23rd May 2021 - Pentecost
Acts 2: 1-21
If you were here on Ascension Day you may remember I suggested that we could see the Ascension and Pentecost as two halves of the same transition; a transition which takes place along an unbroken thread of God’s presence with us in Christ. And I talked about how that thread reached back into the Hebrew Scriptures, how keen Luke was to show this continuity.
So today we celebrate this transition being completed. Christ’s presence in God’s creation changes from his singular resurrection body to a new presence through the Holy Spirit, in the group, marking what some describe as the birth of the church.
Is this then a change from a physical to a spiritual presence? I am not sure. Jesus’ resurrection body is a mystery to us, but it seems it was not simply a resuscitation, as one commentator puts it. There was something different. It was not like Jairus’s daughter, or Lazarus. Was it in some way both spiritual and physical? How is beyond our understanding.
And in the same way, to describe his presence at Pentecost as simply spiritual also doesn’t feel right. For is not Christ present in the body of the church and so also in the bodies? And more than that, in all of creation? What we perhaps glimpse is the continuous weaving together of spiritual and physical in the evolving mystery of God-given life.
So then to Pentecost, with its three movements: The coming of the spirit, the speaking of the group and then Peter’s explanation.
After the service last Sunday Stephen explained to me that whenever he gives a notice he always tries to bring with him a visual aid. Last week it was a bucket. In a not dissimilar way, although arguably with more poetry, Luke when describing the coming of the Holy Spirit also uses visual symbols. Whereas in John’s gospel Jesus simply breathes on his disciples and says, “receive the Holy Spirit” Luke uses the imagery of tongues of fire and a rushing wind.
For Luke’s audience the fire would have been familiar to them as a picture of the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai, accompanied by smoke and lightning. And there are other examples of the giving of the law being described as like a fire. The wind of course reminded them of Elijah in his cave. So perhaps Luke is suggesting a continuity with God’s covenant with Moses but more than this - a giving of a larger, fuller revelation of the Law and the Prophets.
At this point, a more conventional narrative might have moved straight to the third movement: In this alternative version I imagine Peter and also the other disciples fanning out across the city, newly empowered, each mounting their respective pulpit to give a commanding sermon to the crowd who are converted by the skill of their oratory. There is a fantasy of the ego here, mostly the male ego, which has featured in some Pentecost sermons I have heard and makes me wary.
So I find it intriguing that the first thing the disciples do once they have received the Holy Spirit is so odd, so much the opposite of a commanding presence, that Peter finds himself apologising for them and explaining that they are not actually drunk.
What they do is confusing. They talk in strange languages, but in a bewildering, uncontrolled way. Some suggest the ecstatic babbling of a kind of spiritual delirium, but surely this would not have been in any recognisable language.
What I love about this image is first its vulnerability. It fits with the long tradition of the Hebrew prophets, which is that God leads them into doing things the world regards as foolish, which expose them to danger, without defences.
And what I also see here is that the miracle is in the connection, the communication between them and the multi-lingual crowd. Some have argued that Luke is conjuring up the story of the tower of Babel, where the arrogance of the people prompted God to use language to divide them one from another. And here, in the new covenant of Christ’s body, that division is healed, for all hear in their own language.
So I offer you this morning this central image of Pentecost, of wobbly, confused attempts at communication which are yet miraculous in what they achieve. And that is also my experience, our experience. We struggle, most obviously we struggle across the gulf created by language, between English and Farsi. But despite that, there are moments when we hear the other so clearly, we glimpse into each other’s hearts and find our common humanity.
And we also struggle amongst those of us who share the same language and culture. Even with so much in common, our communication can be clumsy, beset by misunderstanding despite our best efforts. But we also are surprised when we connect.
This is the body of Christ, alive in this place, the church, brought to life by the Holy Spirit, his presence with us.
In this body, which is us, we are blessed with what John calls the spirit of truth, which will guide us into all truth. And also through his spirit we are touched by the love of Christ, as we meet around his table.
Richard Young (Rector)