The Feast of Pentecost: 9 June 2019

The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Genesis 11: 1 – 9, Psalm 104: 26 – 32, Acts 2: 1 – 21, John 14: 15 – 27

Those of you who are avid readers of the weekly eNews coming to your inbox each Friday afternoon, and I hope that is most of us who are regular worshippers at St Peter’s cathedral, will have seen the photo of the Pentecost window at St John’s Anglican Church, Wagga Wagga. (Thank you Barrie for sending that in.) It’s a glorious window featuring at least twenty people – men, women and children – from across the world, north, south, east and west. In many ways it is a picture which illustrates two of today’s readings – though the second is the exact opposite of the first in terms of its message.

The first reading, Genesis 11: 1 – 9, tells the story of the Tower of Babel. It is one of the very early prehistoric myths – the sort of story told around the family campfire when children ask tricky questions. “Daddy, why do the people who live next door to us speak a different language? It’s so hard to understand.” “Mum, my class mates were teasing me today because I have wavy blond hair and they all have straight pitch black hair.” My eyes are blue, yours are greeny brown. I like curry and can’t stand fish and chips. You know the story. It’s a great story – possibly influenced by the experience of some of the Israelites sent off into exile in Babylon, where they would have seen strange buildings which seemed to reach to the sky – known as ziggurats. And it’s easy to see how this primeval story – what in technical theological language is known as myth – speaks into a culture where God is the supreme God and humankind the creation of God.

The story tells of an arrogant people who thought they were the greatest in the world, bonded together by a common language and culture. Incredibly God seems to be threatened by this building and the united efforts of the people and decides to disperse them – by giving them different languages, making it impossible to work together. It’s a great and colourful story seeking to explain the origins of linguistic and cultural, perhaps even racial, difference in the world. It’s a story of division, of mistrust, of competition. It’s easy to extend the story to explain why this family can’t get on with that one, and why this nation is at war with another.

The second reading, from Acts 2: 1 – 21, tells a very different story. Set in the context of a major Jewish festival, which would have brought people together from all over the world, it tells of an extraordinary happening where some uneducated peasants from a rural backwater were able to communicate to the assembled multi-lingual crowd. Each person heard the same message in their own language. Why, we might well ask, were Jews speaking so many different languages? We need to dive into history again. For hundreds of years before the time of Christ the small country we know as ancient Israel was caught in the wash of movement of the great nations surrounding it. Sometimes it was beholden to Egypt, at another to Assyria, still another Babylon, then the Persians, Greeks and, by the time of Jesus, the Romans. Each of these empires had its own language and culture, and some enforced both language and culture on the peoples they conquered and ruled.

All the people mentioned in Acts were Jews – but, coming from many countries,  they were very different in both language and culture from one another. Don’t you love the sound of “Parthians, Medes, 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 Arabs?” The common spoken language of the day was Greek, while Hebrew would have been used for worship, particularly in the Jerusalem Temple.

The point of this story, which we read every Pentecost Sunday, is that the division of Babel, the separation caused by the enforced multiple languages in Genesis 11, is reversed in Acts 2. Here is the whole created order coming together before God; it is understood as the work of the Spirit of God, speaking through those uneducated country bumpkins, that is so powerfully bringing people together. What is the message they hear – each in their own language? In the words of the chief spokesperson Peter this is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel. It is a word of hope and encouragement that God has not forgotten God’s people and is now busy doing a new thing. Read on in Acts as Peter talks about Jesus Christ, crucified at the instigation of the Jewish authorities by the Romans, being raised from the dead. This is the Gospel that set those terrified disciples alive, transforming them from cowering in their locked upper room into people boldly talking about Jesus. It was this message that prompted some three thousand people to follow the advice of Peter to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2: 38).

This was the start of the church – a church that would grow and spread across the world, touching every continent, every people and language – and making an enormous difference for good. As I say that I am not unaware of how often those who profess to be Christians have abused that profession – and the terrible things done in the name of Christ in all ages. But for today, let’s acknowledge the incredible good that has been done as people have prayed, using the words of Jesus, “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

What was the difference between the two groups of people mentioned in those two readings – one from Genesis and one from Acts? Clearly there are many differences but the one I want to concentrate on this morning is that of relationship. In Genesis there is only relationship between the people while they speak the same language and are engaged in a common task. In Acts a widely disparate group of people comes together focused on God! Is this the missing relationship? It is when God is drawn into the relationship – or perhaps better, when we are drawn into relationship with God – that we are able to be truly in relationship with each other.

The agent for this drawing into relationship, at least in Christian thinking, is the Holy Spirit. In ancient Hebrew the Spirit was at work in creation and was understood as the life-force, giving breath to the inert clay model of a human being. It’s not until the breath of God is breathed into the nostrils of this dust-creature (Adam) that life as we know and experience it becomes a reality. Many is the time I have sat with a dying person and seen that transition from life to death as the breath is exhaled for the last time. And those who have had the privilege of either giving birth or being present at birth will know that it is not until the first breath is drawn that life truly begins for the tiny creature. This most intimate of relationships, the inhaling and exhaling of breath, is experienced as the presence of God in and through the Holy Spirit. And it is something we all share – no matter what our language, colour, creed or even politics!

While the life-force, the living breath of God, is common to us all, the Gospel message that St John offers us takes things a little further. The relationship with God, made possible through Jesus Christ, leads us to a number of things. It leads us to worship – to bend the knee (the literal meaning of the old English word which grew into worship) before God almighty. It leads us into a relationship of willing obedience to God grounded in love – love for God and love for neighbour – and nurtured by prayer. And that love for neighbour leads us to action, enfleshing, incarnating, what would otherwise simply be a nice sentiment – the pie in the sky when we die sort of thing.

Pentecost is about the Spirit of God; it is about coming together and forming deep and lasting relationship with each other and with God; it is about setting aside our difference, our perceived one-upmanship which so easily slides into hatred and war; it is about that deep caring and loving for the whole of God’s creation. It is about being spiritual – being filled with Holy Spirit and so living as if God’s Kingdom has truly come, on earth as in heaven. It is about being stirred out of our comfortable complacency to get out and make a difference in our world – a difference measured by nothing less than God’s kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.

But a word of warning! Before you pray too earnestly to be open to the Holy Spirit leading us into relationship with God and neighbor, know that God has the uncomfortable habit of taking our prayers seriously – and may require of us extraordinary and unexpected things. Ask those uneducated country bumpkins we thought about earlier – the ones speaking to the crowd in many different languages.

And then, if you are game, join me in this simple prayer, preferably in its sung version.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

Melt me, mould me, fill me, use me.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.