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There is a character in a Bernard Cornwell historical fiction novel, set in and around the north of England in the 10th century, called Bishop Jeremias (or ‘the mad bishop’ as he was sometimes known). Bishop Jeremias was originally a Norse Jarl (or Lord) who ‘converted’ to Christianity but rather than settle for being a humble follower of Jesus Christ immediately declared himself to be a bishop. In reality, like a number of clerics in those days, he was pretty clueless about Christian doctrine, especially the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit, as demonstrated by the fact that he went around blessing people ‘In the name of the Father, the Son … and the Other One!’ In fairness to Bishop Jeremias, he did at least recognise that the Christian God was a Trinity even if he didn’t have a clue as to who the Third Member of the Trinity was or what he did?

This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday, the day in the Church Calendar when we celebrate the coming of God the Holy Spirit upon the embryonic Christian Church as they gathered prayerfully in Jerusalem in response to Jesus’ command to ‘wait there for the promise of the Father … the baptism with the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 1:4,5). The story of that amazing experience which those first 120 or so disciples entered into is recorded in Acts 2:1-4 – an experience that transformed them from a group of fearful believers hiding away behind locked doors into a bold fearless group out on the streets of the city proclaiming Jesus to all and sundry. Moreover, the Apostle Peter, in his powerful sermon preached to the gathered crowds on that first Day of Pentecost in the Christian era, made it clear that this life-transforming experience he and his fellow believers had entered into that very day was not just for them but for all who would truly believe and turn to Jesus: ‘Change your life. Turn to God and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so your sins are forgiven. Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is targeted to you and your children, but also to all who are far away—whomever, in fact, our Master God invites’ (Acts 2:38,39 The Message).

Jeff Kennedy, in his book Father, Son, and the Other One: Experiencing the Holy Spirit as a Transforming, Empowering Reality in Your Life reminds us that ‘God’s Spirit Lives in You’ but goes on to ask, ‘Do you believe it? What’s more, are you experiencing His power in your life? All too often we settle for merely learning about God rather than experiencing the present reality of His Spirit. But you have access to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit right now and if you want to live out your Christian faith with vibrancy and authenticity, it is essential that you get to know Him!’ Kennedy addresses the vital importance of the Holy Spirit in our lives and shows us how to experience His presence as a transforming, empowering reality. He concludes by encouraging us that ‘If you have ever wondered if the Christian faith is more than mere creeds, doctrines and denominations, or if you long to know that the Jesus of history still lives and dwells in you by the Spirit of God, or if you struggle to tap into God’s presence as a transforming, empowering reality’ then we too can come into such an experience of God if we will take the Apostle Peter’s words at face value.

But how do we know that we have truly been ‘filled with the Spirit’ (Acts 2:4) like those first believers? Someone recently sent me a Mark Pothier quote on Facebook that poignantly said: ‘The Holy Spirit doesn’t just make you dance and speak in tongues, He also makes you shut-up, apologise, and examine yourself!’ How true! I have long believed that the manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit is much more a ‘spiritual litmus test’ of what it really means to be filled with the Spirit than any manifestation of the gifts of the Spirit. How we behave is a much truer test than what we profess to believe. This was brought home to me very powerfully when, as a ministerial student at Spurgeon’s College in 1968 I personally came into a similar experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit akin to those first disciples at Pentecost. For me, however, the real test of the genuineness of my experience was not found in any manifestation of any supernatural gift of the Spirit (although I did experience that also) but when I came back to my home church in Greenford a couple of weeks later in order to attend an important Church Business Meeting.

I have to say that I was appalled at the way some people behaved in that meeting – the argumentativeness, the attitude, the dogmatism, the language, the rudeness, the negativity, the verbal abuse dished out to fellow Christians and our Pastor, the bullying, etc., etc. It so disturbed me that I burst into tears in the middle of the meeting – a 25 year-old man, 6’4” tall, 15 stone in weight – sobbing uncontrollably in a Church Meeting as God the Holy Spirit I suspect also ‘cried out’ within me ‘with deep feelings that words cannot explain’ (Romans 8:26). My reaction also had quite an impact on the Church Meeting as you might have expected! I have to say however, that what disturbed me most, was the certain knowledge that in previous Church Meetings (prior to my own personal Pentecost experience) I had behaved, and would have continued to behave, in exactly the same way without realising how contrary to the way of Christ such behaviour was!

So the real test of whether or not we are filled with the Spirit – the real test of whether or not we still need to be filled with the Spirit – is not found in whether we speak in tongues, or have the ability to heal the sick or deliver the demonised, etc., but in how we behave in a Church Business Meeting, or a Deacons’ Meeting (I had been elected as a Deacon at 21 years of age, the youngest Deacon in the church’s history, and had behaved just as badly there as I had in Church Meetings – in fact I had probably learned a lot of bad habits right there, ‘mirroring’ the behaviour of some of the other Deacons who were more senior than I was), or with our fellow church members, or in other public meetings (where we may be the only Christian present), and so on.

It used to be said that ‘The Holy Spirit is the forgotten member of the Trinity.’ I recall the days when Roman Catholics were accused of believing in ‘God the Father, God the Son, and God the Virgin Mary’, and Protestants of believing in ‘God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Bible.’ Those day are long gone now. We can no longer refer to God the Holy Spirit as ‘the Other One’ because we are clueless about who He is and what He does. But it is one thing to know a lot about Someone … and quite another thing to know Someone in such an intimate, personal way that they affect our lives deeply, and inexorably, for the better!

A good few years ago my friend Peter Tongeman wrote a poem called Only One Thing Missing. It’s somewhat dated now but I wonder if it actually still has something to say to us today.

We are organised for mission, we are ready for outreach,

We use the latest guidebooks with the children whom we teach,

We are mildly ecumenical – its excesses are deplored.

There’s only one thing missing – that’s the Spirit of the Lord!

We have regular Church Meetings where each member has their say,

And twelve Deacons to ensure that we decide the proper way.

We’ve a worthy Constitution and we act with one accord,

There’s only one thing missing – that’s the Spirit of the Lord!

We use the Baptist Hymn Book and our organ is first rate,

The prayers are always quite the best, and we never finish late.

The furnishings are in good taste, the best we can afford.

There’s only one thing missing – that’s the Spirit of the Lord!

On Monday there is Girls’ Brigade; on Tuesday it’s the lads.

On Wednesday night we meet for prayer, on Thursday it’s the dads.

On Friday night Young Wives and Choir, thus no group is ignored.

There’s only one thing missing – that’s the Spirit of the Lord!

If only we could shed our pride and learn humility,

And concentrate on Christ, instead of our ability.

By simply letting him take charge our faith would be restored

In the wonders of his saving power – through the Spirit of the Lord!

~ Peter Tongeman (1929-2009) 

Jim Binney

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