The Spirit of Excitement
Acts 2:1-24 (Good as New)
What do you do when you are excited? Perhaps you clap your hands, jump up and down, dance around the room, talk louder and faster, laugh a lot, and above all tell others. As adults we slow down a bit. But we still get excited at a football match, or during an election campaign, when starting a new job or project, or a new stage in life. The prospect of a new life ahead excites us, as it did the first disciples of Jesus, the fishermen Simon and Andrew, James and John. The moment when I saw the wonder of the Christian message and knew I was called to be a minister was exciting for me. We are excited when we see a big change for the better happening in the world: the end of World War II, the end of apartheid, the opening of the Berlin Wall.
There are lots of stories in the Bible about people being excited: the crowds who saw the miracles of Jesus, those who shouted ‘Hosanna’ as he rode into Jerusalem, the women who found the empty tomb and ran away in both joy and fear, the disciples at Emmaus who looked back and realised their hearts had been on fire as Jesus talked with them.
Then there was the day of Pentecost, a day of huge excitement. It was an experience of wind: a power we can’t control, that gets behind us, drives us along and makes us feel stronger. It made Peter and the others suddenly become very brave. There were tongues: when we are excited about something, we can’t stop talking about it, and that was the day they started to tell everybody about Jesus. And there was fire: a thing that is exciting and also dangerous (as it was eventually for the disciples). It looks like a living creature, and spreads very quickly. The message about Jesus began very small, like a little fire, but has spread to fill the world. That exciting day was nearly 2000 years ago, but we are here today because of it: the message came to our ancestors, and to us, and it is still exciting. The fire is still burning.
Pentecost was a Jewish festival, otherwise called “the feast of weeks”. It was the early harvest festival, when the first fruits were presented to God. “Pentecost” means “50th”: it was the 50th day after the Passover. The Passover that year was the time when Jesus was arrested, tried and crucified. Pentecost was the day of a strange, wild incident that drew a crowd in Jerusalem. We can get some of the atmosphere of it by noting the words used to describe people’s reactions: “They were all excited … In amazement and wonder … Amazed and confused …”.
The people who are called “Pentecostals” today believe that this is what it ought to be like to be a Christian. This is what worship and prayer should be: “full of the Spirit”. I believe they have an important point. Unless we are excited about our Christian faith then there’s not much point in having it. People get excited about lots of things – football, rock and roll, falling in love, politics … Why shouldn’t we be excited about God, excited that God loves us, that Jesus is alive, that there is hope for the world? Many of us are scared stiff of expressing emotion in church. It would do most of us good to get a bit more excited.
But where Pentecostals sometimes go wrong is that they confine their idea of excitement to one pattern, Not everybody gets excited in that way: there are other ways. I was brought up in the Welsh Nonconformist tradition, and that certainly had its share of excitement. Great preachers were known for their “hwyl” – once they warmed up to their theme there was no stopping them. They shouted, they sang, they dramatized the story, they paced up and down the pulpit, they thumped the Bible with their fists – and, at their best, they lifted us up to heavenly realms, they made us laugh and they made us cry, and they left us feeling what a wonderful God we worship and what a wonderful Gospel we have to proclaim.
But I have known other kinds of excitement too: the joy of being in a beautiful mediaeval cathedral, marvelling at all that beautiful workmanship, the height and the space, all dedicated to the glory of God; the thrill of an ancient chapel, like Bradwell, the simple square building erected by the first missionary to Essex in the 7th century and still standing today. And there is excitement in the little acts of kindness that humble us and make us realise how God’s Holy Spirit is still at large in the world. One of the most thrilling moments in my ministry in London was when I heard a church member who was an alcoholic saying he had visited another church member with severe mental problems “to try and cheer him up”. It suddenly struck me this was the church at its best, and evidence that the Holy Spirit is around.
The action of the Holy Spirit is not organised and planned by us. As Jesus said, the wind blows where it will and no-one can control it. The disciples that day didn’t plan to do anything particularly. Peter hadn’t prepared a sermon. The people there didn’t plan that by the end of that day they would be baptised Christians and their whole life would be different. The Holy Spirit brings bewilderment, amazement, confusion, and disturbance. It is the wild, unpredictable side of God. Just as we think we’ve got God sorted out – we know what we believe, what our principles are, what the Church is, and what we are supposed to be doing – the Holy Spirit suddenly sweeps in and changes it all! What happened on the Day of Pentecost was wild, a mind-blowing experience.
But note how the story goes on. There is a second part to it: “Then Peter stood up with the other eleven apostles and in a loud voice began to speak …”. “Speak” is a fairly simple, common word, but reading this passage in the original Greek I noticed that a rather unusual word is used here. When I looked it up the definition given was “to speak, declare, address (generally used in connection with an inspired utterance)”. Then it struck me that this is the same word as is used in the first part of the story where it says: “they began to talk in other languages, as the Spirit enabled them to speak.” The point being made is that both things were inspired by the Holy Spirit. It was the Spirit that inspired the apostles to praise God with the miraculous gift of tongues that caused so much excitement. But it was the same Spirit who inspired Peter when he got up to talk calmly, clearly and rationally, and explain to the people what was going on. The Holy Spirit is not just about excitement and miracles. The same Holy Spirit inspires teaching, straightforward explanation, clarity of mind, communication.
And note the difference in people’s reactions. When the Holy Spirit inspired the apostles to speak with tongues, the result was that people were excited, amazed and confused. Some were embarrassed, and hid their embarrassment by making fun. But when the Holy Spirit inspired Peter to tell them “this Jesus, whom you crucified, is alive and is seated at the right hand of God”, the result was that “they were deeply troubled and said … ‘What shall we do, brothers?'” Excitement alone is not enough. A religion that is nothing but excitement is no challenge. It runs away from the reality of what it means to be a Christian, the fact that we must question our thoughts and our ways, realise where we have gone wrong and be prepared to change.
The Holy Spirit is in all that. As Peter said: “God’s promise was made to you and your children, and to all who are far away – all whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” That means us! Be prepared to receive the Holy Spirit. Be prepared for excitements and thrills, don’t be afraid to be moved – but remember that God’s first offer is the opportunity to change your ways and be forgiven, and then you can be truly filled with the Holy Spirit.