A sermon on John 14:8-17,25-27; Romans 8:14-17 & Acts 2:1-21 by Nathan Nettleton
It would appear that I’ve been avoiding preaching on the Feast of Pentecost. Choosing the music and so on is easy enough on this day, because there are always plenty of good songs and prayers available for the big festival days, but when it comes to actually saying something about the Pentecost stories, I get much more nervous. When I look back at my files, I discover that I have only preached on Pentecost Sunday three times in the ten years I’ve been here, so it seems that I have a history of copping out and handing it to someone else! But with Garry having concluded his ministry among us last Sunday, and Jill in hospital, I’ve got no one to hide behind this time!
I think the reason I get nervous has got a lot to do with the story from the Acts of the Apostles where the disciples are heard preaching the gospel in languages they have never learned. It is a story that arouses such controversy and about which so much tripe is spoken. So maybe the way to go is to deal with that bit quickly and get over it. There are two different phenomena mentioned in the New Testament for which the name “tongues” is used. In his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul speaks of a phenomenon where people speak in a language which nobody knows, and it appears to be mainly a form of intimate communication with God, because Paul says he personally does it a lot, but not much when other people are gathered. If you want my thoughts on that subject, you’ll have to ask me later, because it is not the subject of today’s readings. The phenomenon reported on the day of Pentecost involved people speaking in normal human languages, languages native to the hearers, but never previously spoken or learned by the speakers. Now, while I know lots of people who experience and use the other type of “tongues”, I have never met anyone who has experienced or witnessed this phenomenon. I have heard stories of it allegedly happening, but I can’t verify them and I’ve never known anyone who could. What’s more, we don’t have ongoing reports of it in the New Testament era either, so what that tells us is that we are dealing with a miracle story, and we should therefore interpret it the same way as other miracle stories. That means that our primary question is not, “Can I do this?”, but “what gospel truth is this miracle illustrating?” Like the miracles of Jesus, the primary purpose of the story is to teach us about who God is and what God values and what God is calling us to become. You can ask, “Did it really happen?”, but not only is there no way of proving an answer, but unless you think walking on water, turning water into wine, or speaking Bunarong without learning it are supposed to be normal parts of contemporary Christian discipleship, then the answer is not going to make any difference to your life. So the real question is, “What truth is being demonstrated in this sign, and how do we live that truth?”
And if we begin to answer that question, then we will be getting onto something that is really worth talking about and celebrating. In fact, it is not an obscure or complicated question. This miraculous sign sets the agenda for much of the book of Acts. Set against the burning question facing the church at the time — is the Christian message going to remain a local Hebrew variant of Judaism or is it to be taken to the whole world? — a miraculous translation of the preaching into a multitude of non-Hebrew languages is a pretty powerful demonstration of the answer. The gospel knows no bounds! Christ is risen! Death has been conquered! There is no barrier — not even that lack of a common language — that cannot be broken through by the Spirit of the risen Christ! The victory over fear and death and hostile divisions has been won! The reconciliation of all the world in Christ is now a certainty, a foregone conclusion! Alleluia! And all the people said?? Amen!
Now some of you may be thinking, “But that sounds like the message of Pascha. We’ve been hearing that for the last fifty days. Isn’t Pentecost about something else?”
Well you’re quite right, it does sound like the same message, and that is precisely because Pentecost is part of Pascha. Despite our local congregational custom of using the Pentecost prayers and colours until our Church anniversary in three weeks time, Pentecost is not a separate season, it is simply the fiftieth and final day of the Paschal season. And although the fifty days contains the feasts of the Resurrection, the Ascension, and Pentecost, it is all the one mystery and all the one celebration. The stories of the resurrection, the ascension and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit are all different ways of making the same point: Christ is risen! Death has been conquered! There is no barrier that can stand against the Spirit of the risen Christ! The victory over fear and death and hatred has been won! The reconciliation of all the world in Christ is now unstoppable! Alleluia!
Now although the whole season is celebrating the one big victory of our God, we are not just saying the same thing in the same way every week. We are exploring the same mystery, but from different angles, and so as the fifty days have unfolded, we have gained a bigger and bigger picture of what it means to follow the one who has been raised from the dead, filled the universe with his presence, and poured out his Spirit upon all humanity. On this day, we are especially focused on what it means for us, as the body of the risen Christ, to live life under the influence of his Spirit.
“Under the influence” seems to be a good image, actually, because the first response of some of the outsiders on the day of Pentecost was, “These people are under the influence! They’re all pissed!” And the opening line of our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans could well have been translated “for all who are under the influence of the Spirit of God are children of God.” When we speak of someone being “under the influence” we are usually saying they are no longer behaving normally because something is altering the way they respond and behave. It might be drugs or alcohol, it might be peer group pressure, it might be a new teaching or an advertising campaign, it might be the excitement of a big event. It might be negative, it might be positive. It might be the spirits of fear and greed, or it might be the Spirit of God.
Paul contrasts the spirits that might influence us, and says that the Spirit God has given us is not one that results in us being timid and fearful and constantly on the defensive lest something evil get under our guard. Instead, we have been given a Spirit who fills us with joyous confidence that we are God’s adopted children and we are safe in the loving arms of the God who is father and mother to us. And the message the whole Paschal season trumpets is that those spirits of fear and deathliness have been defeated. They may still be at large in the world for a while yet, but they are like the last pockets of futile resistance in a losing war, because Christ has broken through the stronghold of fear and death and they can no longer get at those who willingly put themselves under the influence of the Spirit of Christ. We are free from fear and free to dance to the Spirit’s tune.
How are we free? Jesus describes it in the reading we heard from the gospel according to John. We have a powerful new backer to ensure our freedom. The Greek word “paraklete” doesn’t have an exact equivalent in English, but it means someone who backs you up, advocates on your behalf, supports and encourages you, and makes sure nothing else can get the better of you. And, says Jesus, with this powerful backer on side, the community of his followers – the church – will do even greater and more extraordinary things than Jesus himself has done. How can that be? Because, says Jesus, I’m getting out of the way and handing over the reins to you, and putting within you the same Spirit that has been at work in me, and what the Spirit can do through a whole global community is even greater than what the Spirit can do through one man in one place at one time.
And where is this all leading us? Well, although the world can’t understand it the answer is perhaps what the world yearns for more than anything else: peace. Peace that is not just the suppression of hostilities, but the deep peace that come only from true reconciliation where the fear of further violence is removed. Peace with justice. Peace with trust and understanding. Peace founded on love. Peace with one another, with the planet itself, and with God our creator. The peace that is Christ’s gift to the world and which is found in no other. The peace that is only found when the Spirit of God is poured out and every dividing wall is swept aside and every hard heart is melted and all the debris of callousness and greed and indifference are blown away on the wild wind.
So why is the world not experiencing peace if Christ has given us peace and the Spirit has been poured out? It is a bit like what happens in most wars. There comes a point where the decisive battle is won and everyone can see what is going to happen now. This week the world marked the fiftieth anniversary of d-day, the campaign that turned the course of the second world war. After d-day, even Romell knew that the German army would lose. But the period between d-day and the final surrender was the bloodiest period of the entire war. The outcome was certain, but the consequences were yet to be realised in full. We’re in that time now. Christ is risen. Christ has broken from the stronghold of death and despair and torn down the walls on the way out. Christ’s victory is beyond doubt, but the world does not yet know peace. But we have tasted peace. We taste the peace of Christ every time we gather at this table. We taste the peace every time we open ourselves to the Spirit and invite the peace of Christ to purge us of our delusions and our hostilities and of everything that perpetuates division and selfishness among us. We taste peace every time we drink of the new wine and dance to the unfamiliar new tune the Spirit plays. It might be no more than a taste yet, but we have tasted it and we celebrate it even now because the full fruits are on their way.
Christ is risen! Death has been conquered! There is no barrier, no dividing wall of hostility, that cannot be blown away by the Spirit of the risen Christ! The victory over fear and death and despair has been won! The reconciliation of all the world in Christ is now unstoppable! Alleluia! And all the people said?? Amen!!!