Enthusiasm or Extremism?
One of the most celebrated Welsh preachers of the last century was Martyn Lloyd-Jones, commonly known as "the Doctor". I heard him preach twice and, although it was well over 40 years ago, I can still remember an illustration that he used in one of his sermons.
For he described the behaviour of a Christian football fan on the Saturday of a home game. He (and it was a "he" in the sermon!) wakes early, full of excitement. He goes through the morning with a growing sense of anticipation. He arrives at the ground well before kick-off, wanting to soak up the atmosphere with his fellow-supporters. When the match starts, he watches intently, shouting and cheering and even crying. And, when the referee blows his final whistle, he can hardly believe that the game is over. It has been an emotional roller-coaster which he has ridden with every fibre of his being.
"Then", said Dr. Lloyd-Jones, "it's Sunday morning, and time for our friend to go to church ...". He didn't need to say any more as a ripple of laughter started to run around the chapel. For he knew very well that most Christians never get that enthused about coming to worship. Indeed, if we show any excitement or enthusiasm in our religious beliefs even fellow-Christians may regard us as somewhat eccentric. And people in the wider world might even consider us to be an extremist or a fanatic, to be looked at askance and given a wide berth!
As you read this our city of Cardiff will be anticipating the arrival of fans of "the beautiful game". During the next week the streets will be crowded with people wearing stripey shirts and silly hats, their faces daubed in vivid colours. Lengthy screeds will be written in the papers about every aspect of the forthcoming match. The stadium will be packed to the rafters with people cheering, clapping or weeping. And we will see if Gareth Bale achieves his dream of scoring the winning goal for Real Madrid on Welsh soil.
Just hours after the Champions' League final, Christians will be celebrating Pentecost. This, to my mind, is the most important festival in our religious calendar after Easter and Christmas. It isn't one which is celebrated in the secular world: the supermarkets don't sell Pentecost wind-chimes or fire-lighters to complement Easter eggs or Christmas cakes! In any case the Pentecost story is, I think, more difficult for people to "get a handle on": we can visualise the birth of a baby or the death of a man on a cross far more easily than the coming of God's mysterious Spirit.
Now there's a lot of misunderstanding about Pentecost. For instance, if you read the Bible's account carefully, you will discover that there was no "actual" wind nor "real" fire! Nevertheless something extraordinary happened to the disciples that day, something which transformed them from a group of timid Jesus-followers into a band of evangelists who felt they could take on the world. And it's abundantly clear that enthusiastic worship lay at the very heart of the Pentecost experience - indeed, it was the sound of exuberant praise which not only drew the disciples' neighbours to find out what was going on, but led to accusations of early-morning drunkenness!
It must have been liberating for those Jewish Christians to discover a new kind of religious freedom and to drink the unfamiliar but potent brew of the Holy Spirit. It's also true that they were very much in love with the risen Lord Jesus whom most of them had known personally. So there was a freshness, even a naïvety, in their new-found faith. Doubtless they made mistakes in their zeal for spreading their message. But their enthusiasm was so infectious that they clearly made an impact on everyone who met them. As a result, the Church grew in a quite remarkable way.
We cannot return to Pentecost. We cannot undo the 2000 years of history which have passed since that unrepeatable event, nor can those of us who have walked in Christ's way for decades turn back our own personal spiritual clocks. But I do wonder if we might be able to recover some of that early Christian enthusiasm? To do so will mean shedding some of our suspicions and inhibitions, especially in worship; it will lead us to talk about our faith in a much more open way; it might even mean being open for God to work in ways we have previously found disturbing.
Do we have the courage to ask the Holy Spirit to transform our worship, our witness and our lives? I hope that we do. In fact, let's do the unthinkable: let's allow ourselves to get enthusiastic, not about football, our hobbies or even the Church, but about Jesus Christ himself!
With best wishes,
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