Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27; 16:4-15
St Barbara’s 23.05.2021
Rev Tulo Raistrick
How we celebrate birthdays can tell quite a bit about us. A friend of mine decided to celebrate his 40th birthday a few years ago by holding a series of dramatic fundraising challenges throughout the year beforehand (climbing mountains, attempting to get to the north pole, running iron man races). Someone else we know chose to let a significant birthday pass without mentioning it to anyone, preferring to enjoy the day without fuss or disturbance.
Today we celebrate the birthday of the church, born in Jerusalem just under 2000 years ago. That day tells us much about what God intends his church to be like. There are signs from that day that speak to who we are now.
The first sign is that of fire, the flames that appeared above the heads of those disciples in that upper room. Those flames thankfully did not harm or burn. Only one other time in the Bible have we come across such flames – when Moses encountered the burning bush on Mount Sinai. When Moses saw how the bush was on fire but was not burning up, he knew he was on holy, sacred ground, that he was in the very presence of God. His response was to take off his sandals and prostrate himself.
Well now that fire is resting on each of the disciples’ heads. They are the place where God’s holy presence is resting. They themselves are not just standing on holy ground. They are holy ground!
For a people who believed that the presence of God could only be encountered in the Holy of Holies, that most sacred of places in the temple in Jerusalem that could only be entered by one person, the high priest, once a year, the idea that God’s presence was now filling every disciple, must have been overwhelming. The presence of God is made open to all, all may encounter him, and those who believe, those filled with his spirit, become holy ground, the place where others too can experience God’s love and grace and forgiveness.
Look around you. God by his spirit lives in each of us. When we look at one another we have the opportunity to see what God is like. Each one of us represents holy ground, a place where we can encounter the presence of God. How extraordinary! So let us take time today to value and appreciate all that is of God in one another.
The second sign of what the church is like is the sound of the wind that fills the room where the disciples are. The word for wind is the same word as was used to describe how God breathed upon the world in creation and brought new life into being. It is also the same word that is used by Ezekiel in a passage that we reed beside the Easter morning bonfire every year, when God breathes his spirit over a valley of dry bones, and they come back to life, a new humanity.
Wind, breath, brings into being something new, miraculous, full of life. It is God’s people who are born into new life on that day of Pentecost. And it is God’s people who continue to be part of God’s creative purposes, bringing into being new life, in all its abundance and joy, in his world today. As a church, do we allow God’s Holy Spirit to work within us, stirring in us creativity and energy, a dynamic sense of hope, a desire to see light and life emerge from troubled times?
As we look ahead over the coming months, inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, we have that opportunity to, in a popular phrase at the moment, “build back better”, to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us as individuals and as a community to do things in new and life-giving ways. What a privilege! So let us be a hopeful, dynamic people, willing to work for positive change.
The third sign of what the church is like is that those disciples start speaking in languages they had never spoken before. The list of nationalities that Luke lists as present in Jerusalem on that day cover pretty much the known western world – places we now call Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Greece and Italy. And no doubt the list could have gone on. And God communicates to them all in their own unique languages. He embraces their diversity, their uniqueness. The day of Pentecost isn’t a day when God forces everyone to fit into one cultural mould, to all become the same, to all speak the one language. Instead, it is a celebration of variety, of difference, of diversity.
Over the centuries the church has often been criticised for trying to force everyone into the same mould. To be a good Christian, you need to dress in a certain way, or like certain things, or have certain hobbies. Twenty years ago I used to visit churches and run workshops, and one of the activities I used to get people to do was to describe their “typical Christian” – if they had a job, what type of job they had; whether they were married; what were their hobbies; etc. What was striking was that different churches, in different parts of the country, quite independently came up with very similar profiles. It was almost as if there was an unspoken assumption about the mould your “typical Christian” should fit.
But the Day of Pentecost teaches us that the very opposite is true. God’s people should not be mono-chrome, but wonderfully diverse, a community of different ethnicities, nationalities, race, gender, age, class, personality. The church is to be a place where all are welcome.
So let us ask ourselves: how can we be more of that kind of community today? Let us be a church that delights in how our diversity enriches us and brings glory to God.
And the fourth sign of what the church is like is what Peter and the other disciples are inspired to communicate. Luke tells us that they speak about God’s deeds of power, and they proclaim that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” From the very first day of the church, the task of the church has been to share the good news of Jesus Christ, to proclaim through word and deed the wondrous love of God.
I’ve been so encouraged over the last few weeks to hear those people who have been interviewed in our Sunday services speaking of how they live out their faith in their daily lives. This is our calling. Through our actions, through what we say, to help others know and experience the love of God for themselves. So let us today live out our faith in word and deed.
Those things we have touched on this morning – being holy people in whom others will see God at work; being creative people, bringers of hope and new life; being a richly diverse people, delighting in variety; being an inspired people, sharing God’s good news with others – none of those things are possible in our own strength. God knows that. And so the most important message of all from this first birthday of the church. God gives us a gift – the gift of his Spirit living within us, transforming us, strengthening us, enabling us. It is the gift of God’s spirit that makes all the difference, that helps us to be the people God intends us to be.
And so let us pray today: “Come Holy Spirit. Fill us afresh. Empower us to be all that you would have us be. Amen.”