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William Seymour and the Holy Spirit’s power

  • January 11, 2015
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for January 11, 2015 (Baptism of Our Lord, Year B)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Acts 19:1-7; Psalm 29; Mark 1:4-11

Title:               William Seymour and the Holy Spirit’s power

My friends, what does it mean to live in the power of the Holy Spirit?

And how do you experience the Spirit’s power in your life?

Today we gather to remember and celebrate the baptism of our Lord Jesus the Messiah in the Jordan River by John the Baptizer.We call this the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism.

But let’s be clear that John was not offering a “baptism.”

That is anachronistic. WE call it baptism. But the word written in the Gospels was then NOT a title – not a defined sacramental action – but simply a washing with water.

Come and be washed in the waters as a sign of your desire to be washed by God on the inside.

So Jesus joins the seekers among the Jewish people and comes to John to be washed in the Jordan River.

By the way, in case you don’t know, no one would choose to do that today.

Today, the Jordan is nothing but a dirty stream. Most of the water coming out of the Sea of Galilee is diverted by Israeli dams into irrigation canals. The trickle that is left is horribly polluted with agricultural runoff and sewage. In the dry season, it often disappears entirely.

The Jordan River today

The spot where we think the Lord was baptized!

It was different in those days. So the Lord Jesus comes and submits himself to this washing, and what happens?

The Holy Spirit comes. And the voice of God is heard.

My friends, it is often said that the work of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted AND to afflict the comfortable.

I think that it can also be said that the work of the Gospel is to create order in the midst of chaos AND to introduce some fruitful chaos into the midst of settled order.

You cannot see it here, but the very FIRST thing that the Holy Spirit does after settling on Jesus is to introduce some chaos into his life!

Directly after our Gospel reading today are these words:

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”

There it is. Boom! Jesus is baptized. The Spirit comes down. God is happy.

And the Lord is pushed out into the wilderness to be with the wild animals and with angels, and to do battle with the forces of evil!

But it’s not just in his life. Look at what happens to the twelve in Ephesus.

They are disciples of the Lord, students of John and seemingly followers of the Lord’s teaching. But they did not have any contact with the Holy Spirit.

I don’t know how that is really possible, but that’s the story that we are given here.

So what happens when the Holy Spirit comes to them? What does the text say?

“When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:6).

Speaking in tongues and prophesying – these are things that are outside of normal, ordinary and settled existence. These are signs of power coming from outside.

This is a bit of fruitful chaos introduced by the Spirit.

This is the way that the Holy Spirit has always acted when the people of God are open and receptive.

The power of the Holy Spirit is what was experienced by William J. Seymour.

I’ll bet that none of you have heard his name before, but he is, in fact, one of the most important figures in the Church in the 20th century.

Wiliam Seymour was born in 1870 in Louisiana. The son of former slaves, Seymour fled the south as a young man. African-Americans were free of slavery after the war, but every economic opportunity in the South was kept firmly closed to them.

Seymour was ordained in Ohio and eventually he was called to a small congregation in Los Angeles. It was there during Holy Week in 1906 that something extraordinary and world-changing happened.

On Monday night, April 9, 1906, the Azusa Street Revival began, and the world has never been the same.

This was the launch of the Pentecostal movement which has swept across the entire globe in the last 100 years.

As you can imagine, this Revival was controversial right from the start.

It was too chaotic and radical for most Americans! Blacks and whites and latinos and Asians were all worshipping together in an old run-down building in Los Angeles! The color line was being entirely erased by the Holy Spirit. And that was dangerous.

You have to remember that 1906 was also the year when lynchings by the KKK reached their highest numbers!

Here was the Holy Spirit striking back against the hatred and blindness of humanity.

But there was even more! Women were preaching and teaching. It was the egalitarian vision of the New Testament brought to life by the Holy Spirit in an old building with a dirt floor and wooden planks for benches and a pulpit made of old wooden crates.

How could this be the center of the Holy Spirit’s powerful movement?

Listen to how one eyewitness described the situation:

“[There was] no choir…no collections taken. No bills posted to advertise the meetings. No church organization [behind] it…You find a two-storey white-washed old building. You would hardly expect heavenly visitations there, unless you remember the stable of Bethlehem” (Streams of Living Water by Richard Foster, HarperSanFrancisco, 1998: p.118).

The Holy Spirit is a force beyond our control, and that can be frightening – and unsettling.

I am sure that I am not the only one who likes to have things in life to be in order.

It feels good when everything is in order, in its place. Do you know that feeling?

For me, when my clothes closet is messy because the clothes that need to be ironed and to be put away are all piled up, I feel a bit out of sorts.

And then when they are all taken care of and put away, everything feels better.

Do you know what I’m talking about? Do you know that feeling, and how good it feels?

Why then would you and I want to open ourselves to this unpredictable power of the Holy Spirit which often leads people down surprising and unsettling paths?


Because at the end of the day, what we all want – and what we all need – is power. Not more knowledge, not more information about things, more skills.

These things are all good and necessary, but what we NEED is energy, power!

And this comes from the Holy Spirit.

Now here’s the rub, perhaps it’s the concern that you’ve been thinking about:

we all need the soul-filling power of the Holy Spirit. I know this to be true, but I also feel confident in saying that no one here wants to become a religious fanatic.

We are all FAR too aware of what religious fanatics are like. The killings in Paris last week are yet another reminder of the dangers of religious fanaticism.

Yes, those terrorists were Muslims, but there are plenty of examples of Christian fanatics doing violent things as well. Fanatics of all creeds become blinded by their own illusions of grandeur and their desire to control others. They use their religion to exercise that control, to coerce others into doing their will.

But the truth of the Gospel is so radically different than this.

To be filled with the Holy Spirit is to be controlled by the Spirit, to be led in the way of the Spirit, which is none other than the way of Jesus.

William Seymour, the man at the center of that Azusa Street Revival in 1906, explained the way of the Spirit like this:

“The Pentecostal power, when you sum it all up, is just more of God’s love. If it does not bring more of God’s love, it is simply a counterfeit…Pentecost [the power of the Holy Spirit] makes us love Jesus more and love our brothers more. It brings us all into one common family.”

Here, my friends, is the true direction and consequence of being washed, baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, and living in the power of the Holy Spirit: you are empowered to truly love God and your neighbor with more passion, more enthusiasm, more intention, more devotion.

This is why William Seymour was rejected in his day. God worked through him to launch the world-wide Pentecostal movement, but the American Christians of the early 20th century could not see past their cultural bigotry and prejudices.

They could not embrace the radical way of the Spirit, so they rejected the words of the prophets and quenched the Spirit.

My friends: how do YOU experience the Spirit’s power in your life?

Or are you afraid of that chaotic energy, that unpredictable power?

Would you prefer that everything stay orderly and settled, safe and calm?

Sometimes I would prefer this, but deep down I know that life – my life, your life – can never reach its full flowering and potential apart from the Holy Spirit.

And so every day I am willing to open myself and say: Come Holy Spirit. Fill us with everything that you have and all that you are. May it be so. Amen.


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