Monday, June 05, 2017

Pentecost—Do we need to speak in tongues?

One Hundred and Eleven years ago this past April, a revival began in a church on Azusa Street, Los Angeles, California. Reports at the time said that Pentecost had come again, and the movement that grew out of the revival has spread around the world. David Barrett’s research into global Christianity shows that Pentecostals have grown from less than one percent of Christians around the world at that time to about 25% of the worldwide church today.

Some people evaluate Pentecostalism positively. In many parts of the world Pentecostalism has reached into conditions of poverty and helped people to transform their lives spiritually and economically. We call this phenomenon “redemption and lift”. In Chile the Pentecostal Church transformed the lives of the poorest people, who had been abandoned by the church as a whole. [I did not find the reference for this observation, which comes from missiological writings on Chile, but did find another helpful article on the Chilean Pentecostal Church here.]

I have seen and studied Pentecostalism primarily in Zimbabwe. There, what we sometimes call “the prosperity gospel” has functioned to give people hope. As one Pentecostal preacher said to me, “prosperity means you will always have an idea of what to do.” Such hope helps people to survive in Zimbabwe’s failed economy.

Some people evaluate Pentecostalism negatively. Sometimes it has encouraged enthusiasm to the border of hysteria. I have also seen an almost artificial enthusiasm in Zimbabwe. Our family went one Sunday to a church called Victory Fellowship. At one point in the service the organ played a chord, the percussionist signalled on the cymbals, and everyone started praying in tongues. Another chord signalled the end of the Spirit’s intervention, and everyone stopped. I was just glad that the Holy Spirit had read the bulletin.

A friend of mine told me about a Pentecostal preacher he went to hear in Bulawayo. When the preacher started to pray, his friends fell on the ground as the preacher pushed “power” at them. Finally my friend also fell, not because he felt the power, but because he didn’t want to stand out in the crowd.

So how do we evaluate Pentecostalism today? Should we all seek the gift of speaking in tongues? Or is there something else going on that is more basic, more important for us to grasp and to hold on to this morning. Listen to the Scriptures we read this morning.

The Texts
Acts 2:1-21: At that first Pentecost, the giving of the Spirit led to speaking in tongues, the proclamation of the gospel, clear evidence that the end of time is here, and an invitation to salvation.

Jesus had told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the promised Holy Spirit. They did so, spending time gathered together in prayer (Acts 1:12-14). The Day of Pentecost (Feast of Weeks) came 50 days after the Passover. Jews from around the world had gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover and for the Feast of Weeks. The Holy Spirit fell on the disciples and they began speaking praises to God loudly, using the languages of the people gathered for the feast. Since these Jews heard them speaking in tongues, we can guess that they had been gathered near the temple, where the assembled Jews were meeting. They responded to what they heard with amazement, some scoffing and some praising.

Their response gave Peter the opportunity to preach to the people, and he took it. Peter gave a straightforward sermon with these main points:
Verses 1-21:
·         What you see is God’s Spirit moving in God’s people. God has intervened in the world, as the prophet Joel told us we should expect.
·         This intervention means that God’s Spirit is ready to fall on all who open themselves to the Spirit, leading to even greater wonders than you have seen this morning and leading to the salvation of all who so open themselves.
Verses 22-41
·         Peter then told the people that Jesus, whom they had killed, is indeed the Messiah, and that Jesus had been raised by the dead.
·         He called the people to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus.
·         As a result of Peter’s sermon, many people repented and accepted Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

So, must we speak in tongues? Luke describes what happened here as a great turning to God—what we sometimes call a revival. I see no evidence that he lays out a prescription for how revivals are supposed to take place. When Peter preaches to the people, he calls them to repent. He does not call them to manifest any particular behaviour, such as speaking in tongues, but to repent and be baptized. So Acts 2 is an invitation to turn to God in Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:1-13: Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians 11 to 14 has to do with the way that the Corinthian church worshipped God. Corinth was a city with a background in various religions, and the people in the church were used to seeing spiritual phenomena. They were, if you will, an early example of the kind of enthusiasm found at the Azusa Street Mission in 1906.

In this chapter Paul makes a series of statements, thus:
·         You (Corinthians) are used to spiritual phenomena, but you need to understand what is truly of God’s Spirit. His comment reminds me of a Zimbabwean friend’s critique of the Toronto Airport Church: “You Americans are funny. You’re not used to spiritual things, so when you see people barking like a dog or roaring like a lion, you get all excited. We have seen these things in Africa, and we know they are not all from God!”
·         The first characteristic of spiritual phenomena that come from God is that they lead people to say, “Jesus is Lord.” Charismatic gifts lift up Jesus.
·         Charismatic gifts also build up the body of Christ: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”
·         In fact, we can say that the presence of the Spirit (through the gifts of the Spirit) is the presence of Christ, more basic to our identity than anything else, even more basic than being a Jew or a Gentile.

Just as the presence of tongues in Acts 2 was intended to bring people to faith in Jesus, so also the gifts of the Spirit in the Corinthian church were intended to strengthen people’s faith in Christ.

John 7:37-39: In this brief excerpt from a larger sermon, Jesus says that the Spirit refreshes us and strengthens us, a river of life flowing from within [to water all those around us]. You see the same basic point in all three passages: God gives the Holy Spirit to draw us to a closer walk with Jesus and to build up the body of Christ. There is no room in spiritual gifting for anyone to boast of their own spiritual progress. The point is always to come closer to Jesus.

The answer to the question in our sermon title, “Do we need to speak in tongues?” is simple: No. Then why do Luke and Paul say so much about spiritual gifts?

God gives spiritual gifts to draw us to God. The point in all of this is not that God wants us to speak in tongues—whether unknown languages or ecstatic speech; the point is that God wants us to find life in Christ.

This same purpose is behind revivals such as the Pentecostal movement that began at the Azusa Street Mission. Consider with me a few such revivals that took place in the early 20th Century.

1) The Welsh Revival: There was a remarkable revival in Wales in 1904-5. It was marked by extensive Bible reading and constant prayer, leading to repentance and new life. The services in which people met were emotional, and they were similar to the Pentecost of Los Angeles in 1906. Reports of the revival note that individuals and whole communities were radically changed, so that the police and courts found themselves underemployed.

2) The Indian Revival: The Welsh Revival spread to India in 1906, taking in much of the country in a revival remarkable for its depth and influence. I found an article online from the MB Journal Direction (Fall 1991, 135-142) by Peter Penner, describing the shape that the revival took within the Mennonite Brethren Mission. It spread from national Indian Christians to the MB missionaries, who at first resisted it because it was too emotional. In the end, all joined in a time of deep joy and new life.

The revival was characterized by prayer and repentance. Missionaries confessed their faults, as did Indian Christians. The result was an awareness of God’s presence in every part of their lives. Missionary Abram Friesen characterized the sins revealed and confessed like this: “judgmental and unforgiving attitudes, carelessness in word and deed, lack of family and personal worship, unedifying reading, avarice and failure to tithe, lukewarmness toward God’s cause and people, conceit and spiritual pride, and resistance to complete submission to God.”

3) The Korean Revival: In 1907 revival spread to Korea. A prayer meeting in Pyongyang was the flashpoint. I remember one of my Korean students telling me the story 10 years ago, during the 100th anniversary of the revival—how a Canadian missionary confessed to his Korean colleagues the racism with which he treated them. As the Korean Christians saw their missionary brother broken before God’s Spirit, they in turn began to confess their sins and revival spread across the country. Today Pyongyang is the capital of North Korea; in 1907 it was known as “the Jerusalem of the East”. Again the revival was characterised by repentance and confession, and by intense prayer. Prayer has remained central to life in Korea, as people hold mass prayer meetings in which they seek God’s presence and direction.

Do we need revival today? Of course we do, but revival by its nature is an in-breaking of God’s Spirit. We cannot manufacture it. We cannot make it come. We can have a “Revival Service” or even a series of “Revival Services”, but we cannot make God’s Spirit fall on people any more than the organist at Victory Fellowship could actually control the Holy Spirit by playing the right chord on the organ.

What Should We Do?
What then should we do as we read these texts? We don’t need to speak in tongues (although if God gives the gift for God’s own purposes, we may), but what should we actually do? I believe that we need revival, but, as I said, we cannot manufacture it. So we prepare the soil, waiting for God to sow the seed. We read and study the Bible. We spend time in prayer—extended time in extended prayer. We search our own hearts and lives for anything that would hinder God’s Spirit. Then, like the disciples in Acts 1 and 2, we “wait for the promised Holy Spirit.”

We continue do God’s work as we are already. We keep living our lives, going to work, going to school, spending time with our families and friends. And we wait for God to show up. “Wait” in this context means “expect”. This is not a fruitless “waiting for Godot”. This is an expectant waiting, which God rewards in God’s time.

I think of a friend of mine who this past week described his own experiences of God’s Spirit this year. I think of the way that God revealed the Spirit to me in a time of darkness nine years ago. We don’t control this process; we prepare for it, and when God is ready, Pentecost comes.

Closing Thoughts
I have wondered why the Pentecostal revivals of the early 1900s occurred at that time. There have been other “awakenings”, in which people turn to God, and we can look back and ask: Why at that time? Consider what followed the revivals on the larger human stage: World War One. Within 10 years Europe found itself engulfed by “the war to end all wars”, and the rest of the world found itself deeply affected by the conflict. I wonder if God was preparing people to go through deep waters. I don’t know that, but it matches what we have seen God do at other times in other places.

I have told you my own story of being filled the Holy Spirit—in a series of messages on the infilling of the Holy Spirit brought to the General Conference of the BIC in Zimbabwe in August 1974. I remember well how people pressed forward on the closing night singing “Woza Moya oyiNgcwele” (“Come, Holy Spirit”). I remember well how people sought and received the Spirit even after the meetings were over.

Within a year the country of Zimbabwe was deeply involved in a bush war between nationalist forces (ZIPRA and ZANLA) and the Rhodesian government of the day. The people gathered at that conference were entering a dark time lasting for the next five years. And God gave them the strength that they needed to survive as God’s people. Stephen Ndlovu (later Bishop of the BIC in Zimbabwe and Vice President of MWC) has told many stories of God’s preserving presence in his own life living in the centre of the bush war.

We need revival—but be aware, if God sends the Holy Spirit on us here today, or throughout the churches of Canada and the United States, you can expect that there is a reason. We don’t know what it is; we know only that God cares for us and for the whole of God’s world and does for us what is best. In the meantime we prepare the soil of our lives and wait for God to sow the seed.

Grace Bible Church, 4 June 2017 

Acts 2:1-21
The Holy Spirit Comes at Pentecost
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
Peter Addresses the Crowd
14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 17 “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
19 I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. 20 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. 21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

1 Corinthians 12:1-13:
Concerning Spiritual Gifts
12 Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

Unity and Diversity in the Body

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

John 7:37-39:

37 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.

1 comment:

Climenheise said...

Something that is not so clear in my notes above, but that I stated in the sermon itself: I do not oppose speaking in tongues. I say only that it is not required. The presence of God's Spirit is required -- part of what it means simply to be a Christian. God gives gifts as God chooses to all God's children, including the gift of tongues.