This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/28/23, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was: Acts 2:1-21. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
This winter, there was a remarkable spiritual event that took place at Asbury University in Kentucky. Asbury is a Wesleyan-Holiness affiliated college, and they have a long history of being the site of spontaneous outbreaks of extended, Spirit-led worship. Quakers might call these “covered meetings” – Holiness Christians call them “revivals”.
At Asbury, there is mandatory chapel for the students on certain weekdays. Usually, as I understand it, this looks like a relatively normal worship service for the student body. But on Wednesday, February 8th, 2023, something out of the ordinary happened: When the worship service ended, a number of students felt compelled to stay and continue on in prayer. As this off-script worship time unfolded, apparently one student confessed his sins to the other students assembled; according to those who were there, this changed the atmosphere. It felt like God was moving in a powerful way. People didn’t want to leave.
From that point, worship continued in the chapel – led by the students themselves – for more than two weeks, day and night. The revival grew, at first growing through word of mouth and social media, and eventually expanding to include as many as 15,000 people per day. (Of course, all these people couldn’t fit in the chapel, so overflow spaces were designated across the area.) Folks at Asbury estimate that roughly fifty to seventy-five thousand people attended the revival during the seventeen days it was in motion.
As the revival really started to snowball, awareness of it overflowed social media; even traditional news outlets began to cover it. It was a news story that people all over the country and the world began to comment on. And people had lots of opinions. Many hot takes were written. Some observers immediately concluded that this experience was an outpouring from God. Others scoffed, sure that the revival was a show being put on by evangelical Christians for some nefarious culture-war purpose. But for many of us who heard about this event, the revival was something to wonder at. Something powerful and mysterious seemed to be happening at Asbury, and it made us ask: “What does this mean?”
What does it mean that this intense, youth-led worship broke out at Asbury this winter? What does it mean for those present, and what does it mean for those of us who merely witnessed it digitally, or heard about it through the media? What does it mean in our polarized, partisan environment, when we see a religious explosion happen among evangelical Christians – including some evangelical Quakers who traveled to participate?
This morning, we mark the anniversary of another religious explosion: the Jewish “revival”, if you will, that birthed what we now know as the Christian church. On the day of Pentecost following the ascension of the resurrected Jesus into heaven, all the disciples were gathered in Jerusalem to pray and wait on the Lord. And on that morning, the Lord showed up. The Holy Spirit came among them, baptizing them with wind and fire and causing them all to speak in foreign languages, so that everyone in the city – which was packed with Jewish pilgrims for the festival – could hear the gospel preached in their own native languages.
Some scoffed – but others asked, “what does this mean?”
This morning, we remember how the apostle Peter stood up among the confused, curious, and condemning crowds, and insisted that he and the other disciples were not drunk on wine, but rather filled by the Holy Spirit. That this was not a rowdy party at nine in the morning, but rather the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Joel, who declared that in the last days, the same Spirit that God poured out on Moses would be poured out on everyone – all flesh. Young men will see visions; old men will dream dreams. Even slaves – both men and women – will receive this Spirit, and they will prophesy – they will speak the very words of God as the Spirit gives them ability. There will be signs in heaven and on earth, to announce the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day, and then everyone who calls on his name will be saved.
“What does this mean?” asked the people. “This is what it means,” replied Peter: The great and glorious day of the Lord is at hand. The Spirit of God is being poured out on all flesh – everyone. Everyone who turns to the Lord and calls upon his name will be saved.
Now Peter, speaking under the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit, was saying more than even he realized at the time. When God spoke through the prophet Joel and said, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,” he really meant all flesh. Not just the chosen people, not just the Jews, but even the Greeks, and Romans, and barbarians from north, south, east, and west. Even us!
“What does this mean?” The coming of the Spirit means that all the old barriers are broken down. It means that a new order has come, and for those who will receive it, there now is room for nothing else but the reign of Jesus in our world.
Since the days of Peter, there have been many little pentecosts, many revivals, many spiritual baptisms. And yet we still wait in anticipation of the great consummation: the great and glorious Day of the Lord. We see Jesus pouring out the Holy Spirit upon all flesh – men and women, slave and free – even upon evangelical Christians, which is quite frankly scandalous, given some of the stunts that Evangelicals have pulled in the last couple generations.
But God meant what he said. The Spirit is for all. All who will call on the name of the Lord can be redeemed, transformed, saved. The great and glorious day of the Lord can be for all of us, as we humble ourselves and receive the gift of prophecy – the gift of speaking the truth as the Spirit gives us power and courage to speak it.
What has happened in the months since the revival at Asbury? I’ve heard that the spark of the revival was taken up by others, including Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Roman Catholics. But now, three months later, have the tongues of fire run their course? I don’t know, but at the very least it seems that the revival that began at Asbury has entered a more quiet phase.
I remember during the heat of the revival, many public Christian thinkers were saying that the real test of this, and any revival, was the impact it had on the actions of those who participated. This seems to have been Peter’s perspective on Pentecost. The coming of the Spirit was an invitation for everyone present in Jerusalem to take immediate action: to embrace repentance; to call upon the name of the Lord and be saved. Later in the same chapter of Acts, we see something of what that salvation looked like for the early church: Being gathered into a community where the power of Christ was active to heal and transform. The Holy Spirit brought economic and social wholeness to the new Israel, the gathered people of God.
Let’s pray for the tens of thousands of people who were impacted by events at Asbury, that they, too, would be gathered into this kind of New Testament community, where the kingdom of God is near at hand, and all things are made new.
Let’s also pray for ourselves, that where the embers of our faith have grown cold we might once again be touched by the tongues of fire and stoked by the breath of God. Let’s pray for courage to confess our sin, so that we might be healed. Calling upon the name of the Lord, let’s pray to be gathered into a community of conviction and prophecy, into the character of Jesus.
What are the barriers that we have set in the way of this transformation? Let’s pray that God break them down. What is the sin that we have refused to confess? Let’s lift it up to the Lord. Like the disciples in the upper room on the day of Pentecost, let’s pray that God send us a spirit of repentance, giving us power to change. So that we may stand before Christ on that great and glorious Day: unconfused, unafraid, and unashamed.