Sermon from Sunday 4th June

Acts 2 : 1 - 13

Every year, seven weeks after Easter we come to celebrate Pentecost, which, along with Easter and Christmas, is one of the three major Christian festivals.   Ok it doesn’t have the same broad appeal as the other two, and it does not have nearly as high a profile in our culture, but it is no less an important part of our Christian faith for that.

Before I come to say why it is so important and what it has to say to us today, let’s remind ourselves of the background.  Pentecost was (and still is) a Jewish festival.  It took place 50 days after Passover which means that it was a kind of harvest thanksgiving festival, marking the completion of the spring harvest.  Yet more significantly it celebrates the key part of the Jewish story when Moses was given the 10 commandments on Mount Sinai.  According to Jewish tradition, the Law of God was offered to all the peoples of the world, but only Israel accepted it, and in accepting it they accepted that they had a calling to be a model people, an example for the world of how all people could come to live in harmony with creation and with its creator.  Pentecost then became a time when the people were reminded of that: of how blessed they had been, and of how they were called to be blessing to the world.

All of that information might just be a bit of history for us, but it becomes more significant when we come to this foundational story in the Christian faith.  For it was at the festival of Pentecost that we read of the remnants of Jesus followers being gathered together in a room in Jerusalem.  Perhaps the account of God’s Spirit coming to them and energising them for action could have been set anywhere, or at any time, but we are particularly told that it took place in Jerusalem at Pentecost.  It is set during a festival when the people of Israel were being reminded of who they meant to be and what they were meant to do, and that is the time and the place where Jesus’ followers were reminded of who they were meant to be, and what they were meant to do.

The story of what happened is filled with richly symbolic language drawn.  As the author tells the story, the Spirit came upon the small band of frightened and confused people with what sounded like a "rushing wind" and what looked like "tongues of fire" resting on each of them.  In the Old Testament, "wind" and "fire" are both associated with the presence of God.  In Hebrew, the same word means both "wind" and "spirit," as in the creation story where the divine wind (or spirit) moves over the waters and brings order out of chaos.  (Genesis 1:2)  So also fire is an image for the divine presence, as in the story of Moses and the bush that burned without being consumed. (Exodus 3:1-6)  That was the sign that let Moses know that God was present at that spot and at that time.

So now the writer is making the amazing claim that, as it was at the beginning of creation and in the history of Israel, the Spirit of God was again at work creating the new community of the church.  This is what our Christian church is based on.  This is what our Christian faith is built on.  It is the belief that God is present and God at work, calling and equipping people to celebrate and to speak up and to make a difference for good in the world.  It was set at a time when people were reminded of who they were and what they were to do, it became the time when Jesus followers were reminded who they were and what they were to do, and of us to the story calls us back to who we are and what we are called to do.

We are told, the followers of Jesus, now "filled with the Holy Spirit," began to speak in "other tongues."  By this time in their history the Jewish people had spread to many countries and spoke many different languages, but because of the attraction of the festival of Pentecost many would have gathered in Jerusalem.  We might imagine that the writer gives that long list of places names just to provide a challenge for whoever is reading the bible passage on Pentecost Sunday - but I suspect there is another reason.  He goes to such lengths to emphasise the variety of places and languages that there were there because this is actually a key part of the story.  They had come together for the festival but they would have had little in common other than their shared history - yet they were all able to understand what the followers of Jesus was saying.  In amazement and wonder they exclaimed, “These people who are talking like this are Galileans!  How is it, then, that all of us hear them speaking in our own native languages? (Acts 2:7,8)

Again this might seem like a curious detail for the writer to give such emphasis to, if we don’t remember the other key story from the Old Testament that it is referring to.  This is the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11.  According to this story, the people of the earth once spoke a common language but were then scattered into different linguistic groups because of their arrogant attempt to build a tower which would reach right up to the heavens.  Indeed, the English word "babble" comes from the name "Babel."  Babel is the story of how humans came to be divided into separate and often hostile groups who do not understand each other.  Whatever the explanation for it might be, that is a pretty good description of the world we were all born into, and perhaps that is as good an explanation as any.

So now we start to see why the experience of the believers on the day of Pentecost day looked so significant.  It was not just a description of a convenient miracle which allowed everyone to understand a particular message at a particular moment in time.  What is being described is the reversal of Babel.  For the author, the coming of Jesus and the continuation of his presence in the power of the Spirit inaugurated a new age in which the all the things that divided humanity could be overcome, in which all the things that keep us apart from one another could be overcome.  Or, in words written by Paul to the Ephesians - “through Christ and the Spirit, the breaking down of "the dividing wall of separation" and the creation of "one new humanity" had begun.(Ephesians 2:14-15)

It is not a coincidence that the birth of the church took place at a festival where, year after year, people were reminded of who they were and what they were called to do.  This is who the followers of Jesus are – and this is what they are called to do.  For this, they were increasingly learning to see, was who Jesus had been, and this what he had done.  Perhaps they reflected on their memories of Jesus and noticed things that had never seemed important before, or see importance in things they had never understood before.  Why had Jesus spent so much of his time with those who were shut out and rejected by respectable society?  Why had he picked out a tax collector like Zacchaeus rather than any of his own followers to go to dinner with?  Why did he tell a story in which a Samaritan rather than one of his own people, was the good guy?  Why did he make a point of saying that the Prodigal Son was in a foreign land when he came to his senses?  Why did he say that he found more faith in a Roman Centurion than he had in anyone of his own religion?  Why had he sat with that foreign woman at the well that day and broken all the rules to share a drink and a talk with her?

I could go on for a long time with examples like that but I suspect we all want to get lunch at some point… What is important is that we realise, as they did, that Jesus was not interested in forming a close-knit group of the faithful few.  He had not come to set up any more divisions.  Rather he actively and deliberately and consistently went out of his way to break down the things that divide people, to bring people together, and to demonstrate that the love of God was given equally to all who are created in his image.  As he said – the sun shines on good and bad people alike, it doesn’t distinguish one from another.  And the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, without making any difference between them.  Just so – the love and the compassion and the salvation of God is offered freely to everyone, to those we might find it easy to  communicate with and to understand, and to those we might normally find it difficult to talk with, those who we might find it very hard to understand.

On the day of Pentecost, the small band of Jesus followers were reminded that the message they had received from Jesus was not theirs to own, nor theirs to control, nor theirs to feel proud of.  They were reminded that the one they followed had broken down divisions and that they were called to do the same.  On that day, when they first found their voice and their courage, they discovered that the message about Jesus was one that everyone could understand, whatever barriers might have appeared to be in the way.

So let us not lose that vision, or that understanding, or that faith.  Let us not fall back into the easy trap of seeing the church as some kind of private club which we ought to have control over.  Let us not recreate any divisions between people, between those we consider good and those we consider bad, between those we consider righteous and those we consider unrighteous.  All of that is in the past for now we believe in  something bigger than any human division.  We believe in Jesus and all that he represents.  We believe in the God who is present with his people, who heals hurts and forgives sins and breaks down walls of separation.

Pentecost is where it all began for our church.  May it also be what we believe as a church and how we live as a church so that the message of Jesus that we proclaim might be heard and understood by everyone.