There are times in the Church’s year where the subjects we are invited to consider seem so daunting that a preacher wishes he had artfully scheduled his annual leave to coincide with that time! That applies to these weeks where one Sunday after another, relentlessly, we are presented with Ascension, then Pentecost and then Trinity Sunday! A veritable procession of the enigmatic, the mysterious and the incomprehensible!
At theological college in the 1970s I was approached by students who assured me that they had been baptised in the Spirit and they spoke in tongues and invited me to receive the same gift. I was willing to receive it but must have been intractable material – the tongues of Pentecost did not ‘take’ on me and, the gift of ‘tongues’ or glossolalia has never been my experience.
Our story of Pentecost is mainly shaped by Luke in his Gospel and in Acts. Luke gives us a sequential account of events in a sort of history – but one greatly simplified and shaped by symbolism. That something happened, I don’t doubt; but exactly how and when I am not sure – but probably not in the first few weeks after the Resurrection. What was it that happened? Luke manages his account with some humour – to some the experience he recounts in Acts could have sounded like a drunken babble; sounding something like speech but yet not quite a known language. (Linguists speaking of the glossolalia – as this is called – confirm its similarity to speech in sound but a speech that seems to be without meaning.) For the moment, I am content to think of ‘speaking in tongues’ as a gift of ecstatic utterance, a flow of sounds in response to the sense of the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God.
In the Jewish world Pentecost was a Festival that (among other things) celebrated the coming of the divine Law on Sinai. Legend has it that on that occasion a flame came down from heaven and divided into 70 tongues of fire, one for each nation of the world. All could understand, but only Israel promised to keep the Law.
Such symbolism has shaped our story. Perhaps it also lies under the influence of the Tower of Babel story in which human ambition resulted in the collapse of the tower and the breakdown of communication: the legend serving to explain why people speak different languages and cannot understand one another (Gen 11:1-9). Certainly the imagery of wind reflects the word for Spirit, which in both Hebrew and Greek, means wind, breath and Spirit.
These rich embellishments may conceal a historical event. (It is entirely credible that Pentecost, the first great pilgrim festival after Jesus' execution at Passover and his disciples' acclamation of his resurrection would have been a special occasion for the fledgling Christian community. Perhaps there was some event amid the crowd. Perhaps there was some experience which some believers saw as an outpouring of the Spirit.) Luke is hardly likely to have dreamt the whole thing up!
But Luke’s story of Pentecost, his stylized history, has made us celebrate the Day of Pentecost as the day of the coming of the Spirit. Treat this with caution! Compare Luke’s account with John's gospel where the Spirit is a gift of the risen Jesus on the day of resurrection when he appears after having risen and ascended to the Father! Everything is turned around compared to Luke's scheme. No other New Testament writer has Luke's timetable of events.
What I do not question, and never cease to wonder at, is that there was this moment, this experience (perhaps it included many moments and experiences) when the early Christians deeply and collectively really grasped the great reality of Christ risen from the dead and that God really was with them in a way they had never before quite understood - and this was an experience so liberating and so empowering that no language could quite explain it. Wind, fire, vision, dream, signs, portents, blood and fire, smoky mist, the moon turning to blood – the wild and troubling images of Peter’s words – all suggest a transformation in the church from confused uncertainty to radical hope and joyful proclamation.
The truth is that what we celebrate at Pentecost is the supernatural creation of a new reality – the church. The church may look to us like an ordinary human institution but its source is in that unlikely and unimaginable moment when the lives of those first disciples are changed. The moment when those frightened Galilean fishermen (our ancestors in faith) are transformed and become outspoken witnesses to Christ; the church is ‘born’. This becomes the pattern that forms the story of the church as around the world and across the centuries, again and again, people and communities are liberated and empowered by the power of God in their lives; the love of God in their lives; making, breaking, re-making; dynamic, unpredictable; dark and glorious. This dance of the Spirit is the very essence of the Church and we come to the Eucharist this morning not just to remember and give thanks but, most especially, to be open to the Spirit of God.
‘(Come) Holy Spirit, gentle as a dove, living, burning as fire, empower your (people)’.