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May 27, 2012 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. | Day of Pentecost
Words Well Spoken
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
“I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”
Acts 2:17−18 (NRSV)
Spirit of God,
burn, breathe, speak in us.
There is a newly published book out by Susan Cain. Attracting me at first sight was its title, in bright red letters, Quiet. It turns out that the book is about the experience of introverts. The author, herself an introvert who has had a successful career in the legal and corporate world, writes about how extroversion has become the cultural ideal in American society. To write this book, Susan Cain talked to many introverts, introverts in high schools and colleges, introverts at Harvard Business School and large law firms, Asian American introverts, introverts who are married to extroverts, parents of introverted children, and introverted Christians.
While I wasn’t surprised that she had conducted some of her research at Harvard Business School, I was initially surprised that her research also took her to evangelical churches, where she interviewed introverts among the congregation. Evangelicalism, she writes, with its emphasis on communication over contemplation—greeting people, lengthy sermons, and lots of singing—with its outward displays of enthusiasm and expressive passion—has created an extroverted culture in which introverts may not only feel like they can’t quite be themselves, but also may begin to question their own experience of God: Do I feel God as much as the people around me do? Do I love Jesus as much as they do? Am I not filled with the Spirit? “If you don’t love Jesus out loud, is it real love?” (Susan Cain, Quiet, p. 69).
The story of Pentecost, as recounted in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, is a story about how the timid disciples of Jesus went public, how they found their tongues to say something worth hearing. Given that at least one-third of the human population, by some definition, are introverts, it is likely that some of the disciples were too. It is likely that some of you and that some of us are introverts too. And as inheritors of the church, called to communicate the gospel to the ends of the earth, we, no less than the first apostles and every generation of Christians ever since, have both to rely on the Spirit to inspire, empower, and guide us and to question whether we are even filled with the Spirit. Is the Spirit among us?
This is a question as old as Pentecost. Invisible and blowing where it will, it is hard to know with any certainty that the Spirit is present. So ever since the church received the gift of the Spirit, Christians have always looked for signs—signs to assure us that the enterprise in which we are engaged is God’s mission, not simply our own. The more clear and evident the signs, the more certainty we can have.
Just as amazing a sight as it was when Jesus received the Holy Spirit, with the sign of a dove, at the start of his ministry, Luke portrays an amazing sight in which the apostles receive the Holy Spirit, with the sign of tongues like flames over their heads. The unlearned ability to speak in foreign languages so fluently that native speakers could understand what was being said about God’s deeds of power was the first sign of the Spirit. By speaking so that others could understand, the apostles could begin their ministry. The performance of miracles, conversions, and baptisms—these were all more signs of the Spirit. As evidence of the Spirit’s presence and power, Luke tells us that nearly 3,000 people were converted on that first day of Pentecost.
Even with these signs, there were some in the crowd who mistook the meaning of what was going on. Mistaking the scene, they thought that the apostles were filled with wine, not the Spirit. To clear up the misinterpretation, Peter addressed the crowd, proclaiming what God, not wine, had made possible. The need to interpret what was truly going on and to attribute the events to God became the occasion for the church’s first sermon preached. Twenty-seven more sermons follow in the book of Acts, and as biblical scholars have noted, they all follow a pattern in which the public encounters a sign of the Spirit, there are some who understand and some who do not, and a sermon must be preached to interpret the meaning of the sign or event. So as to wipe away any doubt that the Spirit is here at work, sermons are preached.
No one wants to be duped. Throughout history, skepticism and signs have gone hand in hand. In the sixteenth century, as different interpretations of scripture began to multiply among different Christian groups, John Calvin preached that the Spirit was to be the lens through which Christians could correctly interpret the Bible. When the highly charismatic Spiritualists then justified their interpretation of scripture on the basis of being possessed by the Spirit, John Calvin harshly charged them of being possessed by a demonic spirit rather than the Holy Spirit, and because of his bias, they suffered for it. In the eighteenth century, the church, in its effort to know whether or not the Spirit was truly present, developed even a kind of science around signs. In a lengthy treatise on the nature of true religion and its signs, Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards argued against the popular theory that genuine experiences of the Spirit consisted of a series of certain emotions felt in a particular order and with a particular intensity. Instead, he argued that the most reliable sign of a genuine experience of the Spirit is how a person behaves over the course of his or her life. When it comes to the Holy Spirit, skepticism, even suspicion, continue to linger today, not only in our Calvinist tradition, but even in more charismatic Christian traditions.
In the book Every Time I Feel the Spirit, sociologist of religion Timothy J. Nelson writes about a culture of suspicion that can arise in churches with charismatic styles of worship. Listen to this description of a regular Spirit-filled Sunday worship service:
The congregation was very quiet during the Scripture reading and remained quite still for the several minutes it took Reverend Drayton to set out her general theme and establish her rhythm. Then she moved out from the behind the pulpit . . . and the people started to come alive. It happened gradually. At first one person in the choir stood up. Then . . . another choir member stood up. Then more choir members stood, and then people in the congregation started standing up, until after several minutes almost the whole choir and about half of the congregation were on their feet. Several responses became louder and more emphatic during this time. Several women choir members in the front started smiling and waving their arms at Reverend Drayton in a “go on now” motion. The drummer tossed a drumstick in the air and caught it again with a flourish. People began clapping and shouting back at her during the response time in the cadence. One young man in a black suit and red shoes started running to the front of the center aisle, pointing his finger and shouting at her, then running back to his seat. He did this over and over. The organ and drums started chiming in during the response times, building in volume and emphasis until finally at the end of the sermon they took the congregation immediately into song. [To the music,] several women began to shout in earnest, moving out to dance in the unconfined spaces of the aisles and in front of the pulpit. One woman in a green and white checked dress began jumping around on both feet, like a child on a pogo stick. Four or five women ushers ran to her and tried to put their arms around her, but she still jumped. . . . After about half a minute she ended up prone on the floor with a white linen cloth covering her legs. . . . The energy level began to subside and the service continued with the hymn of meditation. (Timothy J. Nelson, Every Time I Feel the Spirit, pp. 145–146)
In his assessment, sociologist Timothy Nelson explained that in the charismatic worship services that he observed, there are congregational norms that govern Spirit-filled behavior, and sometimes the pastor has to address and admonish church members to avoid behaviors that fall outside those norms. “When someone begins to shout,” for example, “he or she is immediately surrounded by ushers of the same sex who will link arms around the dancing person” (p. 161). This is because of the belief that the shouter has no consciousness of those around him and might accidentally injure himself or others. He goes on to explain that by not surrounding someone who begins to dance, ushers can withhold legitimacy from people whom they suspect aren’t “for real” (p. 161). This is what happened to one congregant, Mona Lisa Scott. When Mona Lisa danced and ushers did not surround her, Mona Lisa felt persecuted by church members and complained that they did not think she was “for real” (p. 141).
Ever since the first Pentecost, there has existed a suspicion that some claims about the Spirit aren’t for real. Whether it is suspicion that non-Christians cast on Christians or that some Christians cast on other Christians or that introverted Christians cast on themselves in comparison to extroverted Christians, it seems reasonable to hypothesize a historical correlation: the greater the emphasis on the Spirit, the higher the level of suspicion. This is both understandable and unfortunate. It is understandable that we want genuine signs of an invisible Spirit at work in the world and that we don’t want to be duped. It is unfortunate that we judge ourselves and others as either genuinely bearing the Spirit or not, for by preoccupying ourselves with judgment, we fail to receive the real gift of the Spirit; too busy trying to figure out who has or doesn’t have the Spirit, we are as confused as the people who, on that first Pentecost, judged the apostles to be drunk. And just as they had to hear the first sermon of the church preached by Peter to correct their misinterpretation, we too may need to hear again those words:
I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
These words, well-spoken from the time of the prophet Joel, were preached by Peter in the first-ever sermon of the church. These well-spoken words accompanied the first signs of the Spirit in the church so that no one would mistake the real meaning of Pentecost. Generation after generation, it has been so hard for the church to learn the lesson that there is nothing gained in trying to judge who has or doesn’t have the Spirit. For God pours out his Spirit upon all—male and female, young and old, slave and free. So then let us thank God that the Spirit blows where it will.