|John Wimber, 1934-1997|
Twenty five years ago I saw a video of John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard Church, telling this story. Wimber had been a musician playing the Las Vegas (NV-USA) circuit when he was invited to join The Righteous Brothers. He was, in his own words, ‘a beer-guzzling, drug-abusing pop musician’, who was then converted to Christianity at the age of 29 while chain-smoking his way through a Quaker-led Bible study.
Wimber started reading the Bible and couldn’t get enough of it. He was particularly drawn to the life-changing miracles he found in the Gospels and in Acts. After one particularly dull Presbyterian service (full disclosure: I was a Presbyterian most of my life and an ordained Presbyterian minister for 22 years. I can vouch for the truth of that statement!), Wimber struck up a conversation with one of the leaders in the back after the service.
‘When do we get to do the stuff?’ he asked. ‘You know, the stuff here in the Bible; the stuff Jesus did, like healing the sick, raising the dead, healing the blind - stuff like that?’
The man didn’t know quite how to respond. ‘Um, we don’t do those things anymore. We sing hymns and listen to prayers and the pastor preaches.’
To which Wimber replied: ‘You mean I gave up drugs for that?’
Have you noticed that wherever Jesus is, things happen? Men and women leave their former lives behind to follow him. People who are blind have their sight restored, both spiritually and physically. The sick are healed. People who are dead are raised to life and given back to their loved ones. Men and women who are overwhelmed by their sins are forgiven and shown the way of repentance. The men and women who are tormented by demons are set free. People who are poor are helped and have good news proclaimed to them.
And in the rest of the New Testament we see the same thing. In the name of Jesus the Apostles and first Christians point people to Jesus and find men and women in their hundreds leaving their former lives behind so that they too can follow Jesus and be his disciple. Christians pray in the name of Jesus and the lame are healed, the sick are restored to health, the dead are raised, the demonized are set free, and the churches fill with men and women who want to know Jesus and who want to become His follower.
But I have a question for you. When was the last time you saw a blind person given their sight in a church? When was the last time you saw a sick person healed in the name of Jesus? When was the last time you saw a demon-possessed person set free by the power of Jesus’ name? When was the last time we witnessed genuine repentance in our churches as men and women responded to the call and love of Christ?
Part of our problem is that we are surrounded by false churches and false prophets and false apostles who make huge claims and say that people have been healed under their ministries or delivered or even raised from he dead. But if you listen to what they are actually saying, all the glory goes to them and to their own abilities as a so-called man or woman of God. If the Holy Spirit were really at work through them, then all the glory would go to Jesus. You can be sure that if people’s attention is being directed to Jesus through preaching or teaching or any kind of ministry, that the Holy Spirit is at work in that place and in the lives of those people. Because it is simply what the Holy Spirit does, to direct your attention and mine to Jesus and to magnify Jesus in our eyes and heart and mind. This is the purpose of genuine and legitimate acts of healing and deliverance, of genuine renewal and revival - when the Holy Spirit is behind it, we see Jesus, we are drawn to Jesus, we love Jesus more, we become more and more like Jesus.
Our great problem today when it comes to these things is that the devil is able to counterfeit just about everything that passes for a miracle among Christians today. The devil can do miracles. The devil can put on a show and cast out demons. The devil can heal. The devil can speak in tongues. The devil can take possession of someone and make them fall to the floor. The only thing the devil cannot do, will not do, is glorify Christ, the devil will not do anything that makes you love Christ more. The devil will not do anything that empowers you to love your neighbor.
Sometimes I wonder if, in reacting to all the wrong ways, all the abuses going on in churches around us, that we Orthodox Christians have decided to have nothing to do with the Holy Spirit and his power and works in our lives and ministry. Sometimes it seems to me we have thrown out the baby with the bath water. And so to escape the mistakes of others, we now ignore what the Holy Spirit can do, and wants to do in our hearts, in our lives, in our church. And as a result, our churches are spiritually barren. We have services, we have sacraments, but we ourselves are like the walking dead. Except for attending our services, our lives are pretty much no different from the pagans who live around us. Except for church, many of us don’t really pray. Almost none of us fast. None of us go to confession. Many of us don’t really trust Jesus for anything. And if I asked you how does one become a Christian, hardly any of us would know what to say.
When Jesus called us to follow Him and become His disciple, this sort of Sunday Christianity is not what he has in mind. When Jesus says, on this Rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it - ours is not the Church that Jesus has in mind. There is no difference between today and when Jesus was walking from village to village teaching and preaching and healing and delivering people from the devil. There is no difference between today and when the apostles were preaching and teaching and healing and delivering people in Jesus name. The same Holy Spirit that they had is the very same Holy Spirit that is with us. The only difference is that they actually believed Jesus could make a difference in their lives and the lives of the people around them. They asked the Holy Spirit to fill them and use them to glorify Jesus, and they gave themselves to loving God with everything they had, and loving their neighbor with everything they had.
When I was a teenager, the Presbyterian church where I had grown up and become a Christian began to experience renewal. The pastor and members began reading the gospels and the rest of the New Testament with new eyes - they saw that God gave his Holy Spirit specifically to empower each of us individually and the church as a whole to love Christ more and more and to be his love in the lives of the people around us. That’s why the Holy Spirit gave spiritual gifts, to empower this love. And people began praying and asking God to fill them with the Holy Spirit and to give them the spiritual gifts that would empower them to love Christ and do the ministries He was calling them to do. As a result, people became Christians, especially a number of young people like me. And there were several dramatic instances where the Holy Spirit intervened in someone’s life to direct everyone’s attention to Jesus. Let me tell you about Betty.
Betty was a member of our church. She and my mother helped with our youth group by preparing supper for us every Sunday night. She was the mother of four sons, the two younger ones were friends of mine. Her husband, Ray, was an Ob-Gyn, but he really disliked Christianity and never came to church. Betty began to experience some alarming symptoms and went to the doctor. Tests discovered a large tumor in her bowels. The prognosis did not look good. They scheduled emergency surgery for 7 AM the next morning.
Betty asked if the pastor and his wife and some of the church leaders would come and pray. That night at about 8 pm they had a prayer meeting in her hospital room. My mom was there. The pastor anointed Betty with oil and they asked God to heal her. And then they went home.
The next morning, they put Betty under and the surgeon began what he assumed would be a straight-forward operation to remove a tumor from Betty’s lower intestine. But when he opened her up, he couldn’t find it. There was no abnormal growth, no tumor, no nothing. He looked and looked and finally he had to close her up.
Betty was in the recovery room with her husband Ray as the anesthesia wore off. The surgeon came in to explain what he had done, and he said, ‘I’m sorry - when I went in to remove the tumor, there was nothing there. I had the x-rays which pinpointed where I would find it, but it wasn’t there. I looked and looked and there was nothing to find. So I simply had to close you up.’ Betty was stunned. And her husband Ray was speechless. He was a doctor and he knew just how serious Betty’s condition had been. Betty gave glory to God. She told the surgeon and Ray about the prayer meeting and that they had prayed last night that she be healed.
When word reached the church, you can imagine the rejoicing. God had saved Betty from suffering and almost certain death . But even more so, in a couple of weeks, Ray went to see the pastor. He had resisted the claims of the gospel his whole life, but now he had witnessed something in his wife’s life for which he had no other explanation other than God himself had intervened. He told the pastor that he wanted to know Jesus and follow him. Ray became a Christian.
This is what happens when the Holy Spirit is at work. People see Jesus for who He is. People experience the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit. Church becomes a place where people experience Christ, where people are filled with the Holy Spirit, where people experience the love of the Lord, where people find healing, and wholeness, and meaning, and purpose - where we find a new life in Christ. This is what the apostles experienced. This is what generations of the first Christians experienced. This is what is ours to experience today. Because Jesus is the same today as He was yesterday, and He will be the same tomorrow. Because the same Holy Spirit who was working in their churches and in their lives then - the same Holy Spirit is right here today.
If we are content with lifeless churches and lifeless religion, God will leave us to our own devices. But if we are hungry and thirsty for something more, our Lord will run to meet us. He will bless us with hearts that want to repent. He will pour out His Holy Spirit on you and me and all of us and fill us with love for Jesus and love for our neighbor. He will empower us to live for him, to serve Him, to give ourselves for Him. It is ours for the asking. Jesus says, you have not because you don’t ask. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, ‘If you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?’ (Luke 11:13)
So if someone like John Wimber came to our service this morning and asked, ‘So where’s the stuff? You know, the stuff that Jesus and the Apostles did? When are you going to do the stuff here?’ What would you say? You know it’s not that God has changed. His power and the ability to do these things hasn’t changed, either. Moreover God’s plan and purpose and desire for his church - for our church and for us His people hasn’t changed. The only thing that’s changed is our openness to the Holy Spirit, our willingness to be filled by the Holy Spirit, to be used by the Spirit to demonstrate the love of Christ where we are. Do you want what the Lord has to give? Are you willing to ask for it?
|My home church in Anderson, SC. If it can happen here, it (the blessings of what God wants to do |
in us and through us) can happen anywhere.
Even in an Orthodox parish.
at St. Moses of Africa Orthodox Church,