Day: January 10, 2009

Sermon: What Holy Spirit?

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Here’s my message for church today titled, What Holy Spirit? Let me know what you think.

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow from Acts 19:1-9.

What Holy Spirit?

Acts 19:1-9

1While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples2and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” 
      They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

 3So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” 
      “John’s baptism,” they replied.

 4Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. 6When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. 7There were about twelve men in all.

 8Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. 9But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.

A Strange Group of Believers

Paul is on his third missionary journey.  Like any person with years’ of experience in his field, Paul might have thought he had seen it all.  

  • Paul had seen Jewish believers demand that Gentiles become practicing Jews first, before they could become Christians.  The Council at Jerusalem settled that issue.
  • Paul had seen disagreements among colleagues, as he and Barnabas had parted company over John Mark.  
  • Paul had literally seen a vision of a man from Macedonia pleading with him to “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  So, Paul went to Macedonia.
  • Paul had seen God-fearers led by Lydia come to faith in Christ.  
  • Paul had seen the inside of the Philippian jail, endured an earthquake and watched the Philippian jailer and his entire family come to Christ.
  • Paul had debated in synagogues and public debate halls about the claims of Christ.  

So, Paul had seen it all, including Jesus himself on the road to Damascus.  Or at least Paul thought he had seen it all.  Until he came to Ephesus.  

In Ephesus, Paul found some “disciples.”  Paul had a way of seeking out those who were on the fringes of a community’s religious life.  He found Lydia and the God-fearers who met with her at a “place of prayer” that was probably avoided by Jews, but well-known to those who knew Lydia.  

So, when Paul gets to Ephesus he seeks out those who are not worshipping at the Temple of Artemis, which was one of the grandest temples in the civilized world. 

Debbie and I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee.  For Tennessee’s Centennial celebration, a grand exhibition was held.  Because so many institutions of learning were located in Nashville, the city became known as “the Athens of the South.”  Vanderbilt University endowed by railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt; Peabody College for Teachers; Belmont College; and a number of other institutions that no longer exist called Nashville home.

As part of the centennial celebration, the exhibition featured replicas of some of the greatest monuments in the world.  Memphis was represented with a replica of an Egyptian pyramid.  Nashville built an almost life-size replica of the Parthenon.  After the exhibition, all the other buildings came down, but Nashville rebuilt the Parthenon which still sits in the heart of Centennial Park today.  Any tour of Nashville today includes a ride through Centennial Park and a tour of the Parthenon.  

But imagine a temple much larger than the Parthenon.  A building so large and magnificent that it dwarfed all the other buildings around it.  A building so marvelous that it was acclaimed as an architectural wonder.  And worshippers so committed to its upkeep and maintenance that when the temple is destoyed in 550BC, the citizens of Ephesus rebuild it over 120-years.

So, to find anyone in Ephesus who was not a worshipper of Artemis was a miracle in itself.  But Paul found some “disciples” Luke tells us in Acts 19.  

What Baptism?

Paul asks them if they have received the Holy Spirit since they were baptized.  Their reply is an honest question — “What Holy Spirit?  We don’t even know if there is a Holy Spirit?”  

Paul then asks, “Whose baptism were you baptized with?”  Their answer: John’s.  We know they mean John the Baptist because Paul responds by saying to them that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance.  

Remember the words of John in Matthew’s gospel — “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”  Thousands came out to the desert because they were weary of the corruption of the Pharisees, scribes, Sadduccees, chief priest, and all of the religious leaders.  

John’s call to repentance was not a repentance from individual sin.  It was repentance from failing to be the people of God.  It was repentance from practicing the form of religion, going through the motions of religion, with no spiritual meaning.  

Many think John  the Baptist was a part of the Essene community, the ascetic community who fled Jerusalem because of its corruption.  We are indebted to the Essenes for the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran.  

So, John’s repentance was a call to leave the religion of Jerusalem — literally by going to the desert — and turn their hearts truly toward God.

Perhaps these Ephesian believers were God-fearers at first.  God-fearers were not Jews, but they sought to worship the one true God, the God of Israel.  Perhaps these Ephesians were not only God-fearers, but were also aware of the ministry of John, and perhaps the Qumran Essenes as well.  In any event, they were disciples of John, not Jesus.  

Paul carefully points them to Jesus, saying that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, but that in addition John said they should follow the one who came after him, Jesus.  

On hearing this, they then were baptized in the name of Jesus.  After their baptism, Paul lays his hands on them and they receive the Holy Spirit, speak in tongues, and prophesy.  I imagine they know for certain then that there is a Holy Spirit!

What’s The Point?

Now imagine that you’re one of these Ephesian followers of John.  You want to serve God, the one true God, not Artemis.  You hear about John’s ministry, and you do what John tells you.  You are baptized because you want to leave the meaningless ritual life and find the real God of Israel.

And that’s where you stop.  And you think you’ve arrived.  You think you have done everything you need to do in order to serve God.  But all the while the gigantic temple of Artemis looms over the city of Ephesus.  Artemis dominates the culture and the economy.  Paul gets in trouble with Demetrius, a silversmith who makes silver shrines of Artemis and sells them.  Apparently, Paul is cutting into his profits, affecting his suppliers, and wrecking the tourist trade and the local economy.  

So, the worshippers of Artemis wield great power.  They control the city, the economy, and the culture.  If you worship any other God, you do it quietly, secretly, unobtrusively just to stay out of trouble.

But when the Holy Spirit comes, everything changes.  You experience gifts of the Spirit — speaking in tongues and prophesy.  You are able to boldly proclaim the whole counsel of God in languages you did not learn, with a boldness you did not possess before.  

Now do you begin to see the point?  Just as the Spirit came at Pentecost, he comes to believers at every location where the gospel takes root.  He empowers, he emboldens, he equips.  This is the Spirit of whom Jesus said, “I will send the Paraclete” — the one called alongside you — to tell you what to say.  To comfort you.  To be your companion, even as Jesus was their companion for three years.

No longer will the Ephesians, or any believers, have to hide as the disciples did before Pentecost.  No longer will the followers of Jesus have to live in fear and timidity.  Some will die, some will suffer, but all will be equipped and empowered with the very presence of God himself, the Holy Spirit.

What Holy Spirit?

But what of us?  We are living in a world that is increasingly secular, pluralistic, and in conflict.  Christians no longer hold center stage in the public arena.  If anything, we are an increasingly ignored voice.  Popular culture will make more allowances for Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems, and atheists than it does for Christians right now.  We are living in the new Ephesus where other gods dominate the skyline.

What is our response as believers?  Often we act like we have never heard of the Holy Spirit.  We bemoan the loss of Christian values, and yet we do little to maintain those values in our own Christian communities.  Evangelical Christians divorce and have extra-marital sex at the same, or higher, rates than the general population.  

We are missing the same thing the Ephesians were missing — the power of the resurrected Christ realized in the coming of the Holy Spirit.  

Do we have to speak in tongues or prophesy in words that we have not imagined?  No, but we do need the powerful presence of God to break into our lives, to equip and embolden us.  

We need the Holy Spirit to convict us of our own sin.  We need the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to the needs of others.  We need the Holy Spirit to move mountains, heal diseases, raise the dead, calm the storms, and change our hearts.

In short, we act just like the Ephesians: We do not even know if there is a Holy Spirit.

If everything we do in this church can be planned by our own minds, then we do not know if there is a Holy Spirit.

If everything we do in this church can be explained, then we do not know if there is a Holy Spirit.

If the only changes we see are the ones we bring about, then we do not even know if there is a Holy Spirit.

We, like the Ephesians, need to be equipped, empowered, and emboldened by the Spirit of God.  We need to know that without the Spirit, nothing we do will last.  We need the conviction that without the Spirit our religious practice is as meaningless as that of the Pharisees and Saduccees.  We need the power of the Holy Spirit to fill us to the overflowing with God’s love, so that we cannot help but find ways to give that love away in this town, to our neighbors, and to this world.

Have you received the Holy Spirit since you were baptized?  The answer to that question might surprise you.