A sermon on Acts 2: 1-21, John 14: 8-17,25-27 & Genesis 11: 1-9 by Nathan Nettleton
Today is the birthday of the Church – not of our local congregation but of the Church universal. The birthday of our congregation is only two weeks away, so for us they kind of merge into one big celebration, but today is the Day of Pentecost, the day that the whole of Christ’s Church celebrates its birth. We heard the reason why in the scripture readings we heard. In the gospel reading we heard Jesus telling his disciples that after he was gone, God would send the Holy Spirit to them and that in the power of that Spirit they would do what Jesus had done and even more. And then in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles we heard that it was on the Day of Pentecost, when all the believers were gathered together in one place that the Holy Spirit came roaring in like a bushfire and Church was born. It’s almost like a chemical reaction – believers on their own are not a Church, but add Holy Spirit and you’ve got a whole new reality.
It is a common practice when celebrating the birth of something, to look back to the starting point to see what that can tell us about what sort of thing it is. This year as Australia celebrates 100 years as a federated nation, there are lots of questions being discussed about what the vision of the founding figures might have been and what that does and doesn’t tell us about what we might be now. In the same way, it is appropriate for us in the Church to revisit these stories of the birth of the Church and ask what they tell us about what kind of community the Church is or ought to be.
The first thing I want to comment on, although its not the first thing most people notice, is what we might read into the fact that we are told that this outpouring of the Holy Spirit happened on the Day of Pentecost. You see the fact that we are told that it happened on the day of Pentecost means that there already was a day of Pentecost. The calender of our Jewish forebears already contained a Day of Pentecost. It was an agricultural festival celebrated on the fiftieth day after the Passover festival, and it was day of thanksgiving to God for the new harvest. The fact that it was essentially agricultural does not mean that it had no other religious significance. It’s link to the Passover festival made it a celebration of God’s acts of salvation too, for the Passover celebrated the escape from slavery and exile and so Pentecost celebrated the tasting of the first fruits of the promised land. The fifty day link has carried over into the Christian calender with Pentecost being the culmination of the Great Fifty days that began with the Feast of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. And so the symbolism carries over – in Christ’s resurrection we are led to freedom and with the outpouring of the Spirit we taste the first fruits of the promised land of the Kingdom. The Church is not the Kingdom, but it is a foreshadowing of the Kingdom for which Christ has freed us.
The thing that sticks in the mind of most people about this story of the birth of the Church on the day of Pentecost is the account of the miraculous overcoming of the language barriers. The disciples were heard speaking of the great things of God in languages they had never learned. Now it is common to refer to this as “the gift of tongues”, but this may be misleading, if not just plain wrong. Not only is it not referred to by that name in this passage, but it appears to be quite a different thing from what Paul talks about as the gift of tongues. Paul speaks of a gift that is useful in prayer but is of little or no use in communicating with people. In fact he says that despite the fact that he personally speaks in tongues a lot, in the church meeting he’d rather speak in his normal language so that people would understand him. Speaking in tongues in front of other people, he suggests, causes confusion and impedes communication; whereas what is described as happening on the day of Pentecost was something that broke down the communication barriers and enabled people who otherwise could not have understood to hear and understand.
It probably doesn’t help much to spend much time trying to work out how this happened. The important thing is what it is telling us about the nature of the Church. The story of the tower of Babel was read tonight because the story of the Day of Pentecost seems to be making quite deliberate allusions to it. The ancient legend is telling us about the origin of language barriers and of the fragmentation of the human race into isolated and estranged tribes. The story of Pentecost is telling us that with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the followers of Jesus, the process is being reversed. People are being reunited and ethnic and linguistic divisions are no longer going to separate them. Now if that is being highlighted in the story of the birth of the Church, that tells us straight off that the Church is to be a community of reconciliation where the common language of love for God and one another transcends other differences.
This is further highlighted and further expanded when Peter quotes from the prophet Joel to explain the meaning of what people are seeing and hearing happen. The particular passage he quotes is one of the most extraordinary passages in the Hebrew scriptures for foretelling a day when all our dividing lines will be collapsed and all will be on in God. It starts with God saying, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy.” There would have been nothing exceptional about a prophesy that “your sons” will prophesy, but your daughters?! That was a scandalous overturning of the religious protocols and understandings. No distinction between male and female in God’s new Kingdom. An mind-boggling idea! But it gets worse. Old and young shall see visions and dream dreams. No hierarchy of age either. In the Kingdom, of which the newborn Church is a foretaste, old and young alike will be God-bearers. “Even on my slaves, both men and women, will I pour out my Spirit.” To the Jews, there was an assumption that the rich had a head start with God, because it took a far bit of resources to keep all the Jewish law – to buy the right foods and prepare them properly, to wear the right things, etc etc. Slaves lacked the resources to be law-abiding and so were religious outsiders. But now God says even the social divide will not keep anyone out of the Kingdom. All the barriers are broken down.
The primary message we are given about the birth of the Church is that it is formed and empowered by the Holy Spirit who breaks down every barrier that might keep people out of the Kingdom of God. The Church is a community of grace and reconciliation in which everyone has equal right of participation. So, as we gather around this table and pray for God to pour out the Holy Spirit on us and make us truly the body of Christ — an action that you’ll find has been highlighted by the revisions of the liturgy this week — we’d better be aware of what the Spirit might do to our assumptions about who we are and what makes us different from others. And we’d better be aware that when we exchange the greeting of peace, that we really are binding ourselves to one another, because the Spirit is not going to let any of the old divisions remain. As our foretaste around the table moves towards fulfilment in the Reign of God, we are all being reconciled to one another in Christ, and that vision is front and centre in our foundational stories.