“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 Pentecost again – the birthday of the church – and it did occur to me this year that Pentecost may be where the tradition of the birthday cake actually started.
This is pure conjecture on my part, and I was on a plane when I started this sermon and this thought came to me, so I couldn’t research ‘birthday cakes’ on the net, but if you’ve ever seen some of the classic depictions of the disciples at Pentecost, where ‘tongues of fire’ come down and rest on each of them, the Apostles do often look like a row of birthday candles, each with a little flame appearing on the top of their heads.
I suppose I could have researched the history of the birthday cake after I got off the plane, but I didn’t really want to lose the image that I had in my head of God coming down and lighting all the candles on that cake, celebrating the birthday of the church!
I don’t really think anyone is sure what it was exactly supposed to look like, but what Luke, the author, is trying to make clear is that something truly exciting was happening at Pentecost. Just as a master chef takes various ingredients and mixes them together to create something spectacular, God is at work at Pentecost, mixing together wind and fire and human flesh to create something new and amazing – namely, the church! To understand why this new creation is so significant though, I think we need to recognise that something very ancient is on view here too.
I’ve just come back from a conference in Iran where I’ve (quite literally) given more TV and radio interviews than I can count, responding (among other things) to questions as to why the world is the way it is.
I don’t pretend to be an expert in analysing international political affairs, though I’ve learnt a lot over my 56 years (and over the last five or six years in particular) and the curious thing is that I find myself, more and more, going back to the Torah when I do these interviews, as I become increasingly convinced that the answers are all there at the very beginning of our Scriptures and that nothing has really changed.
Why is there still war in Syria? Why is the Israeli army shooting unarmed protestors in Gaza? Why is the US talking about invading Iran? Why won’t the Australian government treat the men of Manus Island like human beings and give them a chance to live normal human lives? Of course, these are each complex questions in their own way, but at their most basic level, the answer, I believe, is always the same – namely, it’s the human lust for power that is generating all this misery, and that’s all there at the beginning of the book of Genesis. We eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because we want to be like God!
I don’t mean to be overly simplistic and, indeed, the problems facing today’s world do require careful analysis and solid thinking. Even so, while some things change, others remain the same and, in the end, we haven’t moved far from our spiritual ancestors. We still lust for power. We still want to be like God.
Those who knew my dad before he died (more than 17 years ago now) may remember that he became increasingly interested in these early chapters of Genesis as he got older too, though I’m not sure it was for exactly the same reasons.
One of the reasons I’ve become so fascinated with those ancient stories – the story of Adam and Eve in particular – is because I’ve read a number of books lately on the anthropological history of our hunter-gatherer ancestors – books that try to depict human life and society before the move to farming and settled communities, which took place somewhere between twelve and twenty-four thousand years ago.
A lot of recent work done in this area suggests that Thomas Hobb’s famous depiction of ‘primitive’ human life as being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” is almost certainly erroneous. Analyses of life in contemporary hunter-gatherer communities, where they still exist, and the anthropological studies of our ancient forebears that I’ve read suggest that life in those days was relatively idyllic. People worked for two to four hours per day, spent many hours each day playing and spending time with their children, in communities that were relatively free of both disease and violence.
Certainly, it stands to reason that in a subsistence society, where survival is always a cooperative effort, there is no private property and hence no such thing as theft. There is therefore very little reason to fight, and no need for politicians or armies. One author I read suggested that humanity wasn’t so much thrown out of a garden as into one (if by ‘garden’ we mean a cultivated agricultural environment). Perhaps it would be equally accurate to say we were thrown out of a garden and on to a farm.
You’ll forgive me if I seem to be straying from the today’s text, but it’s all connected (in my mind at least). When Genesis depicts us as being thrown out of the garden and on to a farm – “in toil you will eat of [the earth]” (Genesis 3:17) – it then traces the degeneration of the human species into jealousy and murder, and you can see this descent depicted over the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis. This downward spiral ends at the tower of Babel, where people band together with a view to, again, becoming powerful. They say, ‘let us make a name for ourselves’ (Genesis 11:4) and set about building a city with a great tower in the middle of it.
This Biblical depiction of humanity’s movement from the garden to the city is surprisingly similar to the way anthropologists describe the evolution of the human community, from a nomadic lifestyle to settled agricultural life, which brings with it private property, greed, war and politicians. The Genesis narrative though covers a dimension of this evolution that the anthropologists largely neglect – namely, the way in which the up-scaling of human cooperation always seems to make things worse!
The more we band together, the worse we become. The sin of Adam and Eve is bad, but their children are worse, and it’s the team effort at Babel that is depicted as the end-point of this process of degeneration, all of which is true to human experience!
Jack the Ripper did some terrible things, but it took an entire nation working together to create the Holocaust. Individuals murder, but it takes armies and governments to commit genocide. What we do as individuals can be horrible, but it’s not until we all pull together that we really have the potential to destroy the entirety of creation.
From a Biblical point of view, when we all band together, we suck, and when a whole lot of us get together en masse, such that we are able to do really significant things on a grand scale, we generally suck even more.
This is the story of human history and the building of empires that allows for the growth of industry, the development of technology and economies of scale. All this is powerfully impressive in its own way, but we know too that there is a very dark side to all the wonderful history of human achievement. In the shadow of every great tower that we build there are populations who are subjugated and enslaved.
Nothing better embodies that truth for me than the Great Wall of China – surely one of the most magnificent testimonies to human industry present in the world today – but those who know the history of the building of the wall know that it was only made possible because of the enslavement of millions of indentured workers, who, as they died of exhaustion, had their bodies were thrown into the wall as building continued. There is always an underside to the history of every great human achievement.
As an aside, if I remember correctly, the wall was only crossed by invading armies twice during the reign of its initial builder. In each case, it wasn’t because any of the armies managed to breach its fortifications. They just bribed the guards.
The descent of humanity, at any rate, is captured, Biblically, in this ancient story of Babel and the tower (in Genesis 11), and it is Babel and the tower that form the background to the Pentecost event as we read of it in the book of Acts, chapter two.
In the Genesis story, people band together to ‘make a name for themselves’ and God, we are told, foresees their terrible potential and so limits their power by confusing their language, which, again, is true to human life.
The charismatic appeal of dictators is indeed limited by the fact that no one dictator speaks everybody’s language. The realities of linguistic and cultural difference do limit the appeal of any human individual. Truly, the curse of Babel is a blessing in the sense that it slows the process of empire-building. Even so, it is a curse, as ultimately human community is a good thing, or at least it can be.
And that’s what we see at Pentecost. That’s what the birth of the church is all about! It’s God’s way of bringing people together in community in a way that doesn’t suck!
“They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2: 4)
- At Babel people came together to make a name for themselves and be great. At Pentecost God brings people together in order to create something great.
- At Babel God confuses everyone’s language in order to limit their capabilities. At Pentecost God bridges the language divide to create new possibilities!
- At Babel everything ends up breaking down into chaos and confusion. Pentecost ends in a fair degree of confusion too, but it’s a creative confusion!
The birth of the church at Pentecost is a spectacular event, but the tongues and the flame and the wind and the chaos are not there for their entertainment value alone. They are a volcanic eruption giving birth to a whole new possibility for the world!
Whenever I do these interviews where people ask me about why our world is the way it is, and what we can do about it, I always end up talking about the church!
That might sound ridiculous, as the church has certainly contributed its share of misery to humanity over history. Even so, when we look at the church here in Acts, in the days before it became an institution with a bottom line, we see, I think, something of what we once were, and something of what we could be once again.
My reasoning, as I discuss this in interviews, is quite straightforward:
Our world seems to be controlled by powerful corporations and the governmental institutions that serve them. We aren’t strong enough to fight these great monoliths on our own as individuals. We need to come together. The problem is that whenever we come together, what we might call ‘the Babel effect’ kicks in, and we end up getting obsessed with making a name for ourselves, and we get corrupted by power.
The church though was founded as a community without a bottom line, uninterested in power. Yes, we have often succumbed to the lust for power, and yet we’ve never completely abandoned the beliefs and principles upon which we were founded either
What we have in the church is the possibility of true human community, given life by the breath of God, led and sustained by the Spirit of God, grounded in divine love. If we can’t find hope for the world there, where will we find it?
We are the answer we have been waiting for – that’s the message today!
God didn’t put on a fireworks’ show at Pentecost because we lacked entertainment. Pentecost was God’s announcement to the world that true human community was again a possibility – a community that, while it doesn’t lust for power, has real divine power to undermine and overthrow tyranny and oppression in all its forms!
When I had the privilege of addressing the faculty of Reza University in Mashad a few days ago, I put before them three great peaceful human movements that have taken place within the last century that I believe have had enduring effects:
- The Indian movement for Independence, led by Mahatma Gandhi, that took place at the beginning of the last century.
- The civil rights movement in the US, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that took place at around the middle of the last century.
- The Iranian Revolution, that took place towards the end.
All three movements, it seems to me, were fundamentally spiritual movements, led by spiritual people, and they were each essentially non-violent.
I appreciate that not everyone would characterise the Iranian revolution of 1979 that way, as there was indeed a wave of violence following the creation of the new state, but the mass protests that led to the downfall of the Shah were made up of millions of people taking to the streets, led by their clerics, armed only with their prayers.
I believe this is the only kind of human revolution that can change our world for good. If we are to take on the forces of darkness, it will take an army of spiritual people, brought together by God, armed only with the weapons of prayer and self-sacrifice.
It needs to happen. I believe it must happen. Pentecost reminds us – it can happen!
First preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on May 20, 2018.