Sermon preached by Revd. Duncan Strathie, Sunday 4 June 2017, Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21

The Coming of the Holy Spirit

2 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13 But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

Peter Addresses the Crowd

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 “In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

How many times have you celebrated Pentecost? I don’t know if there is anyone here who is in church at Pentecost for the first time but my guess is that for the great majority you’ve been celebrating Pentecost for decades.

If we were to ask everyone what is Pentecost all about, we would get answers about it being 50 days after Easter, about it being the Jewish festival of weeks. We would hear about it being the time the Spirit came upon the Church after Christ’s ascension. We would hear the story of how the disciples began to speak in other languages and were accused of being drunk.

All of these things are of course true – but if that is all there is to Pentecost, all we need to do is to listen to the readings and allow them speak. Perhaps I should go and sit down!

We know very little about Pentecost in actual fact. We read Luke’s account in Acts – but it is somewhat at odds with John’s account in his gospel. We know it’s of vital importance in understanding how the first generation of Christian disciples followed through on what Jesus commanded them to do – to make disciples.

But if we are honest, we’d have to admit that we struggle to see how it makes any kind of real connection with us here today. Or is it just me? Let’s explore together.

Luke uses words to generate powerful images. He says “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind” and “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them”. It is also worth noting that in dealing with the languages Luke writes not so much about what was said but what was heard.

These three experiences seemed like natural phenomena – wind, fire and speech, yet they were supernatural in origin and in character. But the noise was not the wind but sounded like wind, the sight was not fire but resembled it; and the speech was in languages which were in some way ‘other’.

Luke’s description draws heavily on the senses of the disciples and those gathered, but what they experienced was so much more than merely sensory. In verse 12 later on we see their attempt to understand their experience when they ask ‘what does it mean?’.

So weird and unexpected were the happenings on that Day of Pentecost that Luke is forced to use similes to describe what the disciples saw and experienced. We must remember that he was not an eye-witness but writes his account from those who were.

I’m not trying to demythologise our text – I’m trying to understand it’s implications for us here today in Moseley. All of God's interactions with his creation necessarily require human remembering and/or interpretation.

God acts in our finite world through humans and on behalf of humans. Luke's Pentecost story is the fullest account we possess of the event. Yet for modern-day disciples this narrative carries a wide range of understandings and therefore implications for our Christian life together and for ministry.

Views on the importance, function, and manifestation of the Spirit vary not only from denomination to denomination but also from congregation to congregation within denominations!

The central question must be, and this must apply whenever we interrogate scripture, what does it mean for you and me right here, right now? It is the same question the gathered crowds ask in verse 12. How does Luke’s account of Pentecost speak to us today? What difference does it make?

Jerusalem in Luke’s account was filled with people from all corners of the known world speaking a variety of languages. Sounds a lot like Birmingham to me.

Our congregations here are very international, multi-cultural and multi-lingual – very similar to Luke’s crowd in Jerusalem. Luke’s account goes to great lengths to emphasise the multi cultural, multi racial and multi lingual nature of the assembled crowd. And so it is with the Kingdom of God.

Pentecost depicts a God who honours the polymorphic nature of human language and culture with no prerequisite or expectation for uniformity. God's Spirit in its fullness, unbridled and unrestricted, desires to move on, and to speak through, individuals.

We cannot use the Bible to construct a doctrine that paints the voice and activity of the Spirit as univocal or one voice representing all ethnicities, races, genders, cultures, or classes of people. God alone determines the time, the place, the means, and the content of what happens.

Ever since the early church fathers, commentators have seen the blessing of Pentecost as a deliberate reversal of the confusion of the curse of Babel. In the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 God confused the languages of humanity and scattered the peoples all over the earth.

At Pentecost the language barrier was supernaturally overcome and all peoples were brought together. In Babel earth tried in pride to reach to heaven. In Jerusalem heaven humbly descends to unite earth.

So perhaps one thing we can say is that if our lives and our world are more full of babble than Bible, perhaps it is because we are not taking the time to listen to God.

Perhaps we have not learned the language of the Spirit. We are not hearing what God has for us and the primary way in which we hear what God has for us, is through prayer.

Language about God can only ever approximate to the reality of God, because human language cannot fully comprehend the divine mystery. But the more we listen, the closer we come to God. And the closer we come, the more there is to hear and understand of God’s deeds of power and His great love for us.

And then, just when we think we may finally have this God business all figured out, God surprises us yet again and challenges us to delve deeper: to love those we cannot possibly love and to forgive the unforgivable. Such is the walk of Christian discipleship.

So far we’ve talked much about how the Spirit was given at the first Day of Pentecost but we seldom stop to think why the Spirit was given.

To answer that question we need to go back to Chapter 1 of Acts and look at verses 7 - 9 where we have the last recorded words of Jesus:

He said to the Apostles: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus’ anticipated result of the Holy Spirit’s coming is singular and straightforward: “ … you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth”. That is why the Holy Spirit came. To empower witness.

This is where the necessary dynamic power for empowering fulfilment of the Great Commission was delivered. This commission lays an obligation on all Christians as Luke clearly unfolds in the chapters that follow – an obligation to witness.

Luke knows that the Resurrection is simply the beginning of God's mighty work of redeeming us in Christ; we still have to be energised and fired up with our divine mandate given at baptism.

The dynamics of new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus still have to be fleshed out in our lives, and this is the work of the Holy Spirit, this is how we will be caught up in God's work and God's purposes so that God's will may be done on earth as it is in heaven, in our lives, our times, and our places.

“Thy Kingdom Come” as we have been praying these last 10 days!

By giving us the forceful images of wind and fire, Luke suggests that God still has one more surprise in store, even after the climactic shock of the Resurrection. The spirit has come to empower you where you are in the daily context of your life at home, in the office, at school, in the factory, at the club, out with your friends, in the stillness as you walk in the hills, park or woods.

As each of us tries to live a life based on the values and teaching of Christ - our lifestyle will become distinctively different from the lifestyle of those around us. The very way in which we live and conduct ourselves will become a witness.

Saving people from sin is not our responsibility – it is God’s. All he asks is our help to show people the way – to act as signposts, to be witnesses.

The Holy Spirit came to the disciples and it comes to us as a gift, with a promise. The coming of the Spirit concerns a person, a power and a programme:

Person: Jesus on whose authority the church acts and who is the object of its witness.

Power: Holy Spirit who is the indispensable energiser of mission.

Programme: Jerusalem to Judea & Samaria to the ends of the earth – even to Moseley, Kings Heath and Balsall Heath!

It is clear therefore that the Kingdom community is to be a missionary one, which in the power of the Holy Spirit witnesses to its Lord – Jesus Christ. The power of the Spirit which guided Jesus through his earthly ministry is now made available to the church to enable us to live and preach the Gospel.

The rest of the book of Acts follows Luke’s “tables of contents” and the book is divided into sections as the ripples of Pentecostal power spread outward from Jerusalem through Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth.

Some might be given spectacular gifts to speak a foreign tongue which previously was unknown to them. Some might be given the power to heal. Some might be given the ability to preach with eloquent words and see thousands brought into God's Kingdom.

Some might be called to give a lifetime of service and sacrifice looking after a member of the family who is unwell on a long term basis. Some are called to endure quietly as the only person of faith in their household or workplace. All are forms of witness – and to empower witness is why the Holy Spirit came.

Power can be used in at least two ways: it can be unleashed, or it can be harnessed. The energy in a 50 litre tank of petrol, can be released explosively by dropping a lighted match into the tank. Or it can be channelled through an internal combustion engine in a controlled burn and used to transport a family 500 miles.

Explosions are spectacular, but controlled burns have lasting effect, staying power.

The Holy Spirit works both ways. At Pentecost, He exploded on the scene; His presence was like "tongues of fire" (Acts 2:3). Thousands were affected by one burst of God's power. But He also continues to work through the church – a God-given human institution.

Through the Church, God began to tap the Holy Spirit's power for the long haul. Through worship, fellowship, and service, Christians as communities of witness are provided with staying power.

So we can see that just as the Ascension was an act that bore witness to the saving work of God, so too the Holy Spirit is given as a gift to enable those who follow Christ to testify to his saving power. To bear witness because God wants to draw to himself those who do not yet know him.

Through our discipleship, actions can speak louder than words. It was St Francis who said “preach often – use words if you have to” and Tertullian who said in speaking of Christian disciples “You can judge the quality of their faith from the way they behave”.

These are the faithful people who volunteer precious free hours to church and community voluntary groups. They are big families who always have a place for one more at their table. They are you and me.

It is almost overwhelming to consider that God invites us to receive the Holy Spirit into our hearts and minds to build us up individually, and to receive the same Holy Spirit into our lives as the body of Christ to build us up corporately into the community of faith, and to receive the same Holy Spirit into our lives to bring reconciliation and peace to the communities that we live and move within each day.

But we would do well to remember that it is God’s Holy Spirit that we are talking about: by whom, and with whom, and in whom, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honour and glory be yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever. And with God, all things are possible, and with the Spirit of God with us, in us and for us, all things can work together for good.

By way of encouragement as you consider what it is to live as disciples in the power of the Spirit of Pentecost, I want to leave you with some words from St Teresa of Avila:

“Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion
is to look out to the earth,
yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good
and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.”

Amen.