Today is the Birthday of the Church. We who celebrate today celebrate 1,980 years of history beginning at the reading from Acts today as the tongues of fire settled on the apostles, and as the story reads: ‘All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability’.
Today from the book of Genesis we read again about the story of the building of a great city and of the Tower of Babel in modern day Iraq. Do you remember this story from your Sunday School days? The leader Nimrod was a king so drunk with his own power that he ordered a tower built as high as heaven. When it was complete, Nimrod ascended the stairs to the very top of the tower. Do you remember why? It was to shoot an arrow into the eye of God. Nimrod had decided that there should be only one God to rule the earth and by symbolically killing the God in heaven, he was about to take the place of God on earth. But what happened? Because God had envisioned this as only the start of mankind’s ascendancy on earth, He said, ‘Let us go down and confuse their language’ because the people had become very evil in the sight of God. And so all the people who Nimrod had ruled began to speak and hear different languages. And so, Nimrod’s power was diluted because he could no longer influence his followers or lead them in the way he wanted them to go. And so, as the story goes, the people dispersed from the tower of Babel and went off to find others who spoke in the same language. These groups left the country and settled in families, clans and nations over the face of the whole earth. The people who were left, including Nimrod and a few of his followers named the city ‘Babylon’ because it was here, where the tongues of men were confused by God. (It is also where we get the word to babel and also baby).
But the Day of Pentecost changed all that. Pentecost is God’s reversal of the action he made at Babylon 4,000 years before. By giving the followers of Jesus the gift of tongues, God gave back the ability of men to speak as one voice, to the great works and creation of God. God, in effect, gave the power to the Church what he had taken from mankind a long time ago. Jesus predicted this when he told the disciples that if he didn’t return to heaven, the Spirit would not come. But if he did return, God would give his Spirit to all who asked and great power to all who confessed Jesus as the Son of God.
As I grew up in the church, it became apparent to me in the early seventies that we were missing something. I knew we loved God and we believed in his Word, but when I read the various readings about tongues and the interpretation of tongues, I wondered how was this possible, and if it was possible in the days of the early church, why wasn’t it possible in today’s church? And so I began to search out prayer meetings, which were the beginnings of the charismatic movement of the day. I am not sure many of you remember the early seventies, but there was a movement brought about by the Spirit in those days that provided an avenue for Christians to seek out all nine gifts of the Holy Spirit. As you should be aware by now there are nine gifts of the Spirit: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues.
Most of us, no doubt, have no problem with wisdom, knowledge or faith. But, many of us might start to get uneasy at healing, miracles, and prophesy. And there have been some in the past who have gotten downright angry at the discussion of discernment of spirits, tongues and the interpretation of tongues.
But it is as true today as it was back in the seventies that fear breeds contempt and the institutional church at that time was very much in fear of the whole notion of discernment of spirits, tongues and the interpretation of tongues. They looked upon it as some kind of occult or voodoo even though it is clearly part of our Christian heritage and a blessing on the body of Christ. The Episcopal bishop at the time did his best to quell this interest in the spiritual gifts by banning charismatic meetings from diocesan churches. People who had an interest in developing these gifts had to meet in homes and in secret. There were many hurt feelings and harmful accusations as Christians pigeonholed each other as ‘you’re one of us’ or ‘you’re one of them’. The Roman Catholics, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians and the Methodists all had the same problem with their clergy and hierarchy. But there were two places where the charismatic movement was embraced. One was the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship and the other was the Franciscan Community at Corpus Christi Church on the east side.
For about five or six years I went to weekly prayer meetings at Corpus Christi Church on Clark Street. There, I had the privilege to witness the awesome power of God in the lives of many believers in the charismatic movement. Here was a place where tongues were sought out and interpretations and discernment was revealed. At first, I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on. Many would sit quietly for what seemed like an eternity praying for the Spirit to come upon them. Then . . . as if on cue everyone began speaking in languages that I had never heard before. I thought at first, this is impossible! But my interest was piqued and I decided to continue to look for proof that this was all real. Others, many others, were in the same position as I. We were curious, we were startled, and we were skeptical, all at the same time. Until one night, a man stood up and spoke in a very clear voice a language that was totally incomprensible to me and yet vaguely familiar in meter. Next to me sat an Asian women who all of a sudden started to cry. She asked the man how he had come to learn Mandarin Chinese as he was totally fluent in it and it was a very obscure dialect. The lady had been born in the only part of China where this language was used. The man said he had never been outside of Buffalo and that the language he spoke was his prayer language. The lady then began to translate what the man had said. It was the Lord’s Prayer, complete, right down to the Amen.
That is when I believed that this was all very real!
The charismatic movement in mainline churches ended almost as quickly as it had started. Those in the movement began to believe that God the Holy Spirit had come upon the Church to begin a new work, just as he had come upon the church in the early days that we read about this morning. From this movement many new churches were founded and ministries established. Churches were formed that were non-traditional and based on the outpouring of all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. That is what is meant by the term ‘Full Gospel’. Today, as I mentioned, the Full Gospel Church is one of the largest churches in WNY.
So you might wonder. What are we doing wrong? Why aren’t we Anglicans raising our voices in tongues and being slain in the Spirit?
You have to know that not all are led to this kind of worship. As the Bible says, there are a variety of gifts and varieties of services, but it is the same Lord who activates them all. To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. The proof of ‘our’ pudding as Anglicans is in our liturgy and in our tradition. It is the way we have worshipped for the last 1,500 years. It is the way the Spirit came to us originally. The charismatics are not wrong, but neither are we. We are simply different in our approach to the presence of God in our lives. All of you are welcome and in fact I encourage you to find out more about the charismatic movement.
Our current bishop would encourage all of us to become more empowered by the Holy Spirit in our lives. It is one sure fire way to liven things up in our church.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from all this was written by Paul to his letter to the Corinthians (and I am sure you will recognize it):
1: Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
2: And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could move mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.
3: And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profits me nothing.
4: Love suffers long, and is kind; love does not envy; love is never puffed up,
5: Love does not behave unseemly, love is not easily provoked, love thinks no evil;
6: Love rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth;
7: Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8: Love never fails: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
9: For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
10: But when that which is perfect comes, then that which is in part shall disappear.
11: When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12: For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
13: And now abides faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
I will end with these words, if you desire one (or more) of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, you need only ask in prayer every day. It may take week, it may take month, or a lifetime, but God will answer you and the Spirit will come, I guarantee it. When it happens, please come and tell me about it. Amen.