Glimpsing God’s Spirit – A Pentecost reflection

WATCH this service on YouTube [c.53 minutes]. This reflection runs from 23:00 for around 18 minutes.

TODAY, as part of my training as a Methodist local preacher, I shared the following reflection at a church in south Liverpool, on the feast of Pentecost.

The inspiration came from two of the recommended readings for the day:

  • John 15:26-27, in which Jesus predicts the coming of God’s Spirit to those who ‘have been with me from the beginning’
  • Acts 2:1-8,11b-21, in which Luke the Gospel writer describes the transformation of the apostles through their experience of God’s Spirit.

PLUS resources from ROOTS, a partnership of Christian organisations which publishes worship resources online and in print, and the Methodist Church for Aldersgate Sunday, which coincides with Pentecost this year.

A white desk fan on a white background with red streamers blowing from it.
Click on the image to open in a new window. Image by Roddy1red.

On a hot summer day, an electric fan can really help to keep us cool. How does a fan help to keep us cool?

It keeps us cool by blowing air.

If we turn a fan on, can we see any air coming out of it?

If we can’t see the air, how do we know the fan is working?

One way we can tell the fan is working is to tie streamers to the front of the fan. Even though we can’t see the air, we can see the air blowing the streamers.

Another way we can know that the fan is working is that we can feel the air from the fan blowing against our skin. We can’t see the air, but we can feel it.

Finally, we know that the fan is working because we can hear the sound of the moving air and the rattling sound of the streamers as they blow. We can’t see it, but we can hear it.

In the story we celebrate today, the Holy Spirit came down from heaven to the first followers of Jesus, the apostles, ten days after Jesus ascended to Heaven. How did they know the Holy Spirit was with them? Let’s look and listen for the signs.

Today, the feast of Pentecost is a special day which millions of Christians all over the world celebrate – some even call it the birthday of the Church. The name comes from the Greek word pentekoste which means fiftieth. The original feast of Pentecost is a Jewish feast exactly fifty days after the feast of Passover. In the Jewish tradition, Pentecost celebrated the wheat harvest in Israel, and the revelation of the Ten Commandments to Moses and the people of Israel, around 1300 years before the stories we hear today.

There would have been a big crowd in Jerusalem to celebrate this festival. Luke the Gospel writer tells us in the Acts of the Apostles that ‘devout Jews from every nation under heaven’ were in the city.

On that day, as Jesus’ friends gathered in an upstairs room, they knew Jesus wanted them to go out into the world and tell people what he had done, but they were waiting for the promised Helper or Advocate to come and show them how. They were under pressure, confused, and not too sure how to face that big crowd.

Then in an instant everything changed. The Holy Spirit arrived! The apostles went and proclaimed the Good News, 3000 people decided to follow Jesus, and the church was born.

On that Pentecost day, God sent the Holy Spirit to give them the power to teach others about Jesus. Now, they couldn’t see the Holy Spirit, so how did they know the Holy Spirit was there?

The Bible says that they knew the Holy Spirit was there because they could hear the sound of a mighty rushing wind coming from heaven. They couldn’t see the Holy Spirit, but they could hear the sound of the wind just as we can hear the air blowing from our fan.

Choirstall woodcarving of Pentecost detail, 1508-1519, Notre-Dame d’Amiens, France.
Click on the image to open in a new window.

Then the Bible tells us that they saw what seemed to be flaming tongues of fire that came and rested on their heads. They couldn’t see the Holy Spirit, but they knew that the Holy Spirit was there because they could see the flaming tongues of fire just as we can see the streamers on our fan.

Finally, the Bible tells us that they knew the Holy Spirit was there because they could feel her power, and a sense of joy. They were filled with the Holy Spirit, who gave them the ability to speak in languages they didn’t even know, so that they could tell everyone about Jesus. They couldn’t see the Holy Spirit, but they could feel the Spirit’s power in their lives just as we can feel the air from our fan.

The Holy Spirit is still with us today. We can’t see the Spirit, but we can hear her as she speaks to our hearts, we can see her moving in our lives, and we can feel the power of her presence as she guides us through each day.

The day of Pentecost was full of dramatic wonders and signs of God’s creativity, grace and mercy, with the promise of salvation for all those who ‘called on the name of the Lord’. It was a day that surprised people and stopped them in their tracks.

What wonders might give us glimpses of God’s Spirit today?

For example, last weekend, those who stayed up late enough were treated to a rare display of wonder in the sky over the UK. Social media buzzed with reports and pictures of the spectacular and awe-inspiring aurora borealis or northern lights.

And in the latest series of the BBC programme Race Across the World, contestants are racing across the Far East in pursuit of a £20,000 prize. Much time is spent in manic activity, but there are moments when they choose to pause and immerse themselves in the wonder of their surroundings. One moving moment came when 20-year-old Alfie, whose mother died when he was five, shared in a Vietnamese ritual of lighting a candle, placing it in a paper boat and releasing it on the river as he remembered her. WATCH HERE [1 minute].

Amidst all the challenging news stories today, celebrating these moments of awe and wonder may give us hope. As Alfie’s story shows, signs and wonders can be signs of comfort as well as awe. The Pentecost story reminds us of the power and drama that the Spirit can bring, while our reading from the Gospel of John reminds us that the same Spirit is also the source of comfort and support.

In what ways can you and I be signs of God’s comfort and support to those in distress?

The biggest question on the day of Pentecost was ‘What does this mean?’ Peter took on the role of interpreter, explaining the events in the light of the scriptures and his own experience of, and relationship with, Jesus.

What role might we have in offering meaning?

How we offer meaning will be shaped by our personalities and learning styles. For example, in responding to the northern lights, creative people might celebrate God’s artistry, while scientists might explore the wonder of solar storms interacting with the Earth’s atmosphere to make light displays in the sky.

What space is there in your life and mine for signs of wonder?

If you and I were taking part in the Race Across the World, would we be totally focussed on pursuing the prize and getting to the finish line as quickly as possible, or would we make time to pause and let the wonder of your surroundings sink into our souls?

When we gather for worship, what space do we allow for God to surprise us with signs of God’s love and the wonders of God’s grace?

What signs or wonders have you been blessed to see, or interpret for others? 

The disciples were confused by Pentecost; they encountered people they had not met before, and they were misunderstood – people thought they were drunk! They needed to readjust their thinking and realise that their faith journey was taking them in a new direction. Peter began this journey by referring to the Scripture he knew about Spirit-given dreams and visions. By enlarging God’s kingdom, this prophecy was becoming a reality.

How about us? Are we willing to step out in faith to welcome others, even if we experience misunderstanding, embarrassment, or the challenge of change? Are we able to dream dreams and recognise visions for our own worshipping community and neighbourhood? Where will we begin?

On our Christian journey we meet all kinds of people, with different ways of expressing the Christian faith. This can cause us to be anxious and perplexed, especially if we are convinced that we are always correct! We can sometimes retreat into our comfort zones and let this prevent us from extending a welcome to others. The apostles had to look ahead and contemplate where an opening of their minds and hearts might take them.

What challenges are our church and community facing? Can we step out of our comfort zone like the apostles who left their upper room to include others?

In John’s Gospel, Jesus characterises ‘the Advocate’ or ‘Helper’ as ‘the Spirit of Truth’. The Spirit will not lead us into truth if we remain in our own bubbles, either of news broadcasts and online sources, or of church groups with whom we already agree. We need to listen to our children’s prophecy, the visions of the young, and the dreams of the old.

Today the Methodist Church in Britain also celebrates Aldersgate Sunday.

It is the anniversary on 24th May of John Wesley’s experience of feeling his heart ‘strangely warmed’ by trust in Christ alone for salvation. It’s been called Wesley’s ‘evangelical conversion’ – although he was already an Anglican priest, his enthusiastic gospel message was rejected by others in the Church of England. Heavy-hearted, he reluctantly attended a church meeting on Aldersgate Street in London on 24th May 1738, three days after Pentecost, and had this heart-warming experience which led him to found a new society that would become the Methodist movement.

It’s not surprising that John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience happened so close to Pentecost. As John’s gospel tells us, after Jesus died and came back to life, he promised his followers that they would receive the Holy Spirit to guide and inspire them. Pentecost is the day when this happened. Many people and churches use Pentecost as an opportunity to ask God’s Holy Spirit to fill them afresh, and to become more aware of God’s presence in their lives.

Wesley Day on 24th May, and Aldersgate Sunday on the weekend before it, mark one of Methodist founder John Wesley’s own transformative experiences, as he felt God’s love in a most personal and life-giving way during a meeting with other Christians. Wesley described the experience as his heart feeling ‘strangely warmed’ and afterwards his relationship with God became more real and heartfelt. His brother, hymn writer Charles Wesley, had a similar experience on Pentecost Sunday three days earlier. Charles experienced ‘a strange palpitation of heart’ which caused him to exclaim, ‘I believe, I believe!’

Badges representing the twelve practices which help us to encounter God in the Methodist Way of Life.
Click on the image to open in a new window.

What does this mean for us today?

The Methodist Way of Life may help. It is inspired by John Wesley’s teaching that God’s grace is a free gift, undeserved and unearned by any of us. It is freely available to us all, but we can engage with it by what Wesley called ‘the means of grace’, ways in which God works invisibly in disciples, hastening, strengthening, and confirming faith, just as the Spirit did for the apostles at Pentecost.

The Methodist Way of Life encourages us to develop twelve practices which help us encounter God. One of the practices is to notice God in Scripture and the world. For example, on that evening of 24th May 1738, Wesley met God in a new way as he listened to someone reading from a book about St Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

God is here, ready and willing to meet us. It may not be exactly the same as the Wesleys’ experiences, as God meets each of us personally, but who knows? We too might have a feeling of God’s presence and love like the Wesleys did. We might see or hear something unbelievable, like the apostles in Acts chapter 2. Or we might hear a call to help other people have these kinds of encounters too.

How is the Spirit moving in your life and mine today?

Which of the 12 Methodist Way of Life commitments causes your heart to ‘skip a beat’ like Charles, or feel ‘strangely warmed’ like John Wesley?

For me, it’s ‘challenge‘, as I work for a charity that promotes equality, diversity and inclusion in Christian community. What might yours be?

Whatever pressure you face this week, may you know the Holy Spirt is with you and see these challenges as opportunities to show God’s love through your words and actions.

Loving God, thank you for sending your Holy Spirit to be our teacher and guide.
Help us to listen and obey as your Spirit teaches us how to tell others about Jesus.

WATCH this service on YouTube [53 minutes]. This reflection runs from 23:00 for around 18 minutes.

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