On May 24, 1738, John Wesley attended a meeting at Aldersgate, London, where he received an assurance of his New Birth. This was a pivotal event in the life of Wesley that would eventually lead to a movement called Methodism in England and North America.
Wesley had been feeling a bit down on that day in May of 1738. The Spirit had stirred him to preach a more robust, more enthusiastic Gospel message that had been all but rejected by his Anglican brothers and sisters. So he reluctantly attended that meeting at the Moravian meeting house on Aldersgate Street in London. There, he felt a strange warmth in his heart and soul.
He described the event in his journal:
“I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
On October 11, 1962, in Vatican City, the newly elected Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council with the words, “it is time to open the windows and let the fresh air in.” John felt that the Church had become stagnant and closed to what was happening in the world around them. He thought that the Church was out of touch and that the Church needed to get off the sidelines and into the world in hopes of making a difference.
It was too much for some, and for others, it was not enough. But like Wesley’s experience in 1738, this experience of John in Rome was the spark that lit the fuse of Reformation. Reformation usually happens when we humans get out of the way and let the Holy Spirit run things.
Today is the Feast of Pentecost. We had come 7 Sundays of 50 days since Jesus’ Resurrection, and today, Jesus’ promise is fulfilled when he said he would send another after him, the one who would be a comforter and give them strength for what lies ahead.
We heard from Luke, the writer of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, tells the story of how they were all gathered in the Upper Room. It is supposed that this is the same place where they gathered after the Crucifixion and where Jesus appeared to them. But there they were, gathered. It had become their custom to do so. Then, suddenly, there was a sound like a great “rushing of wind” filling the entire house.
After the wind had ceased, fire descended and hovered over their heads, and it was at this moment that the Holy Spirit arrived.
In Judaism, the Holy Spirit is the divine force, quality, and influence of God over the Universe or over his creatures. In Trinitarian Christianity, the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. In Islam, the Holy Spirit acts as an agent of divine action or communication. In the Baha’i Faith, the Holy Spirit is seen as the intermediary between God and man and “the outpouring grace of God and the effulgent rays that emanate from His Manifestation.”
But this is not the start of the Spirit’s work in the world. If we go back to “in the beginning,” we encounter the Spirit a few times. During the early stages of creation, the Spirit hovers over the water, and after God creates humanity, God breathes into humanity’s lungs God’s “ruach elochim,” the very breath of God. God creates, but it is the Spirit that animates, that gives humanity its purpose, and that is what we see here.
Sure, the Apostles have done some pretty cool things up to this point. We hear stories of Peter healing, and people want to be near him, hoping his shadow will fall upon them and heal them. But what is coming next for them will be greater than all that has come before.
In the Acts of the Apostles, we hear that they spoke in tongues after the Spirit came upon them. Now, a great deal of time and energy has been spent trying to figure this out. I know people who claim to be able to “speak in tongues,” but they always manage to leave out one thing, the interpretation of what is being said.
When the Apostles were able to speak in various languages, others were able to understand them. Now, we have to go back to the Hebrew Scriptures and the story of the Towe of Babel. You will know the story. The inhabitants of Babel wanted to build a tower so high it would reach God. God does not want this to happen; he “confused their language” so they would no longer be able to work together. At this time, anyway, everyone spoke the same language. My guess is it was English; I mean, why wouldn’t it be?
But I digress; language was confused, but in this act of the Holy Spirit, the language was no longer confused. Each person heard the message in their own language, and they understood it. Was Peter speaking multiple languages? No, certainly not. Peter was speaking in whatever language Peter spoke, probably Aramaic; however, all those listening could hear him and understand. No longer was the message of Jesus reserved only for the Jews; the message of Jesus was now to be universal, for all the world to hear and understand. The Spirit has not just descended upon the Apostles but upon all of those present.
But what or who is this Spirit?
As we have already mentioned, the Holy Spirit is not just reserved for Christianity. However, in Christianity, the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, not in a hierarchical sense that any one of them is greater than the other, but rather three distinct persons or personalities that all share the same essence. Don’t worry if you don’t understand; people have been fighting about this for centuries, and we will certainly not crack that code today.
It was, in essence, anyway, three words about the Holy Spirit that divided the Universal Church between East and West in the 11th century. The words “and the Son” relate to the progression or who the Spirit proceeds. Does the Spirit come from God alone, as those in the East profess, or does the Spirit proceed from the Son? But, again, we will not find the answer to that question today.
So, what does all of this have to do with us? Are we supposed to see fire on each other’s heads? If we did, we would rightly run for the closest fire extinguisher. Like John in Rome, do we throw open the windows and allow the fresh air in? Maybe all of these.
The Spirit does not always come as a rushing wind; most of the time, the Spirit comes as a calming presence, as Jesus did when he first appeared after the resurrection. Jesus’s first words after his sudden appearance was, “Peace be with you.” Yes, the Spirit brings boldness and Reformation, but the Spirit also brings peace. When the Spirit hovered over the waters at creation, it was to bring order out of chaos, not the other way around.
The Christ who came to them and breathed on them is the one who comes today into our broken lives and broken world and offers us that same grace and that same peace. So we need to make room for that same Spirit to come and bring peace to folx who are hurting or afraid and into a community where there has been conflict or concern, in other words, into our lives and the lives of those in our community.
But the Spirit is also a unifier. We heard how everyone could hear the message in their own language; the Spirit unified them to make this possible. We need that Spirit of unification. Our Church and our nation are all being pulled apart, and we need to unify our prayers so that we all start to listen to one another and, rather than focus on what divides us, work for what brings us together.
But all of this begins with us and our relationship with God and our relationship with one another. If we desire to be agents of change, then we need to be willing to change. If we want peace, we need to be peaceful and work for things that bring peace. If we want the world to be more loving, then we need to work for things that bring that love. All of this is possible with the help of the Holy Spirit.
The Apostles were all gathered in that Upper Room. They were scared and confused. Sure, Jesus had returned and brought his peace, but now he was gone again. Just a few days ago, he had left them, and they were once again on their own. But Jesus promised that the Spirit would come and bring them peace and bring them strength. So did their life get easier? Nope, in fact, it got worse.
The promise is that God will always be with us in the good times and the bad. I hope we truly believe that. Will the Spirit help us to change the world, maybe? But the world that needs to change is inside each of us. So let the Spirit warm your heart, and that spark of warmth might just change the world.