Sermon: The Pentecostal movement past present and future
Gen 1.1-2: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
John 3.5-8: Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit[b] gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You[c] must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
Today I feel a sense of responsibility to say something that I hope will inform and inspire those in churches like this one, part of the Pentecostal Movement, who feel lost, bemused, perplexed, about being or not being filled with the Spirit. There has historically been, and continues to be, a section within Pentecostal and Charismatic churches who become de facto second-class citizens by virtue of not speaking in tongues, some after a lifetime of trying, seeking, tarrying.
Last week was Pentecost Sunday, otherwise known as Whitsunday, the fiftieth day after Easter. While Easter is regarded by mainstream Christianity as the most significant festival of the faith, Pentecost is significant because after the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, this is the time that marks the beginning of the Christian Church’s origination and mission to the world. That mission being the taking of the gospel of salvation, for which Jesus gave his life, to humankind. As we mark the end of the Easter cycle, today is a good time to reflect on the Pentecostal Movement that bears Pentecost’s name, and the negative reality of some of its constituents during the Pentecost season.
In a short yet profound book, The Knowledge of the Holy, Evangelical A W Tozer calls for a rediscovery of the majesty of God. In pithy chapters, Tozer highlights several attributes of God such as Trinity, self-existence, eternity, infinity, immutability, omniscience, wisdom, omnipotence, faithfulness, goodness, justice, mercy, grace, love, holiness and sovereignty. In doing so Tozer warns against surrendering a high and lofty concept of God and substituting that for an ignoble one unworthy of worship. He warns that no religion has ever risen greater than its idea of God. Jesus levelled this charge two thousand years ago at the Pharisees who lost sight of a high and lofty God and instead turned divine laws into tools of oppression, their main responsibility being to ensure others kept the letter of the law whilst they themselves ignored the principles of the same laws in their own lives. Similarly, our faith, our walk with God, will never rise higher than our concept of God. The Pentecostal walk with the Holy Spirit will not rise above its concept of the Holy Spirit.
I want to share three things with you today. First, that the Holy Spirit did not begin to exist on the Day of Pentecost two thousand years ago. Second, the Pentecostal Movement did not create a new church just over a hundred years ago, it’s a phenomenon within the Church that started two thousand years ago. Third, that the Holy Spirit like wind blows where the Spirit wills, and blows on every believer, including you and me.
Readers of the Christian Bible encounter the Holy Spirit in the first chapter of the first book. Indeed, some feel we find the roots of the doctrine of the Trinity right here at the beginning of the Bible. God created the cosmos by speaking the preincarnate Word, the Spirit moved upon the waters. God therefore as Father, Son and Holy Spirit created the cosmos, nil initio, or from nothing, including planet earth we inhabit, and all life on it. And theological terms like Trinity, Father, Son, Holy Spirit should not mislead us into thinking that God is other than spirit. Until Jesus came in the incarnation as God/Man, we knew God only as spirit, an invisible reality. Whatever terminologies we use to describe God, God remains Spirit and indivisibly One. The theological term is monotheistic. The Church’s creeds pronounce God three in one and one in three. Not everyone agrees, even within the church, but it really doesn’t matter since God is who God is, not who or what we say God is.
To understand who or what we mean when today we say the ‘Holy Spirit’ we can look into the Hebrew Bible, our Christian Old Testament, which is replete with stories of God, Spirit interacting with humans. In several places we observe this divine/human interaction. These are tales of the invisible meeting the visible, the immaterial meeting the material, the divine meeting the mortal; and should be seen as of the same order as what happens today, since God Elohim, God Yahweh, is God who changes not. In Numbers 27.18 we read of Joshua the son of Nun in whom the Spirit is. Judges 3.10 says the Spirit came upon Othniel enabling him to judge Israel. 1 Samuel 16.14 tells of the Spirit coming upon Saul as he met a group of prophets, and he prophesied among them. In Exodus 31.1-3 we read of Bezaleel of the tribe of Judah filled with the Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge and in all manner of workmanship. One of my favourite Old Testament reference to the Spirit is found in Judges 15 where Samson, famed for his strength, was tied with new ropes and about to be handed over to the Philistines; at which point the bible says, the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him, the ropes became like charred flax and fell from him; and finding a fresh jawbone of a donkey Samson grabbed it and struck down a thousand men’. God, Spirit is active throughout the Old Testament.
The same Spirit, God is evident in the New Testament, not just Acts 2, throughout the history of the early church, and into our time. We know this is the same Spirit in the New Testament as in the Old, we know it’s the same Spirit in the days of apostles and early church because God says, I am God, I change not. The book of Acts of the Apostles records for posterity how that Jesus, God incarnate in the flesh for the first time in human history, having spent three years discipling his followers, told them after his resurrection to go and wait until the Holy Spirit descended upon them giving them power to be the carriers of the Gospel to which they had been witnesses. This was not some new idea. This was a promise of a divine empowerment by the same God who had empowered others before. Acts 2 tells of how a frightened, perplexed bunch of Jesus’ followers were emboldened, spoke up, even speaking the languages of the great crowd gathered in Jerusalem from across the then world, languages they had not hitherto learned. Peter who had denied even knowing who Jesus was although having spent three years with him, stood up and preached so powerfully, over three thousand ‘got saved’, were added to their number as followers of Jesus. As I have been pointing out, this was not the first time the Spirit, God, had come upon humans and enabled them, empowered them to do more than they themselves were able to do.
This sense of being filled by, being baptised in the Spirit continued after the Day of Pentecost recorded in Acts of the Apostles. In spite of human deficiencies, and sinfulness, the Spirit, God, works – sometimes in, sometimes around, sometimes through human beings. A dip into J B Lightfoot and J R Harmer’s book ‘The Apostolic Fathers’ and several other sources reveal men and women during the patristic period of the Early Church, into the so-called dark ages, into the reformation of the western church, and since who being full of the Spirit sometimes rendered lions powerless, while others sealed their martyrdom, seemingly without fear, as they were burned alive by fire, by boiling oil, or eaten alive by lions. One such, named Polycarp, as he stood in the stadium about to have lions let loose upon him was invited a last time to ‘revile Christ and live’; to which Polycarp replied, ‘for eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’ So the Holy Spirit, God has been engaging with humanity from the beginning of time and continues into our day.
Something happened though in the history of the Christian Church, which calls our attention and gives insight into the Pentecostal Movement of today of which we are a part. History tells us that at the end of the first/beginning of the second millennium there was a great schism that resulted in a Western church headquartered in Rome and the Eastern church headquartered in Constantinople, splitting essentially over the nature of God; did the Father send the Son and the Spirit, or did the Father and Son send the Spirit (the Filioque). That split resulted in what we know today as the Orthodox Church, and the Catholic Church. Then from the fourteenth century onwards into the sixteenth Century, an increasingly all powerful Catholic Church in the west fell deeper and deeper into heresy, greed and corruption, controlling every aspect of people’s lives. The Spirit, God prompted people like John Wycliffe, to whom we owe the bible being translated from Latin into English, Jan Hus, Margery Kemp, Martin Luther with his ninety-five theses, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin and others to stand against the excesses of the church. These men and women challenged the powerful bureaucracy of the Catholic Church in what became known as the Protestant Reformation. Some lost their lives in it. Some were tortured in various gruesome ways at the hands of the church authority.
These protested at the extravagancies of Catholic Church leadership that exploited the poor and offered the rich a way to buy their way into heaven through indulgencies and purgatory. The exploitation and monitorisation of the poor and uneducated led in the west to the Catholic Church and the protest churches splitting. The late Walter Hollenweger has shown how those who broke away from the Catholic Church continued to fragment, hence the several denominations we see today. In time through different moves of the Spirit, God the Holiness Movement of the nineteenth century emerged that felt the churches established by the Reformers were themselves now not fulfilling the call to be the Church of Christ. New churches emerged from the Methodists, Quakers, and Baptists, among others (A J Tomlinson was a Quaker!). This was a restorationist movement that sought to get back to what people believed looked more like the Early Church. With strict dress codes as a mark of holiness, and the doctrine of sanctification, and experiential encounter; perfection was their goal. One of the streams that emerged was what we know today as the Pentecostal Movement, a world-wide phenomenon which has morphed into newer forms of Pentecostalism and Charismatics. Here the ‘Church of God’ emerged a prominent branch. At the start of the 20th Century a descendant of slaves William Seymour, black and blind in one eye, led the Azusa Street (Los Angeles, California) revival that in the minds of many represents the birth of the Pentecostal Church. Writers like Allan Anderson, however, tell us there are signs that this was a simultaneous breaking out of the manifestations we identify as Pentecostal, around the world including the UK – long before the Windrush landed.
Today it is thought there are over 22,000 different churches in the world, most of them Pentecostal or Charismatic of one form or another. Some call this diversity some call it fragmentation. Jesus told Nicodemus two thousand years ago that with the new spiritual birth, the Spirit like the wind blows where it wills and creates new spiritual children everywhere. The Holy Spirit, God, is still high and lofty, divine, immortal and invisible, God only wise. This new movement has I believe been raised up by the Spirit, God, to give impetus to the Church especially in the west. Some attempt to denominationalise understandings of the Spirit. Some baptise in Jesus name alone and believe they only are right; others baptise in Father Son and Holy Spirit and believe they are right. Some (like me) believe the Spirit is in every believer at the New Birth, others say you must speak in tongues to be filled with the Holy Spirit. The Creator of the Cosmos, all that is seen visible and invisible cannot be put in these boxes by human thinking, experience and beliefs. Today the work of ecumenists like me tries to convince different streams of the church, including the Pentecostals and Charismatics, that these differences do not make a salvific difference and we need to get back to an understanding of God, Spirit, as sovereign. By Pentecostals calling God ‘Holy Spirit’ does not change the nature of God who cannot be colonised by a sect or group or nationality. The Holy Spirit is the same God, Spirit who created the cosmos.
Allow me to close with a vision of the future. When Jesus told his disciples, go wait for the power my Father will send to empower them to take the mission of the Gospel into all the world, he did not intend for succeeding generations to still be waiting, tarrying for the coming of the Holy Spirit as though this were some novel or rarefied thing. The Spirit ‘came’ and has never left. In fact, God, Spirit has never left. God is omnipresent, here, there and everywhere. Sometimes, in fact let me say, often, if you want to walk with God, Spirit you need to put your denomination including this one into perspective. Don’t let it own your spiritual life and understanding. Don’t let it trap you into a narrow exclusivism. Twenty-five years ago this year I discovered that if I were to fulfil the empowerment God, Spirit had put in me, I had to resign from being District ‘Overseer’ and Pastor and go a different route. The rest is history! Some of us will never fit the square box our denominations and our churches, and local fellowships make for us. We weren’t meant to. Churches as part of organised religion, including Pentecostal and Charismatic ones like to control, historically and now, by telling you what are the marks of sanctification, holiness, perfection. Because churches are different, what you are told depends upon which church you happen to find yourself in. Some churches will keep us in suspended animation for our entire lives if we let them until we fulfil their interpretation of what God requires. Problematically, at the outset of the Pentecostal Movement part of it accepted a theory by Charles Parham (a racist who refused to allow black William Seymour into the room where he taught whites) that speaking in tongues is THE initial evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit. This false teaching continues to undermine too many today.
The Spirit, God, who blew like a wind the breath of life in you; is in you. Dare any church tell you the Spirit is not in you until and unless you perform certain rites! The Holy Spirit is not part of the performing arts. The Holy Spirit is not part of a fashion show. The Holy Spirit is not part of a cult. The Holy Spirit is God the eternal One. The day you encountered God, Spirit God, it may not have been explosive or dramatic, but it was profound and from that day new life began in you. Now let me encourage you to walk on in that life. Your Pentecost was the day of your New Birth and then because God is Spirit and is in you, new encounters happen throughout your life. And as you grow and mature in the Spirit God that is in you, the fruit of the Spirit develop, grow, and mature. It’s not an exclusive list, but Galatians 5 posits these: love, joy, peace, forbearance/longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And says, against these things there is no law. As you walk with God, Spirit, these simply become reality, not without a struggle mind you since the flesh and the spirit are always at war.
1 Corinthians 12 introduces us to the gifts of the Spirit, God. As you become more spiritually self-aware you discover what spiritual and natural gifts God, Spirit, has endowed you with. ‘There are different kinds of gifts, but they are all given to believers by the same Spirit. There are different ways to serve. But they all come from the same Lord. There are different ways the Spirit works. But the same God is working in all these ways and in all people. The Holy Spirit is given to each of us in a special way. That is for the good of all. To some people the Spirit gives a message of wisdom. To others the same Spirit gives a message of knowledge. To others the same Spirit gives faith. To others that one Spirit gives gifts of healing. To others he gives the power to do miracles. To others he gives the ability to prophesy. To others he gives the ability to tell the spirits apart – discernment. To others he gives the ability to speak in different kinds of languages they had not known before. And to still others he gives the ability to explain what was said in those languages. All the gifts are produced by one and the same Spirit. He gives gifts to each person, just as he decides.’ Interestingly when we allow the Spirit to permeate our existence with these qualities we become better human beings, better neighbours, better citizens of society, even better church members.
Pentecostalism has given the Church in the west a renewed sense of God as Spirit empowerment. Pentecostalism should see itself as part of the universal Church of a universal God who like wind blows everywhere giving new life. We all need to become conscious of the presence of the Spirit, God enabling us to reach out to those around us, to introduce them not to our church but to the God, the Spirit of the Church who journeys with us into a future full of power and authority. A Spirit God without beginning and without end. In the words of Jesus, ‘The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’ If your Pentecostal Church tells you that the Spirit is not in you, humbly say you beg to differ.