Sunday, 4 June 2017

on pentecost

It is sometimes said that Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, a commemoration of the day that the first believers became unified as followers of Jesus Christ. There is some truth in this, as we see from today's Bible readings, but to describe Pentecost simply in these terms is to diminish the gift of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is really about what happens when we open ourselves up to be led by God.

We also diminish Pentecost if we treat the details of the story in Acts 2.1-21 literally. As is often the case with scripture, the imagery used roots Pentecost in the experiences of the people of God elsewhere in the Bible.

Jesus is no longer with his disciples as these events take place. They are gathered in Jerusalem trying to regroup in his absence, figuring out a way forward without their master and teacher. They are sitting together in a house, and we might assume that they are praying and worshipping together.

Suddenly the house is filled with the sound of rushing wind.

Now, wind has special significance in scripture and is in particular symbolic of the Spirit of God. When used in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word is ruach, which can be translated variously as Spirit, wind or breath.

Ruach first appears at the very start of the Bible in Genesis chapter 1:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind [ruach] from God swept over the face of the waters.
Genesis 1.1-2 (NRSV)

In the King James Bible, the verse is translated as, 'the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. So we see how wind and Spirit are closely linked in the translation of ruach: as is the word breath. Rob Bell explains:
The ancient Hebrews... believed that this divine ruach flows from God because, as the writer says in the Psalms, the whole earth is God's, all of it is infused with ruach, crammed with restless creative energy, full of unquenchable life force and unending divine vitality, undergirded and electrified by the God who continually renews the face of the earth... While they understand this ruach energy to be as wide as the universe and powerful enough to fuel and animate and sustain even the stars... they understood [it] to be as intimate and personal as the breath you just took and the breath you're about to take... When they spoke of ruach, [the Hebrews] were talking about the very life force that brings everything into existence, the presence of God in the world, dwelling in every created being, present to everyone and everything all the time.
Rob Bell, What We Talk About When We Talk About God

That morning, in that house in Jerusalem, the followers of Jesus are given a mighty dose of ruach, reminding them that while Jesus is no longer physically with them God remains powerfully and personally available to them.

Another link to the ancients' experience of God is present when tongues of fire separate and alight on each of the disciples.

Flashback: When the descendants of Abraham escaped their lives of slavery in Egypt, they wandered the desert seeking the promised land that would become their home. The symbols of God's presence to them are described in Exodus 13: 'By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give light...'

The tongues of fire at Pentecost remind us of God's Spirit offering to lead us into new life. We might recollect, also, Jesus saying, 'I am the light of the world.' Jesus was no longer beside those first, bereft, disciples, but as they gather to figure out the way forward they are powerfully reminded that he remains present to them in and through the Holy Spirit, the ruach of God, leading them on.

Fire not only illuminates the way ahead for us, but also warms us. John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement in the 18th century, famously recounted his experience of God when his heart was 'strangely warmed' at a church meeting. And I cannot think about the symbolism of fire in scripture without recalling words said daily in Morning Prayer: As we rejoice in the gift of this new day, so may the light of your presence, O God, set our hearts on fire with love for you.

For Christians, the light of Christ leading us on, and the warmth of God's Spirit within us, continue to find expression in the symbolism of fire. Perhaps this is why, long after the advent of electric lighting, we continue to fill our churches with candlelight, those tiny tongues of fire a visible and tangible reminder of the presence of God's Spirit.

So we have a room filled with rushing wind. And a vision of tongues of fire. Jesus' disciples are invigorated about the way forward by these symbolic reminders of their Jewish heritage. But there is one more event at Pentecost which also spurs them on by recalling the past.

As the ruach of God takes hold of them, they begin to speak in other languages. Immigrant Jews from many other countries who are in Jerusalem at that time are able to hear in their own language what these Spirit-filled disciples are saying. This is a very particular moment in scripture. Nowhere else in the Bible is an event like this described. When St Paul, in 1 Corinthians, writes about the gift of speaking in tongues, he's not talking about a sudden ability to speak in other human languages.

What we are seeing here is something that builds on another Hebrew myth — the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. The original tellers of that story sought to explain the existence of different languages. At Babel the people of the world all speak one language, and come together into one place. They learn how to make bricks and mortar and decide that they will build a tower that reaches up to the heavens. God sees this happening, the myth says, and is troubled by the prospect of what humanity might try and do together. So God gives them all different languages to confound them and frustrate their plans.

It's a rather weird little story and may have served no other purpose than to explain how different languages came into being. Theologically, it perhaps also acted as a cautionary tale (in the same way the temptation of Adam and Eve does) not to attempt to become like God.

St Luke, who wrote the account of Pentecost in the book of Acts, purposefully inverts the myth of Babel to make a new point. The followers of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, become united across boundaries of language, race and nationality. Here, then, is when the followers of Jesus are inspired to take his message of hope to all nations, to work and live together in a single community for the common good.

We are the inheritors of that message, a congregation of people from all around the world, animated by the ruach of God, led by the light of Christ, and inspired to reach out as one body to those around us with the love that has warmed our own hearts.

In the words of St Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, 'In the one Spirit we were all baptised into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.'

Pentecost challenges and reminds us of what it means to be one in Christ. We are united in him so that we can bear witness to his good news. To do so means setting aside our differences, and offering our individual gifts and skills to the mission and ministry of the church. Mary Hinkle Shore writes:
One way to know whether a movement is led by the Spirit of God [according to St Paul] is to listen for its claims about Jesus Christ. By the Spirit, the church testifies that Jesus — not money, security, self-esteem, paranoia, power, or anything else — is Lord... Gifts from God's Spirit proclaim Jesus as Lord. They also serve the common good... Individuals receive gifts from the Spirit, yet each gift is for the body as a whole. This implies that if a gift cannot be shared, and shared for the good of others, it is not from the Spirit.

Last night's terrorist attack at London Bridge is a powerful reminder of what happens when faith becomes corrupted by ego, a quest for power, or a fear of those who are different to ourselves. That is not of God (and we must surely bear in mind that the history of the church is full of equally twisted atrocities where Christians lost sight of their calling to serve the common good).

Pentecost reminds us that God's vital and creative force is available to animate us not just for our own good but for that of others. That means setting aside our own agenda and joining in with the unity of the people of God, sharing our gifts, valuing and respecting the gifts that others have to offer, and reminding ourselves that in a world where there are many things to direct or motivate our self-interest (including, I might add, the election pitches of politicians...) we have chosen another way, the way of Jesus which puts love ahead of self-interest, with the light of the good news of the gospel leading us on to show way.

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