Yesterday was the Orthodox Feast of Pentecost. I was asked to preach in my Nairobi parish at the conclusion of Divine Liturgy before the start of the special Pentecost Vespers service. My words are my attempt to address our context and the situation in which we find ourselves as Orthodox Christians in Kenya. May God cover my shortcomings and somehow bring glory to His name through us His Church.
We don’t hear Orthodox Christians talk very much about Pentecost or the Holy Spirit. If you were here for Orthros this morning, then you heard us sing a couple of hymns. And maybe, just maybe if you are lucky, you will hear a priest brave the briefest of homilies about this being a special feast day, about celebrating the birthday of the Church, stuff like that. After all we have yet another service, Pentecost Vespers, after this one is over. But to hear anyone talk about the coming of the Holy Spirit and what the Holy Spirit means for you and me today? Good luck.
There’s good reason for this avoidance. On the one hand we are surrounded by all this noise made all the louder by loudspeakers, made by men and women who claim to be prophets, who claim to be apostles, who claim to be bishops, who claim to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and therefore claim the power to heal, to prophesy, to speak in tongues. to speak - no, make that shout God’s Word. And you know, people around us are so desperate for some sort of hope, for some sort of help, for some sort of divine intervention, for some sort of truth, for some sort of authority, for some sort of assurance, that they flock to these so-called men or women of God and these so-called churches like children to the promise of candy. And these preachers find a verse in the Scriptures that says what they need it to say and then promise their listeners that if they just have enough faith, God will work miracles in their life, too. God wants to bless you, they say. God wants you to be healthy, he wants you to prosper, he wants you to succeed, he wants you to be the best you you can possibly be! And these preachers succeed in attracting a huge following. And many of these preachers do become very rich, because they encourage their people to give offerings as a demonstration of their faith that God can bless them, too. And who controls these offerings, but the pastor, who is suddenly seen driving a huge Toyota Landcruiser and living in a huge house, claiming all the while that God has blessed him, when in fact he is becoming rich off the offerings of the poor. It should not surprise anyone that the most popular book sold in Kenya to Christians is by a health and prosperity preacher, the very rich American health and prosperity preacher Joel Osteen. And if Mr. Osteen is the author Kenya’s Christians (those who read, at least) prefer to read, then God save the churches of Kenya. You know, the Prophet Ezekiel in chapter 34 says that God is watching what these so-called apostles and prophets and bishops and shepherds – what these mega- ‘successful’ pastors are doing to His people, these false shepherds who fleece their flocks so that they themselves can grow fat and prosper. Their day is coming, says Ezekiel; but we have to leave that for another time.
On the other hand, we Orthodox tend to avoid the whole issue of the Holy Spirit because we are very much in the minority here. Kenya, indeed all of sub-Saharan Africa, has been swamped by Pentecostal teaching. Even the so-called mainline historic denominations in Kenya are full of people whose starting points are not John Calvin or Thomas Cranmer, but John Wimber and TD Jakes. The Health and Prosperity preachers have simply followed the logical progression of their Pentecostal context. But the root of it all is the same, what I call Classical Pentecostalism. Pentecostalism as a movement began in Los Angeles in the US in the early 20th century. And the Pentecostals taught, and still teach, that there are two experiences every Christian must have. First, everyone must be ‘born again’ or ‘saved,’ as they say, by believing in Jesus and his cross for the forgiveness of your sins and you will be given a new life in Christ. But God wants to bless everyone with a ‘Second experience’, and that is where Pentecost comes in. God wants to give every Christian supernatural power to live the Christian life. God wants to give the gifts of the Spirit to every believer. And just like the first Christians experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in their daily life, so we are able to experience that same power if we receive the Holy Spirit into our life or, as they put it, are baptized in the Holy Spirit. And the sign that one has received the Holy Spirit is that everyone receives the gift of speaking in tongues. This is not the same gift as at Pentecost, but is what they call a prayer language. So if you can speak in tongues, you’ve received the baptism of the Spirit, and if you can’t, you haven’t.
Now this is a sermon and not one of my theology classes, so I don’t have time to go step by step through the Pentecostal arguments and show where they’ve gone wrong. Let me just say that at several crucial points, they twist Scripture to justify something they believe rather than allow the Scripture to mean what it means in context.
My point in mentioning all the noise coming from the health and prosperity preachers and what the Pentecostals teach about the Holy Spirit is to say: We Orthodox have become intimidated. We look at their huge ginormous worship palaces that attract thousands of people, like the one right next door, we watch their programs on TV, we hear all their claims, we have their praise and worship music thumping in their ears, we see their slogans on matatus, and we have no answer. Is it any surprise that we lose our young people to churches that seem more exciting? Where you can go to church and shout and sing and dance all you want? That seem to offer such relevant and helpful programs? Who doesn’t want to become rich, or successful, or experience healing? Their messages are so seductive, and many of us are seduced. And what are we doing? What do we offer in response? Pretty much nothing. And the silence is rather deafening.
Today of all days, when we celebrate Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, we must realize that this intimidation on our part, this apathy concerning the work of the Holy Spirit on our part, this indifference to God’s agenda on our part, doesn’t need to be this way; in fact it cannot continue to be this way or, if I may be honest, we will die, as a parish. We will just wither away into total complete irrelevance.
I have three challenges for us. First, Sts. Anargyroi parish - reclaim your inheritance. Don’t let the Pentecostals and the Health and Prosperity heretics intimidate you. Don’t let them steal your inheritance – your Holy Spirit from you. What the Scriptures actually teach is so much more wonderful than what these people are trying to offer. The Holy Spirit doesn’t come to make us rich. The Holy Spirit comes to make us Jesus. That’s what God is doing with us, with our Church – God is transforming us and empowering us to do what Jesus would do if He was standing right here. God is empowering us to love one another, to love our neighbor, to love even our enemies the way Jesus loved. God is sending us his Holy Spirit to make us like Jesus, so that when people see us, they see Jesus. Reclaim your inheritance!
The second challenge is this: you and I really need to decide to be serious. Many of us think that attending Liturgy on Sunday is what being an Orthodox Christian is about. But Jesus hasn’t set up some religion for you to participate in. Being an hour late for Liturgy and still thinking you’ve done your religious duty by showing up simply demonstrates that you have no idea what real, New Testament, Church Fathers, Christianity is all about. Jesus is calling you by name to be His disciple, His follower, to stop the way you are unseriously living your life, and instead to deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow him. It means quit fooling yourself that your lackadaisical way of coming to church is enough. It means learning more about the Lord and His agenda by studying the Scriptures. It means joining with others and finding ways to express the love of Christ through the different ministries of the Church. It means instead of waiting for the Church to give you another handout, you start giving sacrificially to support the ministry of this place. There are as many ideas of what we can do as there are people in this place. But nothing will happen, either in your heart or in anyone else’s or in this place, unless you decided to be serious. Unless you decide to take Jesus seriously.
Lastly, ask God to fill you with His Holy Spirit. But don’t do this if you don’t know what you are doing, if you aren’t serious about being a follower of Jesus. Because this is spiritual dynamite. And it’s a prayer that God loves to answer. Because just like at Pentecost, the Lord has given us a call to be his disciples, a charge to be His presence – the presence of Jesus – right here in this place, and a mission to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. And who is equal to any of this? That’s why God sends us His Holy Spirit. God wants to empower you, and me, and all of us, to be His People, to be the Followers of Jesus He is calling us to be, to be the presence of Jesus in this place, to take the gospel to our neighbor and our community and to everyone who has never heard or understood. The Holy Spirit is the gift of God that makes this happen, in your life, in my life, in our church right here. And the Holy Spirit has come to give each one of us the spiritual gifts and the spiritual power to make it happen
So who’s voice have you been listening to right now. Is it just that American preacher that we have to struggle so to understand his accent? Or could it be that the Holy Spirit has been speaking to your heart, opening your eyes, helping you understand what God really wants to do in your life and in this place? So, Reclaim your inheritance. Get serious about your relationship with Jesus. Be filled with the Holy Spirit. And, by the way, Happy Pentecost!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.