A sermon on Acts 2: 1-21 by Nathan Nettleton
I have a friend who belongs to a Pentecostal church, who once made the comment that he hates Pentecost Sunday, because in Pentecostal Churches they can’t think of anything to do to celebrate it that they didn’t already do every other Sunday! Well, we’re not a Pentecostal church, although by the end of the morning you may think that I’m a bit more Pentecostal than you previously thought, but I’m not too sure what to do with it myself. I don’t find preparing worship so hard on this day, in fact the big festival days are often the easiest to work out what to sing and what to pray and so on, but when it comes to actually saying something about the Pentecost stories, I get much more nervous. I looked back to see what I said last time and found that Ron preached on the last two Pentecost Sunday’s, so maybe I got so nervous I didn’t even try!
The problem I have is that these stories touch on things that have become very problematic in the churches. A lot of the big church fights of the last thirty years or so have been over how we understand the role of the Holy Spirit, and especially over the place of what is know as “the gift of speaking in tongues”.
It is somewhat ironic that the reactions to a story that is in essence about the breaking down of barriers to communication, should themselves become major barriers to communication between Christian peoples. I have no intention of trying to sort out the disputes this morning. I do hope that what I have to say will not exacerbate any of them, but might help open some lines of communication between us and God and us and each other.
Whatever else might be said about the story from Acts of the church’s first Day of Pentecost, the one thing that is quite clear is that the primary miracle that the Spirit of God enables here is one of breaking through the barriers of communication. People who could not understand because of language barriers, hear and understand, and God’s message breaks through to people who otherwise could not have heard it.
Whether the miracle happens in the voice box of the speaker or the eardrums of the hearer or both doesn’t matter (both are implied by the text), it is a miracle, something that could not have happened if God’s Holy Spirit had not intervened and allowed something new and different to happen. And it would appear from what Jesus said in the gospel reading that this is pretty much one of the standard areas of business of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, “The Advocate,” (there’s a funny Greek word there, parakleitos, which is various translated as advocate, counsellor, helper, comforter), “The Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, will testify on my behalf, and you also are to testify.” Testifying, getting the truth across, communicating. This is the task of the Spirit and our task, in response to the Spirit.
And when it happens it is miraculous, because there are so many barriers to genuine communication, especially when it comes to communication about the deep issues of life and meaning and spirit. Jesus spoke many times about the difficulty of getting the message through. He usually used the metaphor of blindness for it, describing his mission as opening the eyes of the blind, and although this was sometimes a physical blindness, most of the time he was dealing with those whose eyes were OK but who just could not or would not see. As he said to those who believed they were in the know in a passage we read just a few weeks a go, “If you were blind, you’d have an excuse, but since you claim you can see, you stand condemned.”
We have story after story of Jesus trying to get his disciples to understand what he was on about, only to have them misunderstand again and again. Communication, especially once you get beyond the superficialities, is a tough job with a relatively low success rate, and even Jesus had only occasional breakthroughs.
No doubt every one of you knows the feeling of trying to make your point to someone and you can see that it’s just not getting through. Am I right? You know the sense of frustration that rises up and up as you try different tacks in an attempt to get them to see it your way, and nothing seems to work. Or perhaps you know that sinking feeling when you’re dealing with someone who has such a negative view of themselves that they seem to be able to manufacture an insult out of anything you say, so when ever you have something to say you spend about half an hour planning your line so as to eliminate any possible way they could turn it into a put down, but they still find a way. Another communication failure.
I was walking down Chapel Street at about midnight last night, after Mike’s bucks turn, and I was struck quite hard by images of the impossibility of communication without miraculous intervention by the Spirit. The pokie venues and the night clubs were doing a big trade and everywhere was evidence of the slavery to image, fashion, money and superficiality. Hope is reduced to spinning wheels in a pokie machine; community is reduced to having companions to drink with; love is reduced to a commodity for exchange. Try speaking of prayer or forgiveness or simplicity in that environment and see how easy communication is.
The barriers are so many, when you think about it, it’s a wonder we manage at all. Popular books like the “Mars and Venus” series are built on the premise that we speak different languages but we don’t even know it. Psychologists often talk about the way we tend to hear every thing through the filters of our previous experience. They reckon it doesn’t matter what you say to me, I’ll only hear the stuff that I have categories for in my head, and so what I think you meant will be a sort of combination between what you actually said and what I already believed or wanted to hear.
What I want to hear acts as a filter too. What I perceive as being in my own interests. Most of us are quite good at filtering out information that threatens our comfort zones or calls for change. All of you who’ve even been in psychotherapy can no doubt attest to how much effort it takes to stop defending yourself and start actually listening to things that call you to make significant changes. Am I right? Do you know that experience?
Whether it’s pride that refuses to acknowledge that I might not be up to standard, or fear that would rather stay in familiar places even if they’re the pits, or individualism that refuses to entrust myself to anyone else, or self-preoccupation that can’t afford to look at how my behaviour impacts on others, or image consciousness that couldn’t face the world without the trappings, the nice things, the fashionable accessories. Whatever it may be, every one of us has things that block our ears and refuse to allow the Word of God through to our core where it might challenge and cut and rearrange. Every one of us has areas where we’ve inoculated ourselves to the claims of Jesus Christ on our lives, and nothing short of a miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit will open up our ears and enable us to hear God’s word in our own tongue.
This is no less true of us here in the church as it is out on Chapel Street at midnight. It may even be worse here at times, because to all the barriers we share with them, we have the added problem of over-familiarity. We hear the stories which we’ve heard before, and after a while we just allow them to wash over us without ever penetrating. “Jesus was crucified to death for me.” Yeah, yeah I know that. “Jesus says give up all you have and follow me.” Yeah, Yeah, I know that. And we think we have responded sufficiently because we are sitting here, hearing the same things yet again, allowing the same startling truths and claims to slide on past without really touching us.
We need flames of fire to fall on us and burn through the barriers before anything is going to get through. We need the Holy Spirit to come like a howling wind, blasting the cobwebs out of our hearts and minds and breathing new life into our world-weary souls. And when that happens, when the word gets through, either because the Spirit gave you different words or gave me opened ears, then that’s a miracle, and that’s the kind of business God is in.
Look don’t despair on this stuff. If you’re feeling right now that you know what I mean and you really want to allow God’s word in to do its work in your heart and mind, but you just don’t know how to get the barriers down, then pray. It’s actually not your job to get the barriers down. Your part is just to give permission and get out of the way while God does it. It is in prayer that you will find yourself able to give permission. Pray. Ask God to do it. Plead with God to break you open and to strip off all the gunk (as Leunig recently called it) that blocks your ears and clags your soul. God will. Maybe not immediately, maybe not in one spectacular moment, but God will, if you really want it and keep asking for it.