31 May – A tongue rested on each of them
Last week in Sunday School (which is still – for the time being – meeting on Zoom at 5pm) we were learning about today’s reading from Acts, about the coming of the Holy Spirit to the first group of Christian believers, and one of our crafts was making ‘crowns of flames’ which are traditionally worn on Pentecost Sunday and – interesting piece of trivia – are why bishops wear hats like these (picture below) called mitres. Mitres are adaptations of a ‘crown of flames’!
So I have invited the children of the church to show us their ‘crowns of flames’, but also in keeping with verse 17 of Acts 2, “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…your young men [and your young women!] shall see visions…” to tell us what kind of a world they think God wants…to share with us their vision for God’s world!
I love this passage – its wonderful description of the wind or breath or Spirit – the words are closely linked in Greek – coming on the church – in one long sentence in the original language – the kind of sentence my English teacher was forever telling me not to write, “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting, and divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them, and all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability!”
Whew! Take a breath! Or rather – receive a breath – the breath of God!
And I also love the inclusion of the words of the prophet Joel in this passage to try and express what the inbreathing of the Spirit of God began to manifest in mission and transformation in the early church…the pouring out of God’s Spirit on all people, irrespective of nationality, irrespective of gender, irrespective of age. When I was a young woman considering entering ministry, I found this phrase, ‘your daughters shall prophesy’ life-changing! I am deeply saddened that parts of the church still refuse to – or seem unable to – recognise direction or spiritual nourishment unless it comes from a man.
Because the point of Pentecost, the point this passage, is not that the early church, that nice sized group of 120 believers (120 is a good size for a church isn’t it?) could get together and celebrate the church’s birthday, that they could mark another milestone, their first year and their subsequent years of being the church – that is not why tongues of fire come to sit on each of them. The point of Pentecost – the point of the tongues of fire – was to set them on fire; to send them out empowered to be different people, to preach to different people, to love different people and to create a different church, to remake with God a different world.
The breath of God comes – so the breadth of God can be revealed.
This breadth is very evident in that listing of countries of origin in verses 9 to 11 (one of those Bible readings designed to test the Bible reader!) but there is another layer to this story of the tongues of fire resting on each of them and enabling them to speak in other languages – to sound like – to be able to communicate fluently – like they were native speakers of those languages.
Before Pentecost was a Christian festival, it was a Jewish one, celebrating harvest and the coming of the law on Mount Sinai, and according to legend when the law was received, a flame came down from heaven and divided into 70 tongues of fire, one for each nation of the world. All nations were enabled to understand the Law, but only one nation promised to keep it, Israel.
The writer of Luke-Acts makes frequent use of numbers including another symbolic reference to 70 (which comes originally from the ‘table of nations’, the descendants of Noah in Genesis 10 and 11) in Luke 10 where Jesus sends out the 70 in mission. In other words, signifying that the mission of Jesus is a mission to the whole world! And here, in this listing of Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, etc.… we have an updated version of the table of nations. The mission of God continues to be a mission to the whole world.
But what the writer of Luke-Acts is also doing is shaking the foundations of their foundational myth – that the tongues of fire confirmed the faithfulness of only one nation. This way of thinking is swept away by this mighty wind of the Spirit, by tongues enabling them to speak like natives of every nation under heaven, by the Spirit being poured out on all flesh.
The people I grew up among, the Dani of West Papua, held a reverse kind of myth. They believed that there was a race between a bird and snake at the beginning of time and the snake won and therefore was given the gift of eternal life, the capacity to shed its skin, whereas the bird was doomed to die. They were, the myth said, descendants of the bird, and when pale skinned Westerners arrived, they were taken for descendants of the snake. But the message they brought was that these foundation myths had been swept away by the Spirit of God, that everyone – anyone – who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
The breath of God comes – so the breadth of God can be revealed.
And it is the same, the prophet Joel says, with men and women and with young and old. The myths that we might have held that children are of lesser value, that they cannot speak the words of God to us, are swept away. The myths that we might have held that older people are of lesser value, that they cannot speak the words of God to us, are swept away. The myth that women are somehow less able to speak the words of God are swept away. The breath of God comes so that the breadth of God can be revealed.
There are two things I want to say further about this empowering and transforming wind of the Spirit that is still blowing through this church and churches around the world.
Firstly, this is not diversity for diversity’s sake. This is diversity which reveals to us the breadth and the beauty of God. It reveals to us the wideness of God’s mercy. It is the glory of God. It is for the glory of God.
Secondly, the wonderful fact is that within the incredible breadth of God’s love, we are all located. Whatever language we speak or nationality we hold – God pours God’s Spirit out on us. Whatever foundational myths we had in the past – those that set us apart or put us down – God pours God’s Spirit out on us. Whatever age we are – God pours God’s Spirit out on us. Whatever our gender – God pours God’s Spirit out on us.
So, we may see visions of God’s world. So, we may dream dreams. So, we may prophesy. So, we may call on the salvation of God – the healing and making whole of our lives and our world.
I started this sermon with our children – our sons and our daughters sharing their visions – and so, I am going to close by sharing the dreams of our older men and women.
Margaret Gray – In my dreams for the future I would look to the words, “Love your neighbour as yourself,” and a better interpretation, to ‘rather seek to understand than to be understood’.
Les Stein – I dream of a world where people see what needs doing and are prepared to do something – whether that’s something big or something small – about it.
Val Spear – I picture a world where all people are free and equally valued; where all people treat others the way they would like to be treated themselves.
Richard Bauer – My dreams for God’s world are for mankind to be at peace, to accept effective climate change controls, of prosperity and acceptance of God’s love by all.
Gladys Bergersen – I often dream of a world where all men [and women] are equal, or to explain more clearly, a world where people in countries like India, Bangladesh, Sudan and many more enjoy the wonderful lifestyle that we here in Australia take for granted, where a warm comfortable bed to sleep in at night is everyone’s right, where healthy food is on the table every day and where basic hygiene facilities are an accepted way of life for all. And of a time when all people throughout the whole world have been given the opportunity of hearing of a God who loves them and cares for them.