Anglican Church of Canada
Pentecost May 15, 2016
So here we are again, on the day of Pentecost. We too are gathered like the disciples, together in one place. And we hear again this story: so familiar, and yet still so strange; so full of joy and energy, and yet perhaps also a bit demoralizing, as it seems so far from our experience.
We have been hearing stories from the book of Acts throughout the Easter season. Each of them shows, in its own way, the wonderful fluidity of the early church. We see the church transform itself again and again:
• from a small group of demoralized disciples into a warm and joyous family where all things are shared;
• from a local group in Jerusalem to a reform movement within the Jewish faith in all of Judea;
• from a bunch of Aramean speaking Galilean fishermen to the Greek-speaking synagogues of the great cities of the Empire like Antioch and Alexandria;
• most radically, from a movement within Judaism to one that blew open the boundaries between Jew and Gentile, and brought the God of Israel to all nations;
• a steady growth that brought the good news of the faith to the ends of the known world, and to Rome itself.
Each step, each transformation so radical, like a caterpillar transformed into a butterfly, like a seed growing into a sapling, growing into a mature tree, each new form almost unrecognizable to its old self.
The early church transformed in response to the challenges it faced in meeting the world around it. That is, again and again the Spirit placed them in front of new situations, again and again they encounter new people and new needs, and grow in response. So many of the stories of Acts are about unexpected encounters with strangers: remember Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch; Peter and the Roman centurion Cornelius; Paul and Lydia, a business woman in the high fashion industry. And so it happens again and again: they run into someone new and different, someone from another nation, another faith, another background, high officials and beggars, businesswomen and slaves, Pharisees like Paul and pagans – and they discover that they too have a place in God’s plan, and so the church grows and changes to make room for them.
These challenges faced by the early church are not that different than the challenges we face today. We find ourselves in a new age of mission. Where our parents and grandparents lived in a world that was still nominally Christian, where people knew at least the outlines of the Christian faith and where many still went to church because it was the thing one did, we find ourselves an ever shrinking minority in a society that increasingly sees us as weird and incomprehensible. Just as the disciples were called to leave the sleepy Galilean synagogues of their youth, and make new and unexpected encounters that would transform them, so we are called to meet the world around us in new ways, and be changed by it.
This was at least part of the message that Lisa and Bill brought to us at All Saints last week: the challenge of connecting with the world around us; the challenge of welcoming newcomers into our midst and allowing them to change us. But oh how difficult this challenge seems to us. In contrast to that amazing fluidity and flexibility we see in the book of Acts, our church seems so stiff and slow, bound by structures and habits and traditions. We just aren’t as supple as we used to be. And to be told we need to transform ourselves from a caterpillar into a butterfly, well that is just impossible.
But of course we don’t transform ourselves. Nobody becomes a butterfly by sheer force of will. Certainly not the first disciples. Remember, these are the disciples we are talking about: that same group who, just a few weeks previously, had been the ones who got everything wrong. Who had argued about who was the greatest, who had expected Jesus to drive out the Romans, who had run away, who had denied him, who had betrayed him. The ones you could count on for missing the point.
They are gathered together for the Jewish festival of weeks, or Shavuot. It was a festival that originally celebrated the wheat harvest; but it also commemorated the giving of the law on Sinai, 50 days after the Passover when they escaped from Egypt: the event that constituted Israel as a holy people.
We aren’t told what they were doing: were they eating or praying or talking, were they joyful or despondent. Apparently that doesn’t matter. When the Holy Spirit comes upon them, it is completely out of the blue, a power from on high that seems to come out of nowhere and transform them.
It comes as a wind, echoing the wind that blew upon the waters at the beginning of creation, echoing the wind that blew upon the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision. It comes as tongues of fire, echoing the hot coal that touched Isaiah’s lips when he was called to be a prophet.
There is a strange transformation of the setting. We are told they were meeting in a house when the Spirit came upon them – just as on Easter they gathered behind locked doors when Jesus came among them. And yet, before we know it, they are clearly in a public place, surrounded by people of all nations who have gathered for the feast. It is as though the walls of the house have just melted away. Did they get up and go outside? That’s the most likely explanation, but it is so automatic and so unconscious it’s not even mentioned.
I think this detail is interesting, because it is precisely the point at which we seem to face our biggest challenge. We are gathered together behind our walls, tucked away on Pleasant St where nobody knows where we are. We love these walls, this building absorbs so much of our energy and love. And yet it can be our biggest obstacle. These walls are what separate us from the community around us, the community we are called to reach out to with the gospel. How do we take this step that seems effortless and invisible in the Pentecost story, out of our house and into the community.
The Spirit endows the disciples with a miraculous ability to speak in new languages. It is clear that this miracle is not the same as the gift of tongues we read about in other parts of the New Testament, which is a kind of prayer involving meaningless words and syllables. That too is considered a gift of the Spirit, but there is nothing miraculous about that: you can hear it today in Pentecostal and charismatic churches, and you can even learn to practise it if you wish. What happened to the disciples is clearly different: they are speaking actual languages they never learned, comprehensible to people from all over the world.
Like any Biblical miracle story, the point is not in the miracle itself, but in its symbolic meaning. The miracle of languages is an echo of the story of the tower of Babel. The curse that was placed upon humankind, that would lead to misunderstanding, animosity, and warfare between nations, is being overcome when the disciples are able to speak to people of different nations in their own tongues. But notice that what happened at Babel is not just cancelled out. People don’t go back to speaking one language. Rather, the diversity of languages remains, but it is no longer an obstacle and a curse, but actually a blessing. The Spirit allows us to reach out to others over the obstacles that separate us; but it does not make us all the same. It allows us to celebrate our differences as a blessing that can enrich us all.
One final detail from the story. When Peter stands up to address the crowd, he begins with a haunting quote from the book of Joel, which he puts out in a “today this prophesy is fulfilled in your hearing” kind of way:
In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I wonder: is our church a place where we can see visions and dream dreams. Is it a place where young and old, men and women, oldtimers and newcomers, can dream about a better world, dream about a better life. A place where we can share those dreams with one another, find affirmation and agreement, and maybe set about making those dreams a little bit reality. Is our church a place where that can happen? Because I think it should be. Don’t you?
As I suggested at the beginning, this story of Pentecost, so full of joy and energy, can also be a bit demoralizing for us, because it seems so far from our experience. We do not expect great winds and tongues of fire, we do not expect to be speaking Mandarin and Portuguese. After 2000 years, the church feels too old for such youthful shenanigans. But that does not mean we should stop expecting and trusting in the Holy Spirit. The promise that the power from on high will come upon us, and give us the strength and vision we need to rise to the tasks in hand – that promise still stands. By God’s Spirit we can do what seems impossible by our own strength. We can learn to make these walls more porous, to reach out to the community around us, and to welcome others in. We can learn to dream dreams together, to entrust each other with the visions we too quickly dismiss as silly. We simply need to trust a little more those words we say each Sunday:
Glory to God, whose power, working in us,
can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.