Sunday, May 27, 2012

Resurrection Power: A Prayer for Pentecost

Pentecost, El Greco, 1600, Madrid
Today in our church we’ll celebrate Pentecost with a reading from Acts 2 in as many languages as we can muster: French, Spanish, German, Mandarin, Greek, maybe an African dialect or two. We’ll have a big birthday cake, reminding us and our kids that Pentecost is the birthday of the church. And we’ll pause to wonder, at least some of us will, why the power displayed at Pentecost shows up so rarely in our corporate gatherings.

At least we celebrate. The church of my childhood never mentioned Pentecost at all.

Reflecting these past few weeks on the implications of the resurrection, it’s occurred to me that the full power of the resurrection wasn’t revealed until the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In his last extended conversation with his friends, described in John 14-16, Jesus made some stunning promises: They would do what he had been doing. They would be able to pray with new authority and expectation. They would be partners in the work of demonstrating God’s glory – through healing miracles, proclamation, teaching. They would experience God’s joy in a new way.

These things would happen through the agency of “the advocate,” or paraklete, the Spirit of truth, as a demonstration of love, God’s love for his people, their love for him and each other, and in the context of unity, the unity of Christ’s followers with him, with his Spirit, with each other.

Fifty days later, on Pentecost morning, those promises came true in a rush of wind, mysterious flames of fire, and a sudden burst of understanding and courage. The followers who had been hiding out, waiting, wondering, unsure of the next step, were suddenly speaking with passion and power in languages they didn’t know, in a public space where anyone could hear them.

Were they drunk? Crazy? Superstitious weirdos?

Peter, the same Peter who denied Jesus three times and put his foot in his mouth every time he opened it, explained the situation with the clarity and courage that were themselves demonstrations of the Holy Spirit’s presence:

“Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 
Pentecost, Keiko Muira, stained glass, Seattle

“‘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.Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy."

The next chapters of Acts describe a radical change in the people involved, and a new vision of what it means to walk with God and his people. Miraculous healings, unprecedented provision for human need, impassioned historical, spiritual discussion by unprepared fishermen, and a sense of love, unrestrained love, sweeping through the community, drawing men and women in ever growing numbers into a new way of life.

Did it happen?

The fact that the Christian church appeared, in force, on scattered continents within a few centuries of the Acts of the Apostles argues for the truth of Luke’s narrative. So do the consistent reports from early historians, who recorded the way Christians cared for the sick, fed widows and orphans, befriended outsiders, offered new rights and protections to women and slaves. No other religion had insisted on love as the basis of human interaction; no other religion had extended care so insistently to those who didn’t already share the same faith. The love of the early Christians was winsome, noteworthy, and contagious.

I grew up in a tradition that believed, completely, in the work of the Spirit in the book of Acts, and believed, as completely, that such things no longer happen. Yet any unbiased reading of historical record will yield extensive evidence of the Holy Spirit at work, motivating public repentance for wrongs done others, courageous care for the sick, extravagant acts of generosity, supernatural healing, unexplained provision, dissolving of barriers between races, classes, genders.

In A.D. 185 Irenaeus wrote about the continued visible work of the Holy Spirit:
"Some drive out demons really and truly, so that often those cleansed from evil spirits believe and become members of the Church; some have foreknowledge of the future, visions, and prophetic utterances; others, by the laying-on of hands, heal the sick and restore them to health; and before now, as I said, dead men have actually been raised and have remained with us for many years. In fact, it is impossible to enumerate the gifts which throughout the world the Church has received from God and in the name of Jesus Christ . . . "
Augustine of Hippo (354- 430 AD) originally taught that miracles had been unique to the age of the early apostles. He changed his mind near the end of his life, as he encountered miraculous healing and financial provision. As bishop of Hippo in North Africa, he recorded in his City of God the many miracles he himself witnessed, as well as reports from reliable witnesses.

The Venerable Bede, (672/673 - 735), considered the most reliable historian of the Anglo-Saxon period,  Bernard of Clairvaux,  Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, Anthony of Padua,, Clare of Montefalco,, Bridget of Sweden, Vincent Ferrer, Martin Luther and John Wesley are a just a few of the Christian leaders across the centuries who recorded miracles observed as they sought to follow Christ's call to be like him, to do the things he did.

Peter Heals the Lame Beggar, Gustave Doré, 1865, France
A recent Christianity Today cover story, Tim Stafford’s Miracles in Mozambique: How Mama Heidi Reaches the Abandoned describes the work of Heidi and Rolland Baker, Americans who have lived since 1995 among the poor of Mozambique. They began by caring for a handful of orphans, but their work quickly spread to include miracles that bring to mind the first chapters of Acts: thousands of healings, outrageous generosity, an explosion of faith. The Bakers have been involved in training leaders for 7,000 churches, oversee a national Bible College and now provide for over 5,000 children at their centers.

Do I believe it?  A study published in the Southern Medical Journal offers documentation of some of the cases where deaf individuals, prayed for by the Bakers and pastors they’ve trained,  have become able to hear, and where the blind have received improved vision. The work in Mozambique is also discussed in Craig Keener’s scholarly, carefully researched two volume work Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts  (2011),

But my reasons for believing are more personal, as is the case for the other “hundreds of millions of people” Keener suggests have experienced and witnessed miracles: I’ve experienced the power of the Holy Spirit myself, in emotional healing, in surprising words of wisdom, in sudden courage to step into difficult situations. And I’ve seen that power at work in others: in sudden gifts of faith, physical and emotional healing, needs met in ways far beyond coincidence, spiritual growth beyond what circumstances would warrant.

Yet, I sometimes feel that I live in a spiritually dead zone. I picture God’s people, in the places where I travel, standing with crossed arms, clenched fists, closed hearts, almost daring God to intervene. Heidi Baker has noted that God has healed almost every deaf person she and colleagues have encountered in Mozambique. In the US? Not so much. Are we too busy explaining away the Holy Spirit’s work? Are we lacking in faith?

Or are we lacking in love? The work in Mozambique is driven by love: love for the poor, the orphans, the physically broken. Heidi Baker, in almost every interview or article, says “Love looks like something.” She believes that love demands practical, physical demonstration: feeding the hungry, healing the sick. She insists that any follower of Christ needs to “stop for the one,” needs to look intently at the needs of individuals, and ask God for the power to meet those needs.

untitled, Anna Kocher, 2000
That’s a costly form of love. A risky form of faith.

Do we dare open our arms to embrace it?

It reminds me of Peter and John, who stopped to look intently at the paralyzed man on the steps of the temple, offered him healing, then were jailed and threatened for sharing their faith and upending the status quo.

Noting the threats, aware of the cost, still they chose to pray for a fuller experience of Pentecostal power:

"Enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.  Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus."

To that prayer, I add my own: "Help us love in the way you love. Make us willing to hear, receive, obey the call to be like you. And give us the power we need to do that."

This is the last in a series about the resurrection:
Risen Indeed: The Hermaneutic Community 
The Great Reversal: A Resurrection People 
Earth Day Shalom: Ripples of Resurrection  
Resurrection Challenge: Feed My Sheep
Resurrection Laughter 
Resurrection Women: Happy Mother's Day
          Reconciling Righteousness 

Other posts about Pentecost
         Waiting for Pentecost
         An Altogether Different Language

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Click on the ___comments link below to see comments and to post your own.