Acts 2:1-21; John 7:37-39
St Barbara’s Church; 28.05.2023
We have just heard the passage in which Luke describes the moment of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. It is dramatic and action-packed, with material for several sermons! But in this short time we have I want to take a look at what this moment really meant – and means – for us, and also what this passage can show us about how we can be caught up in God’s story, God’s work in the world.
The untamed presence of God
Let’s begin by looking at what is really happening here. The followers of Jesus, women and men (including his own mother) are waiting, praying, having just seen Jesus ascend into heaven.
‘Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[or languages] as the Spirit enabled them.’
If we have heard this passage a few times over the years, it’s easy to get used to it – the wind, the fire, the other languages. It’s easy to stop appreciating the intensity, the wildness and the
spectacular nature of what is happening. When the Holy Spirit came on those first followers of Jesus, it was clear that it was none other than the very presence of God among them. And not only among them, but within them – they were filled with the Holy Spirit.
Fire is associated throughout the Old Testament with the presence of God – from Moses and the
burning bush to the fire which burned in the temple. For example in Leviticus, the Lord tells Moses to command Aaron as follows: ‘The fire on the altar must be kept burning; it must not go out. Every morning the priest is to add firewood and arrange the burnt offering on the fire and burn the fat of the fellowship offerings on it. The fire must be kept burning on the altar continuously; it must not go out.’
But when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost, the temple is not a building or a place but human
beings in community. In his letter to the Corinthians, St Paul will later write: ‘do you not know
that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?’
The significance of this moment is not simply that those early disciples witnessed an awe-inspiring demonstration of God’s power. But that, by the Holy Spirit, human beings received the gift of God’s presence within them. Those early disciples – and we – are invited into the relationship of love between the Father and the Son. In his letter to the Romans, St Paul writes: ‘you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.’
As Bishop Graham Tomlin puts it, ‘We are beloved sons and daughters of the Father, just as Jesus was, by virtue of being united with Christ by the Spirit. The Spirit is the one who brings us into relationship with the Father and the Son…There is no other way to know the love of the Father for the Son, the love that lies at the very centre of the universe, that alone can change and transform human hearts, affections and behaviour, than the Holy Spirit.’
What we celebrate at Pentecost is not simply a moment in church history but the fact that our whole identity is transformed by being invited into relationship with the Father and the Son. We become the place where God dwells. We may not have experienced fire or a violent wind but every time we come to God as our Father, we are bearing witness to the fact that God’s own Spirit is at work within us.
So what does this mean for us?
Nurturing our bodies
Firstly, that our bodies are of great worth. We live in a culture which so often conditions us to
associate our bodies with shame, fear, or a sense of inadequacy. But our very human bodies, in all their diversity, are where God chooses to dwell by his Spirit. They are worth looking after, caring for, nurturing, listening to. In the words of the theologian Paula Gooder, ‘if we abuse our bodies in any way (by overworking, not resting enough,, ignoring what our bodies are telling us about our well-being), then we are not allowing the Spirit to work fully within us. Taking proper care of our bodies – those temples of the Holy Spirit – should be ranked alongside prayer as a spiritual discipline.’
Secondly, I see in this passage a call to reflect the abundant generosity of God in our own lives. The theologian Tom Wright explains that, at the time when this passage takes place, Greek was
everybody’s second language throughout the Mediterranean world. When people travelled, Greek was the language people used to communicate with one another. If you wanted to translate a message so that everyone could understand it, you would translate it into Greek. That makes good business sense.
But, when God sends His Holy Spirit, he communicates not in the second language, the one that
everyone could ‘get by’ in. Each person hears their own language. The work of the Spirit is not to give the economical bare minimum but to give abundantly. Peter, responding to the crowd, quotes the Old Testament prophecies, describing how the Spirit would be spread far and wide.
“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy…
‘And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’’
The more I reflected on this the more I was blown away by the generosity and proximity of God. The same God who comes in might and mystery through a violent wind and tongues of fire is the God who draws close to us and speaks to us in our own language. One of the very first signs of the Spirit’s presence is that each person, in their uniqueness, discovers that they are known, that the good news is for them. I wonder where our lives reflect that sense of abundant generosity, of giving without measure. I wonder where we find ourselves resistant to living in that way.
Being community: the importance of not always knowing
And finally I see in this passage a call to community. It is all too easy to imagine that being filled with the Holy Spirit is about a personal religious experience. And these personal experiences do matter (hence the importance of each person hearing their own language.) But, as Paul will go on to write in his letter to the Corinthians: ‘We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so we are formed into one body.’
In order to become the people we are called to be, we need one another. In this passage, the crowd who unexpectedly hear their own languages being spoken respond in two ways. Luke tells us: ‘“Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some,
however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”’
The first response is one of curiosity: what does this mean? Sometimes not knowing the answer, not understanding what is happening is important because it brings us into relationship with others. We acknowledge the fact that our own perspective and experience is limited. We recognise that we need one another to untangle the knotted threads of our understanding and experience, to help shed light on what is before us, to help us know God better. Curiosity nurtures community.
The second response asks no questions and puts a neat label on the unfamiliar. ‘They have had too much wine.’ It’s a response which says: ‘I know what this is, I know how to categorise this.’ And yet, in that erroneous certainty, they – we – can so easily miss what God is doing.
So let us be encouraged that God chooses to fill us with His very self. And would that prompt us to nurture the physical bodies he has given us; to follow in the footsteps of his abundant generosity; and let us not be afraid to admit when we have no idea what’s going on.