“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians–we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”
Welcome to our celebration of the Feast of Pentecost – the birthday of the church! It’s a day remembered by the twin elements of wind and fire – elements that are at generally bothersome when we encounter either of them unexpectedly but which, when working in combination with each other, can be downright dangerous and life-threatening, as residents of the Australian bush are all too well aware!
I remember reading of a pastor who decided to give his congregation a dramatic feel for Pentecost. He was an American who lived in the swamp-lands of the South, and he managed to borrow one of those flat-bottomed swamp boats which are driven by those enormous propellers, and he hauled the propeller into the sanctuary of the church and secured it between two pillars in front of the choir stalls.
His plan was that at that point in the Bible reading where it mentioned a ‘rushing wind filling the house’ he would switch on the propeller which would send a rush of wind across the church so that everybody would be able to relive the Pentecost experience in a rather tangible way. Apparently he gave the thing a dry run during the week and it worked perfectly. What he’d forgotten was that when everybody was there on Sunday they would have all their bulletins and song-sheets laid out in the pews. When he switched on the fan a million sheets of paper were blown into the air (and apparently the fan blew out most of the hair-dos of the women in the choir too)!
Personally I think that’s a fantastic way to remember Pentecost and I’m sorry I don’t know anyone from whom I could borrow a boat like that, as it really does recapture one of the essential elements of that great day that we read of in the Acts chapter 2, and I’m not thinking of the wind as such but rather of the broad sense of confusion.
When we read of all the things that went on that day with Peter and the other apostles, the common thread that holds the narrative together is a sense of absolute confusion and chaos!
The disciples, we are told, are babbling! Some people understand what they are saying. The majority do not. A significant number of onlookers figure that they must be drunk! And there are no shortage of witnesses! There are people gathered there from every nation under Heaven, or so it seems – Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia and others, though that itself is also rather confusing!
The Medes, for instance, would not have only had to travel a couple of hundred miles to get there from their ancient land, but a couple of hundred years! The Kingdom of Media didn’t exist by that stage, and the Elamites (who are only elsewhere referred to in the Bible in Ezra chapter 2) are likewise a very mysterious group!
Perhaps the point is simply that everybody was there and that nobody was quite sure as to where some of these people had come from, but this just adds to the overall sense of the muddle! Evidently lots of different languages are being spoken and everybody is very excited. Some people understand some of what is going on. Nobody seems to have a complete grasp of everything that’s going on, and perhaps that’s exactly as we should have anticipated a great movement of the Spirit of God.
We often think of God as a God of order – indeed, as one who brings order out of chaos – and this is indeed how God is first depicted in the creation narrative at the beginning of Genesis. The Spirit of God broods over the waters (Genesis 1:2) and brings light and life and gives form to the watery chaos. That is indeed the image we are given at the very beginning of the Bible and yet it appears that from that time on whenever the Spirit of God makes an appearance the affect tends to be one of confusion and chaos rather than order, and often one of real violence!
When the Spirit of God first came upon Samson, we are told, he fought with a lion and tore the creature to pieces (Judgers 14:5-6)! Likewise when Saul first experienced the Spirit of God he slew a pair of oxen (1 Samuel 11:6-7)! Gideon blew a trumpet when the Spirit of God fell upon him (Judges 6:34) which was a little less extreme except that it acted as a prelude to his going to war and doing lots of killing!
There are in fact eight times when the Bible speaks of the Spirit of the Lord ‘coming upon’ someone and it generally results in someone or something being killed, and it always results in bizarre and extreme behavior! The disciples’ experience is consistent with this, though thankfully nobody gets killed. Even so, their behavior is bizarre and extreme and confusing!
I know that a lot of parents who bring their children for baptism do so in the hope that it might somehow have a calming effect on their child. After all, what could be expected to settle a child down and bring him or her into line better than a solid dose of religion? That may indeed be the effect that some churches have on the children in their care but the Scriptures themselves suggest that the effect of the Spirit of God on a person is that it drives them crazy!
I remember when I first met my dear friend Father Elias many years ago and poured out my troubles to him – telling him about the constant chaos I experienced in ministry, how I never seemed to be able to keep anybody in focus, how budgets were always blowing out and how people regularly turned on me. His response was “it sounds as if the Gospel is really at work here!”
That’s not to say that chaos and confusion are always signs of the presence of the spirit of God. Sometimes, indeed, they can be indicators of just the opposite, and indeed there is an element of that in our Pentecost story too, for behind the bizarre story of Pentecost that we read of in our Bibles today there is the shadow of a far darker and more ancient Biblical story of confusion and chaos – namely, the story of the Tower of Babel.
I appreciate that unless you are a long-time student of the Bible, the connection between the Pentecost story of Acts chapter two and the story of the Tower of Babel that turns up in Genesis chapter eleven is not likely to be immediately obvious. Even so, I don’t think it’s really possible to understand one without the other!
“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:1-5)
Thus begins the story of the Tower of Babel as found in Genesis chapter eleven, and, of course, it’s not called ‘Babel’ after the location at which it is built but because the story ends up with everybody ‘babbling’!
These men who settle in the plain of Shinar decide to ‘make a name for themselves’. In the context of the book of Genesis this is humanity’s final station in the exodus from the Garden of Eden towards a form of communal living that is independent of God! These men of Babel are the ancient ‘ubermensch’ of whom Nietzsche would one day write – people who had outgrown their need for God and were ready to build a world for themselves without needing to rely on traditional morality or traditional religion!
God, we are told, was disturbed by these men and their lust for power and acted to limit their power by interfering with their ability to communicate. God confuses their language and the people disperse as they can no longer work together!
I appreciate that for most modern people this story likely appears as a myth meant to explain the origin of the world’s many language groups, and perhaps it is that. In the context of the Biblical narrative though it is also much more. In the context of the series of curses that plague humanity from the time they exit the Garden of Eden, the Babel story is a recognition of the cursed nature of racial division! It suggests that we have been divided for a purpose but that our real, natural state is one of togetherness!
Genesis eleven says that we have been divided into our many different racial and language groups on account of our arrogance and lust for power, and yet we were created to be in real communion and communication with one another! Pentecost, which is the birth of the church, is the reversal of the Babel curse that makes that true community and communication once again possible. The church, in other words, is God’s own solution to the problem of racial division! A new community was formed at Pentecost where racism and division and miscommunication would be no more! The church would reverse the process begun at Babel in every respect except one –namely, there would still be plenty of babbling and confusion!
This, at any rate, is our experience, and while the bizarre miracle of being able to speak in multiple languages made multicultural community possible at Pentecost, it didn’t take away the confusion, and when that miracle was subsequently withdrawn, the confusion only increased!
Church, in other words, has always been a confusing experience, and this is not by accident but by design! We were formed as a community where communication was always going to be a struggle!
This indeed is the unique gift of Jesus that distances us from the religion of our Jewish forefathers and foremothers. Whereas the religion of the Old Testament was one designed for a single race that followed a straightforward set of rules and regulations, the foundation of the church involved a dramatic shift away from homogeneity just as it equally involved a shift away from straightforward rules and regulations!
This has always been the reality of the church –an organisationthat has always been teetering on the edge of pandemonium! I suspect that’s why our Christian forefathers and foremothers built our places of worship out of enormous stones and had us sitting in outrageously heavy wooden pews. It was an attempt to introduce some level of stability into an environment that always threatened to degenerate into bedlam!
This is difficult, as we are creatures who appreciate order, stability, predictability, and the much-lusted-after pot of gold that lies at the end of that most colourless rainbow – namely, security! Don’t get me wrong – order, stability, predictability and security are all within reach and we will all most likely attain each of these things one day. We will attain them when we are dead. While we live the turmoil continues!
I mentioned earlier the pastor who tried to give his congregation a Pentecost experience via an enormous wind-generating propeller. Far more serious was the Pentecost pageant presided over by Lorenzo the Magnificent in 15th Century Florence where Lorenzo used real fire to simulate the flaming tongues that descended on the Apostles! Unfortunately the flimsy stage hangings caught ablaze and the entire church where the pageant was staged was burnt to the ground!
That story is a little too close to the bone for me, and I suspect for many of us who can still remember the smoldering timbers of our beloved first church building! Even so, this is the danger for any community that dares to deal with the Spirit of God – wind and fire have always been thetruechurch’s trademarks!
I suspect not many of us have read the Gospel of Thomas. It not in our Bible because the church fathers did not deem the Gospel of Thomas to be an original work of the Apostle Thomas. It was published a long time after his death and indeed contains elements that are very alien to the New Testament. Even so, there are some sayings contained in the Gospel of Thomas that may go back to Jesus, and one saying that I think almost certainly is genuine is where Thomas records Jesus as saying “He who is near me is near the fire!”
If Jesus didn’t say it, He could have said it, as it is entirely true! To be near Jesus is to be near the fire! We can move away from the fire, as the church has so often moved away from the fire towards stability, predictability, security and luke-warmness, but when we move away from the fire we move away from Jesus!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 8th of June, 2014.