SERMON PENTECOST 2016
“Spirit of God, unseen as the wind, gentle as is the dove, teach us the truth and help us believe, show us the Saviour’s love”. Pentecost. One of the big festivals of the church. Often called the church’s birthday and celebrated with cakes, candles, streamers, balloons, whatever. Pentecost, whose name simply derives from the Greek word “Pente” which means 50, since this is 50 days after Easter. It was also the time called the Feast of Weeks for the Jewish people, when the gathering in of the harvest was celebrated. It was also the time of remembering the coming of the divine Law on Sinai. Legend has it that on that occasion a flame came down from heaven and divided into 70 tongues of fire, one for each nation of the then-known world. So this was already a festival occasion.
Pentecost, that extraordinary event that could only be described as being like the blowing of a violent wind that filled the whole house and seeing what seemed like tongues of fire. Luke’s readers would have recognized the symbolism. Here the Spirit is celebrated as its presence comes flowing through into the early Christian movement. Quite apart from this special happening, Luke wants his readers to understand how this event countered what had happened in the story of the Tower of Babel. They would have recognised the allusions to that as they heard about people from all over the world, gathered together at this festival time, being united in understanding, not separated and dispersed, unable any longer to understand one another. The original punishment for human pride and desire for power in the building of the Tower of Babel was now countered. This is not a passage about what we think of now as speaking in tongues. When that happens, there is no recognisable speech. What happens here is that each and every person there finds that they hear in their own language, in the language of their heart. There is an extraordinary, wonderful sense of unity and belonging. There is no need for interpretation. All is clear. And no-one is excluded because of lack of understanding or inability to communicate. God’s Spirit, the Spirit that empowered Jesus, is there, accessible to all! This is about God’s promised presence, in which there are no boundaries or hierarchies, no in-group and outsiders. Peter, the previously inarticulate one is inspired to see the connections with what had long ago been prophesied by Joel, “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all peoples.” Yes, he would come down from this high point and still have to struggle with the fact that Jesus had come not just for the Jewish people but for the Gentiles too. He would have to discover that in his dreaming and in contact with Cornelius later, which he did. This high point of Pentecost was just that, an awe-inspiring event whose happening would change everything but whose meaning would have to evolve. Not even back then were they allowed to remain on the mountain top of this experience. But they had seen enough from that high vista to find their lives changes, inspired and empowered – connected with God and with each other through the Holy Spirit.
So what does it mean for us? I doubt if many of us came here this morning anticipating a rushing mighty wind blowing through or tongues of fire alighting on our heads, and suddenly finding we could all speak in Korean as well as English. Wouldn’t that be nice! But did we just come to hear a story which many of us know very well and think of as something amazing that happened back then but that really doesn’t impinge on our lives now? Maybe we should look at the wider context, just as Luke connected his readers to what they knew from their long tradition of faith. Let’s look right back, to the very beginning.
The very first words in the Bible tell of how people made sense of the creation; of how things came into being; how life began. It is beautiful poetic language. Genesis Chapter 1, verse 2: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” You might close your eyes and imagine that darkness over the waters and the Spirit hovering, going on hovering until God speaks “Let there be light,” and there was light. Thousands of years ago, people in every place, closely related as they were to land, sea sky, the elements, found ways of expressing their belief in what was so much greater than anything else, the God thing, the mystery, the power and also the tenderness. Today, where we are, how much we have to stop, listen beyond the noise of our human-constructed things with all their mechanisation and hard edges! We do that a bit when we come to worship. We recall, we turn aside from our everydayness and hopefully create some sort of sacred space in which to pause and to listen. And what can happen then, maybe, is that we can also begin to see, in the layers of human intervention and impact around us, that there are also so many signs of creativity, imagination, and indeed beauty which is the result of the work of human hands and hearts. We just like to think it is all the product of our own selves. So what we do here also, hopefully, is to pause and recall the source of all this ingenuity, art, music, poetry and so much more, and give thanks.
In the beginning the spirit of God was hovering over the waters. The Hebrew word for spirit is feminine, it is “ruach”, literally “breath” and it sounds like breath as we say it. It reminds us that the Spirit breathes within us as well as moving around and about us. It is both elemental and close, gentle and invigorating, at times that stormy blast, an earth-moving force, or a still small voice, all of which Elijah heard as he hid in his cave when he fled in fear of his life. Though the voice of God was in the silence. At times the Spirit led the Hebrew people as they lost their way in the wilderness, a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night.
The presence of the Spirit is woven throughout the Scriptures, inseparable from the people’s struggles of life and faith. When things went badly wrong, over centuries, the Spirit spoke through the prophets, making God’s voice heard, calling them back.
And then, as the prologue to John’s gospel describes it, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made, and without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was light, and that light was the light of all humankind….He was in the world and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to his own, but his own did not receive him. …..The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
Week by week we follow the Jesus story. We hear of his ministry, his teaching, his care for the sick and the oppressed, his sharing of his life with the outcasts, the ridiculed and the rejected and became such himself. We hear how he took all this on after the Spirit had come to him at his baptism and then led him off, alone, into the desert, to face temptation and self-questioning until he found the inner strength of spirit he would need. And we have journeyed with him through Lent, through Holy Week, Good Friday, Easter Saturday and then Resurrection and seemingly impossible new life. We have listened in and watched as he became known again to his close friends, reassuring them in their inadequacy and distress; praying for them and commanding them above all, to love. And then, last week, we pondered how he had left them, as he had to, with the promise that he would send them the Holy Spirit. And today, we see how that happened. Jesus sent the Spirit, the Spirit that had sustained him, as he had promised.
MALCOLM GUITE PENTECOST
Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire, air and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every words spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation,
Whose mother-tongue is Love, in every nation.
We, here, are being invited to recall what we know for ourselves of the ongoing presence of the Spirit in our own lives and amongst us. We do not need a violent wind or tongues of fire. The Spirit did not go away, could not go away, because the Spirit is God, ever at work since the dawning of creation. The Spirit is always there, beckoning us on to discover the freedom of the wind that moves where it will in the cause of love. Love to unite us, to blow across the boundary walls we set up, often without unknowingly. Love to help us communicate, to unite not just by discovering our similarities but rejoicing in our differences, because, as I said a few weeks ago, God created difference.
The Pentecost story is an amazing breaking through of the Spirit’s activity as this new community of Jesus’ followers was given birth. And here we are, 2,000 years later, only existing like this because of the work of the Spirit. Yes, things change. Yes, we may look back with nostalgia at the days of full churches, lots of children, young people, families. We may look around and see, everywhere, cranes building towers that seem to reach up to make a grasp at heaven. We may see many forces that would separate people off from one another and stop us hearing and understanding each other, let alone hear the whisper of God. But do we believe that the Spirit has suddenly given up? I don’t believe that is possible.
So let us look around and remember, from our own lives, what we have known of that surprising Spirit’s leading and guiding, redirecting and restoring. Let us look around and remember that this is a Spirit of life that would find ways of breaking through where love, healing, peace and justice cry out or lie buried. Let us look around and know that we do not need to find big miracles but little acts of kindness and great love. Let us look around and see the face of Jesus as we open our eyes.
“Spirit of God, unseen as the wind, gentle as is the dove. Teach us the truth and help us believe, show us the Saviour’s love.”