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In the passage chosen for focus at MennoCon19, John 20:19-22, Jesus says to his disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” For Leonard Dow, Friday evening’s speaker, the Spirit doesn’t wait to come but comes “suddenly.”
Dow, who served as pastor at Oxford Circle Mennonite Church in Philadelphia for almost 20 years and now is a stewardship and development specialist for Everence, asked, “Why did the disciples stay together, ready and willing to receive the Holy Spirit?” They had nowhere else to go.
They were threatened by forces outside their doors and faced a threat inside the doors, their uncertainty about what it meant to follow the Lord. They should have imploded but didn’t.
What about us? Dow asked. What is our response to what’s going on in our world? We struggle when we’re together and fear going beyond safe solutions. We keep hurting one another.
The disciples also could have tried to make an idol of the Holy Spirit in that place.
He once heard about a dynamic church in Brooklyn, New York, and went there on a pilgrimage. He arrived an hour early, and hundreds of people were lined up. During the service there seemed to be waves of the Holy Spirit as people prayed for each other. Afterward, he hung around and wanted to hold onto what he’d experienced. Then a deacon from the church told him this happened every week. He said, “You know, Christ is present wherever the Holy Spirit is invited. And now you need to go.”
Dow said, “You are not only to receive the Holy Spirit here this evening but to take it back with you.”
The disciples could have chosen to ignore the fresh breath of the Holy Spirit, he went on. They could have said, No thanks.
Dow said he’s heard some Mennonites say, I don’t like all that emotion. That’s not my tradition. I’m more comfortable with things I can control. If the Spirit moves me in ways I can’t control, what can I do?
The disciples, however, were in a desperate situation. They realized they needed Jesus more than ever. They could not depend on themselves.
Dow referred to a story Anne Lamott tells in her book Traveling Mercies about resisting going to church. She began attending a storefront African-American church and was surprised at how the singing affected her. It came from the soul, wore down all the boundaries that had kept her isolated. She writes, “I felt bigger than myself. I was being taken care of, tricked into coming back to life.”
Dow invited people to sing, “I Need Thee Every Hour.”
The disciples did not implode or make an idol or ignore the prompting of the Holy Spirit. They allowed themselves to be interrupted by the Spirit.
Jesus appeared “suddenly” and invited them to receive what was in Christ to be in them.
“When things happen suddenly in my life,” Dow said, “it’s usually something bad,” but sometimes it is good news.
In Scripture, the Holy Spirit often comes suddenly, he said. The world is so bad, and we shrug and say, It is what it is. We just accept it. But when the Holy Spirit shows up, things can change suddenly. It may have taken years for things to develop, but the Holy Spirit can come upon us suddenly. And it may make us uncomfortable.
Dow then referred to several biblical stories where God appears suddenly. The angels appeared to the shepherds suddenly and announced that Jesus was coming. When Paul, the number one killer of Christians, was on his way to Damascus, Jesus appeared suddenly and said, “Why are you persecuting me.” When Paul and Silas were in prison, singing hymns, suddenly the Spirit came and set them free but also set the other prisoners free. The Spirit doesn’t just come for us but for those around us, Dow said.
Then he told a story of when he was pastor at Oxford Circle, and the church wanted to buy a building for ministry in the neighborhood. He went to talk with the people selling it, which was a group of former police officers. He told them the church wanted to make the community a better place, a place where grandmothers can sit safely on their porches; they wanted to help people get GEDs, help immigrants take ESL classes, among other ministries. A week later, the men surprised him by offering the building at a lower price and even provided cash to help renovate the building.
In Ezekiel 37, God shows the prophet a valley of dry bones and says those bones can live again. The Lord says to Ezekiel, “I will put my breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” And suddenly, everything Ezekiel thinks can’t happen happens.
“Receive the Holy Spirit,” Dow said. “Do not be overwhelmed by the enormity of the world’s grief. The Spirit has anointed you to bring good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, both spiritual and physical, and proclaim the year of the Lord. Hold on to God and to one another. The same Spirit that came to the disciples and changed their lives is here today. The same Spirit that breathed on our Anabaptist forebears breathes on us today.”
“We’re gonna make it,” he said. “We’re gonna make it. This is not the end. Because the Spirit of God comes suddenly.”
He closed by inviting people to receive anointing from people at the front and the sides, and hundreds did.
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