Orthodox Pentecostalism - A Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost (2021)

June 20, 2021

Orthodox Pentecostalism - A Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost (2021)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today, God’s saving dispensation is completed. All of the prophecies have been fulfilled. The Spirit descends from heaven upon the disciples, and those who once hid for fear of the Jews are endued with power from on high for the proclamation of the Gospel. The Son Who made known His divine Father unto mankind now sends down upon them His Spirit, granting them all divine adoption as sons of God. With this gift, there are no distinctions—neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female. In Christ, all are made heirs of Abraham; all inherit the same promise; all partake of one Spirit. We all come to share in the very life of God, Who is made fully manifest today with the descent of the third person of the Trinity. Nothing remains that is yet to be revealed. Nothing is withheld that is yet to be given.

Hopefully, we experience this fulness palpably, if not every day of our Christian life, at least on this day. But that begs the question: What are the signs of this experience? What are the conditions for its occurrence? How do we really know that the Holy Spirit is present with us? How can we open ourselves to His descent and manifestation? Is it possible for us to bring Him down at will? Can we too experience the miracle of Pentecost firsthand? These are not idle or untimely questions. St. Seraphim of Sarov teaches us in the plainest language that the purpose of Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. Not just monastics, but all Christians, should be like savvy spiritual merchants who know how to trade and multiply the spiritual talent that was implanted in them at their baptism. Just as rich men constantly concerned with how to hold on to the wealth they’ve already amassed, and how to add to it steadily day by day, we should have a clear sense as faithful, baptized Orthodox Christians just what our treasure is, and how we can always be adding to it.

These questions about the nature of the Holy Spirit’s action have a broader relevance that gives them added urgency. One of the fastest growing movements in Christianity, both in America and worldwide, is called ‘Pentecostal’, and claims to possess the very Spirit of Pentecost that we experience and celebrate today. Like the Protestant movement that came before it, there are many differences of doctrine and practice across the Pentecostal churches. But they are all united, at minimum, by an emphasis on the experience of glossolalia, speaking in tongues, which is described in the reading from Acts for today’s feast, and is also mentioned at length by St. Paul in the first epistle to the Corinthians (Chs. 12-14). Some Pentecostals go so far as to claim that the gift of tongues is a necessary evidence of a person’s receiving the Holy Spirit, without which no one is saved. Others simply cultivate the practice of speaking in tongues as a personal prayer language, and use it to enrich their devotional life. Within older Protestant Churches and the Catholic Church, there are also those who promote this practice, the so-called ‘charismatics’. And even among the Orthodox, there are some who seek to introduce this practice as consistent with Scripture and our Church’s Tradition.

Pentecostal and charismatic spirituality thus raises a new host of questions: Is the modern phenomenon of glossolalia the same thing described by Scripture? If not, then what exactly is Scripture talking about? Is our spiritual life deficient if we don’t speak in tongues? Do we need to speak in tongues to be saved?

Let’s start with what seems straightforward and obvious. The reading for the feast from Acts tell us that when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles, they began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:4). “Other tongues,” it says, and not “unknown tongues,” as the King James Bible puts it in First Corinthians (Ch. 14). “Unknown,” in fact, does not appear in the Greek text of that passage; it is a rather unhelpful gloss provided by the English translators. Nowhere in the New Testament is there mention of someone speaking in an “unknown” tongue. So, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Apostles spoke with other tongues, and when all the Jews of the diaspora who were gathered for Pentecost heard them speak, every man could understand what they were saying.

There is a minor difference of opinion among the Church Fathers about what actually took place. Some say that the Apostles simply spoke in Aramaic, and by the grace of the Spirit, each man heard what was said in their own language. Others say that the Spirit actually endowed the Apostles with the miraculous ability to speak another language in order to preach the Gospel to all the foreigners there in Jerusalem. This second opinion accords best with the plain sense of Scripture, as well as all of our hymnography for this Feast. After all, the Spirit descended on the Apostles themselves, not the people. Moreover, why would the locals in Jerusalem suppose the Apostles were drunk if their words did not sound strange and incomprehensible to them? It seems clear, then—they saw and heard the unlearned Galileans speaking in strange, new tongues, and, misinterpreting what they saw out of malice, they mocked the miracle instead of glorifying the power of God.

Once we grasp the nature of the gift, its meaning also becomes clear. The Spirit descended on the Apostles in the form of tongues, so that they might be able to preach the Gospel to all nations. Before He ascended into heaven, Jesus commanded them to bear witness to His resurrection unto the uttermost part of the earth (Acts 1:8). This was not a rhetorical exaggeration, but a specific command. Now that He is glorified, Christ gives His disciples the gracious gifts necessary to carry out His behest. The same Spirit that once confused the tongues in Babel of old now comes down to Jerusalem and restores their primal unity, so as to facilitate the spread of the Gospel. At the very outset of the apostolic mission, the Spirit shows that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is meant equally for all peoples. From all of these considerations, it should be clear that what is described in the book of Acts has nothing to do with ecstatic utterances made in some kind of mystical, unintelligible language of praise and prayer. It is not modern-day glossolalia.

There is not sufficient time now to go through and carefully examine every instance of speaking in tongues in the New Testament. I will only make these general observations. We often see speaking in tongues as a manifestation of the gift of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts. It was a special sign to Peter and those with him when Cornelius the centurion and his household began speaking in tongues as Peter preached the Gospel to them. The purpose of the miracle was not to overcome any linguistic barriers to Peter’s preaching, but rather to reassure Peter in an extraordinary way that these uncircumcised Gentiles were just as much heirs to the promise of the Gospel as were the Jews and Samaritans who had believed. The Gentiles too could enter fully into the Pentecostal mystery without the justification of the Law.

The Spirit poured out the gift of tongues liberally on the young Gentile Church, confirming the identity of their experience with original descent of the Spirit in Jerusalem. But as St. Paul bears witness in his letter to the Corinthians, some of them became proud. They were puffed up by their newfound intimacy with the Spirit of God. They boasted of their gifts and made a vain display of them in worship. They considered only their own edification, and not the edification of the Church (cf. 1 Cor. 14:4). They did not test the spirits to see whether they were of God (cf. 1 John 4:1). They fell away from the peace, charity, and concord that characterized the disciples on Pentecost. Their corporate worship became an unruly cacophony of competing voices and senseless noises. What should have been an image of the heavenly Jerusalem instead became another earthly Babylon. The gift that was meant to undo the confusion of tongues was abused and perverted to create yet more confusion and dissension. For their spiritual immaturity, St. Paul sharply rebuked the Corinthians, and showed them the more excellent way of love (cf. 1 Cor. 12:31-13:13).

He made it clear to them beyond any shadow of a doubt that not all receive the gift of tongues, and that, besides, it is the least among the gifts of the Spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 12:28-30). It should only form a part of public worship if there is also someone who can interpret the tongue for all to understand; and even then it should be done by turns, decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40). Indeed, the gifts of the spirit are distributed according to the needs of the whole body of the Church. They are there for her building-up, for her confirmation and consolation. They are not for the glory of the recipient, but for the benefit of all. And as Elder Macarius of Optina said, they are distributed by God according to the measure of a person’s humility. Otherwise, they would destroy him through vainglory. Even if we work miracles, or give our bodies to be burned, and have not love and humility, we will hear Christ say, “I never knew you,” when we stand before Him in judgment.

In short, we should not concern ourselves with spiritual gifts for their own sake, for God requires of us rather the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance (Gal. 5:22-23). These fruits, and these alone, bear sure witness to the presence of the Spirit in our hearts and in our lives. These are our true spiritual riches, our treasure laid up in heaven, the talent hid in the field of our heart. The gifts of the Spirit may be given us at God’s discretion. St. Paul even exhorts us to desire them, to purify ourselves so that we may be worthy of receiving them. But woe to us if we have not the fruits of the Spirit. Thus, following St. Paul, we can confidently say that speaking in tongues is not the definite sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence. It is not necessary for salvation, nor even to fully experience the gift of Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit.

How then do we access this reality? Again, the book of Acts gives us an indication when we hear that, on the day of Pentecost, the disciples were all with one accord in one place (Acts 2:1). The miracle and experience of Pentecost is corporate; it occurs when the whole body is assembled with one accord. This is what happens at every Divine Liturgy. We see why it’s so important—essential, really—for us to be at peace with each other in order to participate in the Liturgy. Before the anaphora, all the priests greet one another with the kiss of peace. Before the consecration of the Eucharist, the presiding priest calls upon the same Lord Who sent down His Holy Spirit at the third hour upon the Apostles, and asks Him to renew that Spirit in us, and to send down that Spirit in order to consummate the transformation of the Gifts into the very Body and Blood of Christ. So this miracle of Pentecost is repeated in our churches every single time we come together with one accord to celebrate the Eucharist.

Even more than parishes, though, it is the monasteries that show forth the continuation of Pentecost. We are called to manifest the miracle of Pentecost, not simply one or two days out of the week, but evening, morning, and noonday, each and every day of the year. We are supposed to be a truly Pentecostal community. The concord of the disciples preceded the descent of the Spirit; but in the wake of Pentecost, the example of peace and concord, of mutual love and support, spread throughout the whole community of believers, which numbered in the thousands and grew daily. St. Luke tells us that they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers… And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart (Acts 2:42, 44-46). This was the first coenobium, the school of the common life in Christ. When the persecutions ended and the Church began receiving patronage from the Roman state, the institution of monasticism arose to preserve the zeal and purity of faith of the Apostles and the early Church. The flame that was kindled on the first Pentecost has been preserved uninterrupted in the Church to this day, thanks in no small part to her monastics. The responsibility now falls unto us to keep the flame lit, to live out and bear witness to the Pentecostal mystery—the descent of the Holy Spirit, and His abiding in our midst. We will certainly experience His descent and presence if we strive above all else to live in peace with one another, to always come together with one accord.

Then David’s words will be fulfilled in us—How good and how joyous it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the oil of myrrh running down the beard of Aaron, like the dew of Hermon coming down upon Mount Zion (cf. Ps. 132). These are all figures of the Spirit that Christ sends down upon those who live with one heart as brethren. If we strive to live in peace and unity, our little holler in West Virginia will be an image of Zion, the forecourt of heaven. There, as David says, the Lord commanded the blessing—life for evermore. This is the fulness of spiritual life to which we aspire and which is offered to us today. Let us drink deeply of the living water of the Spirit that is now poured out, and preserve peace, concord, and charity with one another, so that each day in the life of our brotherhood might be a little Pentecost. Amen.




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