15th May 2016 Hugh Perry
Maurice Andrew points out that the purpose of the tower was to make a name for themselves, it was a celebration of their achievements. That is not an unusual motive for a tower and although Auckland’s Skytower has a communication application its primary function is a branding exercise for Auckland. Similarly office towers certainly house offices but in continually building them higher than the last one cities are proclaiming their achievements rather than simply accommodating the administration of those achievements. Andrew also draws attention to the possibility that this story is a satire directed against Babylon and Babel, the place of confusion is a corruption of that name. But whatever the motive behind the story it highlights the misuse of power and the divine disapproval of that misuse.
Acts 2: 1-21
This is the classic Pentecost reading where the failed frightened disciples become the transformed and transforming apostles of the Risen Christ. The feast of Pentecost was one of the festivals that Jews were required to attend if at all possible. It had significance in celebrating the law being given to Moses and it was also a festival of thanks for the completed harvest. Paring this with the story of Babel draws attention to the way the writer of Acts gives a reverse echo of the Genesis story so that the language which divided humanity is now brought together again by the Christ event and the power of the Holy Spirit..
These last couple of weeks have been filled with feverous activity as we moved into this new building and it is just as well that we put the first service off until today. It is equally important to be here to have a ‘dress rehearsal’ for next weekend when we officially open the building. What is fortuitous is that we have our first service here on the day the church celebrates its birth. That allows us to recognise a significant event in the churches history without it getting tangled in our official opening service.
Our opening will be a grand event but just as we quietly slide into our new church today I would suggest that the beginnings of the church were not quite as dramatic as our Pentecost reading describes. We need to remember that, although the Bible describes the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit and rushing out into the crowd to amaze the multitude with their message and new found confidence, common sense suggests it didn’t quite happen like that.
For a start John’s Gospel has the Risen Christ meet the disciples in a locked room and breathe the Holy Spirit on them. Luke has the Risen Christ instruct the disciples to remain in Jerusalem to receive the Holy Spirit. The Risen Christ then drifts off into the clouds. Then in this morning’s reading the Holy Spirit is sent down in tongues, ‘as of fire’ to rest upon each apostle.
This Pentecost reading is a classic case where a reality check suggests that things didn’t happen like that but the story is nevertheless true.
Throughout the gospels the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was on about and when he was arrested they dispersed. Only the women stayed to witness the crucifixion and attempt to give the body the culturally appropriate burial rites. In fact archaeology suggests that it was unusual for crucifixion victims to have any sort of burial. Furthermore according to the gospels the only reason Jesus was entombed was through the action of ‘secret’ disciples.
Yet sometime after Jesus’ death those same bewildered and dispersed disciples became the empowered apostles that brought the church to birth. However long it took for that to happen we would describe it as an action of the Holy Spirit.
Similarly, if as Christians we experienced a transformation in our own lives we are also likely to attribute that change as the Spirit’s leading.
Some of us facing an intimidating challenge will pray for the Spirit’s guidance and encouragement and through that prayer will be better able to face the challenge. Every week when I face a file on the computer that says sermon and have absolutely no idea what to write I think ‘well the Holy Spirit called me to preaching so I can confidently expect the Spirit to drag two thousand words out of me in some sort of coherent fashion’.
Luke’s use of fire as metaphor to describe the Spirit’s division onto each apostle is interesting because they were not only fired up but the Jesus movement spread like the present Canadian bush fire.
Just like any wildfire this accelerated spread was due to favourable conditions. Those conditions are favourable to the fire and certainly not to the people, property and wildlife threatened by it.
Just like a bush fire starts when conditions are right spiritual conditions were ideal for the ignition and spread of the Jesus movement. A movement that flared into the church and in a few hundred years consumed Roman polytheism.
Jesus was executed at a time when there was a wide spread interest in monotheism or the concept that there was only one God. That created a desire for a religion that supported such an idea. What searchers wanted was a mythic tradition and religious practice that built that interest into a viable religion.
Judaism is such a religion but was difficult to sign up to. Nevertheless, people were interested as shown in today’s reading by the mention of proselytes, who could also be called ‘god fearers’. They were studying Judaism but somewhat intimidated by the surgery required.
Luke also talks about the people being able to hear the word in their own language and the reality may well be that the language of scholarship and of trade was Greek. Greek was widely understood throughout the known world which meant the apostles’ message could move from culture to culture.
So people might not have all heard Peter or the other disciples speak or understand them but there would be enough bi-lingual people who could explain what was spoken. To illustrate this possibility from our own time Bible translators use English, French or Spanish as an intermediate step when making translations of the Bible for the world’s minor languages.
Finally we must remember that travel was easier on good roads and safer in the first century than any previous time in history and indeed safer than it was for centuries after that time.
The fire of the gospel had plenty of fuel in terms of interested people, a clear path along Roman roads and sea trade routes along with a strong wind in terms of a common language that links the other cultures and languages of the Roman world
If we add to all that the subsequent destruction of the Temple, the dispersal of the surviving Jews and the forced separation of Jesus’ followers from main stream Judaism then the establishment of the church has all the encouragement and fuel to spread out like a bush fire. A metaphorical fire, fanned not by the hot dry wind of the Australian outback, but the creative breath of the divine Spirit, tongues as of fire resting on those first apostles and fanning out into to the known world.
Even this quick analysis of Luke’s imagery shows that this section of Acts is certainly true, even if the events did not happen that way.
Understanding the events with reference to known history might take away the magic of the events but it opens us to the possibility of perceiving the action of the Spirit in our own lives and the life of St Albans Uniting.
We have built ourselves a new building and we must be totally sure that we did that for the mission of the church rather than simply to make a name for ourselves.
The building has already begun to speak to the community and raised considerable interest. People are stopping to look and sending emails through our website asking about booking the hall.
But we built this building with mission in mind and the men’s shed is a great example of that purpose that took one group of church builders completely by surprise. They knew about Men’s sheds but couldn’t imagine anyone would include one in a church.
Thankfully we never set out to build a building just for us. It has always been our aim to speak to our prospective friends in their own language. Our outreach needs to reach out not suck in.
If we simply built this building to make a name for ourselves then our Genesis reading tells us that God will confuse our language and cast us out.
Once again our story from Genesis might not describe actual events but it is nevertheless true.
It certainly has something to say about Auckland and all the other cities that built a tower to make a name for themselves. I loved the crack made by visiting comedian who suggested that Skytower was a stupid name because all towers go up in the sky, if they go the other way they are called wells.
The Tower of Babel is a cautionary tale about stadiums and convention centres in the Christchurch rebuild. There is a very real risk that we will just dig a hole for ourselves that we continue to pour money into in the hope it brings us luck. The rebuild wishing well.
It is also a special truth for Aotearoa New Zealand that migration is part of human history. We are a land of migrants dispersed from overcrowded Pacific Islands by who knows what forces. Overcrowding, violent struggle, adventure and a search for a better life. Our European ancestor’s motives are much easier to identify. Our history is filled with economic refugees escaping exploitation and a vicious class system to those who fled and continue to flee the violence of war. We as New Zealanders are people or the descendants of people who escaped and dispersed from those who build structures both real and metaphoric to make a name for themselves. In building such structures ruling classes throughout history marginalise and enslave others.
All the themes in these stories we can identify with hindsight as divine intervention in the lives of people and peoples.
We can also identify an ongoing call to new beginnings and in separation from the past we see new languages evolve. Pacific languages have a similarity but are different and there are not many conferences with overseas speakers without some reference to unique Kiwi pronunciation and the inclusion of Maori words. Ironically most ribbing comes from American and Australian visitors who get their pronunciation, and their words wrong anyway. We all know that flip-floppy shoes are jandals and thongs are skimpy underpants.
The God of the tower of Babel and the God of the Pentecost empowerment is the God of change. The God who calls and empowers people to new beginnings.
In moving into this new building we must not only expect to change but also accept the challenge to be agents of change.
Today may well be a dress rehearsal for next weekend’s grand celebration. But just as Luke’s Pentecost episode was a symbolic summary of the extraordinary birth of the church, so, in the great depths of the Spirits purpose, today can be the beginning of our ongoing new beginning as St. Albans Uniting Parish.
May the Holy Spirit rest on each of us and empower us all for our extraordinary journey into the rebirth of St Albans Uniting.
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p56
 William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, Revised Edition (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press1976), pp.20,21.