Acts 2: 1 – 8, 12 – 21

Sun 15 May

I’m wearing my tribal colours today – my doctoral gown from the University of Aberdeen. Academic or ecclesiastical clothing are tribal equivalents to the jerseys or scarves worn by rugby teams and their supporters. The history of university regalia goes back to the religious influences on medieval academic institutions. Red was often assigned to theology. It’s the colour still worn today by cardinals and bishops. Red is also the liturgical colour worn on the feast days of the church – Palm Sunday – marking the death of martyrs – and at times of ordination (although that hopefully isn’t to do with prospective martyrdom!). It’s a colour that represents passion, blood, sacrifice, and God’s love. Pentecost is a red letter day, with red symbolising the tongues of fire and the way the first followers of Jesus were all fired up by the spirit of God.

Pentecost is a day of celebration. For Jews it marked the fiftieth day after Passover. This was a time to give thanks for the harvest. Christians adopted Pentecost to mark the birth-day of the church, or the birth of Christianity. The alternative name, “Whitsunday” or “White Sunday”, possibly derives from the white robes worn by the many that traditionally were baptised on this day.

The historical detail, however, of the first Christian Pentecost is questionable. What we have in the Book of Acts is a highly constructed narrative. The sound of the wind filling the whole house; tongues of fire resting on each person; everyone being filled with the Holy Spirit; people speaking in other languages that they don’t know – these are hardly everyday experiences. What happens evokes bewilderment, amazement, astonishment. People are “perplexed” asking, “What does this mean?” – are they intoxicated. Peter responds – it’s only nine o’clock in the morning – we’re not drunk.

The birth of the church in Acts was described many years after the events. The adoption of a Jewish feast day, Pentecost, charges Christian beginnings with extra historical significance. The author of Acts is also the writer of the gospel of Luke. At the beginning of Luke’s gospel, the writer sets the birth of Jesus in the imperial context – “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” (Luke 2.1) The birth of the church in Acts is set within a wider religious context. Pentecost was a day when Jews celebrated the gift of the Law of Moses – the covenant. In Acts, Pentecost marks the inauguration of the new covenant, the birth of Christianity.

The birth of Christianity was not a seamless process. From the very beginning, the message of Jesus was claimed and used by people in different ways. The tensions and divisions over adopting strict Jewish food laws and male circumcision were present in the Christian community from its birth. Paul in his letters, which predate Acts, reflects this early division. Some follow Apollos, or Peter or Paul. One of Paul’s constant themes in his letters to early Christian communities is the need for unity to overcome the disunity which is all too real in the body of Christ.

The Pentecost narrative in Acts presents us with an idealised account of early Christian beginnings. From the outset there was a contest among the followers of Jesus over what they believed, and how they should live. That contest has been multiplied exponentially over the last two thousand years. The capture of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century marks a huge shift in the place of the church in the world. Christians as outsiders became insiders; the persecuted minority became the persecutors; the way of Christian love struggled alongside the imposition of creedal orthodoxy; the church as the prophet at the gate, became chaplain to those in authority; the strong early Christian pacifist tradition was supplanted by the blessing of armed force and militarism. These statements are very much shorthand for what a course in church history would need to explain.

And so the church today is divided into major families – Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal and a multitude of sects. Within the Protestant family there are thousands of separate denominations with their own emphases on what to believe and how to live. We of course share much in common with some other churches. We know, however, something of the pain of division within our own tribal gathering of Presbyterians, seen in the exclusion of Lesbian and Gay people from leadership and the refusal of hospitality for them to be married within our buildings. This last week, we have witnessed the pain that the Anglican General Synod has caused by its inability to agree on a compromise position which would have allowed services to bless civil unions between Gay people. The stinging remark of a Maori Bishop in response to this was that the Synod valued unity more than justice.

Geoff Ollif’s question a month ago – why are we here? goes to the heart of our understanding of what we believe and how we should live. What is our gospel; what is our good news for ourselves and our world? The stories in the Bible are sources of inspiration for us. The stories of those who have lived in the way of Jesus are an encouragement on how we can live. There is a continuing process of interpretation and reinterpretation as we live in a dynamic relationship with our past, our tradition, our own tribal or denominational history, in the present, looking to the future.

There’s something of that in the way the author constructed the narrative in the book of Acts. The author has in mind the tower of Babel from Genesis. This mythical story about human aspiration to reach the heavens, by building a tower, speaks of people over-reaching themselves. Pentecost is a reversal of the confusion brought by different languages. Everyone hears and understands what’s being said in their own native language. This is a very idealised picture of the restoration of harmony with mutual understanding replacing discord and disorder. One possible meaning behind the myth here is that the message of the early church is a universal one, for all peoples, in all places, in all times.

Throughout its long history, the church has had a mixed record in communicating its message in the language of the people. For centuries, Catholics used Latin as the language of liturgy, theology and education, helping to create a special caste of priests and educated people who acquired privilege and rank through their mastery of a particular language. This created an exclusive class who monopolised the church and education and through that people gained power and authority which had little to do with the way of Jesus. One of the great achievements of the Protestant Reformation was in using the languages of the people in translating the Bible. This was extended through the missionary movement as they took seriously the learning of native languages and laboriously developed grammars and dictionaries so they could translate the Bible in the language of the people.

A challenge in our day is how far are we willing to go beyond our own tribal identity and, extending the Pentecostal image, undermine the towers of Babel that cause confusion and separate us from one another. Our own country has a rather dismal record in cultivating a multi-lingual society. Language learning helps us enter into the worlds of other people. Te reo Maori in particular, has a unique position in our country as the language of this land. The programme on Maori language and culture, beginning here at St Luke’s this week, is a great opportunity to enter into the world of tangata whenua through their language.

The Pentecost experience in Acts is about the first followers of Jesus being filled with the Holy Spirit. This is represented through the rushing wind in the house and divided tongues appearing above those gathered together. (I think we would be in trouble with health and safety if we had experiences like this at St Lukes!) There are echoes here of Moses standing before the burning bush and meeting God who declares, “I Am Who I Am”. This theophany was symbolised in Presbyterian churches on the pulpit fall accompanied by the St Andrew’s Cross, and the only Latin that I knew as a small boy, Nec Tamen Consumebatur, “Yet it was not consumed”! The burning bush was emblematic of the church, the people of God, which suffers in every age but whose truth cannot be extinguished.

The night before Martin Luther King was assassinated. King he referred in an address to the Fire Chief of Birmingham, Alabama, Bull Connor, who tried to disrupt the Civil Rights marchers by turning the fire hoses on them:

And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire [inside us] that no water could put out.

The question remains, what is our Pentecostal truth; what is the way of Jesus for us here at St Luke’s in our day, in our context? The words of Micah sum up for me why we are here: – to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly (with each other) and with our God.