Friday, 6 June 2014

Pentecost: the Spirit surprises

Acts 2: 1-21

What were the disciples expecting on the day of Pentecost?

They were expecting a celebration in the temple – Pentecost was a harvest festival in the time of Jesus. 50 days  (‘pente coste’) after the first reaping of the harvest, baskets of grain were brought to the temple so that thanks could be given to God for the fruitful harvest. It was also known as the festival of Shavu’ot – a time to give thanks to God for the giving of the Torah – God’s law: 50 days after the Passover. The Passover celebrated the freedom of God’s people from slavery – and then 50 days later the people gave thanks for God giving them the spiritual gift of the law to live by.

It’s because it was a big festival that there were people in Jerusalem from all over the known Jewish world – people from all those places in our reading that are so difficult to pronounce – representing all four points of the compass.
People had come from North South, East & West to give thanks to God for the gift of the harvest and for the gift of the law of God.
The disciples were expecting to join with the crowds to celebrate what God had done in the past – by giving His people the law – and what God continued to do by making the earth fruitful, year by year.

The disciples thought they knew what was going to happen on that day of Pentecost –the usual celebration, in the usual way…
But then .. God’s Holy Sprit comes. An unexpected, alarming, startling, surprising new gift. The disciples were all together in one place and were filled with the power of the wind and fire of God’s power – and began to talk in different tongues. Suddenly the story of Jesus bursts out of them, the story of what God has done for his creation breaks free from the usual form of being celebrated, and people all around hear the good news of God’s love shown in Jesus.

Pentecost defies all our explanations and descriptions – we are told that they heard something like the sound of a rushing wind that filled the house
and that something like tongues of fire came and touch them. The people who witness it say it seems like they are drunk: but Peter denies that.
Whatever is actually happening it is the momentous moment when the followers of Jesus are given the power they need to be witnesses to the gospel Jesus lived.
That day of Pentecost surprises them as God acts and send the gift of the Holy Spirit to everyone there so that they can all witness to the whole world.

Often when we hear the story of the disciples speaking in tongues at Pentecost it is contrasted with the story of the tower of Babel, which ends with human languages being mixed up.

It is an ancient story, from the 12th chapter of Genesis, and tells of human attempts to achieve something together by their own power. It is a story from a time when it is said that all the human beings spoken the same language and these people decide to build a tower to reach up to God.
One way of reading what happens next is that God decides to punish humanity for their pride by mixing up their languages so they can no longer co-operate.
But another way of reading the story it is that God knows that people staying together and building upwards isn’t the way to reach what’s important. God wants to teach people that they should, instead, celebrate their diversity and go out into the world to find the wonders of God’s creation. In this second version, different languages are seen as a gift to humanity which affirms and embraces human variety. People are sent out into all four corners of the world with a rich diversity of language, to find God wherever they go.

People think they know how to reach God – build up: but God’s gift surprises them – and tells them to reach out.

Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised the disciples so much to see and experience what God does at Pentecost. The God who loves diversity and who continually reaches out to touch and empower people does what he did at Babel : he sends people out with new languages to share the good news of his presence in the earth.

Jesus had already promised his disciples that he would send the gift of the Holy Spirit. They have seen him crucified and killed, they have seen him risen from death and living, and they have seen him ascend back into heaven – returning to God the Father. Now the Holy Spirit comes with power to tell the whole world that Jesus is living and with them in a way which is no longer confined to a body – but is a reality all the same.

So what are we expecting on this day of Pentecost?

The usual celebration of the ‘birthday of the church’? – whether that is the church universal – celebrating the day the followers of Jesus first had the courage and the power to reach out to others – or the church anniversary here at Holt.
Do we think we are thanking God for what he has done over the years – or what he did long ago?
Or are we ready to receive a new gift today – the surprising truth that God is ready to bless and touch us with the same gift of the Spirit?

What might that gift mean..?

At the 1968 Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Bishop Ignatius of Latakia, spoke of the Holy Spirit in this striking and memorable way:

‘Without the Holy Spirit God is far away.
Christ stays in the past,
The Gospel is simply an organisation,
Authority is a matter of propaganda,
The Liturgy is no more than an evolution,
Christian loving a slave mentality.
But in the Holy Spirit
The cosmos is resurrected and grows with the
   birth pangs of the kingdom.
The Risen Christ is there,
The Gospel is the power of life,
The Church shows forth the life of the Trinity,
Authority is a liberating science,
Mission is a Pentecost,
The Liturgy is both renewal and anticipation,
Human action is deified.’

I hope we can dare to be open to the Holy Spirit today.
To see what difference God’s power can make to our
Idea of God, our experience of Christ and our way of being church.
May it be so – to God’s praise and glory.

No comments: