This is a sermon for Pentecost Sunday as well as a celebration of 'Christian Aid Sunday'. It is based on the Pentecost reading from Acts 2:1-21.
Pentecost is a celebration of a turning point in history. Fifty days after Jesus' resurrection, his followers are together in a house but Jesus is no longer with them – not even in his resurrection body. We can imagine that this group of individuals must have felt confused and possibly disheartened; where should they go from here?
Their confusion would have been made all the more poignant by the crowds and celebrations going on in the streets of Jerusalem. Fifty days after Jesus' resurrection was also about fifty days after Passover. It was the Jewish feast of Pentecost – the feast of Shavuot, a harvest festival when the Jewish people celebrated the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.
I think that we can draw a connection between the Jewish festival of Pentecost and our own festival of Pentecost. Jewish Pentecost celebrates the giving of the law and God's covenant with Israel. You could say that this is the beginning of Israel's vocation as the people of God. Equally, Christian Pentecost celebrates the beginning of the Christian Church – the beginning of our vocation as the people of God.
A modern Jewish Rabbi commented that Pentecost is 'Asking God how we should be with our freedom'. And that's the idea that I would like to explore this morning – that Pentecost is in some way about asking God how we should be – as God's people - with our freedom.
God works through us
So, looking at today's reading from the book of Acts, I think one of the things we should be ready to be is: 'surprised by what God is able to do through us'. I note that although Paul refers in some of his Epistles about speaking in unintelligible tongues in prayer, the tongues that are given to the church in today's reading are real foreign languages. On the day that Jesus' rag-tag band of confused followers are born into his Church on earth, they are given the ability to communicate the Gospel to people of various nationalities.
This gift of the Spirit is not given to the Church for its own edification. It's not given so that we can have lively worship, it's not given so that we can feel ourselves to be filled with the power of God and I don't even think it's given to us for the purpose of assurance of our own salvation. It's a gift that is given to the Church for the benefit of others. As the saying goes, the Church is the one institution that exists for the benefit of those outside itself.
And the gift that God wants to bestow upon the whole world through us is – I believe – life in all its fullness: both physical and spiritual.
So one of the ways that I think we are called to be in our freedom with God is people who are ready to proclaim the Gospel in both word and deed. At the very least we want to be practiced in saying a few words about what it means to us to be a follower of Jesus. We don't have to impose on people and we don't have to try to convert them, but I think it's good to know the words we might use to speak about our own faith if the opportunity comes up.
And we also want to be people who proclaim the Gospel through our deeds – in our interactions with others and by supporting other Christians in their own particular gifts and callings. As Christian Aid says, an important part of the Gospel message is the proclamation of life before death.
Another thing that happened when Jesus' followers began to speak the language of other people is that barriers were broken down.
'Speaking someone's language' is a powerful metaphor. Anyone who has ever learned a foreign language knows that not only do you have to learn the French/German word for 'car' or 'house', but you have to learn a different way of expressing yourself and sometimes you have to learn a different word-order.
In short, you have to learn to think differently. To some extent, you have to learn a different world view.
Learning to speak another person's language says something about a person's willingness to step outside of his or her own culture and comfort zone. We were helped this morning/afternoon to 'step out' a bit by hearing the story of Rekha Biswas.
Through Christian Aid, we learned something of the challenges that she and her community face and we learned something of her life.
I think, though, that Christians need to keep challenging ourselves about stepping out and breaking down barriers.
As Christians we are called to be counter-cultural, but our counter-cultural calling is to set out a prophetic vision of the Kingdom of God. Our counter-cultural calling isn't to rant and rave and to keep repeating to ourselves that 'things aren't what they used to be'.
Because we are human, we always have to be on our guard that we don't raise barriers against others. 'They are not church people; they don't know how to dress and act properly in Sunday worship.' 'We have values and they don't.' Or...'They don't need as much as we do to live'.
Any barrier that we raise between us and another person is one step in the direction of distancing ourselves from his or her full God-given humanity. Although a small barrier may not mean that we are drawing categories of 'them and us', it can be a first step in that direction. Once we have raised large barriers, it is easy for us to justify to ourselves that we don't have to be concerned with the welfare of others.
And human history has proven that, in the worse-case scenario, we can raise barriers so high that we begin to justify hurting others. As Christians we are called to speak out peacefully against any kind of scapegoating. We need to exercise our vote and work against extremist political parties, we can boycott newspapers and other media that scapegoat minorities and we need to make sure that we ourselves don't fall into the trap of scapegoating Muslims.
'Pentecost is asking God how we should be with our freedom.'
I believe that the coming of the Holy Spirit reveals that we should use our freedom to break down the barriers and the walls that divide human beings from God as well as from each other.
As Christians, we are not in the business of hurting people and we are not in the business of ignoring people in their need. As Christians, we are called to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves.
On the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit took a bunch of confused individuals and turned them into people with a passion and people with a mission and the Church was born. The Holy Spirit empowers the Church of Christ; not to have power over others but so that we may empower others.
Jesus said to the disciples of John the Baptist: “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.”
This is what the power of the Holy Spirit is all about. This is the mission of the Church. Our mission to be God's hands on earth for justice, restoration and inspiration. It is not so much about us having power as it is about us empowering others.
'Pentecost is asking God how we should be in our freedom.'
As Christians, we are told how we should be: we are called to be like Jesus. But we also know that without the constant help of God, without the power of the Spirit in our lives, that we cannot change ourselves or others.
The good news is that we don't have to. The good news is that Christ has conquered sin, death and the power of evil and that his Spirit remains with us to strengthen us and help us as we seek to love God and our neighbour.
My prayer this morning is that we will all be filled again with a renewed sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And I pray that we will each be strengthened in our proclamation of the Kingdom of God as we seek to love God and love one another. Amen