The Experience of Pentecost
by Deacon William H. Brennan
Since the experience of Pentecost, which gave birth to the church, the Body of Christ has struggled with the unpredictable side of the Holy Spirit. Even while affirming and preaching the scriptural proclamation that the Spirit blows where the Spirit wills, the early church quickly began to organize the working of God in its midst, assuming that the Spirit would move in predictable ways. Even in those days, however, the church could be surprised by the Lord’s ability to defy human expectations. God being God sometimes caused no little consternation. There is, for example, a hint of uncomfortableness in the reaction of the apostle Peter to the unexpected outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the household of Cornelius (Acts 10, 44-48). At this early date, at least in this instance, the Spirit chose not to follow the pattern the apostles had obviously assumed they could expect: first the proclamation, then baptism, than the laying on of hands, followed by the outpouring of the Spirit. Peter’s surprise is evident as the Spirit fell upon the household before he had finished the proclamation.
The inability to confine the Spirit’s actions to the expectations of people, even saints, has been something of a problem throughout the history of the church--and remains a problem for some in this day. In every age, there have been individuals or groups of people who have been made uncomfortable by some unexpected action of the Lord. Whether such moves of God were quiet inspirations or dramatic manifestations, some received them while others rejected and even opposed them. In some cases, the latter have often tried to deny the validity of claimed spiritual experiences, especially if they did not fit preconceived notions of how God deals with his people. In our time, one could certainly argue that the phenomenon of the Charismatic Renewal falls into such a category.
The phenomenon of resting in the Spirit is a classic example of this dynamic in our day. The experience is difficult to characterize and easy to criticize precisely because it does not fit easily into our comfortable theological constructions. There is nothing in scripture or the teaching of the church which says that it is a necessary experience, but there is also nothing that says it must always be psychological suggestion or another spirit at work. The difficulty this presents is attested to by the stack of theology papers in my office from a theological symposium on this subject held a few years ago. The consensus of the arguments is that the phenomenon is real but hard to define with precision.
It was for a reason that St. Paul admonished the church to test everything. Not every spiritual experience is necessarily from God. This should be elementary for anyone who is in leadership. The church has had two thousand years of experience in learning that deception is a constant danger whenever people deal with the spiritual realm. Thus discernment must be a gift constantly in use in every gathering for the protection of the People of God. Unfortunately, it is not exercised enough in many of our gatherings, but this is not a charismatic issue alone.
One sign the church has used to determine the authenticity of spiritual experiences is the fruit they bear in the lives of the recipients. If the fruit is bad, the experience is suspect. If the fruit is good, on the other hand, one might safely assume that God is at work in the experience. This is precisely why scripture admonishes us never to forget that we are to look for the fruits of the Spirit more than good feelings. It is the fruits that point to God’s involvement. It is the fruits of the Spirit that have always been the focus of the church’s discernment.
I have experienced resting in the Spirit on a number of occasions. Some I am frankly not sure of, but one will forever remain in my heart because of the effect it had in my life. It removed the stone of fear that had burdened me all of my life and gave me a freedom to speak and act that I had never had before. It was instrumental in shaping the ministries I now engage in--especially the ministry of preaching and teaching. Considering that others confirmed the change in my life, I have no doubt at all that it was the Lord Jesus who touched me. For this reason, I simply cannot pass off resting in the Spirit as a dangerous deception. Does this mean that it cannot be faked? Of course not. Nor does it mean that psychological suggestion may never play a role in some settings. For that matter, it also does not mean that in some cases the author of the experience may be a spirit other than the Holy Spirit. Again, discernment must be employed constantly and the fruits of the experience in the person’s life must be studied.
For those in leadership, there is a responsibility to pastor the gifts and charisms of the Holy Spirit so that they might be used with profit for the building up of the whole body and for the salvation of the world. The same pastoring should be employed for the phenomenon of resting in the Spirit. If there are new people present in a gathering, for example, where it might be expected that the Spirit will be manifested in spiritual experiences, I believe it is pastorally responsible to alert them to the possibility so that they will not be frightened. A simple, straightforward explanation should suffice. If people begin to rest in the Spirit, leaders should not emphasize the experience or draw undue attention to it. If they are being prayed over while standing, it is simple prudence to have catchers on hand for their own safety. Above all, pastoral leaders should never give the message that unless one "goes down" he or she has not experienced the touch of God.
The very nature of this experience demands another pastoral caution at the same time. The church teaches, with the wisdom of experience, "Extraordinary gifts are not to be rashly desired, nor is it from them that the fruits of apostolic labor are to be presumptuously expected"(Dogmatic Constitution On The Church, #12). Leaders must be constantly on guard and ready to exercise their gifts of pastoring when people begin to chase after signs and wonders. The duty of a pastor or leader in those cases is to shepherd them back to the giver of the gifts. As Peter proclaimed in the first preaching on the day of Pentecost, the signs and wonders performed by Jesus were the proof of the authenticity of the message he came to teach, and the message was, and is, the Good News of the Father’s kingdom. All of us must never forget that the Good News is not signs and wonders alone. The Good News is the person of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection. He is the one who has come alive within our hearts through the grace of baptism in the Holy Spirit, which can be defined as a moment in which the Spirit of God brings to life within us the grace of our baptism.
Throughout all of Salvation History, God has surprised his people with the unexpected. Perhaps all of us need to be more concerned with saying yes to whatever He wants of us than with deciding what we will accept from Him and what we will not. Being open to His ways, even the most mysterious and surprising, will bring us more of God than trying to dictate to God what He will or will not do in a given setting. Our prayer and cry should be that of the whole church: "Come Lord Jesus!" Our response to His word to us should be the church’s (and Mary’s): "Let it be done to me according to your word."
Deacon William Brennan, Ph. D., teaches history at the University of the Pacific, Stockton, is the Bishop’s Liaison to the Charismatic Renewal for the Diocese of Stockton, and a member of the National Service Committee of the Charismatic Renewal. ©1998 William H. Brennan. All rights reserved.