15 May 2016
Acts 2:1-21 (John 14:8-17,25-27)
“Take my lips, oh Lord, and speak through them; take our minds and think with them. Take our hearts and set them on fire; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen
We heard an amazing story in our Acts lesson today. It’s a story that’s absolutely foundational for who we are today as Christian people. Still, I have to wonder, can we even begin to imagine what those first disciples thought and felt on that day? What do you remember about that group of Jesus’ first followers? They really didn’t seem like a very impressive bunch at all in those first weeks after Jesus’ resurrection. Can you see them? Hiding in the upper room, needing encouragement to get out and about again even after experiencing the risen Christ for themselves, standing with their mouths hanging open in astonishment after Jesus’ ascension, needing direction to move from where they stood on that hillside. Now, today, in our minds eye, we see them gathered together on the Day of Pentecost. Imagine the sudden sound of violent rushing wind. Imagine tongues of flame appearing and resting on each of them. Suddenly they were filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. Suddenly they began to speak, not just in their own native language but in other languages as well. What could that possibly have been like? I love the notion proposed by Canon Frank Logue that what was happening reversed the curse of the Tower of Babel. At Babel people who sought to achieve heaven on their own were divided, they lost the ability to communicate clearly one with another. Then there came this Day of Pentecost, by the power of the Holy Spirit those timid first followers of Jesus became expert interpreters, their words suddenly intelligible to people from all over the known world, from Elam and Mesopotamia, from Cappadocia, Pontius and Pamphylia. Those fear filled followers became brave evangelists who spoke right up and everyone around them heard the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. We are told that the gospel was spoken with such clarity that the hearers were cut to the quick and by the end of the day 3,000 devote Jews were baptized as followers of Jesus Christ. 3,000, imagine that! Though the power of the Holy Spirit a large and diverse group of people all came to hold a common understanding of what God meant in their lives. But, naturally enough, not everyone understood what was happening in the same way. You remember. There were those who accused the disciples of public drunkenness or perhaps of falling into just another case of mass religious hysteria. In a way isn’t that reaction a lot more comfortable, even now? Wouldn’t it be easier, or safer, to relegate what happened then to something that happened once, a long time ago, to those first disciples because they were, well, special, in a way we are not? John Polkinghorne, a renowned physicist turned Anglican priest, in his book “Quarks, Chaos and Christianity” points out that there are always people he calls “nothing butters”. (Again, I thank Canon Logue for this information).“Nothing butters”, according to Polkinghorne,
reduce everything they encounter to nothing but its physical explanation. In short they take the lovely depths of wonder and mystery right out of God’s good creation. To a “nothing butter”the morning hymn of birds waking to a new day is nothing but a series of vibrations impacting our eardrums. That cool evening breeze at the end of a hot day is nothing more than a pressure gradient triggered by the temperature change resulting from the sun dropping below the horizon.
The beauty of a rainbow is merely the bending of photons of light through drops of rain. Baptism is nothing more than a religious ritual, an initiation into a particular religious group. And the power of the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost? Well, all that was nothing more than religious hysteria led by a group of drunks, not something we need to worry about or engage deeply. And yes, the bird calls, that cool evening breeze, and the rainbow are in fact just what scientists describe. But they are more too, aren’t they? They are music and comfort and color, they are beauty, they are gifts from God. As to Baptism, well yes, it is a religious initiation rite. But isn’t it more too? Imagine, “sealed by the Holy spirit as Christ’s own forever”. That captures something of the holy mystery of God with us always, known or unknown, guarding and guiding, loving us beyond measure. And so Pentecost, yes, I suppose on some level a kind of emotional hysteria and yet it was so much more too. Look, if at nothing else, at the lasting impacts of the event. The scared, the lost, the uncertain disciples suddenly found themselves sharing what they had known of the Good News of God in Christ. They shared that good news
far beyond that day of Pentecost in Jerusalem. From Jerusalem they went on, reaching out into the Gentile world all around the Mediterranean basin. And what had begun in Galilee with Jesus and a few stumbling followers spread until Jesus has become a light to enlighten nations. What began in those earliest days expanded and expanded again through the ministries of Peter and Paul and then their followers as more and more and more people were invited into the Kingdom of God. Canon Logue makes a good point when he says that Pentecost defied all the “nothing but” explanations. It was so much more than mass hysteria or religious emotionalism, it is so much more than “a long ago event that we can no longer explain”. I’m with Logue in saying that
“the closest we can get is to say that ‘Pentecost is nothing less than the presence of God’ ”. Thing is, that day was powered entirely by the Holy Spirit active in the disciples, yes, and in the crowd as well. The Holy Spirit loosened tongues that day and opened ears too. The seed that was the very beginning of what would become Christianity began to sprout and grow that day and the Gospel moved out beyond Judaism and Jerusalem into the much wider world. Pentecost, in short, showed that our unity as God’s people is so much more important that those things that divide us one from another. Pentecost today gives us an important reminder. God’s Holy Spirit is still powerfully present with us. And that early story of Pentecost, the one we read from the book of Acts? It shows us that we cannot limit who is in or out of the Kingdom of God any more than those first disciples could limit who would respond when they spoke with the authority given them. Because, of course, when we come face to face with nothing less than the power of God we simply cannot limit who God is or how God acts. Yes, when we follow God now we are called to reach out and act on our love of God just as those first disciples were. We are called to act out, to share, to live, the love God hold for us and for all creation. Then we are called to let go, trusting God’s Holy Spirit to open ears and hearts. Take the very Good News that God loves us all and share it in both word and deed with everyone you meet as widely as possible through the power of the Holy Spirit. And remember, always hold tight to what Jesus promised: “the advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” The gift of the Holy Spirit, that gift is a powerful and wonderful gift. It is not a gift to be hidden away safely or to be hoarded. It is a gift to be used and shared. Thanks be to God. Amen.