A Sermon on Acts 2:1-21
“When the day of Pentecost came, all of them were together in one place. Suddenly, a sound like the roaring of a mighty windstorm came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw tongues like flames of fire that separated, and one rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
Yes, it’s the Feast of Pentecost again, the birthday of the church – the day we remember that very significant event that took place in Jerusalem that started with wind and fire and so much chaos, and concluded with the Apostle Peter standing up and explaining, “No, we are not drunk. It’s only 9am in the morning” (the implication being, of course, that had it been a little later in the day, well…).
Even so, Pentecost is a very significant event in the Christian calendar and, as far as Christian feasts go, it’s my personal favourite of the entire ecclesiastical year!
I appreciate that this puts me out of step with the commercial world that has managed to find in Christmas and Easter major marketing opportunities for the sale and distribution of useless gifts and unhealthy foodstuffs respectively, and yet has failed thus far to get a foothold in the Feast of Pentecost (as far as I know).
And I appreciate that this might equally put me out of step with many of the faithful, for whereas Christmas and Easter focus on Christ – on his birth, death and resurrection respectively – the Feast of Pentecost is all about us, the church – who we are and where we came from – and hence an emphasis on Pentecost may seem relatively impious.
And yet my feeling is that we, the church, tend to be less confused about who Christ is – ‘Son of God and Son of Man, with reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting’ (that’s for those of us who are fans of the Athanasian Creed) – than we are about who we are.
Who is the church? What are we supposed to be on about? What’s the point of meeting together like this each week when there are so many other things we could be doing?
You only have to look at the history of the church and at the tensions within the church around the world today to realise that there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the question of who we are and what our role in this world is supposed to be.
I read an excellent article this week, written by someone who I see as one of this world’s greatest living saints – the former Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu – who has just published a new book with the provocative title, “God is not a Christian!” And in this book he talks about the sad history of the church:
“We are supposed to proclaim the God of love, but we have been guilty as Christians of sowing hatred and suspicion; we commend the one whom we call the Prince of Peace, and yet as Christians we have fought more wars than we care to remember. We have claimed to be a fellowship of compassion and caring and sharing, but as Christians we often sanctify socio-political systems that belie this, where the rich grow ever richer and the poor grow ever poorer,…”
And his point, I believe, is not simply that we are so regularly hypocritical, but more so that we are often confused – confused about who we are and about what our role in our community is supposed to be! Indeed, if you look at the history of the church over the last 2000 years, so much of it seems to be about empire building! We’ve been the religious end of imperialist expansionism – inspiring the soldiers of the empire and forgiving the atrocities of colonialism!
Look at the history of the church in this country. Christian clergy came on board the first fleet with a specific purpose – to keep the convicts in line! Our identity from the first was as moral policemen to the community and we’ve continued to play that role ever since.
Many of you might have noticed yesterday the article in the Sydney Morning Herald where our Archbishop forthrightly put his foot down on gay marriage, which is exactly what you’d expect from the moral policemen of our community! Is that really the sort of thing that the church should be doing? The answer may well be here in Pentecost – in the wind and the fire of Pentecost.
Now admittedly, if you didn’t look beyond the phenomena of fire and wind, you could be forgiven for thinking that the role of the church is to blow hot air, but in fact the crux of the Pentecostal experience came after the wind and fire seemed to have died down:
“Now devout Jews from every nation under heaven were living in Jerusalem. When that sound came, the crowd rushed together and was startled because each one heard the disciples speaking in his own language. Stunned and amazed, they asked, “All of these people who are speaking are Galileans, aren’t they? So how is it that each one of us hears them speaking in his own native language? We are Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, the district of Libya near Cyrene, and visitors from Rome. We are Jews, proselytes, Cretans, and Arabs. Yet we hear them telling in our own tongues the great deeds of God!” All of them continued to be stunned and puzzled, and they kept asking one another, “What can this mean?” (Acts 2:5-12)
What we see taking place here is a miracle, and it’s a miracle of communication, and it’s a miracle that functions to bring people of different races and language groups together. And the list of those different races and language groups is extensive to the point of tedium: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mespotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians,… (and so the list goes on) concluding with ‘Cretans’ (for whom I think the more politically correct term was ‘Phoenicians’) and Arabs! Everybody was there. “Yet we hear them telling in our own tongues the great deeds of God!” the crowd wondrously proclaims!
And Luke, the author of the book of Acts, was evidently making a point, as he evidently believed that God had been making a point in the way that the Pentecost event had been divinely organised and ordered, and that point was that the church, whatever else it was, was, from the first, a multicultural experience!
You don’t have to read the passage through more than once to realise that this is the whole thrust of the passage. Everyone was there at Pentecost – the whole world, so it seemed. And indeed if you go through that list of people spelled out by Luke you’ll find some people there who were a real surprise, most obviously the Medes and the Elamites!
The issue for the Medes and the Elamites was that they didn’t just have to travel a couple of hundred miles to be there but a couple of hundred years as well! The kingdoms of Media and Elam were long gone by the first century AD!
And while most scholars would suggest that Luke was simply referring to the homelands of these visitors by their ancient names, I think it’s also fair to say that, again, he was making a point, namely – that what was going on there that day, in the formation of the church, was something that was bigger than any one time or place. The formation of the church was in fact an event of cosmic significance because it was in fact the reversal of that ancient curse spoken of in the book of Genesis – the curse of Babel!
If you’re familiar with the book of Genesis (or if you’ve heard me before at Pentecost) you know what I’m talking about. If not, I won’t go through all those ancient stories that make up Genesis chapters one to eleven, but suffice it to say that they are a very ancient collection that includes such favourites as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, and Noah and the great flood.
And those great stories culminate with a story in Genesis chapter eleven about the first time human beings ever really united together for a common purpose. And it turns out to be a sinister purpose – a quest for power and self-aggrandisement. And so God curses the people of Babel by confusing their language so that they can no longer understand one another, and so the people fragment and are divided.
And whether we take this story literally or not does not matter. What is clear from the story, whether we take it literally or not, is that the division of the nations into different races and language groups was always seen in the Bible as a curse, and hence as something that God would one day overcome. And what is clear in the Pentecost experience, in the miracle of cross-cultural communication that took place there, was that God, in the very formation of the church, was undoing that ancient curse!
Just as the human community had been confused and pulled apart through linguistic diversity way back at Babel, so now the Spirit of God heals those divisions and starts bringing the races and language groups back together in the founding of the church as a truly multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-linguistic community!
As St Paul would later say, “Christ himself has brought us peace by making Jews and non-Jews (and all the myriad nations that are included there) one people. With his own body he broke down the wall that separated us and kept us enemies.” (Ephesians 2:14) And what God has brought together, let not man put asunder!
Now I’m not saying that this Pentecost experience in itself tells us everything we need to know about who we are as a church and what we are supposed to be doing in this world but it certainly does tell us that whatever it is we are supposed to be doing we are certainly supposed to be doing it together, in loving association with people of every other nation and culture and language group.
Rather than one group dominating and oppressing another, in the church all groups come together as one, and all the different races and cultures and language groups come to understand and respect each other, because this is the work of the Spirit of God in the church and this is the essential nature of Christian community!
Now I don’t really want to make any other points this morning as I don’t want us to lose our focus on the wonder of Christian community, as conceived at Pentecost through the miraculous work of the Spirit of God and as continues to take place in our community today through the miraculous work of that same Spirit!
Let me rather encourage each of you not to take it for granted, for it is not natural. What is natural is for birds of a feather to flock together. What’s natural is homogeneous units, where white people hang with white people and black people hang with black people, highly-educated people hang with other highly-educated people, and less-educated people hang with less educated people, where men and women stick to their own gender groups and where teenagers form a peer society that shuts out anyone over 20.
What is natural is each race and class and language-group sticking to its own clique. What is super-natural is the church – that multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-linguistic community that in its very being proclaims the wisdom of God to the rest of the world!
St Paul says of God that “He [brought together the nations] so that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realm” (Ephesians 3:10). And that word ‘manifold’ there literally translates from the Greek as ‘multi-coloured’.
That’s St Paul’s understanding of the church – that God brought us together so that His multi-coloured wisdom might be proclaimed to the ends of the universe! And I’m not suggesting that this tells us everything there is to know about what it means to be the church and what it is exactly that we’re supposed to be doing in this world, but it does give us a framework, and brings us far closer to our core identity, I would suggest, than any role we might have as moral policemen, let alone as empire-builders!
I read a true story about a Parish Priest who tried to share the spirit of Pentecost with his congregation in a rather unique way, by setting up an enormous fan at the front of the church and, at an appropriate point in his sermon, turning it on to simulate the divine wind that blew upon the disciples on that day of the formation of the church.
Apparently he had one of those massive fans that’s used to blow boats across swamps, and he set it up between the choir stalls at the front of the church, and he gave it a test run during the week while nobody was there and it seemed to work really well. What he hadn’t counted on was that by the time he give his sermon the church would be full of people who had their bulletin sheets and other pieces of paper all laid out neatly in front of them on the pews. When the fan was switched on and the wind started to blow…!
I decided not to simulate that experience this morning; partly because I don’t have an adequately sized fan but mainly because I think we experience enough of that divine chaos around here already! Rest assured: chaos has always been an integral part of the experience! It comes with being a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-linguistic community. And yet it’s all likewise a part of the miracle that allows us to be the church, and so to proclaim to the ends of the world the multi-coloured wisdom of God.