Today is the Birthday of the Church. We who celebrate today celebrate nearly two thousand years of history beginning at our 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. We should remember this story from our Sunday School days how 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 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.
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 their 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 but we remained open to the Holy Spirit and witnessed for ourselves many proofs that all of this was indeed, very real.
Much like the day of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit in the days of the apostles, the charismatic movement in the mainline churches of the 70’s 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 new 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 among 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 past thousand years or so. It is the way the Holy 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. 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.
So how do we know when the Spirit of God has come into our lives? Where is the proof? Scripture teaches us that the work of the Spirit always involves change . . . sometimes small changes and sometimes enormous, even profound changes. It was the Spirit of God in the book of Genesis that moved over the waters of creation and established life on earth. It was the Spirit of God who came upon the buried Jesus who restored him to life in the resurrection of the dead. And it was the Spirit of God who came at Pentecost to embolden the apostles in order to complete the work of the church. Therefore, it is in change that we see the proof of the Spirit in our lives when we ourselves are changed from what we were to what we are . . from when we first received that spark that drove us from our unbelief to unshakable faith. For it is this change in our lives . . . that point in our lives where change occurred that proves not only the workings of the spirit in our lives, but also proof of the truth to the existence of God. For once we were lost in our sins, but through the power of God we were raised by the Holy Spirit to a new life as children of God.
It is only when we reflect on the truth that our heart will catch fire in the Spirit. Think of the Emmaus disciples on the afternoon of Easter Day. The risen Lord joined them on their walk and explained to them out of the Scriptures how the Messiah had to suffer before entering his glory. Later, after he had left them, they said to each other: ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’ (Lk. 24:32). This inner burning or change of the heart was a profound emotional experience caused by the Holy Spirit, but it was Jesus’ biblical teaching which prompted it. Nothing sets the heart ablaze like the truth when we hear it . . . and it is this truth that we seek in sermons and in the scriptures each week as we gather together in church.
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 a week, it may take a 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.