On May 24, 1738 John Wesley writes in his journal,
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” (John Wesley’s Journal, Date: May 24, 1738)
John Wesley recorded this experience in his journal as proof that God works through us and uses the Spirit of God to not only bring us into relationship, but to continually open our eyes to God’s redeeming grace. Today, May 24th, we in the Methodist tradition celebrate what is known as Aldersgate Day. It is the day which John Wesley had this experience and we, 277 years later, see this as an example of the experiential faith that we have. We look at this moment from John Wesley’s history to help us to understand God’s presence in our lives, and the manner in which we experience God.
However, this year we have an interesting coincidence. It doesn’t happen often, but it is interesting how this year Aldersgate Day coincides with the Church’s celebration of Pentecost, because there are lots of similarities and lessons we can take away from both experiences. One of which, that we are going to be looking at today, is just that. It is about experiencing God. As I have already mention we practice an experiential faith. A faith in which we, nor God, remains dormant in any way, but one in which both we and God are doing works towards and for each other. A faith in which we experience God, but in a way God experiences us as well. Pentecost is all about the experiential nature of God, not only is it the birthday of the church, but it becomes the basis of this new religious belief. A church that is begun with a group of Jesus’ disciples experience God.
Hear again the first four verses from Acts 2,
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 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. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 2:1-4)
Sounds like quite an experience to me. Imagine if you will for a second that you are one of the people sitting in that room and all the sudden there is this sound that fills the room. Then tongues of fire come down onto each of them. Then it says they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and through the power of the Holy Spirit miraculous signs of the Spirit’s presence were seen and observed by those present. You could really tell from the feel of the room that God was with these people…or they were drunk, but Peter clears that up for us and indicates it is truly God acting in these people.
In the Pentecost story we have a group of people who have an experience of God that begins a movement…In fact if you think about it and look back this has been a season of experiences. This time in our liturgical season we reflect on many experiences of the early disciples had with God and what those mean about the experiences in our own faith.
It doesn’t seem that long ago. Three months or so ago amidst a snowy week and forced to cancel services we began Lent. We began an experiential journey. These experiences linking our understanding of where our faith comes from. These experiences laying down our foundation. This journey started on what we celebrate as Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. A time where we come together and begin this season of fasting. We acknowledge God, and God’s presence in the forthcoming journey. This begins the forty days, not including Sunday, that lead us through this season.
As we come through the season we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Then in the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, the crucifixion on Good Friday, and then the joyful and hallelujah filled celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter. However, the journey doesn’t end there, on Easter, but continues on in the season of Easter. Jesus is resurrected from the dead, and we are called to experience and understand Jesus’ resurrection. All the way to the celebration of the Ascension, which we celebrated last week. Finally it is now ten days later and the journey, of this liturgical season, comes to a close, and all of this culminates with this experience that shows that global personal connection God has with us.
It is a season of experiences. Experiences for the disciples as they went on this journey with Jesus. These help us to understand our experiences, and one of those experiences that we focus in on is the personal experience we have with God. That personal experience we have is found through the story of Pentecost.
This week we celebrate Pentecost, and we look at the final experience in this liturgical season and reflect on what it means in our lives. This celebration in fact proves we have an experiential faith. We don’t just live. We don’t just exist, but we experience God and life. We experience love, grace, and mercy…We experience God, and we can experience God through the working of the Holy Spirit.
Luke noted the importance of this experience in Acts. Paul even points to the importance of an experiential faith in his letters. Even John Wesley uses his experience at Aldersgate to show us that we are a faith that experiences God.
The Holy Spirit is this phenomenal being in whom we have been given this personal experience with God. God is revealed through the Spirit. We experience God’s love through the Spirit. Throughout scripture we read that the Spirit is the vessel by which God and the earth unite. The Holy Spirit was introduced to us, personally, during Pentecost. However, the Spirit shows up long before that in many different ways.
Listen to this passage from Genesis 1, this is the New Revised Standard Version, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1, NRSV) Find the Spirit? Maybe this one will help you. This is the New International Versions, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” (Genesis 1:1, NIV)
There it is…that word Spirit. In Hebrew the word used is ruach. Ruach in Hebrew has a few different meanings. It means breath, wind or spirit. In greek this same word is pneuma. This is God’s Spirit. The Spirit is part of God, and connects with us and all of creation. As we see here in Genesis the Spirit of God is present in creation. We are introduced in the bible to the Spirit as something that is life giving, and something that is experiential. Through God’s Spirit all of creation is given life, and through God sending the Spirit during Pentecost life is given to the church.
Bottom line the Holy Spirit is something that we are meant to experience, and experience wholly. Much like God intended from the beginning for us to experience Godly presence with us. What we take from this Pentecost story is this experiential faith we are a part of.
I remember the first time I, in my own heart, accepted my call to ministry. I remember sitting alone in a corner of the athletic center at Randolph-Macon, before I went there for college. I was on a spiritual retreat about listen to God’s call in our lives. I remember being deeply ensconced in prayer. I was reading through a ritual prayer that had been handed out as we started, and all the sudden I felt overwhelmed. I felt as though I couldn’t control myself and I broke down and felt myself completely surrender to God…even now I have trouble actually describing what happened. It can be so difficult to describe what happens. Often times we don’t think it is really God acting or even sometimes our human language just doesn’t have the words to describe it.
All can say now, looking back, is that I experienced God. I could feel God calling me, and letting me know I couldn’t escape it.
Wesley knew this experiential idea in his faith. His Aldersgate experience shows us that he longed to experience God. Even Pentecost teaches us this. Jesus promises us that we will experience God through the Holy Spirit. That manner in which God first revealed and created the world.
However, unfortunately we often shirk away these Godly experiences. We say they can’t happen to us. We only see them occur in the holy fits and speaking in tongues we observe in Pentecostal churches. However, God works amongst all Christians. God does not choose and only allow few, but everyone can experience God. Some people interpret it as sheer luck, or simply as a passing breeze blowing their way.
We need to be more attentive Andy recognize The Spirit’s presence in our lives. We need to recognize the experiential role of God as we journey through faith. We have examples of this happening. In fact Jesus said it must happen he told the disciples to stay put and lock themselves away until they had received the Holy Spirit…until they had experienced God.
I cannot tell you how you will or can experience God, but I tell you to open yourself up to these experiences. Open up that relationship with God. Allow God to be central in your life. Turn to God both in times of praise and in times of prayer. Recognize God’s acting in your life. Recognize when the Spirit is present and working.
God is there…always…you just have to recognize it.