Sermon: Pentecost, 21 May 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 20th May 2018 (Pentecost)

Rev. Paul Weaver

(Acts 1:1-21; Ps 106:26-36; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27;16:4-15)

A long time ago, people got together to build a city. They built a tower, planning to reach right up to heaven. Very impressive in its time – but why did they do it? According to Genesis 11, they wanted to make a name for themselves: pride was a major factor. And they wanted to stick together and ensure that they weren’t scattered over the earth: fear was also a factor.

But in those early days who would try to scatter them? They knew that God’s purpose was for people to spread out and populate the world, so that they could fulfil their responsibility to be in charge of the world on his behalf, and to take care of it.

What then was the point of the tower? Was it a fortress to protect them from God? Or did they actually think that they might be able to invade heaven? What is clear is that they were banding together in resistance to God and his purposes.

And what does God do? No thunderbolts or earthquakes or mass destruction. He simply confuses their language so that they can’t understand one another, and effectively work and live together. And very soon they are indeed scattered.

Of course we know this as the story of the Tower of Babel, or Babylon – they are the one word. Indeed it really became the Tower of Babble! Whether you see it as literal history or not, the point is the same. We can’t effectively gang up against God. If we work together in resistance to God, that resistance will ultimately fail. To use the traditional theological terms: sin not only keeps us at a distance from God – it pushes us away from each other. We certainly see that in today’s world. And the multitude of languages we are aware of in the world are a reminder of that reality.

However, two thousand years ago, the curse of Babel was lifted – at least for a moment in time. The barrier of language was broken down: not by professors of linguistics or language experts, but by a motley bunch of very ordinary people. Many would have seen these people as country bumpkins from the backblocks of Galilee. But on the day of Pentecost, these uneducated people were communicating across the language barrier to people from many lands and backgrounds.

How did this happen? The Holy Spirit was at work in a new way.

Pentecost was a great Jewish festival: 50 days, 7 weeks after Passover. Jews and worshippers of the Lord had come to Jerusalem from lands near and far. It was a Harvest Festival, but this time a new kind of harvest was to be gathered. It was also a commemoration of the giving of the Law: but as God had spoken uniquely then, so God would speak again in a new and wonderful way.

Luke tells us that there were about 120 followers of Jesus who had been gathering together after the resurrection. Jesus had now ascended. But before that strange event, he had told them that very soon that they would receive the Holy Spirit and be empowered to bear witness to him: in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. This book of Acts gives a kind of outline of how this actually happened. The Gospel would indeed go north, south, east and west, even to Rome, from where it would reach any other place where people lived.

What actually happened that extraordinary day? Luke tells us of the sound of wind and tongues of fire.

Fire speaks of the presence of God in his holiness and his cleansing power: remember the burning bush. Wind speaks not only of power, but also of life: the same word in the scriptures can mean wind, breath and spirit. God has come anew in the person of the Holy Spirit, bringing new life to his people, bringing new power to fulfil his purposes. John the Baptist had promised that the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Now the promises of both John and Jesus were being fulfilled.
People heard the disciples speaking powerfully, and started coming near to listen to them. What is going on? It seems pretty over the top!
Are these people drunk? It’s far too early for that. They are in no danger from a breathalyzer test! Are they mad? No: they are certainly enthusiastic, but what they are talking about is meaningful. These are words of praise to God for his wonderful works. Are they just speaking their own language? After all, they seem to come from Galilee, and Galileans have a very obvious accent. But they are in any case likely to know not just Aramaic – the local language – but also some Greek, and perhaps even some Latin for dealing with the Romans.

People might be surprised by Galileans speaking like this in familiar languages, but something more is happening. It seems that these uneducated people are communicating in a whole collection of languages: languages they would surely never have learned. And we heard from Acts 2 that list that Luke provides: a list of the different places which were home to people who heard the disciples that day.

That barrier expressed by the different languages of the world was for a moment lifted as God ushered in a new era – the era of the Holy Spirit.
In the Old Testament we read of the Holy Spirit coming upon kings and judges and prophets when God has a special task for them. But now the Spirit has come on all these followers of Jesus, enabling them to speak about God’s great deeds of power, bearing witness to the Good News of Jesus.

And when Peter stands up to address the crowd, this is no longer Peter the coward, Peter the denier of Jesus. Peter now speaks with courage and conviction and clarity and power. And what he communicates as he begins his speech is the reality that God is doing something new, and that this new thing has been foreshadowed in the scriptures. He quotes from the prophet Joel, who speaks of that wonderful day when God will pour out his Spirit on all kinds of people. This, says Peter, is the day.

And the Spirit has been poured out not just on respectable educated Jews, but on these Galileans. The Spirit is being poured out on male and female, young and old, slaves as well as free, just as Joel prophesied. Barriers of gender, age, rank are no longer relevant as far as God’s purposes are concerned. God’s Spirit is for all.
And as the message goes out in all kinds of languages, the barriers of race and language are also no longer to be seen as a barrier to the purposes of God.

Everyone – whoever they are, wherever they come from, whatever their story – everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. And if we were there to hear the rest of Peter’s message, we would begin to understand that the Lord who saves his people is not just the Lord God, the holy one who perhaps seems sometimes to be the distant God – it is in fact the Lord Jesus upon whom people are to call.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit who brings people together. He overcomes barriers, and he challenges us to overcome those barriers which get in the way of fellowship and service and witness.

How appropriate it is that in Australia the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity leads up to Pentecost. For it reminds us of the Spirit’s call to beware of barriers which keep Christ’s church divided. How appropriate it is that we have at this time one of our annual local ecumenical services, and at this time we review and ratify the covenant in which our local churches acknowledge our fellowship in Christ. We may not see institutional church unity in the foreseeable future, but we can worship and share and learn and work together in fellowship: valuing our own traditions and approaches, but also appreciating and learning from aspects of the life of the church which we see in other denominations and traditions. And that ecumenical fellowship will bear witness to the Gospel which breaks down barriers between us and God, and barriers between God’s people.

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit who breaks down barriers. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit who draws God’s people together in love and service and fellowship. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit who empowers us to bear witness in our lives and actions and words to the Good News of Christ.

The Spirit is God himself at work in God’s church, and at work in our own lives. May we rejoice in his presence, and respond to his call to live as Christ’s followers, both as individual Christians, and as members of his worldwide church. Amen.
Paul Weaver