Year A | Year B | Year C
A Museum Faith No Longer
214 Bonnie BraeOur caravan of cars turned off Route 101 and wove through the narrow streets.The homes that lined the Los Angeles streets were small look-alike structures built in the late 1890s.They had small yards and from the driveway, you could almost touch the house next door.We were looking for 214 Bonnie Brae Street.A house not as famous as the Castle Church of Wittenburg Germany upon whose doors an Augustinian monk nailed 95 statements that would begin a reformation but a house in which no less of an outpouring of the Spirit of God took place.In 1906, the house belonged to Richard Asberry a member of a small church who wanted to learn more about the outpouring of the Spirit in the book of Acts.Richardís pastor, Julia Hutchins, had invited William Seymour to come and teach them.
Seymour was born in Louisiana, the son of former slaves.We was raised a Baptist and as a young man had several intensive dreams and visions.He contracted smallpox and went blind in his left eye at the age of 25.About this time, he moved to Indianapolis and worked as a railroad porter and waiter in a fashionable restaurant.He then moved to Cincinnati and attended churches that taught that the Holy Spirit would be poured out just before the rapture.A search for his family, led him to Houston TX where he met Charles Fox Parham who taught that gossolaia, speaking in tongues, was the Biblical evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.Two years earlier, a student who attended Parhamís classes had spoken in tongues.
Since Texas law forbade blacks attending classes with whites, Seymour had to sit in the hallway and listen to Parham through an open door.From those classes, Seymour became convinced that God was about to pour out his Spirit with evidence of speaking in other tongues.He took that teaching to the tiny church in Los Angeles.
A small group of people gathered at 214 Bonnie Brae to seek the blessing of the Holy Spirit.After a month of praying and fasting, the Spirit fell upon several members.They prayed with the intensity of that first Spirit-filled Pentecost.The fervor of their voices drew crowds.Some came for curiosity, some out of a hunger for a deeper spiritual experience.Soon they had to rent the building of a closed African Methodist Episcopal church on Azusa Street.The building held 600 people and it was filled every night.The now famous Azusa Street Revival had begun.The LA Daily Times reporters unleashed a barrage of criticism for the excessive emotionalism and interracial worship service.
The Revival withstood their criticism.Pentecostalism as a movement is the fasting growing branch of the Christian faith.Life Magazine listed the Azusa Street Revival as the 68th most important religious event of the 20th Century.Church growth experts believe that they add 35,000 adherents a day.Ironically, the house that gave birth to the movement that is changing the face of Christianity worldwide has become a museum.
I was visiting the house with a group of pastors who were studying at Fuller Theological Seminary.While walking through the rooms, I tried to picture in my mind the night that the Spirit fell upon the gathered body, I was struck by the similarity between that house and many churches.Like 214 Bonnie Brae, too many churches have become nothing more than quaint spiritual museums.Structural memorials to what the Spirit of God once did but tragically, static testimonies to the present work of the Spirit.This convicted me of the importance of recapturing the power of that first Pentecost as experienced by the original disciples.That is difficult for us Presbyterians.Pentecostalism is associated with an excessive display of uncontrolled emotionalism.My first exposure to it nearly scared me out of the faith.But in our efforts to maintain decency and order, I wonder if we have lost a major source of power for living the Spirit-filled life.Over the last 30 years, the Presbyterian Church has lost more than 30,000 members a year.Church growth experts claim that worldwide the Pentecostal movement is gaining 35,000 adherents a day.While we may not want to imitate everything about the movement, we should consider what are the characteristics between the first Pentecost and todayís movement.
Begins through an Experience
One of the most striking features of the book of Acts is Lukeís emphasis that the faith is not only born through experience but also nurtured and grows through experience. The faith is not an intellectual exercise.It is not limited to the practice of a lifeless set of rituals.It is not isolated to belief in a set of theological statements.It does not consist of the memorization of ancient Bible verses from an English translation that is difficult to understand.Faith begins in an experience and is nurtured through continual experiences, encounters with God.
Jesus told Nicodemous that he must be born again.Spiritual rebirth marks the initial experience when a person moves from a life of uncertainty to the knowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.It requires the surrender of control.When a person is finally willing to say, ďOk, God, I have screwed up my life long enough.Not my will, but your will.ĒSuch words are easy to say, without meaning, but the moment we utter them with the reality of their message, the transforming work of grace sweeps over our hearts and we experience the love of God through spiritual rebirth.
But the Christian life is more than a one-time experience.After his death, Jesus told his disciples to stay in Jerusalem until the promise of the Holy Spirit had come upon them.The instruction baffled the disciples.They could not understand that which they had never encountered but they were faithful.They remained in the Holy City to pray and fast.Then on the anniversary of the God giving the Law to Moses, the God poured out the Holy Spirit upon the community.Tragically, Presbyterians have stumbled over the form thereby missing the substance, the experience.
During my initial years in the Christian life, I was given a tract with a picture of a train with three cars.The caboose was labeled Feelings, the coal car was labeled Facts and the engine was labeled Faith.We were taught that if we fueled are engine of Faith with the Facts of the gospel, our feelings will come.The concept contains both a truth and a misnomer.Faith should be fueled by the facts, the reality of the gospel.We should not base our faith on our feelings but feelings are not automatically changed by reflecting on facts.We may believe with our mind that God exists, that Jesus rose from the grave, that God the Father has sent us another comforter in the Holy Spirit but those facts remain lifeless bits of information.They are like logs in a fireplace, without kindling and a spark they do not burn.Our encounter with the Holy Spirit is Godís spark.If the experience strikes dry kindling it will blaze into a flame that will burn the logs.Just as our hands feel the heat of the fire, so will our soul feel the heat of the Spirit.
Faith not only begins in the experience of rebirth but is sustained with experiences, encounters with the Holy Spirit.One person may speak in tongues, another may prophecy, another may preach, and another may serve.The apostle Paul warned the church not to quench the Spirit by limiting the experience or the form of expression.
Churches that stifle the movement of the Holy Spirit quickly become religious museums, memorials to a dead faith.
Immersed in the Word
Another striking feature of the church in Acts was their immersion in the word of God as a community.In Acts 2:42 Luke notes that the community ďÖdevoted themselves to the apostleís teachingÖĒThe study of the Word of God is an essential element to our spiritual maturity.
Before his operation for the cancer that ultimately would take his life, an outstanding British preacher, David Watson wrote:
His study of Godís Word sustained David and gave him the courage to endure the operation and then his subsequent death.The fire of Pentecost can only be sustained and strengthened through Godís Word.
Psalm 119 is a psalm entirely devoted to announcing the benefits of studying the Scriptures but also reminded the author of his commitment to the spiritual discipline.Six times, he states that the commands of God are his delight and 9 times the author pledges to meditate on them.This psalm is the longest one in the Bible and thereby highlights the duration required to study Godís law.The exercise cannot be down in bits and pieces.It will not fit into one-minute time slots.Learning the message of the Scriptures requires an intentional, disciplined, and lengthy commitment.
I have been delighted to hear people tell me that they have developed a regular habit in the Scriptures because of the emphasis my sermons and the email study guide that I send out on Tuesday or Wednesday.That is wonderful but we must now as a church take the next step.We must increase our study of Scripture in community.Something happens when we are together and reflecting on Scripture that does not occur when we are alone.A dynamic takes place in a group.
For the past two years, the Worship and Youth Ministry Team and the Deacons have begun each of their meetings with by reading and discussing the weekís Scripture passage. I encourage each ministry team to adopt the habit.Such an exercise reminds us that we are untied in our faith through the Scriptures and our ministry must be grounded in Godís Word.It is usually only a 15-20 minute exercise, but through their discussion, the ministry team members have encouraged one another in spiritual growth.
The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost reminds us that our faith begins in experiences but sustained through the disciplined study of Godís word.It also directs to our ministry of proclaiming the Word of God.
300,000 for Me, 140 for Jesus
After Pentecost, Luke records that the community took Godís word and turned the world upside down.Their impact on the Roman empire did not come by respecting the religion preferences of others or by living out the gospel in the seclusion of their home.The early church embarked on an aggressive campaign of sharing their faith.They told their friends, family, and business associate about the good news of Jesus Christ and the transforming power of God.They used their friendship and business relationships to establish contacts and share the faith.
In his book Living Faith, former President Jimmy Carter writes about a time when he had been asked to give a talk about his activities as a Christian witness.In his preparation he reviewed all the times that he had participated with his church in sharing his faith during the visit they made throughout their community in preparation for a week of revival services. The total number came to 140.He was rather impressed with his personal statistics until he recalled that when he was campaigning for the office of governor.In 1966, he and Rosalynn traveled the state shaking hands with over 300,000 Georgians to persuade them to vote for him.He had asked 300,000 to support him but only 140 to profess faith in Jesus.He writes that the terrible difference in those numbers brought him to his knees.
I would hope that the terrible difference would bring us all to our knees.
A Museum or a Dynamic Church
Every local church has a choice, they can either choose to recapture the power of Pentecost or become a quaint museum.What will be our choice?The power of Pentecost will only be recaptured if we allow our faith to be renewed through a fresh encounter with God the Holy Spirit, sustain that faith though disciplined study of Godís Word, and share the life changing reality with others.
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