The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
Print This Page

Holy Communion      23rd May 2021
The Spirit and Walls
Jeremy Fletcher

Acts 2. 1 - 21
I joked a few weeks ago when we invited people to read the lessons in May that the person who got today would not thank us for it. Famously the first reading has that list of the nations people had come from to be in Jerusalem for the festival of Shavuot. Take a look at a Bible map: the people came from modern day Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Libya. That’s quite a list, and I’m not sure how many of them might have had to quarantine if they travelled that way today. Sue: thank you for reading that list! 
Pentecost, the Greek word for Shavuot, means fifty days, and this was one of the harvest festivals: the Feast of Weeks, fifty days after Passover. It was one of the great pilgrimage festivals, hence there being people so many nationalities present. Giving thanks for the wheat harvest, it also came to be a feast of thanksgiving for the gift of the law on Mount Sinai. God’s gift of life and blessing was expressed in the five books of the Torah: it was a feast of God’s word, God’s proclamation. Passover celebrated freedom. Pentecost was a call to obedience and commitment. 
Fifty days after Passover means fifty days after the crucifixion and resurrection. Just as then Jerusalem was filled with far more people than normal. Jesus’s followers, getting used to his absence ten days after those forty amazing days of in his risen presence, must have thought back to what crowds full of religious fervour could do. There were around one hundred and twenty of them, but who were they among hundreds of thousands? They had been told to wait, but they weren’t sure what for and for how long. 
Just as the crowds were at their height, just as their religious observance of thanksgiving for the revelation of God in Torah was building up, the disciples find themselves propelled from place they are in and out onto the street. They can’t explain this movement, not what it was which impelled them: only that it was like a violent wind, like flames of fire. Their behaviour is disturbing and challenging. The crowds know they have to have been fuelled by something, and alcohol is an obvious explanation. Not so, says Peter. He knows now what they have been waiting for, and what this is: he knows his prophets as well as his Torah, and this is what was promised by Joel among others.
Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, at Passover, brought freedom and forgiveness and liberation. The outpouring of the Spirit, at Pentecost, brought the power to serve, the proclamation of God for all, the presence of God in each one at the same time. It is significant that people from all the known world were there. At least fifteen language groups are mentioned, and there were probably more. The disciples are so filled with the power and presence of God that they make the word of God known to each group, in each language. The scattering of peoples and confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel is reversed, and all the languages in the world now become vehicles of the word of God. Ezekiel and Jeremiah had looked for the day when God’s word would be in the hearts of the people. they wouldn’t just learn it, they would know it and live it. 
We are here because one hundred and twenty uncertain people waited, and prayed, and were filled with the promised Holy Spirit. They found that the presence of God in them meant that they could speak words which were understood, which crossed religious, national and linguistic boundaries. The world was in Jerusalem, and the world heard the Word. It still does. Whenever people translate the Bible into new languages,  (and it’s still happening), whenever the words of God are made clear, whenever artists and musicians and poets and speakers create their works, whenever the church welcomes people and points to Jesus the Christ, whenever our hands become hands of healing and service and rescue and justice and freedom, there is the power of the Spirit to heal and save. 
It is our duty not to get in the way, not to quench, not to hide God at work by the Spirit, but to give ourselves to God in such a way that the word of God is heard through us. It may not be in eth miraculous ability to speak a new language – there’s a symbolism in that story which is not a pre-requisite for the Spirit’s work now – but it will be in taking the opportunity to speak of what your faith means to you, what you feel called to, why you donate to the food bank, why you choose to worship. And it will be in what you choose to do about the brokenness of the society and world we live in. 
The modern Pentecostal movement looks back to an origin in the Azuza Street Mission in Los Angeles in the early 1900s. Amazing outpourings took place, even for a country which knew about revivals. Once of its features was that, in a racially segregated society, all were welcome. There were even more white people thank black. One commentator wrote that “the ‘color line’ was washed away in the blood [of Christ]” The love and power of God broke down barriers. That’s a call, for me, to examine the ways in which we re-erect them. Do our different groups, with our different languages, hear the same Gospel, just as the linguistic groups at Pentecost heard the same message? 
I’m learning much about the experiences of people of different ethnic heritages, different upbringings and different income groups in this place. To be a church of Pentecost we need to examine the walls, assumptions and languages which reinforce difference. The list of the Pentecost peoples is an example of diversity. The action of the Spirit was to go from diversity to inclusion. From 120 they became 3000 in one go. Different nations and languages. One Spirit. One people under God. 
We have work to do. Does the language we speak exclude people or include them. Towards whom is the Spirit impelling us? Will they fit if they come? I pray that God’s Spirit will be powerful and creative. I want the intractable differences here to be washed away so that our diversity becomes inclusive of all. And I want to speak the word of God in ways that people will understand. We need the Spirit’s power.

It’s a dangerous prayer, but…”Come, Holy Spirit."

Print This Page

Sermons from previous years are here | 2020 |2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005