The Right Enthusiasm

The Right Enthusiasm

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and especially this Pentecost day from the Holy Spirit, our Helper and Comforter. Amen.

How often have you heard it: “If you just pray harder, or pray more often, or pray in the right way, or get more people to pray, your friend or relative would get better.”?

Or, “If you really had the Holy Spirit and believed strongly enough, you’d be able to speak in tongues, just like the people in the early church did.”?

Or, “If you really had the Holy Spirit, you wouldn’t get sick, and if you had the Spirit strongly enough, you’d be able to heal other people, too.”?

Or, “If you were a true believer and really had the Holy Spirit, you wouldn’t be sinning like that.”?

Such are the lies of the modern-day enthusiasts. Though “enthusiasts” more broadly means those who believe the Holy Spirit works on them apart from the Word and Sacraments, these other symptoms often apply. Enthusiasts seek religious experiences that are emotional, exciting, and come though dramatic outward signs and actions. After all, such actions get noticed by others and bring glory and praise—not first and foremost to God, mind you, but rather glory and praise to the individual for his or her perceived faithfulness, and the power of his or her own faith.

By “enthusiasts,” I don’t mean genuine Christians who have a dynamic, living faith that is apparent to all; a faith lived out humbly and without seeking attention. We all should certainly hope and pray that the Holy Spirit will dwell in us, and that He will lead us to willingly and eagerly exhibit lives of faithful obedience to God and loving service to our neighbor.

Rather, I use the term “enthusiast” and “enthusiasm” here in specific theological ways, which I hope you’ll come to better understand as we go further together. You can usually identify enthusiasts because they’re a very demanding bunch. They set the bar of their expectations very high, indeed. They insist on strict standards of behavior—sometimes for themselves, but more often for others they want to judge, and especially standards for God. The coarsest form of modern-day enthusiasm in the Christian tradition is probably found in Pentecostalism, that religion which takes its name from the event that we observe today.

Yet Christian enthusiasm today certainly isn’t confined to Pentecostalism. Enthusiasm can exist even among those who consider themselves members of very orthodox church bodies. It can exist to an even greater extent among congregations and pastors who are functionally independent of any denominational hierarchy, or which don’t subscribe to a broader scriptural confession that clearly defines the attributes and work of God.

And, it can especially exist among individuals who consider themselves Christian, but who separate themselves from sharing in a confession and in fellowship with other believers, who isolate themselves from working and serving and suffering together, and who insist that it’s all about them and Jesus, one-on-one.

Enthusiasm was not unknown during Jesus’ earthly ministry, nor in the early church, even if the term wasn’t explicitly or formally used. It has existed in various forms and at various times throughout history. In fact, whenever and wherever people insist that God, His prophets, or His followers meet their desires and expectations, rather than conform to God’s own revelations, there’s a looming danger of enthusiasm. Along with that danger comes the very real possibility that true orthodoxy, true proclamation of God’s Word, and true confession of the faith will be lost. Can you think of places in the Bible where enthusiasm got the better of people?

I can think of a few: How about when Cain was angered that the Lord didn’t find his offering acceptable? How about when Abraham and Sarah decided God wasn’t fulfilling His promise of a child fast enough for their liking, and decided that they needed to use Hagar as a surrogate? When Moses determined that speaking to the rock as God had commanded wasn’t adequate, but that striking it and declaring how he was providing them water would be more helpful and more dramatic? How about when Samuel tried to guess which of Jesse’s sons would be chosen for anointing as the next king based on his own perceptions?

Such enthusiasm, such insistence on conformance to one’s own ideas in order to find God or His ways acceptable and adequate, wasn’t limited to the Old Testament, either. The people of Nazareth wanted Jesus to do miracles in His hometown as they had heard he’d done elsewhere. The scribes and Pharisees and chief priests wanted Jesus to show them miraculous signs, too; His proclamation wasn’t enough for them.

Even among Jesus’ closest followers, it surfaced. Phillip, even after spending several years hearing God’s message through Jesus, still wanted to see the Father in order to accept Jesus as the Messiah. James and John wanted to sit at Jesus’ left and right hands when He came into His kingdom.

And the primary speaker of the Pentecost-day sermon, St. Peter, had initially rejected the way Jesus told His disciples He would be glorified and how His kingdom would come—that is, by His death on the cross. Peter had later rejected Jesus’ desire to wash his feet at the Passover, and then insisted that Jesus wash more than just his feet. Peter thought Jesus ought to do it his way, and then to take it one step further; again doing it Peter’s way. In all these cases, people either demanded dramatic outward exhibitions of God’s power and glory, or at least a conformance to their own expectations.

Enthusiasts in our day insist—just as enthusiasts always have—that God or others demonstrate certain actions or characteristics in order to be satisfy themselves that their faith is true and sufficient, or that God approves. They insist that if worship and Bible Study don’t leave them feeling mentally stimulated and emotionally energized in that very hour, it isn’t effective. They insist that if such-and-such a program or technique isn’t being used to reach the lost, then the church isn’t mission-oriented. They insist that if a congregation isn’t numerically growing at a certain pace, or—panic-of-panics—is shrinking, it’s a sign of unfaithfulness, or of God’s disfavor. In these cases, too, human demands or expectations are being placed upon God or upon His Church, putting humanity or the individual into Christ’s judgment seat, rather than leaving it to Him who will judge all things according to His Word.

When God sent the Holy Spirit to His Church on that Pentecost day, seven weeks after Jesus’ resurrection from the grave, He certainly did come in a dramatic and highly visible, highly perceptible way. A sound like a mighty wind; a sign like tongues of fire, and the believers’ miraculous ability to speak to the gathered throng and declare the wonders of God in human languages that they had never studied. These were all special things that have been recorded for us in God’s Word. Things we do not fully understand, but things we believe and trust because that same Holy Spirit has come to us.

It is not for us to determine and demand how God chooses to work for us and in us. Faith accepts that He can work in ways that are spectacular, and in ways that seem quite ordinary, even in ways that appear weak and nonsensical to us.

Yet it is no less miraculous than any of His many wonders—and no less effective—that His Word and a common of earthly substance—water—can give you faith and forgive your sins. It is no less miraculous that the spoken declaration of absolution from a frail and fallen sinner can remove the stain and guilt of your sins, either. And it is just as amazing, just as unfathomable, that the true presence of the Son of God—the very body that suffered and blood that was shed on the cross to atone for your sins—can be brought to you in a somewhat bland wafer and a sip of unspectacular wine.

The real miracle of Pentecost is not that spectacular signs were given by God, for He has been known from the very beginning to be capable of that and far, far more. Sounds of wind and signs of flames and words in many languages are not all that spectacular in comparison to speaking creation, flooding the earth, parting the sea, striking down vast armies, and the many more powerful signs we are told of throughout the Bible.

No, the real miracle of Pentecost is that in the proclamation of Jesus Christ to a crowd of devout Jews, God brought faith to many of them. From that day forth, His Church has spread that same news near and far, just as many of those in Jerusalem took it home to each of their native lands. Just as that news has come to you, and put faith and the Holy Spirit into your heart as well.

If you look further in the book of Acts, and throughout the epistles of the New Testament, you’ll notice something quite interesting and important about the apostles’ great joy in God’s actions. They and the other believers certainly were thrilled and thankful for the miracles they had seen and had been given the power to perform. They rightly gave glory to God for these amazing, extraordinary things. But these believers didn’t consider these dramatic and spectacular events to be of primary importance in their life in Christ. In fact, it was usually the unbelievers who focused more greatly upon the signs.

Rather, the Christians’ greatest joys were in being called by God to have faith, to serve Him, and to proclaim the Gospel. Their rejoicing was in being joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Their rejoicing was in being counted worthy to suffer on account of the name of Jesus. Their rejoicing was in seeing others receive the Word of God, and being granted the gift of faith. Their rejoicing was in seeing hearts moved toward generous giving to support of the spread of the Gospel, and to provide care to their Christian brothers and sisters, both in their own local congregations and in distant places.

We observe and remember Pentecost as a day in which God worked in extraordinary ways to convey His power to His Church, and to enable His Church to miraculously convey His Word to the lost and fallen world. Yet the reality of that day does not give us—nor anyone else—the right or authority to insist that God always work in dramatic ways, nor even in ways that we would find preferable or more acceptable.

Instead, the heart ruled by the Holy Spirit humbly trusts that God will ordinarily work to further His kingdom in the ways and through the work He has given us: Baptizing, teaching, and observing all that He has commanded, including joining together in worship, repenting and giving and receiving the forgiveness of sins, partaking of the Supper He instituted, and providing for the care of our brothers and sisters in the faith.

The heart ruled by faith, occupied by the Holy Spirit, will not burn within us due to the guilt of doubt, like those of the disciples on the Emmaus road. Instead, out of our Spirit-filled hearts will burst forth and flow the soothing and refreshing rivers of living, life-giving water of the Spirit which Jesus spoke in today’s Gospel lesson. That life-giving water is the Word—Jesus, the living Gospel—He who restores all things, making us and all of creation new once more, by our drowning and arising.

By all means be enthusiastic and joyful that the Lord has done marvelous things for you, to you, and through you. But don’t be an “enthusiast”. Don’t insist that God do things in your way, to your liking, and according to your timetable. It’s not a sign of certain faith when you demand of God certain signs for faith. That’s merely blasphemy.

Rather, come to accept that the genuine signs of faith are not in the outwardly extraordinary, spectacular events—whether once-in-a-lifetime or ongoing. The signs of genuine faith are in having the Holy Spirit be your constant companion, guiding you in the day-to-day rhythm of the Christian life. Leading you to trust God not just for your eternal salvation but also for your daily bread. Leading you not to great deeds and dramatic speeches, but to faithful, humble worship, soft words of comfort and hope, generous sharing of God’s blessings, and simple acts of service.

The Lord will certainly show signs and wonders of His own choosing in the heavens and upon the earth as the last days approach, and He will do so in His own due time. Until then, pray not that the Holy Spirit might give you spectacular powers. Pray that He guard and keep you firm in faith. Pray that the Spirit might give you complete trust in the extraordinary effects of the seemingly ordinary gifts that Christ provides to you through His Church. Through such things, God prepares you for that great and magnificent day when our Lord Jesus will come again, that you may call upon His name and be saved. In His holy (+) name, Amen.