Pentecost 2023 Lighting A Fire

Pentecost 2023 Lighting A Fire

Glynn Cardy

The Christian feast day of Pentecost, fifty days after the resurrection festival of Easter, owes its existence entirely to work of the author of Luke-Acts.  This author, drawing on imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures created a 50-day liturgical gap between the personal transformation as in the appearance stories of the Risen Christ and the community transformation as in the Acts 2 account.  This author penned this in the first quarter of the second century BCE. 

In contrast the 4th Gospel, our second reading today, with its reference to the Risen Christ breathing on the gathered and saying, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’, merges the personal and community experiences of empowerment and transformation.  This author penned this also some 80+ years after Jesus’ death.

Neither of these accounts are historical.  Which, speaking plainly, means they didn’t literally happen.  There was never 120 people gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost who experienced a rushing wind, a tongue of fire over their heads, and the ability to speak in languages they had never learnt.  Rather this is a story spun by the community of St Luke to encapsulate three important truths.

Firstly, the importance of igniting the spark in the heart.  Fire is a great metaphor for energy and empowerment that brings warmth and light to those around.  Here in this passage it is a community metaphor, the community is set alight, empowered, to be warmth and light to the society they are among.

Secondly, and following on from the first, is the importance of the languages of the many and the different.  The spark in the heart wasn’t for one’s personal sanctification or what today might be labelled personal growth or betterment.  And it wasn’t just for the community of believers either, warming and giving light to the new Jesus club.  Rather it was for the purpose of engagement with the many and the different, with foreigners, with those other than one’s own class, gender, or race, whether they ever become part of a Jesus group or not.

Lastly, this story underlines the power and potency of gathering together.  Read the chapter that precedes Acts 2.  They gathered together, waited together (which means they ate and slept together), sorted through a contentious leadership issue together, and then opened themselves as a community to discern the future together.

And when this wind, fire, and languages came, it wasn’t just the experience of the leaders or Peter (who by the 2nd century is being touted as the paramount leader), but the experience of all the gathered, all 120.  All of them were seized and transformed by this vision to take their individual sparks, make a communal fire, and share that warmth, light, and transformational energy with everyone in their society and world.

Back some 80 years earlier, following the execution of Jesus, the disciples were shattered and scattered.  There was no quick three-day solution, or even I suspect a three-year solution.  The re-membering, bringing the fractured and fragmented together again, finding forgiveness, solace, purpose, energy, and hope took quite a while.  And stories, what we now call the resurrection appearance stories, were crafted later to express some of that re-membering.

Our best source for the early years is the authentic Pauline letters – like Galatians, 1st and 2nd Corinthians – written within 20 years of Jesus’s death.  And not surprisingly these letters show that the beginning of the post-Easer Jesus movement like most beginnings was messy.  There were different folks doing different stuff.  Some planned, some not.  Some successful, some failures.

These Jesus groups in modern day Turkey and Greece were small.  Hal Taussig thinks about 16 people tops.  Gathering in a rented room, or in a rich widow’s house, for a meal, and talk, and toasts, and discussion, and hanging out.  And such gatherings were lifesavers.  They gave space and time to breath away from the fumes of hardship, violence, and poverty that marked the lives of so many in the Empire.  Here in the kitchen, in the dining, dreams of an alternate empire and what it would take were baked.  In the beginning was the meal.

Or maybe in another place, maybe one such place being the rural tempestuous Galilee, in the beginning was the fishing.  Out early in the boats, dragging in the nets, telling tales and pulling big ones.  Which is to say in the beginning was working together, talking while working, dreaming, and scheming.  Maybe, kind of, possibly. 

But threaded into whatever gathering – whether that gathering was around food or work – was the fanning of desire.  For desire drives vision.  Desire drives change.

Our parish church began here in 1875.  But before the beginning there was talking and food and the driver of desire and the start of a vision based on what our founders knew about and hoped for.

Visions are always constructed from what people know, have experienced already, have seen others do, but are then blended with the hopes about how things might be different.

So, for example, churches had to be built with seats and with a sturdy upfront communion table and pulpit.  No one had probably seen a church without seats, table, or pulpit.  And the seats, table, and pulpit had to be solid, built to endure, hard to move (like Presbyterian doctrine). 

So, they weren’t moved to the sides after the worship so that tables and food could be laid out.  No, there was a separate building – a hall – that would be constructed for that.  And you didn’t have youth activities and games in the church, there needed to be a separate building constructed for that.  The priority was Sunday worship.  It got a building all to itself.

This is what our forebears here were I suspect told God wanted, the church wanted, and therefore they wanted.   A place, locally, to gather for worship.

But our forebears didn’t want to just worship.  They had a desire to be together, to learn, to help, and to support their young.   So, over time, halls expanded, a gymnasium was built, and a lounge.  We had tennis courts here.  We had youth activities plus.  We funded and supported all sorts of charitable enterprises.  We believed in making a society that was good, not just for us, but good for all.  And we gave our time and money and passion to that end.

In 1984 the first redevelopment of the halls was completed.  The desire and the vision were to re-orientate ourselves to serve the community roundabout by providing meeting places, and programmes of general interest rather than just religious interest, and to find the funding to have a community director to facilitate that.

Then in 1998 a second redevelopment happened with at least two important differences.  Firstly, there was a partnering organisation, a counselling service, that planned to be a long-term tenant.  This led to the building of three dedicated counselling rooms and two offices (that are now also counselling rooms). 

Think for a moment of how many churches you know that have dedicated counselling rooms?  The answer I suspect: not many.  Then think of what I call ‘the jump,’ the vision jump, to build something different from what any other churches were building or have built since.

The second important structural change was not only the chopping up of pews and refashioning this worship space (which I might guess would have generated the most discussion in the re-development), but the physical connection of the worship space with the community space.  The secular and the spiritual, though long connected in the thinking and vision of most St Lucans, were being deliberately physically connected.  The building design was reflecting the theology and vision of the parish.

I would like to suggest to you this morning, this Pentecost morning, that we are now at another such time in our history where we need to pause to gather, re-kindle our desire to make a difference, re-look not just what we’re doing but what our buildings need to be in order to support such vision.

At the heart of our vision is 4 strands.  Firstly progressive Christianity.  This guides our liturgy and preaching.  But also how we see ourselves in the world.  It forms our values – values that include justice, compassion, hospitality, and service to others.  It also tells us we’re on a journey and have a lot to learn.

Secondly, converging into the first, is our commitment to social service.  In the language I grew up with: ‘helping others, particularly those less fortunate than ourselves.’  So we provide – meeting spaces, counselling rooms, food and drink – and welcome groups like Anchorage Dementia Day-care.

Thirdly, is our commitment to community engagement – to education for young (including the kindergarten) and old, to music of many varieties for the enrichment of many tastes, to being a place any one can wander into to rest, to read, play chess, or make art.

And lastly in this convergence of strands is commitment to transformational and structural change in our society, sometimes expressed through supporting groups like Restorative Justice and Pillars who work with individuals and their families, and sometimes expressed through supporting advocacy groups like the Te Ohu Whakawhanaunga, Christian Action Aotearoa, and Child Poverty Action Committee.

These commitments weave together and give voice to a spiritual, theological, and political commitment to believe in, envision, and work for equity and wellbeing across our Aotearoa.  So this is what, at this time in history, a commitment to St Luke’s looks like: progressive spirituality, helping others, community engagement, and advocacy for a fairer and just society.

In the past worship was the main thing we did.  That’s no longer the case.  And its unlikely it will ever be the case again.  The spark in the heart is better called spirituality and it permeates all what we do. 

Speaking the language and following the conventions around church life is no longer the main thing we do.  Our communication strategy is far broader than that and is shaped by the groups who use our centre and whom we support.

Gathering for church-initiated events is no longer the main thing that happens here.  We live in the St Luke’s multiverse with multifarious groups and people flowing through this place.

So the question is, at this juncture in our history, how can our buildings be updated, remodelled, removed, or improved to support such vision?   All our buildings.  And to find the answer to this question we need, like the 120 gathered at Pentecost, the engagement of everyone present rather than just our leaders, we need the wisdom of the past but also the wisdom to try some things new, and we need the capacity to be prudent and the courage to jump.