Readings: Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23
In the Narthex of a church, a young boy was looking at a plaque with the names of men and women who had died in various wars. He asked the priest, “Who are these people?” The priest answered, “Those are members from our church who died in service.” The boy asked, “The early service or the second service?”
The Church is principally about people. I’ve had to remind myself of this fact throughout my time in ministry. Sometimes it feels like the institution of the Church, with its various structures and policies, is more invested in survival than the people its called to serve. But today we celebrate Pentecost, a time to revel in the gift of God’s Spirit that draws us into a great family we call the Church. It is a time to give thanks, but also a time to consider whether we, as a local congregation, are faithfully and creatively living out our purpose as Christ’s witnesses? In a world growing more and more polarized, where the Church seems to be waning in influence, and where busyness and economic development work hand in hand to fill up empty spaces – I suggest that today we might consider three truths from the Pentecost event that ought to speak to us today.
Principles of Pentecost
Firstly, we can see Pentecost as the undoing of Babel, and through God’s Spirit, we may find unity in diversity. In Genesis 11 we hear the story of the building of the Tower of Babel. Generations of descendants from the survivors of the Flood had migrated westward. They were united, spoke the same language, and decided they could achieve anything they set their minds to, including reaching the realm of the divine. They were building a tower, a symbol of their pride and ambition, and so God confuses their speech and scatters them across the earth. From this story we get the word ‘babel’, meaning jumbled, confused speech.
This story is one of a handful in Genesis that seek to explain realities like creation, the multiplicity of human languages, etc., while also offering warnings to the dangers of hubris and blasphemy. Whenever people try to put themselves in the place of God, calamity ensues. Whenever pride and selfish ambition reign, the human family suffers.
A Prophetic Promise
‘In the last days, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,’ so declares our God, through the voice of the prophet, Joel, quoted by Peter. Joel stood in the line of prophetic tradition that called out the political and religious leaders of his day. The prophets spoke out against injustice, declared judgment upon evil, and expressed hope in the day when God would make all things right.
St. Peter quotes Joel to provide explanation to the signs and wonders evident on that day of Pentecost. Joel’s prophecy was that the Spirit of God would fall upon all people, regardless of gender, age, economic position, or race. Indeed, Luke (the author of Acts) notes that the Jews present in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost came from all over the then-known world. The Spirit gave the disciples the ability to speak in other languages, languages native to the people gathered in the streets.
“Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” (Acts 2:12)
Unity in Diversity
A divided humanity is given a glimpse of the unity in diversity the Holy Spirit brings to us. The curse of Babel has been undone, ‘all flesh’ is given the ability to hear and understand one another and proclaim the mighty works of God. The miracle of Pentecost is a powerful example of what the human family can become powered by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, we read throughout the book of Acts that those first Christians engaged in radical hospitality, shared their resources, and cared for each other in remarkable ways. Slaves learned the ways of Christ alongside their masters. Women hosted home-church gatherings and were given a prominence not known to their gender in those days.
Pentecost offers an important word to our world today. Let us pray for the Holy Spirit to be unleased afresh upon all peoples, giving us the ability to hear each other, to calm our fears, grow our faith, and propel us in love. Let Pentecost be for us an example of what we can be, and what we must continue to work towards.
Magnifying our Modest Efforts
Secondly, lest we feel this task an impossible one, Pentecost tells us that there seems to be no limit to what God can do, even with our meagre efforts. In discussing today’s readings with some colleagues, I was quite struck by one wise cleric’s perspective: St. Peter’s sermon, by some standards, could be considered subpar. There were no interesting illustrations, he used the Old Testament Scriptures rather haphazardly. He didn’t even use a joke! Yet, if we were to continue to read the rest of the story, after this 5-minute message we hear some 3000 people came to join the Jesus movement that day.
Now, the text does say that Peter used other arguments and exhortations as well, it wasn’t that Peter didn’t put in effort, it’s just that the fruit of his work was disproportionate to the quality of his performance! Many of you might endorse the brevity of Peter’s message to preachers like me, but I think we are made to see that it was the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon Peter, and upon all the people there that day, that produced such a powerful effect.
As a preacher and a priest this gives me hope. It’s tempting for me to attribute both my perceived successes and failures solely to my competencies and expertise (or lack thereof). It’s tempting for us as a church to scratch our heads and wrack our brains as to how to pay our bills and continue to evolve as a church in a rapidly changing world. We might feel the task a daunting one, or we may be hobbled by past enterprises that didn’t turn out the way we’d hoped. But it is the Spirit of God that produces true and lasting fruit. It is the Spirit that has led us this far, and it is promised to be with us until the end. And it is the Spirit that uses our meagre efforts and grows them into a lush and bountiful harvest. The challenges that lay ahead are not too great for the Spirit, even if our own efforts may, at times, appear meagre and insufficient.
Loss and Change can Create Space for the Spirit to Work
Finally, I’d like us to reflect on how Pentecost may remind us that every loss is a change, and every change bears potential to create space for the Spirit to work. Our reading from John’s gospel is taken from Jesus’ farewell words to his disciples. Jesus leaving the earth was a profound loss for the disciples – their way of being a community was about to change forever. They were tempted to fight this loss (Peter & his sword in the garden come to mind), but Jesus assures them that their loss would lead to even greater things for them. Jesus would send his Spirit to be with them, to dwell within their hearts in a unique way. The Spirit would empower them to do and say the kinds of things that only Jesus had been able to say and do. They would have to trust these words of Jesus, and faithfully obey his command to wait for the Spirit after Jesus’ ascension. But their reward would be not only for themselves (a life in the Spirit and the love, peace, and joy that brings), but would change the world.
St. George’s at Pentecost
Pentecost has an important word for us at St. George’s. It speaks to us about finding unity in our diversity and inspires us to be a community that welcomes different ways of thinking and being. Pentecost assures us that the work of being a faith-filled community relies on the effectiveness of the Holy Spirit. We are tasked to do our part, but our efforts are blessed and amplified by the Spirit of life. And we are reminded that the losses and changes in our lives can create space for the Spirit to work in new ways. We’ve already made changes to how we worship, are we going to also consider whether our physical worship space needs altering to create space for God’s Spirit to work in our hearts, minds, and bodies? Are we being encouraged to carve out space in our days and in our homes to pray for the Spirit to fall afresh upon us?
May the Holy Spirit of God bless us this day. May this Spirit give us a vision of who we truly are, may this Spirit amplify our efforts of following in the footsteps of Christ, and may God’s Spirit pour out the love of God into hearts, filling those pockets of emptiness, and turning them into reservoirs of God’s grace. Amen.