It’s Pentecost again – one of the great feast days of the Christian church!
No, it’s not the resurrection of Jesus that we are celebrating (which was last month) and it’s not even the birth of Jesus (which was last year). It’s the birthday of the church, and I appreciate that any number of people might want to question whether that is really something worth celebrating.
When we look at the history of the church there are plenty of chapters in that history that are nothing to be proud of, and when we look at the controversies surrounding the church today they do start to make Hinduism and Islam look a lot more attractive!
Why celebrate the birth of the church? It’s a good question, and behind it is an even more painful question: ‘Does the world really need the church?’
In as much as we love our little Christian community, we do need to recognise that the institution of the church is not viewed by most as God’s greatest gift to humanity! Did the world ever really need it? After all, what was wrong with the good ol’ synagogue?
It’s a fair question, but if you look at the story of Acts chapter 2 that marks the birth of the church, you get the impression that the disciples of Jesus felt that there was plenty to celebrate! It’s a story filled with excitement and passion and noise and carry-on and all sorts of wonderful miracles that indicate that God joined in that party too!
What went wrong? Did we forget something?
I think we did forget something. Perhaps we forgot a lot of things, and that’s why it’s so important that we hark back to the birthday of the church every now and then and take a good look at what we were created to be. It’s all here in the Pentecost story, Indeed, I believe it’s all contained in the miracles!
Miracles play a very special role in the Bible. Yes, miracles play a special role for anyone who experiences them – giving us encouragement and strength and joy – but they play a very specific role in the New Testament as ‘signs’ – signs of things to come. Indeed, the word normally translated as ‘miracle’ in the New Testament is the Greek word ‘semeion’, meaning ‘sign’.
Miracles are signs. They point to something. They point to the identity of Jesus, the miracle worker, but more often than not they also point to the future – to what the Kingdom of God will be like when we one day reach it – a place without sickness or hunger, where ‘the earth is as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11:9). The miracles of Jesus give us a glimpse of that future, and likewise the miracle of Pentecost – the miracle that takes place at the foundation of the church. It gives us a glimpse of what the church is destined to become!
You can’t work it out in reverse unfortunately. I tried! It doesn’t work!
What I mean is, if you forget for the moment the story of Pentecost, and start with the church today, and then guess what miracles might have taken place that foretold what it was to become, you get very erroneous results!
Let’s assume for a moment that the story of Pentecost was lost and that all we knew of the birth of the church was that the disciples were gathered together and that God came upon them and that wonderful miracles started taking place.
My reconstruction – projecting backwards from the church today – is that the Heavens must have opened and amazing gifts of administration must have fallen upon each of the disciples!
All of a sudden, a group of hapless fishermen who barely knew which way to hold up an abacus were turned into geniuses of accountancy, meticulous minute-takers, prodigious producers of protocols – persons who now had the nous to transform their poverty-stricken band into one of the most wealthy and powerful institutions ever known to humanity!
Indeed, if you project back from the Sydney Anglican Diocese specifically, you can almost see the beards dropping from the faces of the disciples as their humble clothes are miraculously transformed into suits, after which they come out speaking in languages that were previously unknown to them, such as legalese and realpolitik.
Sorry. I am being deliberately facetious but, in truth, it is hard to work out what miracles might have inaugurated the church if you start at this end of the process and, quite frankly, it would have been equally difficult to have anticipated what miracles might have taken place had you been there just before this ‘Day of Pentecost’ took place.
I think if I’d been one of the disciples I would have been hoping for gifts of healing!
Lots of people have been healed in and through the church, of course, and it is appropriate, I believe, to think of the church as a place of healing. Why didn’t an outpouring of miraculous healings mark the birth of the church?
Or what about a simple ‘gift of love’.
“By this shall all men know that you are my disciples”, said Jesus, “that you have love, one for another!” (John 13:35). In that case should not the miraculous gift that fell upon the disciples have been a great outpouring of compassion!
Perhaps St Peter could have been given the ‘gift of listening’ to balance out his constant chatter? Perhaps James and John – the ‘sons of thunder’ – could have been filled with the spirit of gentleness such that they might have become known as the ‘sons of tranquillity’.
None of the above happened, did it? Instead …
“When the day of Pentecost came, all of them were together in one place. Suddenly, a sound like the roaring of a mighty windstorm came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw tongues like flames of fire that separated, and one rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:1-4)
The scene that follows is quite bizarre, and it makes clear to the reader that the strange ‘tongues’ that the disciples are speaking in are all human languages that were previously unknown to them!
The city where the disciples were was filled with pilgrims at the time – people from ‘every nation under Heaven’ (Acts 2:5) – and it seems that each of the cultures and language groups represented there had some disciple that spoke their language!
“How is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2:8-11)
This is the question that is posed by the pilgrims, and it receives no immediate answer from the disciples as they must have been just as surprised as the members of the crowd were! This was something that God was doing and it was entirely unexpected!
God was founding a new spiritual community, and He was kicking it off with a miracle that pointed to the future of what this community was going to become, and God made it very clear that, from the first, this was to be a community for all peoples, races and language groups!
God did not inaugurate the church with gifts of healings, even though the church was to become a place of healing.
God did not bestow and extra gift of compassion on that special day, even though love was to be the life-blood of the Christian community.
God certainly didn’t pour out gifts of administration (and I’m guessing that the disciples themselves never experienced those gifts).
God gave them the gift of inclusiveness, such that everybody was welcome, everybody could be heard, everybody would be taken seriously, nobody would be excluded. God gave them the gift of inclusiveness.
If you read between the lines of the Acts 2 story, you can see that this strange miracle is actually the reversal of an ancient curse ancient curse spoken of in the book of Genesis – the curse of Babel!
If you’re familiar with the book of Genesis you know that the first eleven chapters of the book are a very ancient collection of stories that includes such favourites as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, and Noah and the great flood.
And those great stories culminate with a story in Genesis chapter eleven about the first time human beings ever really united together for a common purpose. And it turns out to be a sinister purpose – a quest for power and self-aggrandisement. And so, we are told, God curses the people involved by confusing their language so that they can no longer understand one another, and so their community fragments, and they are not able to accomplish what they set out to accomplish.
And whether we take this story literally or not does not matter. What is clear from the story is that the division of the nations into different races and language groups was always seen in the Bible as a curse, and as something that God would one day overcome. And what is clear in the Pentecost experience, in the miracle of cross-cultural communication that takes place there, was that God, in the very formation of the church, was undoing this ancient curse!
Just as the human community had been confused and pulled apart way back at Babel, so now the Spirit of God was healing those divisions and bringing the races and language groups back together in the founding of the church as a truly multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-linguistic community!
No, the church was not founded on a great outpouring of healings, though healing is important. No, it wasn’t inaugurated with a special outpouring of love, though love is the absolute life-blood of the Christian community. The church was founded on the miracle of inclusiveness, because that was who we were uniquely destined to become!
So does the world really need the church? What was wrong with the synagogue? Well … the synagogue was for Jews only! Not so with the church! Of course, over time, we have made the church an exclusive club – not for Jews only but for whites only, for men only, for middle-class educated people only, for straights only, and certainly for good people only! But we were founded on the miracle of inclusiveness!
I’ve just returned from Syria, as you know, and one of the enduring memories for me is the woman in black who grabbed my hand in the foyer of our hotel, telling me about her 12-year-old son who had been blown to pieces by the rebel soldiers. “They put the bomb in his pocket”, she told me, “and why? Because we are Shi’ite!”
These are the sectarian labels that fragment us and destroy us. I’m a Shi’ite, you’re a Sunni. You’re a Muslim, I’m a Christian. I’m the good guy. You’re one of the bad guys!
I had a friend write to me while I was in the middle of this, warning me not to forget what they (meaning ‘Muslims’) are like. I had to write back and say, ‘brother, I just don’t believe in ‘them’ any more. I only believe in ‘us’, for we’re all in this together.
And that, I think, could be a fitting tag-line for the church as a whole: ‘we’re all in this together!’
We’re all in this together – Jew and Greek, black and white, rich and poor, slave and free, straight and gay, male and female, the good, the bad and the ugly! We’re all in this together and together we are the church! The more inclusive we become, the more we are the church of Pentecost. The more exclusive we become, the more we move away from what is our destiny and our birth right!
Does the world really need the church? Well … the world badly needs an open and inclusive, loving community that can face up to the sectarian violence that so plagues our world and threatens to bring an end to human life as we know it. The world desperately needs that kind of church. As for the other one, I’m not sure any of us needs it.
We need to pray for a new outpouring of the Spirit of the God of Pentecost – a new outpouring of the spirit of inclusiveness that will bring people together with love and forgiveness, where every child of God will hear the Good News of the Gospel in their own language! For this is who we were destined to be! This is our birth right! This is what it means to be the church of Pentecost and the church of God.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on May 19, 2013.
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