What is the church for? As you can imagine, this question often comes to me as I work my way through my three years of ministerial formation. There seem to be a lot of committees – and I don’t think renaming them “councils” makes them any more glamorous, a lot of OH&S, a lot of property, a lot of money washing around. But to what end? Some people appear to think that the best way that the Uniting Church could serve the Kingdom of God would be to sell the buildings, get rid of the clergy, and use the money to help the poor – because if the Kingdom is helping the poor, then what is the rest of this stuff for exactly? And they have a strong cultural wind behind them – to downplay the role of faith in general, and Christianity in particular in our nation.
Into this argument comes Pentecost. Traditionally the birthday of the church. What on earth are we to make of it? Rushing wind, tongues “as of” fire resting upon the disciples’ heads, speaking in strange languages which were yet understood by passersby on the street? A disreputable rabble, all talking at once, making enough noise for the locals to assume they were drunk? Anything less like our well-ordered, polite, reflective evening services is hard to imagine.
First, some context. In Luke’s account, Jesus tells the disciples to wait in Jerusalem to receive power by the baptism of the Holy Spirit and then ascends into heaven. So back they go to Jerusalem and wait. They replace Judas with Matthias by casting lots – which, by the way, I think would be both an efficient and a Biblical way to select a new moderator.
And then they went on devoting themselves to prayer – all hundred and twenty of them. Waiting. The Jewish feast of Pentecost arrives – the fiftieth day after Passover, a harvest festival. How appropriate – that the seed planted by Jesus and watered and brooded over should spring up into fresh life at the harvest festival!
And then – this. This mysterious thing, so offensive to our orderly, modernist minds. A mighty work of the spirit, of the sort that makes us roll our eyes when Pentecostals talk about it. But there it is, as shocking to us as people falling over, slain in the spirit, or speaking in tongues, or all the hundred and one signs of enthusiastic religion that we find so off-putting.
A sound like a rushing wind. Like the sound of distant freeway traffic suddenly piped into our quiet suburban street. A 747 landing in the house. An overwhelming sound. Not the “still small voice” now, but the overwhelming arrival of something beyond comprehension.
And then – fire. Not literal fire, the house doesn’t fill with the smell of burning hair. Something else. But, something more like fire than anything else they knew. Dancing over their heads like so many candles – or perhaps, more in keeping with the overwhelming noise, like those amazing gas lamps they use when doing night works on motorways – like small suns, hovering over each and every one of the hundred and twenty of them, including “several women”, of whom only Mary the mother of Jesus is named.
So far, so surprising. And, to put it mildly, very encouraging to those in the room. I personally would love to see signs and wonders like that. It would be wonderfully reassuring. But not, I think, the point. The main point of this whole thing is about to happen.
They began to speak.
In the many languages of the people from the diaspora who were living in Jerusalem. I love how specific it is. Scripture says:
Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs
The point being that there were people from everywhere, all over the known world. They were both Jews from the diaspora and people who had converted to Judaism. They were “devout Jews from every nation under heaven,” and they all heard the good news that day.
It was like a reversal of Babel – instead of humanity reaching up to God and being cast down and shattered into hundreds of mutually incomprehensible languages and peoples, here is unity in difference. Everyone heard the message in their own language, not in whatever lingua franca the residents of Jerusalem spoke together. The church is born from a radical coming together, not a reaching for heaven, but from God reaching down.
It wasn’t universally well received, as the gospel generally is not.
A few subtleties: The disciples are identified as “Galileans” – rednecks, country bumpkins. Bogans, perhaps in the Australian context. If anyone was going to be the fulfilment of prophecy, the idea that it would be them would have struck people of that time as highly unlikely. As they said about Jesus – “can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” These are terrible, rowdy, unfashionable, badly dressed, and unsophisticated people. How on earth would they have anything worthwhile to say?
The crowd is bewildered, amazed, astonished. The language loses us slightly – it makes them sound as if they had just seen a magic trick well executed and are applauding – like the crowd at a Cirque du Soleil performance. The text is, I think, trying to convey just how utterly confounding this is – not the sounds of the rushing wind, but the strange phenomenon that they were being spoken to in their own languages.
Anne and I spent a few months backpacking around the Middle East many moons ago, and you get so used to the sounds of the local language all around you, that when you hear English being spoken, it’s like someone throwing a pebble at you. You kind of start, and turn around, and try to figure out where it came from. A voice from home! What a welcome thing when you’re a long, long way from familiar things.
But, as I said, it wasn’t universally welcomed. Some were amazed, presumably favourably. But others said they were drunk. Which sounds like an odd way to frame it to me – I’ve encountered my fair share of drunk people in my life, but I have not, as a rule, thought that they were speaking, say, French. Still, I guess the desire not to believe is a real factor. Whatever was going on, these rather prim people were saying, we aren’t buying it. Whatever God is up to will come to us through the approved and traditional institutions, validated by the High Priest and his canon lawyers, carefully focus-grouped, doctrinally tested, theologically sound, from people who sound like they deserve to be taken seriously.
Not by, how can I put this tactfully? Not by this drunken rabble of peasants who have gotten to the harvest festival wine rather earlier than is wise.
Or, as a theology student once asked of me, shocked at the idea of doing church in a pub: does the Bishop know?
The Kingdom of God, it turns out, is not identical with the institutions.
Peter, quite a different man by now to the one who couldn’t even bring himself to identify himself to a servant girl at Jesus’ trial gets up on his hind legs, and says: These people aren’t drunk! In fact, quite the opposite – this is the fulfilment of what the prophets have spoken of! They are prophesying, they are dreaming dreams, this is the eschatological moment – and all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.
Our reading doesn’t quite get to it, but Luke records that “about three thousand persons were added” that day, and they “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers.”
So that’s more or less what it says. But what does it mean? What is the good news here?
Let’s start with the result of all this divine and human action – the three thousand people who joined the community that day – from a largish parish to a mega-church in one fell swoop! God’s power at work indeed. But the numbers aren’t really the point here. The point is that those who called upon the name of the Lord to be saved were brought into the community.
And that community has a name, and identity. It is the church, and we here are part of it. The church is a part of what God is doing in the world. It isn’t everything God is doing, but neither is it irrelevant to it. God calls the church into existence, and resources it, resources us, and gives us his Spirit. God calls the church into being, because otherwise things God wants doing will not be done.
Pentecost says that the church is part of God’s plan, an active part of the working out of God’s kingdom.
Those who called on the name of the Lord – our early sisters and brothers in the faith – were saved. And from the perspective of Pentecost, being saved, being healed and made whole, is to be brought into the fellowship, into community with God. To become part of God’s Kingdom-making activity in the world.
The Kingdom of God, it needs saying today in particular, is not brought by violence, not by human desire and action, but by God’s work, God’s gift, God’s spirit working in and through the most unlikely people.
This is a profoundly missional text. The gifts of the Spirit aren’t meant for our own personal enjoyment or edification – but for one another, and to collaborate with the missio Dei – God’s redeeming action on Earth. Not as solitary monads, but as members together of one body, the body of Christ.
In fact, us. Implausible as that feels sometimes.
I’m going to read a portion of the epistle reading for Pentecost which we didn’t read tonight. As good Uniting Church members, no doubt you will be familiar with it from the Basis of Union. 1 Corinthians 12 4-7.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
To paraphrase St Paul, the gifts of the Spirit are not private, atomized experiences, vital as the inner life of the soul is for the Christian walk. Rather, they are part of a community, and, just as each of us is here to help the others, to be part of our common life, so it is that the gifts of the Spirit are there to build up the community.
I love that phrase “it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” It’s about unity, not through some fuzzy idea of “diversity” or “tolerance”, but rather the gifts are given in the service of the Kingdom.
So there is a dynamic here. We need the spiritual gifts God gives – Pentecost is God’s doing, not the result of earnest Bible study or an immersion course in Elamite. Without God, we have nothing to offer. We cannot give what we ourselves do not have.
But if we stop there, with our privatized religious experience, that is inadequate. We put them at the service of the community, and the community at the service of God’s Kingdom. The church is called to be a sign and foretaste of God’s Kingdom, and the gifts are vital components of ongoing work.
So that, it turns out, is what the Church is for. We are called by God, empowered by God’s spirit, and send out to participate in what God is doing in the world. To do things that otherwise would not be done.
As we move to the next part of our worship together, perhaps we could pause briefly and consider what gifts God might have given you for the building up of the community. In fact, perhaps you might like to take that question away with you into your week.
Delivered at Wesley Church Pentecost Sunday, 4/6/2017