Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
Scripture: Acts 9:36–43
As I hear the story of Peter and Tabitha in today’s lesson, I am reminded that the entire Book of Acts is about the Holy Spirit. And so I thought, today is as good as any day to remind us that we live in the age of the Holy Spirit. If you remember nothing else from this sermon, remember this: that you live in the age of the Holy Spirit, and the power of the Holy Spirit is available to you. Even people who don’t go to church intuitively know this, which is why they say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.”
At this time in history, the authority and agency of God moves most powerfully through the Holy Spirit, animated to help us live joyfully and beautifully in a decentralized, highly personalized, deeply individualized world. God has activated the Holy Spirit to open us up and link us together like the day of Pentecost 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem.
Let me tell you how this age of the Holy Spirit began. About a week ago, minus 110 years, on April 9, 1906, on Bonnie Brae Street in Los Angeles, California, a man name William Seymour, a very large African American man with one eye, stood on the stoop of a house and began to preach. On that day he revealed to the world the authority and agency of the Holy Spirit. April 9, 1906, marked the beginning of the age of the Holy Spirit, and it came not a moment too soon to bestow upon you and me the ability to live richly and gracefully in this weird, fast-paced, ever-changing, isolating age.
You see, what has happened is that the world has becomes so decentralized that humanity is just a network of connections with no center. In the past the authority for making decisions, moral or otherwise, was found with the chiefs, or elders, or priests, or the Bible, or experts. And now there is so much information and so many perspectives that in the end the decision lives solely with the individual.
And what this means is that doing what I want, when I want, the way I want to becomes the default position for deciding what to do and how to act. Isn’t that right? And this works well enough until, of course, I run into what you want, when you want it, the way you want it.
So God has animated the Holy Spirit to be a unifying authority in the world. When I set the Holy Spirit at my center, and when you set the Holy Spirit at your center, God insures that we find common ground. Yet make no mistake about it, this is new and uncharted ground.
When my grandfather was a boy, the organizing authority was the Bible as taught by the local pastor in the local church at the center of town.
Biblical authority had been established 500 years earlier when a priest named Martin Luther nailed an angry letter to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. That letter complained about the authority of the church hierarchy. At that time the church hierarchy was the authority for how moral, and often other, decisions were made. And this authority was tired and corrupt. The paper on which Luther wrote his letter was reprinted, and reprinted, and reprinted again.
Every time there is a divine shift in godly authority, it coincides with a new technology. In Luther’s time it was the printing press. In the Apostle Paul’s time it was the Roman roads. In Abraham’s time it was the Phonetic alphabet. And today it is the Internet.
Now, we have known the Holy Spirit forever. It is the ruach, the wind of God that blew over the deep before the beginning of creation. Jesus was baptized by the Holy Spirit in the river Jordan. At the Last Supper, Jesus spoke about Holy Spirit as our advocate and friend. The Holy Spirit was incorporated into the very first creeds of the church as Christianity was trying to figure out what it was. But let me say this, even though the early Church Fathers knew of the Holy Spirit and added the Holy Spirit into their doctrine of the Trinity, let’s be clear: they were anything but clear about what the Holy Spirit was.
We can see this in the construction of the original Nicene Creed written in 325 AD. I have included it in the service to give you a sense. Here is how it ends: “And the third day Jesus arose again, ascended into Heaven, and He shall come again to judge the living and the dead. And we believe in the Holy Spirit.” Period. The end. That was the first draft of the Nicene Creed, used until 381 AD, when the powers that be in the Church thought they should beef it up a bit.
Here is the point: to quote Phyllis Tickle’s book, The Age of the Spirit: “The Spirit was an outlier and not a team player in the game of building institutions” (68). The Holy Spirit was fire, and the early church didn’t want to get burned, and so the Spirit, while acknowledged, was also avoided.
And that was OK. The Holy Spirit had to wait around for the time to be ripe and for humanity to be ready to welcome the fire without fear of being burned. Our decentralized, personalized, individualized age makes us dry and brittle and ready for the Holy Spirit. And this was predicted. There was a prophecy made by an Italian monk in 1150 AD that said the age of the Father, brought about by Abraham, would last 2,000 years and the age of the Son, alive in Jesus, would last for 2,000 years.
Which brings us back to Bonnie Brae Street and William Seymour, and the age of the Holy Spirit. The time is now. Let’s see how.
Seymour was just the kind of person God would use to call attention to the Holy Spirit. He had no pedigree, nor institutional power. He was not a learned man in any way. Seymour was the son of slaves from Louisiana. He was a devout Christian, who grew up in the church, and knew his Bible. It was his authority after all.
Along the way Seymour met a Baptist preacher named Charles Parham, who ran a Bible School in Houston Texas. Seymour enrolled in a six-week course, but due to the Jim Crow laws of that time, he couldn’t sit in the classroom, so he sat outside, on the porch, and listened. What he heard transformed him. He heard about the second blessing of the Holy Spirit. That is what John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, called it.
The second blessing, Wesley said, would come upon a person like fire, and they would speak in tongues, like at that first Pentecost. Much to Wesley’s disappointment, the second blessing never overshadowed him, nor did it come upon Parham. Upon graduation, Seymour received a letter from a friend in Los Angeles inviting him to be pastor to a small Holiness congregation called the Santa Fe Mission Church in the black section of the city. Seymour arrived and on his first Sunday preached from the Book of Acts, claiming, in no uncertain terms, that “tongues” were the evidence of the second blessing of the Holy Spirit.
Unfortunately for Seymour that was not part of the accepted teachings of the Santa Fe Mission Church, and its founder, Julia Hutchins, padlocked the door after church, so Seymour could not return. A Mr. Edward Lee took pity on this penniless preacher and offered him a place to stay.
For weeks Seymour prayed and fasted and led Bible studies at Mr. Lee’s house on Bonnie Brae Street. Little church services developed, mostly made up of Black washwomen, but these women told their friends and relatives and even employers. Soon the house on Bonnie Brae Street was so full that Seymour had to preach from the front porch.
He preached so powerfully, with such freedom and passion, hour upon hour, that the house shook, and eventually the entire foundation buckled and fell to the ground. Yet people kept coming, all sorts of people: rich and poor, blacks, whites, and Asians. They came from all over Los Angeles by the 10s, then 100s, then 1000s to dance in the power of the Holy Spirit there on Bonnie Brae Street. Those embodied souls in decentralized Los Angeles proved the power of the Holy Spirit to unite all people, and a new Pentecost was unleashed.
This is now the age of the Holy Spirit. The authority and agency of God has moved over time from religious hierarchy, to Holy Scripture, to you and me when we open ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit.
So what does this mean for Christianity? Well it means that the Pentecostal tradition is by far the fastest growing Christian community in the world. What does this mean for us here at Epiphany? Does this mean we should jump on board this Holy Spirit movement? You bet it does! Does this mean we should raise our hands in the air on Sunday morning shouting Alleluia? Maybe. Does this mean we should have mass healings in the chapel on Friday night? Maybe. Does this mean we should stamp our feet and dance around until the foundation shakes and crumbles? No it does not! Because I don’t want to knock out the foundation of this newly renovated church.
But it does mean we should ask ourselves, “How is the Holy Spirit alive at the center of my life? How is the Holy Spirit animated at the center of our community? How is the Holy Spirit inviting us to a place of greater unity with our community and the world?” And most importantly, it compels us to ask, “How does the Holy Spirit give agency and authority to the decisions we make, moral and otherwise?”
And if we are not sure, try doing what William Seymour did: pray, fast, and study. Seek that second blessing of the Holy Spirit. And when it comes upon you, however it comes upon you, whether it is speaking in tongues or not, tell the world!
The Holy Spirit in our hearts ignites an inner light. That is the only authority William Seymour had. He had the inner light, his own second blessing, and that unleashed the fire of the Holy Spirit upon the world—uniting, new and available to you and me.
If you remember nothing else from this sermon remember this: you live in the age of the Holy Spirit and the power of the Holy Spirit is available to you right HERE!