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SHAKEN NOT STIRRED (Post-Easter 2021)

Grapefruit juice, fly-killer, enamel paint, cough mixture, window cleaning liquid, air freshener … No, I’m not delirious through overwork. Nor have I picked up Julia’s shopping list in mistake for my notes. I’m just thinking of how many household items bear the label ‘shake well before use’. Shaking has its hazards, as a college friend of mine discovered when he shook a bottle of tomato sauce without ensuring that the top was screwed on. But usually, it seems that the full flavour, the full power, the full benefit of so many things only comes out when you shake the bottle well. I wonder if we too need to be shaken before use.

We are approaching the Festival of Pentecost, that time in the Christian calendar when we celebrate that first great outpouring of God the Holy Spirit in power upon the Church (Acts 2:1-4). The Lectionary suggests that as we come towards the end of Easter we begin to focus on this wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church (Acts 1:1-11). What actually happened at Pentecost? Was this the time when those first followers of Jesus actually became ‘Christians’? When they were ‘born again of the Spirit’ (John 3:6)? The Church’s ‘birthday’ if you like? Or were those 120 or so gathered together in the Upper Room (Acts 1:15) already true believers? After all they had ‘confessed Christ’ (Matthew 16:13-20) – Peter was simply the spokesperson on behalf of them all – and they had all ‘received the Holy Spirit’ when Jesus had breathed on them earlier in that same Upper Room (John 20:22). In this case Pentecost was more of an ‘empowering for service’ (Acts 1:8) given the task of taking the Gospel out to the rest of the world Jesus entrusted to his Church (Luke 24:44-49).  

We must not take this empowering for service for granted. We must not presume that we have this power when we blatantly do not have it. One of the rules of biblical hermeneutics (the way in which we correctly interpret scripture) demands ‘an honest reading of the text’. In other words we need to hear what the Bible is actually saying, not twist a verse or passage to suit ourselves, our own views or opinions. We perhaps need to apply this same principle to ourselves – we need an honest reading of ‘the text of our own lives’. When my friend, the Evangelist William Hartley, was younger he realised that although he was a Christian he did not have God given power in his life. He took himself off to the Keswick Convention for a week. In those days (it has changed now) Keswick teaching held that you could claim the filling of the Holy Spirit simply by faith. So, at the final meeting when a call was made for those who wanted to be ‘filled with the Spirit’ to stand, and claim the gift William did just that. He felt no different but took it for granted that, in his own words, he had ‘received the Spirit’. When he got home his wife asked him if anything had happened, and William replied, ‘I’ve got it!’ A week or two later, seeing that nothing had significantly changed in her husband’s life, his wife asked him, ‘William where is it?’ You see nothing had actually happened at Keswick for William. He simply presumed that he had been filled with the Spirit when he actually hadn’t. Eventually he recognised this, and gave himself to prayer and waiting on God until one day he was indeed genuinely gloriously ‘filled with the Spirit’ just like those embryonic believers on that first day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4).

What happened at Pentecost was not a ‘one-off’, however, and we see the same thing repeated again and again as the story of the New Testament church unfolds. In Acts 4:23-31 we see one such incident. Peter and John are arrested by the Sanhedrin for preaching the gospel on the streets of Jerusalem, following the miraculous healing of the crippled beggar by the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, and told not to preach in the name of Jesus ever again (vs.1-22). On their release their response was to share the situation with the rest of the church who then gave themselves to earnest prayer over the matter. Although the text suggests that they began praying feeling somewhat cowed and deflated, as they recall the salvation history of God’s ancient people, and remember how God repeatedly intervened on their behalf, they get more and more excited and enthused, and end up praying for quite the reverse of the Sanhedrin’s demands: ‘And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus’ (vs.29,30). Luke goes on to tell us that: ‘When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness’ (v.31). The building was shaken, the believers were shaken, and … as we see from reading on in the account … Jerusalem itself was shaken as a new phase of spiritual awakening broke out throughout the city

Pentecost was never meant to be a one off. It was always meant to simply be the first in a whole production line of believers and churches being filled with the Holy Spirit and ‘endued with power from on high’ (Luke 24:49) in order to be effective witnesses for Jesus in this needy, broken, and hurting world in which we live. When Peter spoke to the crowds on that first day of Pentecost he told them that what these embryonic followers of Jesus had received from God was not just for them but for everyone: ‘For the promises for you for, for your children, and for all who are far away [including us today], everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him (Acts 2:39).

I recall speaking on this passage in a certain church some years ago. After the Service, a lady came up to me at the door and said, ‘Oh dear! We don’t want anything supernatural in this church!’ ‘What not even God?’ I replied. On the contrary what we do really need (and not just us at Abbey) is indeed a fresh, overwhelming, infilling with the Holy Spirit, and a new enduement with power from on high, that overflows into the wider community bringing the blessing of God with it! I’m not a great fan of Martinis, but when it comes down to the Person work of the Holy Spirit, I’m with James Bond. A few spiritual ripples here and there, that fail to disturb our calm spiritual sea, is not what is required today!  We need to be shaken not stirred. But … are we brave enough to face up to our need … and brave enough to pray for God to come and do something significant among us? To pray with the late Daniel Iverson (1890-1977):

Spirit of the living God,

Fall afresh on me.

Spirit of the living God,

Fall afresh on me.

Break me, melt me, mould me, fill me.

Spirit of the living God,

Fall afresh on me.

Jim Binney

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