“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.” (Acts 2:1-4)
It’s good to be back with you after five weeks of long-service leave, though I must admit that I have enjoyed my leave. It’s not that I’ve had a holiday, though I do feel rested. I haven’t been any less busy over the last five weeks, but I have been busy on less things (if that makes sense). I went from having 50 balls in the air to having five. It’s just that each of those five became ten times heavier.
I’ve been concentrating on managing my bush-camp, and on writing my book, and on my fight club, family and fitness, which was great, as I struggle to maintain focus on too many things at the same time. Conversely, as I’ve started to shoulder my parish responsibilities again over the last week, I find myself struggling with an enveloping sense of chaos!
I’m not good with chaos. That might surprise you, especially if you’ve ever been stayed with my family for any length of time. You could be forgiven for assuming that chaos has always been the comfortable norm in our household, but if you look more closely you’ll find that the areas of the house that are under the direct control of myself and my son tend to be relatively tightly ordered!
I see it is as an issue of left-brain/right-brain dominance. I think I’m right in saying that it’s thought to be the left-hemisphere-dominant people who are logical and mechanically-minded, and who like to have all their pencils arranged in neat rows, while it’s the right-brain dominant people who are the artists and creative geniuses of this world. My son and I are two mechanics living in a household full of artists!
I don’t mean this as an attack on the women of my household either, as I think God may be right-brain dominant too. That’s certainly the impression I’m left with, at any rate, when I look at the way things were organised on the Day of Pentecost, if indeed ‘organised’ is the appropriate word for an event that was characterized by chaos!
“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.” (Acts 2:1-3)
It’s not obvious to me exactly what is going on there. We’re told that there was the sound of a mighty rushing wind. Was that sound accompanied by the actual sensation of a mighty rushing wind, blowing everything over perhaps, and maybe even knocking some of the disciples off their feet? Perhaps it was just the sound with no accompanying physical sensations, which would at least explain how the tongues of fire don’t get blown out (whatever a tongue of fire is supposed to be)?
However we envisage those opening moments of the drama, what is clear is that everything degenerated into chaos very quickly, as the disciples were suddenly all “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:4)
I appreciate that this was a great miracle, and that it involved all the onlookers there, who were gathered from every corner of the globe, somehow being able to hear these men proclaim the mighty deeds of God in their own native language. Even so, it must have been a scene of absolute mayhem!
- People of many language-groups understood what the Apostles were saying, but it’s not clear whether the Apostles understood what they were saying.
- Whether or not the Apostles were able to establish real dialogue with their hearers, there’s no suggestion that the representatives of the various language groups were any better able to communicate with each other!
- While the miracle of tongues apparently resulted in about 3,000 people joining the church that day, there’s no indication that the miracle was still happening the next day when all those foreign converts showed up for worship! How was it all going to work in the long term?
Of course, I probably only ask these questions because I’m the left-brain-dominant type whose first order of business would be to form a Parish Council out of this group and get them organised, but this is why I say that maybe God is right-brain dominant!
The wind, the fire, the gift of tongues – it all makes for great staging, but what’s the point if it all leads to chaos and confusion?
I suppose the trick here is not to miss the forest for the trees. If we step back from the chaos and confusion of the day we can see that a new community – the church – was being formed in the middle of all that confusion.
It’s a bit like a boxing match. For those who have never been inside the ring as a competitor, I can assure you that it’s an entirely different experience for the competitor than it is for the onlooker. When you’re inside the ring exchanging blows, everything is a whirl! It’s absolute mayhem and you function by pure instinct. Time seems to slow down, and you don’t feel the pain until it’s all over, at which point you regularly can’t remember what happened.
The bottom line is that the person looking on from a distance not only sees things differently but regularly seems them far better, and has a far better idea of what is really going on, which is why it’s so important for a boxer to listen to his corner team.
In the case of Pentecost, the most obvious explanation for what was going on that day was that the Apostles were drunk. Indeed, according to the text, Peter only manages to convince the crowd that he is not drunk by pointing out that it was clearly too early in the day for him to be tanked (Acts 2:15)!
We can take this defence as a tacit admission of the fact that the behaviour of the disciples was indeed loud and irrational and chaotic – all the things that I find difficult to deal with, being a left-bring-dominant personality. As I say though, when we step back, we begin to see a bigger picture.
The bigger picture is the birth of the church. That’s clear enough when you step back from Acts chapter 2 and see it in the context of the broader book of Acts. If you step even further back though, you get to see an even bigger picture, though that requires stepping all the way back and seeing this incident in the context of the great Biblical narrative that stretches all the way back to the book of Genesis!
“In the beginning”, Genesis says, “God created the Heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1), and that ancient creation story depicts God as one who brings order out of chaos. Interestingly, once things start to degenerate and Adam and Eve leave the garden, God seems to start sewing chaos back into the order of the world, and nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the story of the Tower of Babel.
If you don’t know the story, read it for yourself in Genesis chapter eleven. It’s a story of the all-too-familiar human lust for power. Human beings band together to try to show the world what they are capable of! They set out to build a great city and a great tower as a monument to their own greatness. They say:
“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 11:5)
The judgement that falls upon these people is that they start to babble, and hence the name that the tower is remembered by. The people are divided into different language groups, never again to unite in common purpose.
The curse of Babel is designed to place a limit on human power by limiting our ability to understand each other. It’s an effective curse but, at the same time, it’s a terrible curse, as it impedes the development of human community, and so the great Biblical narrative points to a time when a descendent of Abraham will one day come and reverse that curse, and when true human community will again become a possibility.
This is the great meta-narrative that lies behind the Pentecost story, but you have to step a long way back to see it. When you do, you realise that Pentecost isn’t just the story of the foundation of the church, or, at least, it isn’t just the story of the establishment of the church as another religious institution. It’s the story of God reversing the curse of Babel and recovering the possibility of a truly inclusive multi-racial human community!
Just as the ancient curse drove people apart and divided them into different ethnic groups and language groups, so, through His church, God is going to draw people back together. But it all begins with babbling – with the disciples babbling like drunks!
Moreover, what bothers me more is that when the next day dawns (the day after Pentecost) the babbling and drunken behaviour might have stopped, but, so far as I can see, so had the miracles. Those who could miraculously understand each other the day before, were now struggling to make sense of each other again! What do you do now? My guess is that they started language classes.
This looks like the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy at work again, where the right-brain-dominant/creative people come in and start something really dynamic, but then it falls to the left-brain-dominant folk to form committees and to set up budgets and do all the boring things that are needed to keep the creative things happening.
Obviously the church survived, despite what must have been a rough start, and I suspect that this was because we found the right combination of left-brain and right-brain-dominant people to help push things forward together.
I’m tempted to conclude this sermon by admonishing all the creative trail-blazers in our midst that ‘you can’t go off saving the world until you’ve set up a budget and thought through all the things that could go wrong and have all your contingency plans in place’.
In truth though, if there’s an admonition arising out of today’s text, it’s to us left-brain-dominant people who look for order and stability and who expect all the numbers to add up! God doesn’t work that way! God has never worked that way, and I see zero indication that God is ever going to change His modus operandi!
God works through babbling and confusion, through apparently drunken, rowdy behaviour, in ways that are confusing and often chaotic. Embrace the chaos!
Many of you have heard before the response I always give someone when they ask me why we serve wine instead of grape-juice at Communion. It’s a response I borrowed from Bishop Will Willimon, but it’s a good one:
Grape juice is a refreshing, if somewhat insipid, thirst-quencher on a hot day. Wine, on the other hand, is volatile stuff. It changes the way we speak and act. Some of us start getting amorous, passions flare, fights break out! Which one sounds more like the Gospel to you?
Embrace the chaos! Embrace the passion! Embrace the Holy Spirit of God whenever She draws near, for, as he writer of the letter to the Hebrews said, “our God is a consuming fire!” (Hebrews 12:29)
sermon preached at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on June 4th 2017