15 May 2016

Sermon – “Blown Away” (Acts 2:1-11)

 I’ve been scratching my brain to find a suitable metaphor to describe the experience of Jesus’ followers on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit first came upon them in power. One image that came to mind was the four Pevensie children in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia—Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy—when they first entered that strange, enchanted land with its fauns and talking beavers, a witch who turns innocent creatures into stone and of course Aslan the great lion-saviour.
Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, the second image that came to me (and maybe I am about to reveal things about me that you didn’t want to know!) was from the movie Ghostbusters. Do you remember the scenes where the cameras began to reveal strange things happening beneath the otherwise normal streets of New York City? Odd-coloured vapours arising from the drains, paving stones heaving, gargoyles on buildings starting to twitch…
In each case we are being introduced to a world beyond our own, to the notion that what we consider normal is only the tiniest fragment of a vast, hidden realm unperceived by our senses. For the Pevensie children it lay behind the doors of an ordinary wardrobe. For Dr Peter Venkman and his team of parapsychologists it was hidden in the recesses of a major metropolis.
For Jesus’ followers something of that wider world had been opened up to them as they followed him through the towns and villages of Galilee. There they witnessed things that they would never have thought possible: paralyzed people walking, blind people seeing again, lepers being cleansed, demons being cast out, the dead raised back to life again. To use Jesus’ own words, the kingdom of heaven was among them. And of course things had become stranger still in the days following Jesus’ crucifixion, as he appeared among them recognizably the same and yet somehow strangely different.
Up until now you might say they had just brushed with the kingdom of heaven. On Pentecost they were actually stepping into it themselves for the first time. “Suddenly,” as Luke describes it, “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.” Many of us are so accustomed to reading this passage at Pentecost that I wonder if we haven’t lost sight of what a terrifying event this must have been.
The sound of the wind that swept through the room was not like some gentle summer’s breeze. Nor was it even that of a strong wind in which you might be tempted to go out for a sail or fly a kite. No, it was “a violent wind”, a wind powerful enough to sweep you off your feet and blow down trees. In the words of Psalm 29, it was a wind that “twists the oaks and strips the forests bare”. Those of us who were here in Halifax for Hurricane Juan a dozen years ago would have an idea of what I mean. The word Luke uses to describe the forcefulness of that wind at Pentecost is found in only two other places in Scripture. We come across the first instance as Moses and the people of Israel stood on the banks of the Red Sea with all the might of Pharaoh’s vast army approaching fast behind them. We are told that Moses “stretched out his hand over the sea” and the Lord drove back the waters with a powerful east wind that turned the sea into dry land (Exodus 14:21). The second is when the psalmist speaks of the thick oaken beams of a ship being shattered like matchsticks by a violent wind (Psalm 48:7). Such was the roar that filled the whole house where the disciples were sitting at Pentecost. Those first followers of Jesus were literally being swept up into a whole new world.

New Language

Now one of the problems with wind is that it rearranges things. You’ve just raked up all the leaves from your lawn when a wind comes up and takes you back to square one. You’ve just neatly arranged all the papers on your desk, when someone opens a window and they’re all over the floor. So it is with the Holy Spirit. He has an annoying habit of rearranging our lives, jostling us out of our settled ways, challenging our neat, man-made categories. That was certainly the way it was with the disciples, as suddenly they found themselves praising God in languages they had never spoken before.
Of course what they didn’t know at that point that what was happening to them was not for their benefit but for that of the many pilgrims who were in Jerusalem for the festival. Those visitors began to hear the praises of God being proclaimed in their own individual languages—Parthians, Medes, Elamites and all the rest in that long list of unpronounceable nationalities. And it had them bewildered.
I had a small experience of that when I was rector at St Paul’s Church on the Grand Parade. During the weeks following Christmas we would read from the gospel in a different language each Sunday. The intention was to give us all a greater appreciation of the worldwide church. On one particular Sunday the reading happened to be in Mandarin. As it was being read a man entered the church having just arrived from China as a student. He had come just to take a peek inside an historic building and spoke almost no English. Yet there he was hearing his own language being spoken. Needless to say, it was a deeply moving experience for him and we saw him every week after that.
In the last church where I served, we had a member who had a Master’s degree in Teaching English as an Additional Language. She was keen to reach out to the many immigrants to Saint Paul from all over the world and so she trained some of the members so that we could offer English conversation sessions. In spite of every effort, I think that over a period of two years we had only one taker and we were a little disappointed. Then suddenly we were inundated with more than a hundred refugees from Burma, most of whom didn’t speak a word of English, but the Holy Spirit had made sure that we had our conversation partners in place.
One of the ongoing challenges for the church is to relate the good news of Jesus Christ in language that people can understand. It is a sad fact that the longer we are involved in the church the more comfortable we become with a language called “Christianese”. Words such as “sin”, “repentance”, “grace” and “Saviour” have rich meaning for us and I would not begin to suggest that we even think of discarding them. But they are at best meaningless to the average non-Christian and in some cases they are seriously negatively loaded. (When I was a child I used to think that the Salvation Army had its name because it picked up old discarded clothes and furniture and saved them. I had no idea that people could be saved too!) We need the fresh breath of the Holy Spirit to sweep us out of the language of the Christian ghetto to communicate the good news of Jesus in new ways that touch the minds and hearts and lives of those around us, that causes them to ask questions as the crowd did at Pentecost. “How is this happening?” “What does this mean?” “What shall we do?”

New People

The result of the Holy Spirit’s work on the day of Pentecost was that three thousand people were added to the little band of Christian believers in its first twenty-four hours. I can’t imagine the logistics involved in baptizing all those people! However, I know that growth on a similar scale continues in many parts of the world today. In the Middle East and North Africa there are reliable reports of thousands of Muslims turning to Christ, sometimes quietly and beneath the official radar, sometimes in mass baptisms of dozens, even hundreds, of people. An article a couple of years ago in the London Telegraph told the story of massive church growth in China. It included a calculation by Purdue University Sociology professor Fenggang Yang that by the year 2030 the Christian population of China will exceed 247 million, making it the largest Christian population in the world.[1]
I am sure we welcome such growth. At the same time growth also brings its challenges. Remember that wind of the Holy Spirit, stirring things up, moving them around, undoing our tidy little arrangements? It didn’t take long for that to happen among the Christian believers in Jerusalem. Just move a few pages along in Acts, to chapter 6, where Luke begins, “In those days when the number of believers rapidly multiplied…” It all sounds good. But then he goes on: “… there were rumblings of discontent.”[2] The problem centred on the Greek-speaking believers, who were complaining that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. A couple of chapters later we meet with Simon, who had been a practiser of sorcery and had the crazy notion that he could buy the Holy Spirit with money. In each of these cases (and there would be many more), the problem the disciples were facing was the challenge of growth, as new people came into the community and brought with them new backgrounds, new ideas, new issues, and new needs.
The New Testament bids us look forward to the day when people of every nation, tribe, people and language will stand around the throne of the Lamb crying aloud, “Salvation belongs to our God!” (Revelation 7:9-10) That is a picture of heaven, but from an earthly perspective things can look different. The church in Corinth included in its number women and men who came from backgrounds of sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, thievery, crass materialism, alcoholism, backbiting and dodgy business practices.[3] But they were there because the Holy Spirit had brought them there. I imagine that the lives of the elders and deacons in that church would have been much quieter without them. As it was, however, it must have been something like a bronco ride. The wind of the Holy Spirit was blowing through them—and all they could do was to hold on for dear life and pray!

New Creation

As the Holy Spirit moves through us he will bring new people into our midst—and unless we are only prepared to accept clones of ourselves, that will bring its challenges. But the Spirit is equal to them and we must trust him to do his work.
There is a new movement that has been gaining strength in the church. It’s called “messy church”. I don’t know a lot about it, but I am attracted to the title. I well remember an elderly clergyman coming into my office and staring at my desk. “You know,” he said (and I’m sure you’ve heard this before), “a messy desk is the sign of a healthy mind.” I’m not sure that that is entirely true, but I took it as a compliment. At the heart of “messy church” is the notion that a church that is healthy and growing, a church where the Holy Spirit is blowing, will always be a little messy, a little rough around the edges, perhaps even a little unsettling at times. At the same time it will undoubtedly be an adventure. It will bring rich, deep and lasting relationships as we face life’s challenges together, as we don’t ignore the mess around us and within us and together allow the Holy Spirit to do his work.
All of this is so worth it, because it is part and parcel of participating in God’s new creation irrupting into the old. As in the opening chapter of Genesis, the Holy Spirit is hovering over the waters, bringing about a whole new order from the darkness and chaos that surround us. And you and I have the inestimable privilege, with Peter and James and Mary and Joanna and Andrew and Paul, with Augustine and John of the Cross and Theresa and all the countless saints down through the ages, with men and women and children in Burma and Argentina, Libya and Nigeria and some of the most unlikely places in the world today, of being participants in and witnesses to that new creation.
“Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.” Are you and I willing to be swept off our feet by the Holy Spirit and blown into that adventure which is God’s new creation?

[1]        Tom Phillips, “China on course to become 'world's most Christian nation' within 15 years”, The Telegraph, 19 April 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10776023/China-on-course-to-become-worlds-most-Christian-nation-within-15-years.html
[2]        New Living Translation
[3]        See 1 Corinthians 6:9-10

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