Acts 2: 1-21, 1 Corinthians 12: 3-13, John 20: 19-23
We have waited a long time for this day. We started back in December, on Advent Sunday, when the great season of waiting begins with a church empty of decoration and a stripped-back liturgy. The promise of God to humanity then grows as the seasons roll from one to the other: first a son is born, then he is baptised and presented to the world as Messiah, only for him to take us into the wilderness for 40 days of self-denial and self-examination. Then come suffering, betrayal, rejection and death on a cross, and burial in a stranger’s tomb. We have celebrated his resurrection, we have wondered at his Ascension and now we come to the fulfilment of yet another promise – the gift of the Holy Spirit. However, just like all the other fulfilments, this one is more than a little strange.
At the top of your liturgy today is a modern Russian icon for Pentecost. It shows in stylized form 10 of the disciples, heads surrounded with haloes, each one holding a flame within it. Four of these saints are holding books – who might they be? One is holding a scroll – who is he? They look this way and that, amazed at what they are experiencing and seeing on each other. Is this how you envisaged the event, as it was read to us this morning? The “violent wind” is a little difficult to portray in such a static representation, maybe, and the interior of the room is very Russian Orthodox in character, but the purpose of an icon is not for us to look at its surface but to pass through the depiction of saints receiving the Holy Spirit to the very presence of God himself. It is like George Herbert’s idea of glass – we can simply look at the piece of glass in the window frame, or look through it “and then the heav’n espy.” Look again at the icon. It is full of human emotion, despite the very still faces and vague gestures, but the radiating lines on the floor and the walls of the room lead us upwards, between the gathered saints, to God. Our eyes are carried up and through the drapery beyond the stage to the reality of the divine.
Pentecost not only leads us upwards to God, though: it is designed to lead us outwards, to the rest of the world. Those who did the readings this morning did a magnificent job with reading all the places from which the crowd in Jerusalem had gathered, so I thought it would be a good idea to find out where they are. I don’t know if you like early evening game shows on TV, but Richard Osman’s House of Games on BBC2 has a round called, “Where’s Kazakhstan?”, during which contestants have to identify towns or venues on a blank map. So here is a map of the Mediterranean world at the time of Pentecost. I have therefore renamed this, “Where’s Cappadocia?”. The green sections at the top represent the barbarian hordes. The red sections are the Roman Empire, the pink are client kingdoms of Rome, and the yellow area is the Parthian Empire, but important, because the Jewish Diaspora, which is fully represented in Luke’s account of Pentecost, goes as far as ancient Babylon – many families stayed there, and are still there, after the Babylonian Exile in the 7th Century BC.
Where did all these people come from? Answer, just about every corner of the Roman world. You can see from the map that from Rome in the west to the land of Elam in the east, from Pontus by the Black Sea to Libya and Egypt in the south, faithful Jews had travelled to fill the Temple on this particular festival – fifty days after Passover, and the first of the barley harvest celebrations. Remember, these are Jews who live outside Israel, in Jerusalem for worship. The disciples making a cacophonous racket, first thing in the morning, would have drawn the crowd, and Peter’s words to them about the Messiah and the gift of the Holy Spirit would have struck a chord with all those who longed for the Messiah’s coming.
I want us now to look at a different sort of picture: Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The half-finished skyscraper as imagined by Bruegel comes from the story in Genesis 11, when the people on earth rebelled against God and built a tower to reach up to heaven to take God down and replace him with themselves. God confounds their plans, and scatters them across the globe, confusing their languages, so that they could no longer understand each other when they meet. A fine mythological account of diversity of speech, you would rightly say, but why bring it up here?
Because Luke wants us to make that connection. Here in Jerusalem are people from all round the world, who all speak different languages, suddenly able to understand one person who is speaking to them in the power of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost has started the process of healing Babel. Our scattered peoples are being brought back together into one people, the people of God, by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Just as Christ’s 12 apostles will rebuild the Israel of God as a people who do not need a temple in Jerusalem but can worship him anywhere, so the Holy Spirit will use those 12 apostles to re-unite in one voice the peoples of the world in the worship of God and the service of others. For Luke, the Church is the new creation, the redemption of Adam, the recreation of the Garden of Eden. And just as the Spirit was present at the creation of the world (Genesis 1:1), so the Holy Spirit is present as that process of re-unification gets under way on the day of Pentecost.
We are scattered through Kew and elsewhere because of a deadly virus, shut up in our homes, locked out of our churches. Yet we are brought together as we worship, our language is united as the Spirit pours through us, our prayers are united as we share our common desires and concerns for those we love and for all God’s world.
To mark that unity, and that challenge to take that unity of love and care out from ourselves and into the world to heal it and recreate it, we will finish with a mass candle lighting session. I hope you have candles and matches, as we will shine out with the light of Christ, and dare to take it out into a frightening and as yet unknown world. We, God’s united people, will have to help rebuild it after lockdown. We, God’s united people, will be those who will call for the grace, mercy and generosity that have been demonstrated at local level so powerfully through this lockdown, to be made permanent in government social policy, health policy, housing policy, transport policy, employment policy, tax policy – you name it, what we have engineered and prayed for through this time of lockdown has to be made a permanent feature of our reconstructed society, and the Holy Spirit will lead us in that effort. We are not alone, we are united in God, through the Holy Spirit who binds us to him for ever. Alleluia!
Amen Rev Peter Hart
Cover image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay