I received what was called a local preacher’s license in 1952, when I was only 17 years old. That means I have been at this business of preaching for 68 years. I have been the pastor of nine local churches and the organizing pastor of three of those nine. You may wonder why I’m sharing that…and you may consider it a bit boastful. Not so, not so at all. I share it as a part of a confession. The question really is, what sort of church did I plant?
Our scripture lesson – Acts 2:1-14, 42-47–tells the story of the first church plant in Christian history. At first blush, that certainly was not a good way to start a church. There was the disturbance of a roaring wind that would drown out any speaking. Then uneducated people speaking in languages they had never heard. And not only a roaring wind, and strange speaking, but what was described as “tongues of fire” resting on each of them.
Unbridled excitement and strange acting. What a way to start a church! The question has to be, what was happening here, anyway? And that is what my sermon is all about: what was happening here?Let’s think about it.
The first is this: God came unexpectedly, which of course is nothing new. God seems to make it a habit of sneaking up on the human race. Appearing unrepentantly, when no one is looking or knows what is going on, God is in their midst.
The kind of thing that happened at Pentecost had happened before. Moses was out in the field alone, taking care of his father-in-law’s flock. And there it was – a burning bush, and a voice coming out of the bush, and Moses was called to lead God’s children out of Egyptian bondage.
And now, here at Pentecost, is this little band of frightened disciples whose leader has gone off and left them; they are stunned, confused, and unable to figure out what to do. The only instruction they had was, “stay, just stay in Jerusalem, until you receive the gift the Father has promised.” What gift, they must have wondered! Then along comes God unexpectedly when they were not even looking.
Friends, I remind you: that kind of God action has not ceased. I have seen dramatic witnesses of it. One of the joys of my life was to chair the Evangelism Committee of the World Methodist Council for 20 years. This gave me opportunity to travel the world and meet extraordinary Christians. Two of those were Nelson Mandela and Stanley Mogoba. You know about Mandela, the man whose life and witness led to breaking the back of that awful oppressive system of apartheid. But you probably have not heard of Stanley Mogoba. He was the first Black person to be the presiding bishop of the Methodist Church of South Africa.
About the time Nelson Mandela was sent to prison, Stanley met with a group of angry students and sought to dissuade them from violent demonstration. Just for that – trying to avert violence – he was arrested and imprisoned for six years on the notorious Robben Island. Mandela was already in prison there. He and Mogoba became friends there in prison.
One day someone pushed a religious tract under Mogoba’s cell door. Parenthetically, don’t ever forget: most people become Christian not by big events, but by relationship and simple actions like a person putting a tract beneath a prison cell door. By reading that little tract and responding to the Holy Spirit, Mogoba became a Christian. He quoted the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn to describe his experience:
“Thine eye diffused a quickening ray
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off; my heart was free,
I rose, went forth and followed thee.”
God showed up, in a prison and in a simple gospel tract, and something unexpected happened. A person who was to lead the Methodist movement in South Africa was converted.
Are you listening? God who came unexpectedly at Pentecost continues to show up today…in prisons, on the streets, in person, in the Church.
Yes, in the Church. And that leads to the second thing I would say. Pentecost was a missionary event. Jesus made it clear that he would send the Holy Spirit to empower us for ministry. Listen to Acts l:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
It shouldn’t surprise us, friends, when the Holy Spirit comes roaring through our lives and our communities; change will happen, people will be called to minister. People who have never known Jesus before will come to the altar to praise him.
How and why? Because God is a missionary God, and the Holy Spirit is the chief evangelist. Hold that tightly in your mind. The Holy Spirit has the power to create joy in the midst of sorrow and dancing in place of mourning. The Holy Spirit has the power to bring healing for our anguish and rescue life from the jaws of death. The Holy Spirit of God signals a time of restoration, awakening, and revival.
Pentecost was a missionary event. Remember, I asked you to hold tightly in your mind. The Holy Spirit is the chief evangelist. I believe revival is coming, because I believe the Holy Spirit is alive and active in our day, and we are moving toward a global Methodist church, an orthodox, evangelical, Wesleyan, Methodist Church.
We have been in a tumultuous time, contending with a mysterious virus; then came massive and widespread demonstrations calling us to racial justice. Our nation is politically divided, and hatred is blatantly present across the land. At the same time, we are also struggling with a painful divide in our United Methodist Church. It is a tough, heavy time. Discussion of separation is rampant, and I do believe separation is coming. Please hear me now. Separation doesn’t have to be bitter and angry. It can be redemptive. In fact, I believe it is going to be redemptive. That was signaled in a Holy Spirit event on December 17, 2019. Leaders from different perspectives of the church – from the most liberal to the most conservative – signed a “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.” I believe that if we had not had to cancel the General Conference that was to happen in May, that protocol would have passed and we would be on our way to a new global Methodist church.
People who know me and my history in the United Methodist Church are sometimes surprised about my position on some issues and my confidence that revival is coming. Some are surprised that I now believe separation is essential and can be redemptive. For decades, I have worked as hard as any lay person, minister, bishop or other leader in the church to preserve unity as we have struggled. So, let me share how I have come through the struggle to the place I am now in. The bishops called a special session of the General Conference in 2019 because the denomination was on the verge of implosion. We traditionalists prevailed at that General Conference in preserving the authority of Scripture. However, when we had done that by standard procedural vote, the conference deteriorated into a shouting match of anger, hateful accusations, and debate. I left the conference feeling with the psalmist, “Why are you cast down, O my soul?”
That was my state, when two weeks later I went to Cuba. I had visited Cuba twice before, and I knew revival was taking place, but I was not prepared for the robust power of the Holy Spirit being demonstrated in the church there. My time there was redemptive. It was a spiritual time of recovery in the wake of the General Conference experience.
The Church in Cuba is not affiliated with the UMC, it is the Methodist Church of Cuba. Bishop Pereira is a dynamic, Spirit-filled, Spirited-guided leader. Normally he would have attended our special General Conference, but he was needed at home. The communist government was seeking to change the legal definition of marriage. The government wanted to change that to simply a union between two persons. The bishop of the Methodist Church of Cuba had stayed in his country to lead his church in opposing what the government was proposing. I had come from a meeting in which I and others opposed a part of our church, including many bishops, seeking to do what would have resulted in the same thing the Cuban government was seeking to do. It was the church in Cuba, not the government, that prevailed.
Our missionary God has sent his primary evangelist, the Holy Spirit whose power cannot be denied. I’m going back to Cuba as soon as Covid will allow. I want to be encouraged by the hundreds of little bands of Christians that are being formed every year. The government will not allow the building of churches. So these little groups meet in homes, house churches being established all over. And one day, that government will discover that Holy Spirit power is more dynamic than anything they can design and impose on the people.
In Havana, there is a statue of the Risen Christ towering over the city, almost as high as the famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. Not far from that statue is Che Guevara’s house, the companion of Castro as he seized leadership of Cuba in 1959.
Our small group shared communion at the feet of Christ, literally, as we gathered at the base of the statue on the morning we were leaving Cuba. There we were at the feet of Jesus, with his shadow falling over the city. When we took the bread and wine, we knew and proclaimed who is Lord, and that one day, he will claim the kingdoms of this world as his own.
More than ever, I believe that Holy Spirit revival is coming, and I pray regularly the prayer we pray during our Walk to Emmaus weekends:
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Thy faithful and kindle in them the fire of Thy love. Send forth Thy Spirit and they shall be created, and You shalt renew the face of the earth. Amen.
Featured image courtesy Hasan Almasi for Unsplash.