Today, 50 days after Easter Sunday, the season ends, not with a whimper but with a bang as we celebrate the feast of Pentecost. According to Luke in our first reading, the disciples are gathered in one place in Jerusalem, when they experienced a rushing wind filling the house, divided tongues of fire dancing on each of their heads and the ability to speak in many languages. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit. The City was crowded – after all this was the festival where the Jewish people celebrated the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai – and those who heard what was happening came from all corners of the world (not the most popular passage if you are the reader in Church!) and were amazed and astonished as they heard in their own language the disciples speaking about God’s deeds of power. Some thought they had drunk too much, at which point Peter stood up to address the crowd and explained to them what was happening, presumably also speaking in a language that could be understood. Rightly is Pentecost celebrated as the birthday of the Church, as the disciples find their voice and with confidence can tell again all they had experienced and come to understand through their encounter with the crucified and resurrected Jesus. We do not get to hear the whole of Peter’s speech but do read it; such was the impact of his words that some 3000 were baptised there and then! The story as Luke describes it challenges our imaginations.
Something new was happening – the Holy Spirit inspired them to break through walls of division; to overcome fear and hostility and to create something new, that is not bound or limited by culture or language. That is a big part of this message – salvation, hope for all peoples everywhere. A new togetherness founded on God’s deeds of power revealed through Jesus and fuelled by God’s love in the shape of the Holy Spirit………
Just for a moment can we go back to another story in our Bibles about languages. To the book of Genesis. The book falls into two parts – the first 11 chapters are what could be called origin stories – the beginnings of the human story; Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood and finally the Tower of Babel. This last story begins in Genesis Ch 11.
If you remember, this tells of a time when the whole earth had one language and the same words. The people gathered on a plain and they began to build a city, with a tower that reached to the heavens. God became a little anxious about this – this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose will now be impossible for them. So, God sowed seeds of confusion by way of their language, so they will not understand one another’s speech. Then the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. Here at Pentecost we see a gathering of all that was scattered at Babel and a moment when people once more could understand what was being said in their own language. But this coming together is built on new foundations; not on human ingenuity or ambition; not fuelled by rivalries or competitiveness which only divide and scatter, but rather on compassion, love, and forgiveness. The curse of Babel has been reversed.
What does our Gospel passage say? Here we are back on the Sunday evening of Easter. Into a fearful huddle behind locked doors comes the Risen Lord, still wounded in hands and side, and greets the disciples ‘Peace be with you’. Twice he says it in this passage. No words of blame or anger, resentment, or condemnation but peace. And then their commission as John tells it: he breathed on them and said to them “receive the Holy Spirit”. The verb breathe is the same verb that was used in Genesis to describe God bringing Adam to life. Receive the life force of God, the Holy Spirit; love – God’s alternative to fear. Just as Jesus had been sent to reveal the life and love of the Father, so too the disciples are now sent. Just as their experience of the resurrected Jesus had been one of forgiveness, so too they are given that same chance to forgive. And just as their experience of being forgiven had opened something startling and new in them, so as much as they are able to forgive, they will open new possibilities of love in those who they forgive. Their commission is not to make judgments as to what is right or wrong, that is not what is being said! Rather Jesus is telling them as much as you can do this, it will be done, and as much as you do not, it will not. This was a hard lesson for the disciples and for us to learn. Time and again they stutter and stumble as they try to understand this new way.
And so do we.
We pray Come Holy Spirit kindle in us the fire of your love.
It is a dangerous prayer; fire burns as well as purifies, but in so praying we are asking for the Spirit to help us see things differently, from God’s perspective, if you like; we pray for our hearts to be opened; we pray for our eyes to see; we pray that we can love and forgive ourselves so that we can love and forgive others and be a part of the unfolding of God’s Kingdom – the drawing of us all together in love.
Come Holy Spirit kindle in us the fire of your love.
Revd Jonathan Morris