organ accompaniment. We sang several other songs, some of which I knew, but most of which were new to me.

 

          Then the testimonies began. “I just want to thank the Lord that I’m been drug-free for another whole week,” said one man. “Keep praying for my husband,” said a woman. “He’s still in the hospital, but I’m expecting a miracle.” Another person gave thanks that she had found a job.   Another that her daughter had brought home a good report card.

 

          The testimonies and sharing went on for some time, and then we began to pray. For a long time there was silence. Then someone started praying – in English at first – but when she came to the end of her prayer she said something in a language I didn’t understand. Then another woman spoke for a minute or two in yet another language. Next a man explained what had just been said, giving an interpretation of that earlier ecstatic utterance.

 

          I sat in the corner with my eyes closed, trying hard to pray, but thinking, “This isn’t the way we do it back at First Pres, Lake Charles, Louisiana.” It was my first encounter with what was called a “charismatic prayer meeting.”

 

          I continued with to meet at Dr. Lacy’s house most every Friday night for two years. I grew accustomed to the clicks and gutturals of those strange languages, and more than once I asked the Lord to give me the gift of tongues, but I never received it. The closest I got to speaking in tongues were my attempts to read Virgil in Latin and Plato in Greek. I should have prayed for the gift of interpretation.

 

          Every year, when the Day of Pentecost rolls round, I think of those nights in Dr. Lacy’s living room. I think of those brothers and sisters in Christ who in so many ways were so different from me, yet who welcomed me into their fellowship and eagerly prayed for and with me. I think of Dr. Lacy, who had studied in Europe and rubbed elbows with the great thinkers of his day, sitting on the floor with high school dropouts and unsophisticated folks who thought that Moses wrote the Pentateuch and the world was literally created in six days.

 

          What held us all together, I am convinced, was the Holy Spirit, that unpredictable third person of the Trinity who blows where he (or she?) will, and collects in her wake the oddest assortment of people: Pipe-smoking Ph.D.’s and pipe fitters, garbage collectors and college students, seekers and saints. To some the Spirit gifts more exotic than others, but to everyone the Spirit gives gifts.

 

          The Greek word for gift is “charis,” which also means “favor” or “grace.” “Charismatic” means “gifted with grace,” and that’s what those meetings were – gifted with grace.

 

          They helped be to begin to integrate the life of the mind with service to God. They brought me down from the heights of philosophical contemplation and up from the depths of existential angst. They introduced me to the breadth and wealth of the Christian community. They taught me humility – a rare gift for a philosophy major. They made me less sure of myself and more sure of my Lord.

 

          Later, when I got to seminary, I learned that I had been skating on thin theological ice. The “charismatic movement” was not held in high regard by most Presbyterians. Look up “charismatic” in the Presbyterian lexicon, and you will find this definition: “charismatic: an appliance for dicing up the church.” That entry comes just before the one for “charisphobia: the irrational fear of anything not printed in the bulletin.”

 

          When it came time for me to graduate from seminary, at least one friend advised me not to mention my sojourn amongst the charismatics when talking to search committees from churches. “You don’t want to give them the idea that you’be been baptized with the Holy Spirit,” he said.  

 

          Sound advice. Nothing makes Presbyterians more uncomfortable than talk of the Holy Spirit. Sex we can talk about, and do ad nauseam. But the Spirit? Not a topic for polite company.

 

          Spirituality is another case altogether. Spirituality is “in.” People are thirsty for ways to water their arid inner lives, to nurture their depleted spirits, but they aren’t much interested in encountering the Holy Spirit. That smacks of “organized religion,” of “dogma.” No dogma, please.

 

          How surprising, then, to read in Acts 2 of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the church. The followers of Jesus, still reeling from their Lord’s departure into heaven and lacking a Book of Order, are all together in one place trying to decide how large to make the quorum for their first congregational meeting. An amendment to the amendment has already been proposed, and the Moderator is consulting the Parliamentarian when a mighty wind blows into the room and all heaven breaks loose.

 

          The Clerk of Session bolts out the door, runs out into the street, and starts buttonholing passersby in Parthian. The Chair of the Compassion and Social Justice Ministry Team starts to preach in Pamphylian, and the Moderator in Mesopotamian. A rowdier bunch you’ve never seen.

 

          A crowd gathers, “amazed and astonished.”

 

          “They’re drunk!” somebody says.

 

          “They can’t be drunk. They’re Presbyterians! All they’ve got up there in that room is grape juice! There must be some other explanation.”

 

 

          There is, and Peter supplies it. Surprising as it sounds, these folks are filled with the Holy Spirit. They’ve seen the risen Lord. They’ve watched him ascend into heaven, and now, through no fault of their own, they’ve put it all together. Jesus is alive! The words he spoke are true. The life he lived leads us to God. The kingdom he proclaimed is dawning.

 

          It’s just what the prophet Joel promised. Sons and daughters prophesy. Young folk see visions. Old folk dream dreams. Slaves and women and people who never counted before are empowered with good news. Stand aside, old order! Step out of the way, patriarchy. Make a path for something new. Jesus Christ is alive. Call on his name and know his salvation.

 

          It caused quite a stir in Jerusalem, Luke reports – this blowing of the Holy Spirit. It always does. The Spirit has a proven record of blowing the church off dead center, of opening new paths round old problems, of issuing new wineskins for new wine. The Spirit keeps the church from wallowing in the past and from cowering before the future. It blows from behind, reminding us where we came from; it blows ahead, showing us the way.

 

          And, given the times we live in, please note: The Spirit doesn’t check green cards. The Spirit doesn’t care where you came from or what label the culture sticks you with. The Spirit loves nothing better than to blow down the silos that keep us from knowing our neihbors. The Spirit blows us outward -- ever outward – to proclaim God’s love for the world.

 

          It is clear from this story in Luke that the Holy Spirit doesn’t wait for consensus before it puts the church to work. The Spirit just starts blowing and sends God’s people out the door to get the job done. That’s what I pray the Spirit will do in a couple of weeks when the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) convenes. That’s what I pray the Spirit will do right here in Tallahassee.

 

          My friend back in my seminary days was wrong to fear that I might be baptized by the Holy Spirit. We are all baptized by the Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit, the water in that font would be just water and the words we say at that font would be just words.

 

          Without the Spirit, we cannot be the church of Jesus Christ. With the Spirit, even Presbyterians can amaze and astonish.  

 

 

Brant S. Copeland

First Presbyterian Church

Tallahassee, FL 32301

brant@oldfirstchurch.or

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