“History Repeated”



In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

In 1994, strange things began to happen at a church near the airport in Toronto, Canada. Members of the congregation began to laugh uncontrollably. Some people fell on the floor and rolled around. Some worshippers began to speak in what appeared to be gibberish. Some people suddenly passed out.

This odd behavior occurred again at the next worship service at the church–and the next. The church began to have services six nights a week. People came from all over the world to share in the worship; soon, the nightly attendance numbered 1000. In some cases, when visitors returned to their home congregations, laughing and speaking in tongues and fainting and rolling in the aisles occurred in those churches as well.

A number of Christians believed that these phenomena were the work of the Holy Spirit; the phenomena became known as “the Toronto Blessing.” And while the behavior in the Toronto church was certainly odd, those who joined the movement compared it to what happened to the disciples of Jesus on the first Christian Pentecost.

We heard an account of that day in the Lesson from the Book of Acts. The disciples of Jesus had gathered together, and then, as the Book of Acts says, “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

Now while the Bible text about the arrival of the Holy Spirit doesn’t mention the early Christians laughing out loud or rolling on the floor, it does mention their speaking in tongues. And it says that the onlookers were “bewildered,” “amazed,” and “astonished.”

Some bystanders even thought the Christians were drunk. They had no idea what to make of this “Pentecostal” behavior.

As it happens, the odd phenomena in the Toronto Blessing diminished as the weeks passed. The movement itself petered out after a few years.

Yet it was by no means the last appearance of “Pentecostal” phenomena. They continue today. Throughout our city, particularly in small storefront churches, worshippers speak in tongues and suddenly pass out as they are “slain in the spirit.”

In many countries—including America—Pentecostal congregations are growing faster than any others. In the Church of England, a large revival has centered on Holy Trinity Church in London. The Alpha Program, which was developed by this church to introduce Christianity to unbelievers, has spread throughout the Anglican Communion.

To most of us at Incarnation, though, such behavior is unfamiliar. And like those bystanders on the first Pentecost, we might feel “perplexed and bewildered.”

We know that religion takes many different forms. St. Paul himself claimed to have spoken in tongues. But what in the world can we learn from Pentecost?

Well, we can begin by reminding ourselves that God works in strange and mysterious ways. Many Christians prefer an emotional form of worship. And while that isn’t our style in this Parish, we can see its appeal: unusual experiences give a kind of proof that the worshipper has been in touch with the divine.

The drawback, however, is that the person’s religion may come to depend on these experiences, and if they occur regularly, they’re no longer unusual—and therefore, not so exciting.

That seems to be why a similar revival that took place in America in the 1700’s first inspired thousands of new church members – but then those converts eventually went back to their non-churchgoing ways. For most people, religion has to include other experiences besides the dramatic. They need to take on service to others, for example. They should offer their problems to God every night in prayer. They have to be molded by regular, ordinary non-spectacular practice of faith.

Yet I think that there’s another lesson to be learned from the story of Pentecost, and it has nothing to do with church revivals. The lesson is this: when you are on the spiritual path, you should expect to be surprised!

This lesson is important for those of us who aren’t naturally inclined toward demonstrative forms of religion.

I myself don’t anticipate that I will ever speak in tongues. Nor is it likely that God will cause me to fall on the church floor in ecstasy. Nevertheless, I can count on the Spirit of God to surprise me!

I’ll give a personal example. I recently spent a week’s vacation in the South of France. I set off on this trip with some feelings of trepidation.

I was returning to an area I had visited many times in the past with my late wife. This time, I was going completely on my own; friends whom my wife and I had usually visited weren’t there at this time.

As a solitary tourist for a week, I suppose that I could have been lonely. But I wasn’t. I lounged on the sunny beaches; I hiked in the mountains; I drank coffee in the cafes and dined in the restaurants; I wrote in my diary. I frequently thought of my late wife of course, but they were fond thoughts, grateful thoughts.

In summary, then, my temporary solitude proved to be not a curse but a blessing – a blessing of the Spirit. You’ll be relieved to hear that I didn’t manifest any odd behavior that would have astonished French bystanders!

But like the Disciples of Jesus, I did have an extraordinary sense of God’s presence. Of God’s love for me—of God’s Spirit watching over me.

The Holy Spirit is predictably unpredictable. As Jesus said, the Spirit is like a wind that blows where it wishes and you can’t know where it will go. I knew, of course, that my sense of God’s presence wouldn’t be constant—that the stress of life would return when I needed to get back to work in the real world.

But for a week, I was content to be like the early Christians. I was grateful to be comforted and delighted by the Spirit and I was happy to let history repeat itself in my own life.


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