Pentecost’s Today (or: How to Make the World Quake) by Paul Blankenship

Acts 2:1-13

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.

Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?

Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 

All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

The (Contemporary) Birth of Pentecostalism

The year is 1905.[1] The setting is Topeka, Kansas. The actual place is a small Holiness school operated by a controversial minister: Charles Fox Parham. Parham is controversial because he is a brother in deep time to George Fox: he regularly upsets religious authority and emphasizes a democratic, personal experience of God. Parham is also controversial because he teaches that Pentecost is not just a line in religious history or a dead passage in an ancient book. Rather, Parham taught, Pentecost is an ongoing reality and, more critically, an integral part of Christian discipleship. The fire, he taught, still falls from heaven in search of human hosts seeking a full Christian life.

William Joseph Seymour is one of Parham’s most promising students. In 1870, Seymour was born in Louisiana to two former slaves. He grew up in abject poverty. One record from 1896 suggests that all Seymour’s family owned was one old bedframe, a torn mattress, and a beat-up chair.

Seymour left Louisiana because he felt called to be a minister. As he traveled and sought his ministerial place in the world, he worked as a waiter. When he heard about Charles Parham’s Holiness school, Seymour felt called to there. He agreed with Parham about the power of the Indwelling Christ and that the spiritual clouds above were impregnated with a (quote) “latter rain” that would soon fall upon a spiritually thirsty world.

Though Seymour begged to be admitted to the Holiness school, Parham was reluctant. In that day, systemic racism was more fiercely visible. There were strict segregation laws. African Americans were being lynched. Parham himself is a KKK sympathizer. He said he could not fully welcome a black student into his classroom. At the same time, Parham wanted to help the aspiring minister. So, he compromised. He told Seymour that he could listen to his lectures as long as he promised to do so from an open window outside of the school. If it rained, Parham said, he could sit outside of the classroom in the hallway.

Seymour listened astutely from the window. Though it didn’t come, he prayed fervently for the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

In a few months’ time, Seymour received a call to pastor a church in Los Angeles. Parham supported him. In fact, he loaned Seymour the money to catch the train there. Distressingly, however, Seymour was not received well by his new Los Angeles church. They didn’t like how central he made the second baptism of the Holy Spirit. Actually, they found the doctrine rather pretentious. Surely, they thought, whatever gift he speaks of we already have.

Perhaps Seymour wasn’t terrible surprised that the church door was dead-bolted shut one afternoon he showed up for work. Seymour interpreted things accurately: he had been locked out. Fired. Strikingly, however, the rejection did not dissuade him. Penniless and without a home, Seymour kept on keeping on. In short order, he found welcome as a preacher in a house meeting comprised mostly of African Americans. The address of this house—where the trajectory of religious history would radically change—was 214 North Bonnie Brae Avenue.

Impassioned and with a more supportive church, Seymour continued to preach about the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I wonder whether he felt doubt and despair when the fire baptism didn’t come—not even on how own tongue. On April 9, 1906, however, that changed. A black janitor said he received a vision about how to claim the second baptism. That night the church prayed with him, and, as Pentecostals often say, the Spirit came. And boy, did it come!

Under the weight of The Good Power, people fell to the floor. They were overcome by the joy of God’s touch. Touched by the Cool Fire, some ran and shouted through the house. They were inspired by the fervor of God’s love. One woman, who had never learned how, played sweet melodies on the piano. Others, including Seymour himself, began praising God in mysterious tongues.

With Seymour as pastor, people continued to meet under the Spirit’s power. Word spread. The meeting became so populated that Seymour had to preach from the porch. When people continued to come, the meeting had to find a new location. They ended up at an abandoned church turned into barn and which reeked of horses and manure.

While some came for the power, others wanted to see a spectacle. It was, after all, Los Angeles. One evening a reporter from the Los Angeles Times came. He was swept not under the power of the Holy Spirit but of doubt and disgust. The day after he attended a service, he published an article which described (quote) “wild scenes” taking place in a (quote) “weird babble of tongues.”

Other papers wrote similarly skeptical—and sometimes denigrating and racist—articles. The Los Angeles Record speculated that (quote) “Holy Kickers” were engaging in (quote) “Mad Orgies.” The Los Angeles Daily Times wrote that “Whites and Blacks [were mixing] in a Religious Frenzy.”

The Pentecostal revival in Los Angeles continued. As it did, people kept coming and news continued to spread. When it reached Seymour’s old mentor, Charles Parham, he came at Seymour’s request to witness the event and preach a message himself.

Parham preached from the pulpit, which was actually just a shoe-box. But he did not like what he saw. In fact, he too was swept under the power of disbelief and disgust—or, to capture the sentiment more accurately, racism.

Parham wrote about what bothered him: “Men and women, whites and blacks, knelt together or fell across one another; frequently a white woman, perhaps of wealth and culture, could be seen thrown back in the arms of a ‘buck nigger,’ and held tightly thus as she shivered and shook in freak imitation of Pentecost.”

What a “horrible shame,” Parham wrote. It was, he said, a “darkie revival.”

Today scholars agree that the revival Seymour led in Los Angeles was a pivotal – if not the pivotal – birthplace of a religious movement that is now one of the largest and fastest growing in the world. It is a great tragedy that the movement split along racial lines in the United States—due in part to Parham’s tenacious effort to discredit what his young student was doing but more critically to the racist world we all still live and breathe and have our being.

To Parham, the interracial nature of the meeting was problematic. It meant that what was happening was not the work of the Holy Spirit. For Seymour, however, things meant precisely the opposite. While Parham taught that the second baptism of the Holy Spirit would be evident primarily when people spoke in tongues, Seymour thought that the more telling sign of the Holy Spirit would be racial reconciliation: that, in other words, the second baptism would be discernable because it would heal the deep and profound wounds of racial injustice. And, in fact, the revival in Azusa Street seemed to be on that path. It was not just that blacks, whites, and Mexican were worshiping with one another—they were also embracing and weeping and kneeling at the altar with one another. One white preacher, who was initially offended but later inspired by the interracial service, wrote that “the color line had been washed away … ” in the power of their meeting.

Historic Parallels  

I want to explore some of the similarities between the Pentecostal story described in the book of Acts and the story I just told about the birth of contemporary Pentecostalism. As I do, let’s set aside for a moment the thorny question of how the Holy Spirit actually moves people. Sadly, I think some people today are understandably quite suspicious of a (quote) “Pentecostal power” in light of how phony and manipulative charismatic preachers have been.

First, both stories describe powerful experiences of God. People prayed for and then received a transformative experience of the holy. The power of God, we might say, made them quake. The power of God became their experience, but, importantly, it exceeded their own power and did not belong to them. Second, their experience of the holy, which they did not force but which God brought upon them, created community. It brought people together—people who may have previously had a difficult time relating to one another. Perhaps this Pentecost recasts the nature of divine action as told in the story of Tower of Babel. God does not confuse and create division; She heals and brings together.

Here is a third parallel. Both Pentecostal events led people to wonder. Personally, I am most fascinating by this parallel.

The power of God astonished. It wooed. It seduced. It created a human experience of amazement and erotic bafflement.

Not everyone wondered in astonished awe, of course. Understandably, there were cynics and people who operated by what we might call a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” which tends to interpret everything on the basis of what may be least flattering and most perverse. Still, though, many were—and remain—astonished. They were wooed and beautifully seduced by the power of God.  How wonderful, I think, to speak of a God who woos us with wonder and seduces us with beauty.

Here is the fourth parallel. Perhaps it is the most important because it reveals what is ultimately at stake. Both pentecosts motivated people to get to work: not just through their own power, but also through God’s. The Holy Spirit came not for pleasure or charismatic theatrics but for purpose: to create inclusive communities that love and through which the human and nonhuman world might experience less suffering and become more fully alive. To help all living and breathing things flourish.

Pentecosts Today (or what might make the world quake).  

I want to conclude by moving us more deeply into our present time and by raising a few queries for us to consider—each in our own beautifully unique way—before God. I want to ask what Pentecostal events might look like today—or how, speaking in a more historically Quaker tongue, we might help the world quake. 

What today, in our own small corner of the globe, might help people experience the power of God? What might help bring people together in Spokane? What in our city might cause people to wonder? What might help people in our Meeting work toward the flourishing of our world?

Power. Reconciliation. Wonder. Flourishing. These words, it seems to me, say a little something about the ultimately unnameable mystery we call God.

I want to say, rather quickly, my imagination hurries to the divisive state of our politics. I would wonder at the power of God if I saw Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi sit down together—without Tweet, stunt, or derision—to improve the common good so that we can all lead freer and fulfilling lives. When I was in Seattle last month a friend told me to imagine Donald Trump on the next presidential ticket with Bernie Sanders (he wanted Sanders at the top of the ticket, he said, as would I). Scandalized by the absurd proposition, I put my fork down in disgust and disbelief. How sad, though, I recollect now, that I did not imagine that The Creator of the World could inspire such a reconciliation.

What a small and jaded conception of God’s power I sometimes think with.

I also wonder at the thought of seeing people who commit crime, whether through malice or desperation, get helped and reintegrated rather than locked up and loaded with burdens that even Wonder Woman couldn’t lift. I wonder when I imagine fundamentalist Christians in the Bible Belt worshiping with liberal Episcopalians in Portland. Or when I think of church wounded people in Spokane bathing with us in the light at our meeting.

I don’t know about you but when I start to wonder like this, I live my life differently. I see things differently. I feel the world differently. Actually, I also see how the things I wonder about are actually happening now and experience a holy invitation to join the work.

Queries (or exercises in wonder):

What do you want to see the world quake before the transformative power of God?

How might God be calling you—today, in this moment, and personally, to participate in a new way in the ongoing

[1] My rendering of Pentecostal history sticks pretty close to Harvey Cox’s in Fire From Heaven (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2001).

This message was given at Spokane Friends Church by Paul Blankenship on June 9, 2019.

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