Growing up Baptist, hearing a sermon or lesson about Pentecost was rare. In fact, I can’t really remember much mention of it other than in historical context, often accompanied by a warning that gifts like tongues were dead and shouldn’t be sought after. Yesterday, a friend posed a question on Facebook asking if and how our churches celebrate Pentecost. It made me especially attentive to Pentecost themes in our worship service this morning. For those who don’t know, we’ve been attending an Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church for about six months. We haven’t made a decision on whether to join, but we’ve really enjoyed and been blessed by the thoughtfulness that we’ve seen in the design of the worship services. For one of the first times in my life, I’ve been excited about more than just the preaching and my reflection following the service has become more than a lunchtime critique of the sermon points. The following are some of the things that I noticed today accompanied by some of my thoughts and reflections.
“Day of Pentecost” was listed front and center in the order of worship handout followed by this quote for silent meditation:
May the very God of all, who spoke by the Holy Spirit through the Prophets, who sent the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles on the day of Pentecost in this place, send the Spirit at this time also upon you; and by him keep us also, imparting his benefit in common to us all, that we may ever render up the fruits of the Holy Spirit, in Christ Jesus our Lord; by whom and with whom, together with the Holy Spirit, be glory to the Father both now and forever, and for ever and ever. Amen.
Cyril of Jerusalem (386 A.D.)
I love that each week, there are quotes to reflect on that are relevant to the theme of the worship service. One of the things I’ve especially especially enjoyed about with this particular church is that the worship services have a connective thread running through them; from the song selections and prayers to the Scripture readings and sermon, there is a common theme. Opening the service, the pastor called attention to the Day of Pentecost as an important date in the church calendar and noted the use of red decorations and vestments as traditionally symbolic of the Holy Spirit. For someone who hasn’t grown up in traditions that use the church calendar and symbolism, it’s particularly helpful to have them acknowledged or explained. I think that adding a visual component to worship complements the hearing and speaking of the word.
The first act of corporate worship, a responsive reading, explicitly called attention to God’s gift of the Holy Spirit:
Minister The love of God has been poured into our hearts
Through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us;
People We dwell in him and he in us.
Minister Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his name;
Make known his deeds among the peoples.
People Sing to him, sing praises to him,
And speak of all his marvelous works.
This was followed by a hymn I wasn’t familiar with, “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart.” One of the things that I really appreciate about our church is the music. We frequently get introduced to hymns that I never heard in Baptist life. Here’s a video I found on Youtube that shares the lyrics:
This song in particular was written by Rev. George Croly, an Anglican minister who served St. Stephen’s Church in an impoverished area of London in the 1830s. At 74 years old, he prepared and published a collection of his own poems for worship. Originally titled, “Holiness Desired”, “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart” is the only surviving hymn from Croly’s collection and a perfect song to celebrate Pentecost.
Another aspect of our worship service that I really appreciate is a time of corporate confession which also followed the theme of the service. This week, the prayer read:
Our God, we come in humility, confessing who and what we are. We are often unresponsive, for we are afraid. When your Spirit speaks we turn deaf ears, for we fear what you might call us to do. When your Spirit touches our lips, we close our mouths, embarrassed to speak your Word. When the wind of your Spirit blows, we close the windows of our hearts, afraid the breeze will disrupt our ordered lives. When the fire of your Spirit touches us, we quench the flame, afraid of the new life it might bring. Forgive us O Lord. Amen.
This corporate prayer is accompanied by a time of silence for personal confession and then a Scripture reading of an assurance of God’s pardon. This week’s scripture was Ezekiel 36:24-28.
I will take you out of the nations;
I will gather you from all the countries.
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean.
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you;
I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees.
You will be my people, and I will be your God.
This time of confession closed in a prayer emphasizing the gift of God’s Spirit; “Friends in Christ: by the power of the Spirit, we are united with Christ and given a new spirit. Live in the joy and peace of that assurance.”
The New Testament Scripture reading for the week, Acts 2:1-28, the narrative of Pentecost, certainly fit the theme of the service. But it was the Old Testament reading, Ezekiel 37:1-14, chosen as the text for the sermon, which was especially captivating.
The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones,
And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry.
And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest.
Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.
Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live:
And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord.
So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone.
And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them.
Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.
So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.
Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts.
Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.
And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves,
And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the Lord have spoken it, and performed it, saith the Lord.
Life being breathed into dry bones, raising them from the grave is powerful imagery for the new life given through Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is also a wonderful picture of hope during times of spiritual depression. All too often, it seems that positive aspects of the faith are emphasized without acknowledging spiritual crisis. Some of my favorite Christian authors and pastors dealt with great spiritual depression. I appreciated that our pastor brought the topic into this sermon. He also mentioned St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul, to which I was first referred during my clinical pastoral education studies. For those who may not be familiar, it’s a wonderful resource for understanding spiritual crisis. In my Baptist experiences, spiritual depression seemed to be viewed as a consequence of lack of faith or sinfulness and therefore rarely addressed unless in a tone of condemnation. The pastor encouraged returning to the study of Scripture as a way to build up “kindling” for when the fire of the Holy Spirit comes that the experience may be brighter. It is refreshing to hear to topic addressed from a different perspective.
Following the sermon, we sang the hymn “Revive Thy Work, O Lord” and read the following taken from the Heidelberg Catechism:
In his divinity, majesty, grace and Spirit,
Christ is not absent from us for a moment.
By the Spirit’s power, we make the goal of our lives not earthly things
But the things above where Christ is,
Sitting at God’s right hand.
Through the Holy Spirit,
Christ pours out his gifts from heaven upon us his members.
The Spirit, as well as the Father and the Son, is eternal God.
The Spirit has been given to us personally
So that by true faith
The Spirit makes us share in Christ and all his blessings
Comforts us, and remains with us forever. Amen.
I can’t even begin to express how thrilled I am to be in a place where all of the elements of the worship service seem intentional and move me to a deeper understanding of God and his word.