4th June 2017 - Hugh Perry
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 important Jewish festivals and, in understanding the multi-translating of the apostles’ preaching, it needs to be remembered that most people were bi-lingual and the apostles, like most Jews, probably spoke Aramaic and Greek.
We also need to be open to Luke’s use of symbolism and metaphor in relating the miraculous birth of the church. It was a time when there was a wide spread interest in monotheism, a search for mythic tradition and a practice to forge such interest into a viable religion. This is apparent in this episode by the mention of proselytes, which were also called ‘god fearers’. The language of trade, Greek, was widely understood throughout the known world which meant the apostles’ message could move from culture to culture.
Travel was relatively easy 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. Add to that the subsequent destruction of the Temple, the dispersal of the surviving Jews and the forced separation of Jesus’ followers from main-stream Judaism. There was also dispersion through spasmodic persecution.
With all these factors combining we can understand that the establishment of the church had all the encouragement and fuel it needed to spread out like a bush fire, fanned not by the hot dry wind of the Australian outback, but the creative breath of the divine Spirit.
Bill Loader also notes that the focus on language reverses the curse of Babel because communication is restored regardless of first language.
Like a movie director, Loader writes, Luke creates a scene with wind and fire. The scene is a commentary on the whole movie to follow in which the God of Sinai and the Law is acting again.
The Christian community that produced Luke and Acts developed a very structured organisation. We can see this beginning in the first chapter where they added Matthias to the group to keep the number at twelve. We have just read of the dramatic commissioning of the first disciples as apostles—the Greek word for a military ambassador who has the authority to act for the person who has commissioned the apostle.
That commissioning was public in as much as it happened at a religious festival and the wider public immediately witnessed the resulting transformation.
The community that produced John’s Gospel, who probably lived in Ephesus, had a different understanding of a Christian community and put greater focus on spiritual guidance rather than apostolic leadership. Therefore the arrival of the Holy Spirit is in the privacy of a locked room and comes directly from the Risen Christ.
In great wisdom the early church has elected to keep both these visions of the response to God’s Spirit.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:1-2)
The footnote in my Bible makes the point that ‘a wind from God’ could also be translated ‘the spirit of God’ Right at the beginning of the Bible the story begins with the action of the divine Spirit and wind and Spirit are interchangeable. We have previously looked at the way wind and spirit are a creative force and, as well as the creation story, we noted the divine breath that gave life to the bones in Ezekiel’s dream. There is also the restoring wind in the story of Noah. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided. (Genesis 8:1b)
That is a divine wind of new beginnings for life on earth. As we move on through the Bible we come to the beginning of that forty year journey that formed the people of God.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. (Exodus 14:21-22)
The reference to wind as the creative force from God go on but the reference to that particular sea crossing is a good place to note that one of key story lines in the Gospels is ‘Jesus as the new Moses forming a new people of God.’
Not surprising therefore that as Luke begins to launch the disciples into his story of the young church in action he does so with the announcement: And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. (Acts 2:2)
Luke also wants to make it clear that the Spirit rested on each of the disciples. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. (Acts 2:3) We easily get enthused about the fire and miss the metaphor signal ‘as of fire’. Luke is making sure that we understand that it is one spirit that divides to rest on each disciple and empower them as apostles. If we think about a camp fire or a fire in an open fireplace the flames come from the fuel as one solid block of heat then divide into separate flames. Luke’s spirit flame is reversed. One empowering flame comes down and divides to pass on the power.
The other useful thing about the fire metaphor is that flames will ignite any potential fuel they touch. The story that Luke is telling is about the church spreading through the known world like an Australian bush fire. However before we follow that part of the metaphor we need to look at the Gospel reading and alternative spirit transfer it presents.
Luke tells us that all the disciples were in one place and as goes on to describe the reaction of people around them. We can assume that they were outside in a public space with the crowds who have come to the festival of Pentecost. In John’s Gospel, the disciples are locked away in a room and the risen Christ arrives in the room and breathes the Spirit onto or into the disciples.
This was the first appearance of the Risen Christ to the male disciples although he had previously appeared to Mary Magdalene and she had reported to the others.
John is a theological gospel and one of the important theological points John is making is that, in commissioning the apostles, the Risen Christ breathes the empowering and life-giving breath of God. In other words John gets in another plug for Trinitarian Theology. Jesus has the power of God therefore Jesus is God. We will unpack that further next week but it very much fits John’s style of working through the narrative with hints followed by bigger hints and then conclusions.
More importantly for us it shows that a meeting with the Risen Christ can be a private meeting not just the public display of ecstasy of the Pentecost event.
Both our readings confirm the tradition that God acts through the Spirit to equip and empower God’s people.
That is something that we can all experience. We may have had faith confirming spiritual moments in our lives at particular times. But we can also experience serendipitous moments when following a hunch or unexpected opportunity leads to something special and a new turning point in our lives.
Reflecting on my time in this parish we have spent a lot of time planning our mission together but I think the real progress has come when we have taken opportunities that unexpectedly presented themselves. To be at a network meeting when the people from Papanui High expressed interest in establishing a Men’s Shed or mentioning to Anna Mowat that we wanted to start Music and Music and she sent us Jody Keehan. Times when for some reason we have been in the right place at the right time. Even disasters like having our hall closed forced us to be more ambitious in our building plans.
The Pentecost fire storm story is filled with serendipitous events. Firstly Luke sets it at the feast of Pentecost when so many people from so many places were in Jerusalem, both Jews and proselytes or people who wanted to become Jews. Proselytes were gentiles who had studied the Jewish culture but didn’t have Jewish mothers and were probably apprehensive of the required minor surgery. All these people were religious tourists who would go home and carry the Spirit all around the Roman Empire. Traders, refugees and slaves would take it even further and tradition and archaeological evidence suggests that Thomas even took the Jesus message to India, possibly as a slave.
Whether the Spirit came to the disciples in the locked room or singled them out amongst the crowds at the festival of Pentecost the spirit came to the disciples at an opportune time.
In fact the whole Jesus story happened at the best possible moment for the life changing Spirit to begin its journey throughout the world and into the future. Travel on Roman roads was easier than it had ever been, the Roman Empire, just like the British Empire was a trading organisation so people were moving around the known world and as mentioned in the introduction the language of trade was Greek so missionaries could make themselves understood.
Something that is really worth remembering is that the Holy Spirit can even make the most of disaster and tragedy. Just seventy years after Jesus’ death the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed as Rome put down the rebellion. Some of those who weren’t killed were taken as slaves others fled as refugees to other parts of the empire. Some of those would have been followers of Jesus and would have established emerging church communities in the towns and cities that accepted them.
The tongues as of fire did not just ignite those first apostles they ignited lives the apostles touched and the world of that time had all the ideal conditions for the fire to spread.
We can look at the big picture with hindsight, analyse those conditions and realise that the church spread because it came out of an established religious tradition at the right time and the right place.
However those involved would not have seen the big picture in the same way we can’t see the big picture in our world. Luke and John have both given us powerful imagery of the way the Spirit of everything those first apostles felt and learned about Jesus became part of them. The imagery tells us that without knowing the outcome they opened themselves to serendipitous opportunities, meetings on the road and making the most if disasters and forced migration. Like us they probably looked at events with hindsight and realised God’s Spirit was acting in their lives. Fortunately they passed those stories on. Inspired by the Spirit they wrote down some of the experiences and insights they had to inform and encourage others and those writings have been passed onto us. Our scripture and our tradition brings us to the noise and excitement of a religious festival or the quiet reflection in a locked room where we encounter the Spirit of Christ.
Through our own Spiritual encounters we too will feel the creative and re-creative divine breath as a burning passion to live Christ into reality in our world.
 William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, Revised Edition (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press1976), pp.20,21.
 Raymond Brown, The Gospel According To John XII-XXI (London: Geoffrey Chapman 1966), pp.1033-1036.