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“When the day of Pentecost came, all of them were together in one place. Suddenly, a sound like the roaring of a mighty windstorm came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw tongues like flames of fire that separated, and one rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them that ability. Now devout Jews from every nation under heaven were living in Jerusalem. When that sound came, the crowd rushed together and was startled because each one heard the disciples speaking in his own language. Stunned and amazed, they asked, “All of these people who are speaking are Galileans, aren’t they? So how is it that each one of us hears them speaking in his own native language? We are Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, the district of Libya near Cyrene, and visitors from Rome. We are Jews, proselytes, Cretans, and Arabs. Yet we hear them telling in our own tongues the great deeds of God!” (Acts 2:1-11)
Wind and Fire – the two elements of Pentecost – and a dynamic duo they are!
In my naivety I had thought until recently that these two elements were natural opposites that cancelled each other out, such as when you blow on a birthday candle and the wind puts the fire out. And then we all experienced those terrible bushfires in Victoria so recently, where wind and fire combined to generate those terrible fire-balls that hurtled down city streets at terrible speeds, consuming everything in their path.
Wind and fire are a volatile combination that can destroy people and property and tear apart entire communities and yet they can also, it seems, give birth to a community! Yes, it is Pentecost Sunday and we are celebrating today the birth of the church. The church as a worldwide community has been living and breathing now for a lot longer than any of us can remember but (believe it or not) it did have a beginning and it’s beginning was here, in the wind and fire of Pentecost.
No one was killed by that particular fiery wind so far as we know – not on that day, at any rate – but the wind and the fire of the Spirit of God certainly did cause a great deal of chaos and confusion on that day. Things happened that people found hard to explain. The disciples started behaving like crazy men, such that most people thought that they were drunk, and then they started speaking in strange tongues ‘such as the Spirit gave them utterance’, and nobody knew quite what was going on.
Such chaos might appear to be remarkably fitting for the start of an organisation that has been characterised by befuddlement and confusion ever since, and yet there was something very serious taking place at the centre of that fire. A new community was being formed, and it was being formed out of a melting pot that combined persons of every race and language and people and nation.
That’s the thing that most stands out, I think, in the way the Luke, the author of the book of Acts, tells the story of Pentecost – the almost tedious list of different nations and states that are represented in the Pentecost crowd.
The list sounds something like a roll call of the countries of the known world: “We are Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, the district of Libya near Cyrene, and visitors from Rome. We are Jews, proselytes, Cretans, and Arabs.” Was there any Ancient Near Eastern nation that wasn’t represented?
It seems strange that the author should go into such detail as to who was there. And yet a point is being made, and it’s a point about the foundation of the church and the nature of the church – that from the very beginning, the church has always been a community that includes everybody!
Of course, technically speaking, they were all Jews – the people who made up that Pentecost crowd, even if they were Jews from a wide variety of backgrounds. And yet the way the author of our story depicts the scene, I think it is clear that he saw Pentecost as the beginning of something much larger and broader still.
The church begins with a group of Galilean Jews and then comes to incorporate Jews from every corner of the globe, and then it starts to incorporate non-Jews.
The church begins as a largely working-class phenomenon, but pretty quickly we see her engaging with people from all classes and backgrounds and from every strata of society.
The church begins by targeting faithful members of the temple community but before long she is drawing in foreign converts to Judaism, and then people who had never darkened the door of a synagogue at all.
What we see at Pentecost is the beginning of a dynamic process of exponential inclusiveness, where both the size and the scope of the Christian community continues to grow and move towards the point where Christ will be all in all!
And this isn’t just a peculiar strategy for organisational growth. From a Biblical point of view there is something of cosmic significance taking place here, and it’s the reversal of an ancient curse.
If you remember the story of the Tower of Babel (as recorded in Genesis 11) it was an account of a terrible curse that came upon all people of the earth in response to their attempt to build an enormous tower, as a testimony to their own greatness.
The sin on view was a lust for power combined with human arrogance, and the punishment was that the people were divided into different language groups so that their power would be limited.
Dividing people up has always been an effective way of limiting a people’s power, and we’ve seen any number of political regimes use the ‘divide an conquer’ strategy since. Even so, division, Biblically speaking, is always a curse, and it seems that at Pentecost God, by His Spirit, began to reverse that curse.
Whereas at Babel human beings had banded together to build a community in which God had no place, at Pentecost God took the initiative of building a new community – the church – which had her creator at her centre.
Whereas the Babel community was built around a common lust for power, the church community would disavow power and centre itself instead on service.
So whereas God came down to Babel to miraculously confuse their language so that they could not understand each other or work together, at Pentecost God came down and miraculously bridged the communication gap, in order to make true human community a possibility again!
What we have with the birth of the church is the birth of a vision – a vision of a truly inclusive community – and I don’t think we can afford to underestimate just how radical that vision is, for such inclusiveness, it seems to me, is almost by definition intrinsically irreligious, for it has always been at the heart of religion – any religion – to discriminate between who is a legitimate member of the religious community and who is not – to include and to exclude.
Religion discriminates between who are the chosen people and those who are not the chosen people, and while different religions come up with different ways of drawing that boundary line so as to determine who is in and who is out, the basic idea of there being a boundary line between the true believers, on the one hand, and the pagans, heretics, infidels, and other ‘unworthies’ on the other, is, I would judge, fundamental, to almost every religious system?
There is an old, and not particularly funny, joke that you will have heard, I suspect, about a guy who is being given his first tour around Heaven, and he notices that right in the centre of Heaven is one large sealed-off area with extraordinarily high brick walls enclosing it on each side, such that you couldn’t possibly see who or what was on the other side of those walls. The first-timer asks what this massive prison area is for, and is told, “Oh, that’s the area for the Evangelicals. They really like to believe that they are the only ones up here, and God didn’t have the heart to disappoint them by letting them see the rest of us.”
Of course you can substitute whatever group of religious people you like into that joke and it still won’t be particularly funny but it does make an excellent point about how we religious people think. We think in terms of insiders and outsiders, with us on the inside and any number of others on the outside, and it’s .generally the community of the righteous that are identified as the insiders. The chosen people are those who don’t smoke, drink or chew or go with girls who do.
A lot of us were probably brought up to think that way, whether we were brought up Anglican, Catholic, Baptist or Islamic, it all works roughly the same way. The community of the righteous are those who don’t lie, steal or commit adultery, while liars, thieves and adulterers are excluded from the community.
Perhaps, for some, this is a vision of Heaven – a place where all the wholesome people go. If so, it’s not a Pentecost vision, is it?
Mind you, I think there is an even more sinister form of religious exclusivism running rampant in the church today. It’s not an attempt to build a community of the righteous, but rather to build a community of the theologically correct
Here again there is a clear boundary line drawn between insiders and outsiders, between the saved and the unsaved, between the true believers and those who are destined to eternal shame, and it’s not an ethical distinction between who is morally worthy and who is unworthy, but a distinction between who has their theology exactly right and who has failed the test of orthodoxy.
Of course this is not just a modern phenomenon. Indeed, if you look back at the ancient creeds of the church you will see that the church has regularly tried to draw the boundary line between the saved and the unsaved on the basis of their theological orthodoxy.
And again, perhaps for some this is a vision of Heaven – the fellowship of the theologically correct. And again, if it is, I say to you that it is not a particularly Pentecostal vision.
In truth, I don’t know what your vision of Heaven is, but I do know that the disciples of Jesus had to go through a process of expanding their vision.
For the disciples, in their original vision of Heaven it would have been a place entirely populated by Jews. They had to learn to expand their vision.
For a lot of religious people before and since our vision of Heaven has been of a community of righteous people. If that’s us, we need to expand that vision!
And if we are laden down with a vision of Heaven as the community of the theologically correct then we likewise need to expand that vision and replace it with that vision that comes to birth at Pentecost – a vision of a truly inclusive human community where nobody is excluded – not because of their race or language, not because of their poor theology, not because they are black or white or rich or poor or slave or free or gay or straight or male or female.
For the Kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of is a feast to which everybody is invited, and so the church of Jesus Christ that comes to birth at Pentecost in order to bear witness to that coming Kingdom is likewise a community that welcomes everybody without grilling them first about their beliefs or their culture or their gender or their sexual orientation or even their morality.
This is the vision of Pentecost, born in wind and fire. Oh how much easier it would be if God had appointed us to build a community of like-minded white people! How much easier it would be to work with a homogenous unit, where all the difficult people were excluded.
How much easier it would be if we could send away the mentally ill, the socially inept, and those with poor dress sense so that they could be part of some other community. What an attractive, hip and peaceful community we would have!
The only problem is that it would not be the church of Jesus Christ – born in the fiery wind of Pentecost, always chaotic, always full of surprises, always hard work, but a multi-racial, multi-faceted community that is always testifying to a reality much greater than itself, and is always doing so with joy.
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