This is a sermon for the third Sunday of Easter. The Scripture it references is Acts 3:12-20.
When I was first an Anglican – first going to church, in fact – I started off in a parish where the charismatic movement had had a big impact. They loved the book of Acts there; all that speaking in tongues, and miraculous signs; that sense of the Holy Spirit being really present and active and doing stuff in our lives, our community and our world. The days when someone could preach a sermon and five thousand people would be baptised in response. And the idea that we, too, could be part of it all; we could be caught up in the next big wave of revival.
It was heady stuff. And if it was – like all traditions – occasionally out of balance in its particular obsessions, it definitely had strengths as well.
I was thinking about that, this week, as I prepared to preach on this morning’s reading from Acts. You see, there’s that phrase that Peter uses, “times of refreshing,” to describe what it’s like when our lives know the presence of the Lord. Those charismatics knew about “times of refreshing;” they talked about them, sang about them, and thought that was what we should be aiming for in the Christian life; that moment when the Holy Spirit flowed through you, healing, shaping and preparing you for what God was about to do next. So the phrase jumped out at me off the page.
But it left me wondering, for those of us who are not charismatic, and who don’t really understand that movement… do we experience the same thing, but just use different language for it? Or are there some things we just don’t quite experience in the same way at all?
Or to put that another way, how do we translate the charismatic experience, to make sense of it for people who aren’t part of that?
Let’s start here. The Holy Spirit doesn’t play favourites, and isn’t living and active only in the charismatic movement. The more spectacular charismatic gifts – like speaking in tongues, or prophecy, or deliverance ministry – aren’t the hallmarks of being really, truly and properly Christian. (That might sound obvious, but sometimes, it needs to be said).
It seems to me that if the Holy Spirit sets off fireworks in charismatic gatherings, in other settings His work is more like a soft glow; gentle, consistent, warm. Much less exciting, maybe; but also more tending to work gradually over a long time, rather than going for instantaneous personal breakthroughs. More catholic folks tend to look for the inward grace of the Holy Spirit to be at work in them over time as they worship, receive the sacraments, and seek God in their hearts; often looking for God in quiet and retreat rather than large and noisy gatherings.
But in both settings we see the change in people over time. We see the fruit of the Spirit becoming more apparent, as people become more loving, more joyful, more gentle, and so on. Same Spirit at work, same outcome, just a very different experience as we get there. Take that as a sign of God’s graciousness in working with each of us in the way that’s right for us personally, if you like.
If there’s a big difference between the two traditions, I think it’s actually this; the charismatics are very individualistic. You might be in a crowd, but when the Holy Spirit’s at work, you might as well be alone in that crowd, because it’s all about what the Spirit is doing in that one individual believer. But a more catholic tradition, especially one that looks to communion as a high point of God’s presence and work in us, is much more communal. Just as one person can’t – not even a priest – celebrate communion on his or her own, our tradition has more of a sense of the Holy Spirit being at work in us as a community, and through each other and our relationships with one another, just as much as what’s going on in the secret places of a single person’s heart.
And this is the bit that tends to get overlooked in the more individualistic traditions; the verbs in the reading today aren’t singular in form, they’re plural. We can’t tell the difference in English, but we might gloss what Peter’s saying as “all of you repent… and all of you turn to God.” Not each one of you individually, but all of us as a community, need to be engaged in this process if we’re to really know what it is to have “times of refreshing.”
It’s a time of enormous change in the parish, some of it chosen, and some of it thrust upon us unwillingly. We’ve lost people we care about, to death and because they’ve moved away. We don’t yet know who God might send to join us. Old patterns of parish life and ministry are ending and new ones are struggling to emerge. I suspect for some of us it feels anything but refreshing, but rather threatening, or at least anxiety-inducing.
But the promise is that if we keep turning to Christ, repenting of our follies and sins; if we keep our focus where it belongs, there will be times of refreshing. We may not be able to predict what that refreshing will look like or feel like, or what form it will take, but God is always at work, making things new, drawing people into communities of believers. Maybe not five thousand at a time, the way they did after this sermon of Peter’s; but steadily nonetheless.
I know this is the bit that often seems less than obvious. Are people out there really interested in being part of this kind of church? Even if we do everything right, is anyone going to want to come?
But this, actually, is the part of my story that gives me hope when I think about that question. I wasn’t raised going to church. I wasn’t baptised until I was twenty-two. But I came into the church because I knew that I wanted more of God, somehow, than I could experience on my own; and I found what I wanted in the church. I’ve known other young people with similar stories; coming to church, wanting something “more,” not even sure what, maybe, but determined to look for it. Those people are out there, wanting more; a vague, undefined more, perhaps, and they may have no idea where to look for it; but we – the church, the community in which God is at work – are what they need, even if they don’t know it yet. We don’t have to create that desire in them, we just have to respond to it.
Our times of refreshing come when we turn to Christ and seek to make Him the focus of all that we do, together as a parish. For other people, their times of refreshing will come as they discover Christian community and the Spirit that’s at work in and through the Church. But what we can be confident about is that those times of refreshing will come, and the charismatics had one thing very right; we ought to be preparing for those times before they get here. We do that by repenting, turning to God and getting our spiritual house in order; by expecting God to be at work, and looking to cooperate with that work. And remembering that this is not an individualistic thing, but something we need to be on about together.
I’m not even going to say that I have all the answers as to what that should be like, because it’s something we need to discover by doing it; but I am going to say that it’s something we need to take seriously, as we expect and hope that God will be active in our midst.