‘Come Holy Spirit’
‘I baptise you with water but one who is more powerful than I is coming…. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire’
Amazing, but also rather worrying, to be honest…
John the baptiser saying that the one who follows him i.e. Jesus, will baptise not just with water, as John does but ‘with the Holy Spirit’
And then he says this alarming thing about separating wheat from chaff and burning the chaff. A clear reference to Judgment.
So what is this all about?
The suggestion seems to be that John baptises in one way. But Jesus will baptise in another way.
And it seems that Jesus’ baptism is linked somehow with judgment –
the winnowing forkand, of course, judgment – is where the rubber hits the road; judgment – is when we find out whether our lives have been worthwhile or not.
But this morning,important,and scary, as the subject of judgment might be, I am not going to look at that today.
Instead, I want to look at the difference between John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism.
In Acts 19:3 Paul asks some disciples that he finds in Ephesus what baptism they had received. ‘John’s baptism’ they replied. He asked ‘did you receive the Holy Spirit, when you believed?’ .’No,they replied, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit’
The obvious question to ask ourselves when reading these words from Acts, and the passage for today about John the Baptist, is ‘have I received the baptism of the Holy Spirit?’ or ‘have I only received the baptism of John?’
You see it is possible that we may have repented and we may have been baptised by the church and we may have become believers in Jesus Christ and we may have become one of his followers, and we may have said that Jesus is Lord of our lives; which is all good stuff, (and all the things that the Ephesians that Paul was talking to had done), but we may never have been conscious of being filled up with the Holy Spirit, never had a tangible experience of God’s love which flows into our relationships with others.
I like the example of the gas boiler. When we have a gas boiler installed, we expect the engineer to make sure that the pilot light is working.
In the same way, when we repent, acknowledge Jesus as Lord, and are baptised, we receive the Holy Spirit, at least, in principle, we do: He is there with us, in us.
But, just as the heat of the pilot light is not going to transform a cold bath
into a hot one, unless the flame is turned up, unless we are filled with the Holy Spirit, (and we go on being filled with the Holy Spirit) unless we have a tangible experience of the reality of God, of the love of God,
as the Bishop of Kensington, Graham Tomlin, puts it in his excellent book The Prodigal Spirit unless we have a tangible experience of the reality of God, we may very well be nice people, but ‘our faith is really just information.
That sort of faith won’t transform us or those around us because, in essence, we are relying on ourselves our self discipline, and what we know, to be the person God wants us to be .Its a bit like jumping into a cold bath, moving around lots and lots and telling ourselves that we are in a hot bath. The heat should come from the boiler. We can’t heat the bath water by our own body temperature, however much we move around!
And we are never going to be the transformed human being God wants us to be if we are depending just on what we can contribute and not on Who God sends. to help us.
But how do we know if we have been filled by the Holy Spirit?
Everything I read about the Holy Spirit and encounters of Christians with Him over the centuries tells me that He manifests himself in some tangible way, and often (but perhaps not always) He manifests himself in a visible way or at least in a way that others can often (but not always) notice and often (but not always) through the evidence of our emotions:
How they make us act – from the dramatic to the restrained
How they make us look – particularly, I have noticed, in the eyes.
We see the tangible experience of the apostles at Pentecost – the crowd thought they were drunk.
In the passage just after the other reading for today, in Acts 8.16 it was so obvious that something tangible; something physical had happened to those upon whom the Holy Spirit had come. And what had happened was clearly so powerful and attractive, that Simon the Sorcerer tried to pay Peter to give him the gift of being able to bless people with the Holy Spirit.
But what did it look like, when this happened? How would we know
whether we have been filled with the Holy Spirit or not?
St Isaac the Syrian in the fourth century described the experience of being filled by the Spirit as a highly emotional experience ‘our body is suddenly overcome by a weeping, mingled with joy’
In the fourteenth century, Gregory of Sinai wrote about the nature and effects of the Spirit he said: ’in some it appears as awe arising in the heart, in others as a tremendous sense of jubilation, in others as joy mingled with awe, or as trembling mingled with joy and sometimes it manifests itself as tears and awe’.
So weeping seems to play a role.
But, generally, since the Enlightenment, the emphasis in intellectual thought has been on the superiority of cool reason over all other human faculties and there has been a lot of caution about shows of emotion.
The idea that truth might be felt as emotion, when we reach a point beyond understanding, has been treated with scepticism.
Indeed historically such displays of emotion were called, with contempt,
And we even have a tombstone in St Mary’s Avington which describes one of the former great ladies resident in the parish and who built the church the Marchioness of Carnarvon, who died in 1771 as having been religious ‘but without enthusiasm’. As if this were a good thing….
She died at a time when Methodism was in its ascendancy, with the outdoor meetings of thousands led by John Wesley and George Whitfield and when so many were moved emotionally, as the Holy Spirit came upon them.
One story is of Whitfield who felt that he should take what he called ‘the mad step’ of preaching to the miners outside Bristol. His biography by John Pollock reads: ‘[Whitfield] stood on a little hillock on…17th February 1739 and called out [to the miners coming off shift] ‘blessed are the poor in Spirit, for they shall see the kingdom of God’.
The miners stopped and stared; he cracked a joke which made them all laugh… these were people who had never heard a parson before. The crowd grew to 200. He spoke about judgment for evil and talked about Jesus, the friend of sinners, the cross and the love of God and brushed tears from his eyes, as he spoke.
‘Suddenly he noticed pale streaks forming on grimy faces, on that of a young man on his right, and an old bent miner on his left and two scarred, depraved faces in front; more and more of them. Whitfield, still preaching, saw the ‘white gutters made by their tears down their black cheeks’.
The tears of tough miners, not of the hysterical or the weak. Sometimes John Wesley experienced even more profound emotional reactions; people collapsing, others bursting out in strong cries or tears others trembling and quaking.
Similar experiences happened in Wales in 1904; in the isle of Lewis in the
and even in London in the 1990s.
And this emotion has led to changed behaviour as it is bound to if it is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
But any display of public emotion, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries was regarded by our establishment as a bad thing. Perhaps some of us feel the same today: that it is profoundly un-English to show emotion in church.
I think the fear in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was that if people started weeping or behaving in an uncontrolled way in church perhaps next they would be manning the barricades or guillotining the gentry.
But, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth: indeed, there is a respectable historical theory that the start of Methodism in England actually prevented a French-type Revolution occurring here.
Perhaps the fear now is the thought that displays of emotion are for
the weak or maybe the stupid or are embarrassing and not to be shown in front of the neighbours.
In any event many of the Anglican clergy after the Enlightenment thought that reason should dominate in church and, where reason could not travel,
(because we are talking about the supernatural here), then the authority of the clergy should be accepted, as upon the authority of the church rested the security of the realm….
But the 17th century French philosopher and Roman Catholic, Blaise Pascal pointed out that while it is important to show that Christianity
is not contrary to reason, something else is required to establish faith in the heart. Reason is not enough by itself to establish what we believe
about the world.
Actually we tend to believe what our feelings and passions
tell us to believe: Pascale gave an example of standing a philosopher on a plank which is wider than necessary over a precipice.
Although reason will persuade the philosopher standing on the plank, that he is safe, His imagination will prevail and he will get to firm ground, as quickly as possible.
Pascale’s famous comment was ‘The heart has its reasons, of which Reason knows nothing’.
But why can’t we find God with our reason with our logic in the way that we find out everything else?
Tomlin explains that God has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ but there is a hidden aspect of God’s self revelation.
So he is ultimately out of the reach of reason of what can be proved conclusively; so that we cannot be compelled to believe and cannot, with our superior intellects, compel others to believe.
We can only know God, by choosing to do so.
As Pascal says:God hides himself so that ‘he will only be perceived
by those who seek him with all their heart’.
Not by the force of argument; not by the bullying of the extremist; not by the insistence of the parent or the teacher; not by requiring submission to the authority of a priest.
He will only be perceived, by those who choose to seek him with all their heart.
So, as with so much in Christianity, with so much about God, it is ultimately, all about the heart.
And we will never receive that emotional connection, without opening our hearts to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. And it is for this reason that Amanda always concludes our services, when blessing the congregation by saying ‘open your hearts to receive God’s blessing’.
This is why I am totally delighted when people say to me ‘whenever I come to church I never stop crying’. Absolutely! The tears may be of repentance
but often they are just of joy. How wonderful that the Holy Spirit is alighting! So don’t hold back, let yourself feel His presence
I found for years that whenever I talked in front of our Christian Houseparty in the Summer I would weep: ‘I could never be a priest’ I used to mutter. But here I am.
When, in the Spirit, I sometimes find my hands gently trembling
and sometimes, my eyes fill with tears: not of sadness or guilt, its just an out pouring of emotion. But sometimes I feel nothing at all
Pascal’s own experience was dramatic .His previous lukewarm faith was dissolved one night and he said that he experienced: ‘certitude. certitude. feeling. joy.peace joy, joy, joy. tears of joy…’
And the Holy Spirit does not leave us unchanged. Tomlin observes
that those who have had this experience find the world seems bigger
as if a new dimension of reality has opened up but in ordinary things
as much as in the extraordinary.
A new purpose; a new love for God; a new love for neighbour
an experience of love, which is actually felt.
So lets pray a moment; lets open our hearts to receive Him to receive the Holy Spirit :‘Come Holy Spirit’