Come, Holy Spirit!

From our service on May 23, 2021, a sermon by Pastor Eric Stetson. Watch video below.

Today is Pentecost, the holy day in the Christian liturgical calendar commemorating the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and other followers of Jesus Christ, fifty days after Easter. The term Pentecost means “fiftieth” in Greek, and was used by Greek-speaking Jews to refer to the Jewish harvest festival called the Feast of Weeks, which was celebrated on the fiftieth day after the offering of the first fruits of the harvest to God.

Metaphorically speaking, Jesus can be considered as the first fruits of the resurrection of humanity from corruption and death to eternal life in heaven. Fifty days after the tomb was found empty on Easter Sunday, another celebration of the amazing work of God took place, as the harvest of human souls to be gathered into God’s Kingdom was bountifully expanded. As recorded in the Book of Acts,

“When the day of Pentecost came, [the Apostles] 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?’” [Acts 2:1-8]

Through this miraculous gift of the Holy Spirit, God enabled the Apostles to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people from many different nations, even though they had never learned their languages. Thus, the Good News of the Savior of the world began to be spread far and wide.

Perhaps inspired by the testimony of this remarkable occurrence, some members of early Christian churches would utter supposedly divine revelations in unknown tongues, when the inspiration of the Spirit came upon them. This practice, called glossolalia or “speaking in tongues,” was controversial, because in many cases nobody really knew the meaning of what was being spoken.

As the Apostle Paul warned in his first letter to the Corinthians, “brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? … Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.” [1 Cor. 14:6,9]. Paul goes on, recommending that “If anyone speaks in a tongue… someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.” [vss. 27-28].

What seems to have been happening in the Corinthian church, and probably other churches as well, is that Christians wanted to believe they had special gifts from God. Babbling in unknown tongues made them feel important, as though they were receiving the Holy Spirit in a publicly obvious way, like the dramatic story of the Apostles at Pentecost. But as Paul advised, “Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church” [1 Cor. 14:12] — not wild and meaningless babbling for show.

One of the attractions of organized religion is that it can offer opportunities for people to indulge their sinful pride, by claiming to have a special relationship with God, or unusual gifts and blessings, that “ordinary” people don’t enjoy. When we consider the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we should be careful not to assume that it comes in ways that are easy to recognize. Although in some rare cases it might come as tongues of fire, more often it comes as a “still small voice” in our hearts [1 Kings 19:12], or in ways that aren’t audible or noticeable at all, except perhaps to the private recipient of divine guidance.

Although in some rare cases [the Holy Spirit] might come as tongues of fire, more often it comes as a “still small voice” in our hearts.

For centuries after the emergence of orthodox Christianity, most Christians didn’t think much about the Holy Spirit. Religious truth was believed to be revealed exclusively though the canonical Bible and the church hierarchy, rather than freely accessible to all believers through a direct connection with God. During the Middle Ages, only a small number of mystics went beyond the fixed rituals of public worship to a more personal and esoteric spirituality.

But in modern times, there has been a revival of interest in the Holy Spirit. The Pentecostal movement of the early 20th century, and later the Charismatic movement that has spread Pentecostal beliefs more widely into various denominations during the last several decades, have been responsible for one of the most significant changes in Christian faith since the days of the early church. Today, among many Christians there is a renewed openness to prophecy and new revelations from God. In some ways, this may be a good thing, keeping the door open for God to speak to the church and for its members to listen, rather than automatically dismissing prophetic voices and important new ideas.

On the other hand, the rise of the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions has also led to some serious problems. Like in the early church, in many churches today, there is a tendency of people to show off how connected with the Spirit they believe themselves to be, and to judge people who have a quieter and more stoic faith as being not necessarily “born again,” as evidenced, they believe, by certain necessary spiritual gifts and blessings.

I have encountered this problem myself, and for a period of a few years it caused significant damage to my faith. When I first became a Christian, I joined a Charismatic congregation where many of the members spoke in tongues and believed in the “prosperity gospel” — the idea that if a person is born again in the Spirit, they will be blessed by God with material success and wellbeing. I was never able to speak in tongues — when I tried to do so, it felt unnatural and frankly ridiculous — and moreover, I was going through chronic illness and unemployment, rather than enjoying miraculous healings and financial blessings after committing my life to Christ.

The discrepancy between the expectation of miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit — whether tongues, healings, financial prosperity, or whatever else that can be taken as evidence of God’s love and presence in one’s life — and the reality of ongoing struggle, feeling like you’re still carrying a cross, can cause many people in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches to question their salvation. What if you were never really saved? What if you’re not truly born again, but instead are still dead in your sins and headed for hell? In my early years as a Christian, I often wrestled with such thoughts. In fact, I was so worried, and wanted so much to somehow “prove” that I was saved, that I remember writing a will in which I instructed that I should be buried with a large crucifix around my neck — as if that would somehow make a difference.

Eventually I came to understand that the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions have misunderstood the meaning of being filled with the Holy Spirit. Authentic spiritual rebirth in Christ doesn’t necessarily mean that your life is going to suddenly become more exciting or easy. In fact, it can sometimes mean the opposite. When Jesus accepted his heavenly Father’s will, he didn’t get to be king; instead, he had to take up a cross. Why shouldn’t we have to do the same?

Another problem with the modern interest in the gifts of the Spirit has been a proliferation of false prophets and charlatans, filled with an overabundance of religious ego, who exploit Christians who would like to imagine themselves as privy to the latest special revelations from God, which other people aren’t blessed enough to receive and believe. As Pentecostal thinking has increasingly been merged into the Evangelical church, the result has been a toxic brew of tribalistic ideology backed up by Charismatic ministers’ claims of direct revelation from God.

For example, as conservative Christian political commentator David French writes, “many millions of Americans spent the Trump era deeply loyal to Trump not because of policy arguments or political debate, but in large part because ‘prophets’ told them he was specifically and specially anointed by God for this moment. These Americans were resistant to the election outcome because they were told — again and again — by voices they trusted that God promised Trump would win.”

In fact, so powerful and widespread was the delusion that when an influential conservative Christian “prophet” Jeremiah Johnson apologized for incorrectly foretelling a Trump reelection victory, he was deluged with thousands of hateful messages attacking himself and his family — even death threats — from those who had believed his prophecies and invested their very souls in a continued Trump presidency. As Johnson wrote on Twitter, “To my great heartache, I’m convinced parts of the prophetic/charismatic movement are far SICKER than I could have ever dreamed of.”

Despite such problems, Pentecostalism has had a positive influence on Christianity by restoring to the faith the idea that God speaks to people in our own time, not only to legendary prophets and apostles of ancient times. No longer do people need to believe that the only way to have a relationship with God is through priests and rituals, as was the standard belief during much of Christian history.

Moreover, it is very important that we go beyond merely recognizing the presence of the Holy Spirit; that we grow in maturity in our understanding of how God interacts with us. Divine inspiration is accessible to everyone, and there aren’t necessarily any obvious outward signs. When somebody pompously declares that they’re a prophet, most likely they are not. True prophets act upon what they believe they have received from God, by teaching and doing the work with humility, without a lot of fanfare.

Divine inspiration is accessible to everyone, and there aren’t necessarily any obvious outward signs. When somebody pompously declares that they’re a prophet, most likely they are not.

That’s because guidance from God isn’t necessarily loud and blatant, like the blasting of a trumpet. The Spirit communicates through the gentle whisper of an inner voice, and through symbols and synchronicities in our lives. For example, in my own life, one symbol I have learned to recognize, through repeated experiences, is the appearance of a dove. Sometimes when I’m out for a walk, pondering some difficult question or wondering whether God is hearing my prayers, I’ll see a dove fly across my path, which reminds me of the presence of the Holy Spirit. It always seems to come at just the right time when I especially need encouragement.

The Spirit may speak to us in dreams, or in prayer and meditation. The Spirit may speak to us through people we know and love, offering a wise and encouraging word, or through people who make us uncomfortable because they say important things we would prefer not to hear.

Sometimes the most important thing we need is simply to feel God’s presence, giving us strength to face our challenges and struggles, knowing that we are not alone. Most often, God doesn’t tell us specifically what to do, but leaves the details up to us.

No matter how powerfully we may feel the presence of the Holy Spirit, we shouldn’t be too quick to assume or claim that our own spiritual experiences are “special” and give us extra authority compared to others. We should humbly offer what we believe we have received from God, if we feel called to share it; and if it is received, we should be grateful — and if it is not received, we should rest in the knowledge that we have done what God has asked of us.

In my journey of faith, I’ve learned that we should patiently wait for the move of the Spirit, rather than trying to force spiritual things to happen according to own our timetable rather than God’s. In this regard, after consulting with other core members of the Universal Church of the Restoration, our ministry team has decided to change to a monthly schedule of recorded video services, instead of weekly as we’ve been doing so far this year. Producing a 20 to 30 minute scripted video each week has proved to be too time-consuming for a small online church startup led entirely by volunteers. If the church grows larger and can become sustainably funded in the future, we will consider expanding again to weekly video productions.

Our next service will be on Sunday, June 6. We will continue to publish a recorded video service on the first Sunday of each month thereafter. Starting in June, we will also begin experimenting with live online services at least once per month. We are happy to announce that our ministry team is expanding to three people who will be involved in leading meetings and producing content for services, including music. Please check the Calendar page of our website for dates and descriptions of upcoming events.

During our first six months in existence, the UCR has attracted a core group of five or six people who are strongly interested in this church and hope to see it grow and thrive. We pray that the Holy Spirit will enable that to happen as time goes on, and that God will guide us to the right decisions about specific ministries and activities. Thank you for your continued support!

Watch on video (starting at 9:18):