I Will Pour Out My Spirit Upon All Flesh
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.
It is one of those oddities of church history. We have what are known as C and E Christians; people whose worship two times in the year swelling the ranks in the church pews on Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday. I wonder, however, why this phenomenon never extended to include Pentecost; in other words, why no C, E and P Christians? Today is Pentecost Sunday; the Sunday the church celebrates its birthday, in a manner of speaking.
Theologically speaking Christmas and Easter exist for the sake of Pentecost. Pentecost, after all, was the occasion when there was fulfilled everything that Jesus had promised his followers concerning the Spirit, everything Jesus had promised concerning the Spirit’s application of Christ’s earthly achievement. You see, if there were no church empowered by the Spirit of God to make the good news of Jesus Christ known, no one would know about Christmas and Easter.
I think we Christians have a rather small view of what God is doing through the church in making his love known. Last March we saw a video of a minister explaining to someone else what he does; his description painted a grand vision of the nature of the church. Let us take a moment as see it again.
1. Jesus had said to his disciples “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) There were 120 of Jesus’ followers gathered together on that Pentecost day; I wonder what they thought “being witnesses to the ends of the earth” would look like. Would any of them imagine the magnitude of the church’s influence in our world today? Do we appreciate the power of the Spirit of God to make such come to pass?
I serve with a team of people on the Markham Prayer Breakfast committee; our work is to plan an annual prayer breakfast event bringing people together to pray for leaders. We have a list of churches we contact and there are approximately sixty churches in Markham on that list. These represent churches from the spectrum of Christian denominations and they vary in size. Consider Sunday worship for a moment—if we were to assume that on average there are eighty people on each of these churches for worship then there are approximately 5000 people in Markham attending a service of the worship of our Lord today. It is likely a much larger number than this very conservative and rough estimate. But think about this. What sort of events would draw 5000 people in Markham on a weekly basis? I say this to you to point out that the influence of Jesus Christ in our world is much greater than we think.
But think further. Any church that has eighty people sitting in its pews on any given Sunday is drawing from a group of people two to three times that size who are connected to that congregation as their place of worship. This is to say, as a rule of thumb, that if we have 100 people at church on a Sunday there are another 100 to 200 who consider Central United their place of worship who are not here. Staying with numbers for a moment, I recently read an article from an organization called Leadership Network on the growing trend of what are being called megachurches. These are Protestant churches with 2000 or more average weekly attendees. In Canada and the United States 1 in 10 Protestants worship in a megachurch each Sunday. The largest church in the world is the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea with 480,000 weekly attendees.
With those numbers in mind let us come at this same group of people called the church from another angel of vision. Believers become believers one at a time. I have the great privilege of hearing people’s personal stories of how they came to faith. I spoke with a young mother not long ago about her decision to be baptized into faith in Jesus Christ. I asked the question of how she came to this place of seeking baptism. Her story was as individual as yours would be; she spoke of events and people and experiences in the course of her life unique to her along this path to faith. In hindsight it was easy to see the invisible hand of God all along the way ever pointing to faith.
I love to hear these stories. I read recently the personal story of theologian Dr. Guillaume Bignon who titled his account How a French Atheist Becomes a Theologian. He concluded his story by saying, “This, in short, is how God takes a French atheist and makes a Christian theologian out of him. I was not looking for God; I neither sought him nor wanted him. He reached out, loved me while I was still a sinner, broke my defenses, and decided to pour out his undeserved grace—that his Son might be glorified, and that I might be saved from my sin by grace through faith, and not by works. It is the gift of God, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:8–9). That’s the gospel, and it’s good news worth believing.”
Bringing these two angles of vision of the church together—the numbers and that each believe comes to faith one at a time—you begin to see the wonder of the existence of the church. Of the 5000 or so people in churches in Markham this day; every last one of them has a story of God’s personal engagement in their lives. You may be able to point to an event or an encounter that was a particular turning point but hindsight reveals that there were a lot of others things happening under the radar, so to speak, that facilitated that day being a turning point. We call this, theologically, prevenient grace—the grace that goes before.
When Luke tells this story of the beginning of the church he is writing likely about thirty years after these events take place. He is writing for the church and in this story reminds readers of how the church came into being; of who it is that gives life to the church; how it is that the church came to be focused on certain activities. In telling the story of Pentecost day Luke wants to be clear that the church exists by the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus promised his disciples “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Peter explains the events of Pentecost, which led to people hearing the good news about Jesus in their native language, by citing the prophet Joel where God promises “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” This is Luke`s point as he recounts the beginning of the church. The church then and now exists by the gift of the Spirit of God. Every one of these stories we tell of how we came individually to faith is an instance of God pouring out his Spirit on all flesh.
I wonder sometimes if our technologically-saturated world has made it appear as if the world has been drained of mystery; as if everything I need to know about existence I can Google, now, as I stand on this street corner. Couple this with things like a recent ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada that ordered the city council of Saguenay, Quebec to stop reciting a prayer before meetings; is it as if spiritual talk is now ruled out of bounds for public life. And so Christians often find themselves in their public life with a whole part of their vocabulary shut down when it comes to living life.
The effect is that most people insist that the material is real. To be sure, Christians would never deny that the material is actual. Trees and mountains, buildings and bridges are not imaginary. Nonetheless, Christians would also insist that there is a spiritual dimension to the creation much deeper than trees and mountains. Some people would argue that the realm of aesthetics is more real than the real of the material. Music that lifts the soul and transcends moments, art that makes it seem you are being drawn into the scene depicted: all of this is oceans deeper than sticks and stones. Oceans deeper that it may be, it is yet not deep enough: the really deep depths everywhere in the creation are not finally aesthetic; they are finally spiritual. Earth is shot through and through with spirituality.
Perhaps you saw the March 30th issue of Maclean`s magazine. The front cover had a portrait of Jesus advertising the feature article Jesus Saves! (Seriously). The article declared that “the science is in: God is the answer.” The article featured research by Lisa Miller the director of clinical psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Her research showed that “kids raised with spirituality are happier and healthier in the vulnerable teen years.” Miller further noted that “Spiritually connected teens are, remarkably, 60 per cent less likely to suffer from depression than adolescents who are not spiritually oriented.”
You might think that such research would result in people streaming into churches. The gospel stories indeed show when Jesus encountered those of broken being he healed them. Believers have long been acquainted with the help of God’s Spirit at times of difficulty. We look back understanding the some events would have been our undoing except we knew ourselves carried by our Saviour. We know the truth of which Paul speaks, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” (Romans 8:26) And so we are not surprised by the findings of this psychological research. Indeed this prophesy of Joel continues to unfold “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”
As Luke tells this story we see other things about the establishment of the church. It was established by the gift of the spirit of God through preaching. On the day of Pentecost Peter stood to his feet and announced the good news regarding Jesus Christ. Preaching isn’t simply a communication methodology best suited for Sunday worship. Good news to be good must be announced to be good in every way. Unannounced good news is a contradiction of the meaning of good.
In anticipation of Pentecost Jesus told his disciples, “The Spirit will convict/convince (the one Greek word means both ‘convict’ and ‘convince’) the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement: concerning sin, because they don’t believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father…; concerning judgement, because the ruler of this world is judged.” (John 16:8)
We must be sure to understand something crucial here: only the Spirit can genuinely convince people of the truth of God. On the day of Pentecost Peter preached a sermon that was boring by anyone’s standards. The sermon had no illustrations, and no “catchy” title. Half of Peter’s sermon was a lengthy quotation from the older testament. When Peter had finished quoting a book already hundreds of years old he began accusing his hearers. Accusing people antagonizes them, makes them resentful and angry. Therefore the only reaction Peter’s sermon could ever generate was sleepy-eyed boredom followed by resentful anger.
But this wasn’t how hearers reacted to Peter. Instead they were “cut to the heart”, we are told, and cried out, “What are we going to do?” They certainly weren’t bored; neither were they angry. Their Spirit-quickened response demonstrated that they knew the truth regarding Jesus life, death and resurrection.
Friends when we hear the good news of Jesus announced and in our hearts there resonates that convincing that what we hear is true, the day of Pentecost is happening again. “… this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”