A VISION FOR NEW LIFE
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Acts 2: 1-4; 37-42
Words and deeds. We heard both of them offered on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was unleashed. People spoke with one another and people shared everything in common. Sometimes we Presbyterians are accused of putting plenty of emphasis on deeds—like our monthly food drive and a normal summer youth mission trip and a recently cancelled adult mission trip. But these are different times! But our emphasis on words being shared, well, that’s different. Few of us are on street corners warning others about the wiles of the devil. Rarely if ever are we putting tracts on windshields or going door to door witnessing to our faith. But evangelism can take forms that are intrusive and ones that are invitational. Today while you may be busy barring the front door of your soul to the kind of message that meddles in your personal life, I hope the side door to your soul might let God’s Spirit come in for the first time, or come in and stir, or awaken, you again. The world has had life changing testimonies from people who have attended a Billy Graham Crusade and turned their life over to Christ. To layman Keith Miller, he turned his life over to Christ after crying out to him, “Jesus, if there is any part of this stinking life of mine that you want, take it.” And Jesus did. He filled Keith Miller with the Holy Spirit, described in his autobiographical book A Taste of New Wine. We’ve been hearing much too much about people getting shot in the last two years, but the world was stunned forever with the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. Although later testimonies suggested that another girl, not Cassie Bernall, answered the gunman’s question “Do you believe in God?” with the answer “yes,” and when she was killed. Cassie’s mother, in the book she wrote about her daughter called it, She Said Yes. Cassie had been going down a very dark path, calling it her “turbulent teenaged life,” when she began using drugs and alcohol. At one point she described her daughter as suicidal; she had even written in journals about killing her parents. They moved her to a different high school for a new start. During that new time, she went on a weekend church retreat and had a powerful conversion to the Christian faith. More about that later.
In the 1960s, mainline churches labeled evangelism as too manipulative; it became a strategy for winning souls for Christ, rather than making people new disciples. Some churches or pastors kept score seeing how many souls they could win. But the evangelism described in the book of Acts was different: it was disciples sharing what they had, talking about Jesus, and telling others what they had seen and heard about the Savior. They prayed; they also taught the faith and baptized those who wanted follow Christ. It was a wonderful celebration, filled with emotion and joy! There may have been crying, and laughter as people felt the Spirit of the Living God. Yet many denominations since the Protestant Reformation smothered the natural emotions that such events would bring, afraid of and suspicious of rampant Pentecostalism where hundreds are slain in the Spirit, speak in tongues, and roll on the floor! In the early 1700s when John and Charles Wesley were preaching to and singing with others in a Methodist fervor, the story is told that in rural England a congregation honored their Pastor with a plaque upon his retirement. It seemed that this pastor had managed to keep his congregation free from the influence of the shouting Methodists during a period of fervent spiritualism. To honor his abilities in that department, the congregation put these words on a plaque to honor him: “To our Pastor, who served this congregation for 40 years without a trace of enthusiasm.” That was meant as a compliment! Oh goodness. We cannot change the world with emotionless, spiritless lectures! Thankfully, today we recognize and give thanks to the third person of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit of God—the gift that was left in the world after Jesus ascended into heaven. I thank God for the Holy Spirit that lets me know that the Almighty is not just in Heaven, was not just on the Cross, but is with me as I preach, and I baptize, as I sit in a hospital or care center room. If God’s Spirit wasn’t regularly putting spice on otherwise bland words, the many messages might have landed flat instead or creatively entering the side door of a person’s soul. The Spirit of the Living God empowers each of us to have the gumption to witness to others by what we do and say.
Now, back to Cassie Bernall; she was shot to death a Columbine High School, arguable for answering “Yes” to the question “Do you believe in God?” Her mother bravely came forward with the turbulent account of her daughter’s life in the book I already mentioned: She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall. Misty Bernall described her daughter as living on life’s dark side. Her daughter had written about killing her parents, she was filled with hate, and she consumed drugs and drinks. She was listening to the wrong voices. She would fake being sweet to her parents but then grade of D’s and F’s appeared on her report card. Her music tastes and her clothing got dark. She started fighting her parents like a girl possessed. Perhaps she was. So her parents made a tough love decision to transfer her away from one school to a new school, and to help her join a youth group. On one of their Youth Retreats, God’s Holy Spirit changed her life. As she was firmly holding the front door of her soul closed to anything Godly, God’s Spirit opened the side door of her soul, letting Jesus inside. Jesus loosened Satan’s grip on her, banished him, and began offering her new life. It only happened with loving youth leaders, and youth who helped the scales fall from her eyes. She was “born again,” and baptized. As she began her life with Jesus, Cassie’s life was tragically ended. Here are the words of an English essay she wrote shortly before her death:
[On the youth retreat] there was one girl … Jamie, who befriended me and took me under her wing. She was very open-minded and accepting, something I didn’t find in any of the other kids. She was also the only person I didn’t refuse to listen to. Jamie told me very gently, and in such a noninvasive and unoffensive manner, about Christ, and how what had happened to me [earlier in my life] was not God’s fault. [God] might have allowed it to happen, she said, but ultimately, I brought it upon myself. We are given a free will, Jamie told me, and I had chosen to make decisions I would later regret. I found truth in her words and began to listen. So on March 8th while on retreat with Jamie and her church, I turned my life around. It was only then, that I was really able to see where I had gone astray. I had made bad choices and there was nobody to blame but myself—something I had denied constantly throughout [those rebellious days.] (p. 83,84)
Like a rushing wind, or a gentle breeze, God’s Spirit can find a holy crack in door of someone’s soul, and enter in. Pray for that to happen for those you know who are living a lost or a rudderless life, or following a godless person or path. Even people who say they want God to make the holy presence known in their life can have trouble recognizing it. A man once whispered: “God, speak to me,” and a meadowlark sang. But the man did not hear. So the man yelled, “God speak to me!” and thunder rumbled across the sky. But the man did not listen. The man looked around and said, “Let me see you!” and a star shone brightly. But the man did not notice. The man then shouted, “God, show me a miracle!” and a new life was born. But the man did not respond. So the man cried out in despair, “Touch me God, and let me know you are here!” Whereupon God reached down and touched the man. But the man brushed the butterfly away …and walked on.
Don’t miss out on the answer to your cries because the packaging isn’t what you expect. Open your eyes to see, you ears to hear even God’s whisper, and your mouth to witness, bringing all your senses to bear on the Spirit of the Living God. That Spirit is right here.
Jeffrey A. Sumner May 23, 2021