A sermon preached on Acts 2:1-21 for Pentecost Year B at Preston High Street UCA
Generally, we take an insider view of the events of the 24th of May AD 33 – more popularly known as Pentecost. We love to imagine ourselves gathered with the disciples, and tongues of something like fire settling on our heads. Who wouldn’t want that visible infilling of the Holy Spirit? Who wouldn’t want to be filled with power and find ourselves suddenly speaking another human language?
But, in reading the passage, I was struck by a question I’d never really thought about before. What would it have been like to be an outsider, just walking along the street?
It’s late spring and you’ve come from Rome to visit your ancestral home Jerusalem, and fulfil your Torah mandate to be there for festival season. You arrived in good time for Passover, and now, fifty days later, it is Shavuot – the harvest festival. The Greek speakers call it Pentecost – the Fifty Day Sacrifice.
Staying with distant relatives in the city, you have marvelled at what it is like to live in a place where it is just so easy to be Jewish. No idolatrous temples, plenty of exciting opportunities to learn at the feet of great teachers at the Temple, lively synagogues to attend, and no problems finding kosher food.
But, on the other hand, there is an odd feeling in the city air. Coming from Rome, you’re no stranger to a city which feels a little on edge. When the grain ships from Egypt run late, you can feel the city’s anxiety rise, and you’ve seen small riots erupt over trivia when it’s hot and too noisy to sleep at night.
But you’ve never experienced anything like this. Ever since Passover when that troublemaker Jesus of Nazareth was executed, there has been a strange feeling in the air. Some sort of unfinished business, a feeling like a summer storm about to break.
You’ve decided to get to the Temple early to try to avoid the worst of the festival crowds, but you got a little side-tracked by street vendors, and it’s about nine in the morning as you make your way to the temple.
As you walk, you hear an increasing ruckus. Rounding the corner into a little city square, you see a great sea of people. You can tell from their clothes that they are from all over the world – Egypt, North Africa, Asia Minor, Europe, fellow Romans… people from all over the Jewish diaspora. But they aren’t the primary source of the noise. In fact, they seem stunned, almost silent. They aren’t the source of the noise, this great cacophony of voices, this confusion of words.
It seems to be coming from a nearby building.
You decide to get closer and try to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
As you push your way though the throng, you begin to pick out individual words. They aren’t speaking the Hebrew you learned at school, nor the Aramaic you’ve been learning to try to impress your relative’s hot neighbour. Instead, a cacophony of different vowel and consonant sounds. Including… could that be Latin?
In hushed voices, you could hear the hushed whispers of the crowd – is that Elamite? Egyptian? Persian? What’s going on? What does it all mean? Surely they are drunk with new wine – it is festival time after all. But then again…
Suddenly there is a complete hush, and one voice begins to speak: “People of Judea, and everyone who lives in Jerusalem, listen to what I have to say…”
It must have been deeply unsettling; but exciting. To have come from hundreds of miles away – days and weeks of travel by road and sailing ship – to be so far away from any signs of home, and then, suddenly to hear your own native language being spoken, must have been astonishing. Many of us know what it’s like to be far from home and then to hear an Australian accent on a street in a distant city.
But this isn’t just a reminder of home tugging on the heartstrings.
It is a voice which calls you, summons you, calls you onwards. To a renewed home, as part of a renewed people.
This Sunday is Pentecost, traditionally the birthday of the church.
I used to grumble a bit about that idea. Surely the real birthday of the church was when Jesus called the first disciples? What better place to start than Jesus telling Simon Peter and Andrew that he would make them fish for people? Surely tramping around Israel with Jesus for years on end, learning at his feet, seeing people healed, even just being with him in the quiet evenings after dramatic days – surely that was a much fuller experience of church than anything which came afterwards?
I’ve mostly changed my mind now. Not because I feel differently about it. Hanging out with Jesus, especially in that unrushed kind of way while we tramped the back roads of Palestine together, would have been absolutely unparalleled. No, I’ve more or less changed my mind because I can see that what we are doing is different.
Definitely not better; not necessarily worse.
Specifically it’s different in that Jesus has left us the responsibility to get on with our little bit of the vineyard.
There’s an old joke, at least old in theology college, that Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, but left us the church instead. It stings a little because the difference between the Kingdom and the Church feels really large. But really, they are different things.
The Kingdom of God is God’s responsibility to bring about.
The Church is only one of the ways in which God is doing it. It’s a particular thing God is doing. Not the only thing. But it is our thing.
The slogan that “God’s mission has a church” is a good way to remember the basic truth of our situation.
But this means that we are responsible for collaborating with God. God has given us the opportunity – indeed called us in the responsibility – of creating this new sort of community in the world.
The point of Pentecost is that God doesn’t just leave us alone to get on with it. God isn’t like some distant CEO figure who issues some broad directives and expects us to meet her KPIs for growth or face the consequences.
God gives us herself in the person of the Holy Spirit.
This isn’t really the time for a long discussion of the theology of the Spirit, though that would actually be a pretty interesting sermon. But it is definitely worth saying this:
The Holy Spirit is the relationship of love between the Father and the Son – between the Creator and Redeemer if you prefer your God-talk less gendered. That love is so completely real, so powerful, so much at the base of all that exists, that it is able to reach out into the world to draw us into the love which exists within God.
To become part of this dance of love in God is the central purpose and meaning of human existence.
And we have a particular role in drawing people into that relationship. Central to that, I think, it means something like “being the sort of community which looks like it believes that the central fact about the universe is not only that the self-giving love which exists within God, expressed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also that we are summoned to respond to this basic fact.”
And part of that, of course, is our outworking in mission.
That will take a lot of different shapes – because, don’t forget, the Kingdom of God is fundamentally God’s responsibility, not ours.
Or, as I like to frequently remind myself: There is a messiah; it is not you.
What strikes me about the gift of the Spirit in this particular circumstance is that it is so precisely what is needed.
At a theological level, it is a sort of undoing of the story of Babel in Genesis.
Babel, you may recall, was the great tower up to heaven that humans had built to try to reach God. God decided the humans were getting uppity and destroyed the tower, and separated everyone into different language groups. The gift of the Holy Spirit here undoes that action – it brings the listeners together, no matter what language they speak, making them into a single people.
But, as an engineer, I also see a pragmatic answer here. The gift the Spirit gave was precisely the gift which was required to do the job which needed doing right there and then.
The city was full of people from all over the Jewish Diaspora – from every country under heaven – and they all spoke different languages. What was needed was a way for the disciples to preach the good news to all these different people in language which they could understand.
In other words, God gave them what they needed for their particular bit of the mission. The tools for their little bit of the vineyard. What they needed for what they had to do next.
That’s the particular bit of the Good News I see in the reading. God’s promise to the church is that we already have what we need.
So we left our visitor to Rome listening to what Peter had to say.
What is it that we have to say? What will we do to work with the Holy Spirit in our particular corner of the Lord’s vineyard?