A sermon on Acts 2: 1-21 for the Feast of Pentecost
by Andrew Woff, Regional Minister, Baptist Union of Victoria
Good evening everyone. Thank you for the invitation… worshipping with you is always a treat; preaching among you is always a privilege.
And so we come to Pentecost…
This is one of those outstanding transformative moments in the Scriptures! Then why do I sometimes feel discomforted by it. Hmmm – this is not a story for those of us who like to remain in control!
When we turn our Bibles to Acts Chapter 2, we find ourselves in a story that is both captivating and mysterious. This is not a story that comes to us from the stable of rational, careful, measured planning to strategically launch a new spiritual movement!
This is spontaneous, powerful, loud, surprising and chaotic. This feels like some kind of mass hysteria as people get swept up into some dangerous group euphoria where control is lost and anything could happen! My introverted soul quakes at the idea.
And yet… on this day, what actually happens is a transformation of a community from holy huddle to powerful witnesses and a kind of big-bang that would scatter the good news of Jesus all over the world. In a sense the birth of the church… in a sense our birth as a faith community.
And it is a story about hope: about how an encounter with the life-giving Spirit of God can set us free from the constraints which bind us, breaking down barriers and opening new horizons.
Two things particularly strike me.
The first is this experience of suddenly enhanced capacity – this speaking articulately in languages that were apparently not previously known to the speakers, enabling them to communicate fluently in the native tongue of everyone in the crowd.
I find myself wanting to find rational explanations:
•We all have innate capacities we don’t know about until they are unlocked by a powerful personal experience;
•The disciples had been waiting in prayer for some 50 days since Jesus’ resurrection, which must have been some kind of spiritual retreat. After that kind of hot-house, no wonder they were open to some kind of group euphoria;
•(Or more charitably) they had been working at their deep life stuff for some time since Jesus’ resurrection and this was one of those moments of community transformation which would not have been possible without the work of the previous 7 weeks.
But I suspect I have strayed far from the intent of the passage. What Luke wants us to know about this experience is that it was unexpected, unrehearsed, unbidden. And new gifts are released: gifts which transform the world.
And I wonder about me – about us. Is it possible that some of the fruit of our upbringing – from parents, teachers, coaches and our peers – is that we have determined not to live too large, not to get ahead of ourselves, not to get a swelled head. And we live small and become part of communities that learn to live within safe limitations. While the Spirit of God is calling us to live to the edge of our capacity in the Spirit’s transformation of the world!
I’m reminded of that wonderful quote that is often attributed to Nelson Mandela, but is actually a quote from Marianne Williamson in her book, “A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles”.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure about you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Perhaps part of the miracle of Pentecost is the gift of saying “Yes” to the Spirit’s wooing of us to become people and communities that move beyond our glass ceilings, to take off the handbrake and take the risk of being open to God’s work of transformation in and through us.
The second thing that strikes me is the breaking down of communication barriers. Here is the forming of a new community that sweeps past traditional walls of language and race. It’s as if God is saying that the safe and familiar barriers behind which we like to establish and control community are not the plan of God.
This establishing of new community goes to the very heart of the New Testament’s vision. For the very life of God is in community; the Trinity captures the fact that community is foundational to the very nature of God.
In our Gospel reading from John, we meet the staggering reality that we are invited into this community. Jesus talks about his intimacy with God: I am in the Father and the Father is in me is like a refrain in John’s understanding of Jesus. So the words Jesus says are the Father’s Words. And the things Jesus does are the work the Father does. Then Jesus says:
I am telling you the truth: whoever believes in me will do what I do – yes, he will do even greater things because I am going to the Father.
Our reading from Romans underlines that through the work of the Spirit, we are no longer slaves – without status and insecure – but we are the privileged sons and daughters of God. Says Paul
God’s Spirit joins with our Spirit to declare that we are God’s children.
And this radical new community with the very life of God is the community that is now extended to all humanity regardless of background, culture, race and language. A totally new community is born.
(I recall having a random conversation with someone at a wedding reception, saying, “I would never go to a church where I felt comfortable. To be comfortable would be to stop growing. I make sure I am always part of a church community that stretches me.”)
All of this, of course, is the action of God. We can’t make a new Pentecost happen, any more than the first disciples fashioned it.
But we can be open to it.
Perhaps the perpetual invitation is here for us to say “yes” to the Spirit – both as individuals and as a church – to be open to seeing ourselves beyond the narrow and ashamed constraints and limitations we have allowed others to place on us and to be open to forming new community with God and with God’s world.