One of the tombstones in this church (St Mary’s Avington) celebrates the life of the Marchioness of Carnarvon. She was clearly loved desperately by her husband who lists her piety and many virtues. One of her listed virtues stands out for me: She is described as being ‘religious without enthusiasm’!
This is language which is very strange to us now, but in the 18th century ‘enthusiasm’ was a pejorative word to describe the followers of John Wesley whose movement within the Anglican church was seen as such a threat by country rectors that he was denied pulpits all over England. And he was thus forced to preach in the fields. It was Wesley’s movement which became Methodism and eventually was forced to separate from the Anglican church.
Today is Pentecost and it is the work of the Holy Spirit, whose presence at the first Pentecost we celebrate today and our reading in Acts (see below) was all about.
It was the presence of the Holy Spirit who changed the terrified and defeated disciples of Jesus Christ as we heard in Acts 1 so that Peter is brave enough to preach the divinity of Christ to the crowd….the same crowd who called crucify for blasphemy only 50 days before on Good Friday and it was fear of that crowd that drove Peter to deny Jesus three times.
It was the presence of the Holy Spirit who changed the terrified disciples into an unstoppable fearless movement which over the next 300 years took over the Roman Empire which executed Jesus.
It was also the presence of the Holy Spirit which transformed Wesley’s ministry and turned him, from a person seeking a ‘method’ to achieve holiness, to being seen as an ‘enthusiast’: essentially someone who had experienced an emotional encounter with the Holy Spirit and thus ‘knew Christ’ in his heart….and not just intellectually in his mind or in his disciplined religious practice.
And it was because of this ‘enthusiasm’ that Methodism exploded across England during an incredible 50 years of his ministry including preaching to completely unchurched miners coming off shift in Bristol to such effect that tears ran down their faces creating lines on their faces through the coal dust.
Some historians say that Methodism had such a profound effect on England in the second half of the eighteenth century, which was deep in the grip of the social turmoil caused by the industrial revolution that an equivalent of the French Revolution did not occur here. So, paradoxically, the Marquess of Carnarvon, the husband of the dead lady whose tombstone is there was probably saved from the guillotine by the effects of ‘enthusiasm’.
You see it is not difficult to be religious because it does not involve us in giving up control. Because being religious focuses on external things – things which may be good in themselves but are really only the surface. Religion focuses on things which can be SEEN.
Religion is being pious… with all the baggage of hypocrisy that that word can carry.
Religion can at worst be done to be seen by others.
Religion focuses on things which can be just superficial: attending church services; saying prayers by rote; even giving to the poor; giving to the church and being kind to our neighbours. All these things are good….or can be, but the real question is what is going on in our hearts? Do we insist on remaining in control? Or are we willing to give control over to the Holy Spirit?
How can we say that we really love Jesus if we are not willing to give his messenger control of our lives?
If we do love Jesus then probably we will do many of these things we have spoken about but it will be because of an outpouring of love for Jesus not to be seen or known for our piety, as someone who is religious.
Theologian John Stott has written:
‘Without the Holy Spirit, Christian discipleship is….impossible. There can be no life without the life-giver, no understanding without the Spirit of truth, no fellowship without the unity of the Spirit, no Christlikeness of character apart from His fruit and no effective witness without his power’. As a body without breath is a corpse, so the church without the Spirit is dead’….
And the arrival of the Holy Spirit was predicted in the Old Testament by the prophet Joel 2:28: ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people, your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions….’ And in Ezekiel 36:26: ‘I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh’.
Religion is empty and dead. Without the Holy Spirit, our hearts are of stone…
It is futile to be religious without enthusiasm. We cannot be Christian disciples without enthusiasm, without the Holy Spirit.
We need to be willing to allow the Holy Spirit to speak to our emotions.
We need to be willing to open our hearts to His presence, whatever changes He brings to us.
This Pentecost lets pray that our hearts are opened and the hearts of our friends and neighbours are opened to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the Lord will make incredible things happen through us…..
Acts of the Apostles Chapter 2
The Coming of the Holy Spirit
1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
Peter Addresses the Crowd
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’