May 20, 2018
In high school science class I learned Newton’s laws of motion. One law states that an object at rest will remain motionless unless an outside force moves it. For example, this book will stay motionless unless some force makes it move. Here is proof. [Let it drop.] What force moved this book? Yes, gravity. If there was no gravity, the book would have floated here, suspended in space, the same as you see astronauts floating in space where no gravity pulls them down. Let me give another example for those who have played or who have watched some swing a golf club. A golf ball sitting on a tee does not move unless a golf club clobbers it, or (as I well know from trying to hit one of those tiny balls) unless the wind from a whiff topples the ball. Objects will remain motionless unless some outside force moves it.
We can apply this law of motion in the physical realm to the spiritual realm as well. Our spirits, our souls remain inert, remain passive until some force moves them.
I have often heard Christians claim that God's Spirit has moved them. As the old African-American spiritual tune says, “Every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart, I will pray. Yes, every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart I will pray.” The song complies with the law of motion, for the assumption is that my heart remains inert until the Spirit moves me to pray. I have also heard Christians say that the Holy Spirit has moved them to send money to a missionary or to stand up, clap their hands and sing, or to become a minister, or to bring a home cooked meal to friends.
Even though I hear this claim frequently, I am still puzzled when Christians claim that the Holy Spirit has moved them. How can we be sure that it is truly the Holy Spirit moving the preacher on television asking us to send him money and not some desire for financial gain moving him to solicit donations? How can I be sure that it is God's Holy Spirit moving people in a lively worship service and not simply the exuberant performance of the musicians? How can we be sure that the Holy Spirit is moving in our lives or in our congregations?
The story in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles is a short documentary recording the first time that the Holy Spirit moved the followers of Jesus. That story is also the prototype of how God's Holy Spirit has moved Christians since. What the followers of Jesus experienced on Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit initially moved them, is an illustration of how the Holy Spirit still moves Christians and congregations today. According to the story in Acts chapter two, there are at least three distinguishing marks of a movement prompted by the Spirit of God.
First, when God's Spirit moves, God is honored. Jesus died during the Jewish celebration of their annual Passover festival. Shortly after he rose from the dead on what we call Easter, he commanded his closest followers to remain in Jerusalem until they received the infusion of the Holy Spirit. For the next fifty days, they followed orders. At the end of the fifty days they gathered to celebrate the next annual Jewish festival, known as the Feast of Weeks, of as it was called in Greek, the festival of Pentecost. On that particular Pentecost, Jesus’ small band of remaining followers gathered together in a large room. Suddenly above the din of their conversations, they noticed the sound of the wind picking up. Conversations quickly quieted. The din of the wind grew louder until the walls groaned under the onslaught of the gale force.
Someone cried out that a fire had broken out over their heads in the ceiling. Everyone ducked to hide from the flames, but to their amazement the walls did not catch on fire. With fire so near pandemonium erupted. In the chaos everyone started jabbering at once. Here a snatch of Aramaic, there a phrase of Hebrew, there a phrase in Greek, another in Latin. Suddenly everyone in the room was blabbering at the same time.
Wanting to escape from spreading fire, those inside started running out into the streets, babbling in languages they had never even studied or even heard. Onlookers, mostly foreigners in Jerusalem for the holidays, could not believe their ears. These native Judeans were carrying on conversations with them in their own obscure foreign languages! The crowds looked on aghast. They had never seen or heard anything like this before. Without even checking the Google translators on their smart phones, the foreigners got the point. They blurted out: "We can’t believe what we are hearing. This is an act of God. God has done great things!"
That was the first sign that the Holy Spirit was on the move. When God's Spirit moves, God should get the credit. The followers of Jesus had not taken crash courses on conversational foreign languages, so they could not take any credit for their own efforts. A force outside of themselves had enabled them. And they could no more take credit for the movement than a baseball clobbered by Aaron Judge could claim credit for flying out of the park. The laws of physics require that a body at rest will remain motionless unless a force moves it. And when that force moves it, the body cannot claim any credit for the results. Therefore the first distinguishing way to tell when God's Spirit is on the move is that, when the Holy Spirit moves a person or a church, God gets the credit.
The second feature of a genuine movement of God's Holy Spirit is that when God's Spirit moves, people are moved outward. When God's Spirit touches a person's life or touches a congregation, Christians cannot keep to themselves the gifts God gives to them. The Spirit moves people away from self-centeredness toward helping others.
As we heard in the story from Acts, on the day of Pentecost the followers of Jesus were gathered together in one place. Then they dramatically experienced the movement of the Holy Spirit on their gathering. The impact of the Holy Spirit literally and physically moved those gathered in the room out onto the streets. When the Spirit moved them, the congregation could not keep the force contained within the room.
I interpret this physical movement from the room to the street in a figurative way. When the Holy Spirit moves in a person or in a congregation, outward movement will follow. For the impact of the Holy Spirit is not reserved for Christians, rather the movement of the Spirit is intended also to benefit those outside the confines of the church. If the Holy Spirit genuinely moves a person or a congregation, people will move away from solely attending to their own needs, and move toward benefiting others: donating food to the hungry, raising money for at-risk teenagers, sharing the good news, visiting the sick, helping refugees, protecting and defending others.
A soul tends to be inert, unless acted upon by some force prompting it to move. Such force can come from rousing team spirit or a dangerous mob spirit. One distinguishing way to tell when God's Spirit is on the move is that, when the Holy Spirit moves a person or a church, God will get the credit. The second is that when the Holy Spirit moves people, they move out of their comfort zones in order to help others. The third is that when God's Spirit moves, lives are changed.
Back again to our prototype for the movement of God's Spirit as recorded in Acts chapter two. After the initial impact of God's spirit on Jesus’ followers, they went out into the streets. A crowd of bystanders quickly gathered to watch the spectacle of holy-roller Jews babbling on a street corner. Hecklers promptly gave their interpretation of the sidewalk production: "These Jews are buzzed. They are stone drunk."
What an embarrassing situation for a newly founded religion to be labeled at its first public appearance as a group of drunkards! Unless the Christians wanted to lose all their dignity in the public eye, someone had to speak up in their defense.
The one to come to their rescue was unexpectedly Peter. This same Peter had, on the night of Jesus' arrest and trial five weeks prior, publicly denied that he had any connection with Jesus not once, not twice, but three times. On Good Friday this same Peter had deserted Jesus’ cause. He had shown himself to be a coward. Yet, fifty days later, on Pentecost this same Peter stands up in front of another hostile crowd and defends Jesus.
The infusion of the Spirit changed Peter from a frightened coward to an outspoken advocate. The change in Peter is a pattern for how the Spirit moves people, how the Spirit still changes our lives. As you may have heard, God accepts us as we are, but loves us too much to let us remain as we are. Gently or forcefully, slowly or quickly, the Spirit pushes us away from our old ways toward new ways. The Spirit pushes us to battle our addictions rather than succumb to them, to control our anger rather than lose our temper, to bite our tongue rather than blurt out, to stand up for ourselves or others rather than submit to abuse, to forgive rather than strike back, to pray more and worry less, to stop hurting myself and start protecting my body.
A third distinguishing mark of a genuine movement of God's Holy Spirit is that when God's Spirit moves, lives are changed. Such change in our behavior goes along with another old African-American hynm, “I’m going-a sing when the Spirit says sing, I’m going-a sing when the Spirit says sing. I’m going-a sing when the Spirit says sing and obey the Spirit of the Lord.” Obeying the Spirit of the Lord implies that we change our behaviors, from what comes naturally to us to comply with what comes supernaturally from the Spirit.
Back to my original question: How can we know if the Holy Spirit is moving in our lives or in our congregations? From the story of how the Spirit moved on the first Pentecost, we can discern three criteria to identify when the Spirit is on the move first, God will get credit; second, people move outward to help others; and third, lives will change.
Remember that a body at rest will remain in place until a force sets it into motion. God’s Spirit is a force that sets us in motion, toward worship, toward service and toward change. When the Spirit came upon those disciples on that first Pentecost day, they sensed that a mighty wind was swirling around them. May the winds of the Spirit swirl around us, lifting us up, pushing us outward, and moving us ahead.