The Vicar writes...
On Sunday 9th June we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, often referred to as ‘Whitsunday’. It commemorates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the apostles gathered at Jerusalem.
Pentecost is the Greek name for the Jewish festival of Shavout [the feast of Weeks]. It was held five weeks after the Passover and celebrated the gathering in of the first harvest of the year and the covenant God had made with Noah and ‘all flesh that is upon the earth.’
The opening words of the Book of Acts tell us about the ascension of the risen Lord into heaven and his promise to be with us to the close of the age. We read of how the first Christians were an expectant community, waiting on Jesus’ promise to send the ‘Comforter, the Holy Spirit on them.
As they waited for the promised power from on high they must have felt anxious about the work that lay ahead of them. Jesus had given them the great commission to ‘go out into the world and make disciples of all nations’. They had been through so much over the three years they had followed him. They had listened to his revolutionary teaching about the kingdom of God and had seen many miraculous events. But the experience of Holy Week and Easter had revealed their own weaknesses. Then, on the day of Pentecost, their fears were blown away by a hurricane force wind. We read of how the Holy Spirit came upon them as tongues of fire. They were filled with renewed faith, new courage and new purpose. The sound of the storm and the sight of the flames were the outward signs of God’s action in their hearts.
Filled with the Holy Spirit they went out and, to their own and everyone else’s amazement, were able to communicate the good news of Jesus in a way that broke down the human barriers of language, creed and nationality. Jerusalem was filled with Pentecost pilgrims from all over the world. Those who heard the disciples proclaimed, ‘We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’ Pentecost celebrates how the Christian good news is truly universal and reverses the Biblical story of Babel. It is love in any language.
The ancient story of the tower of Babel is probably older than Judaism itself. It’s found in the Book of Genesis and records how the descendents of Noah became a populous people who were united by a common language. But they had become arrogant and set out to build a tower that would bridge the gap between earth and heaven. When God saw that they sought to become gods he rained down confusion on the people so that they no longer spoke the same language and scattered them over the face of the earth. The word ‘Babel’ is synonymous with division and conflict.
We have seen the consequence of Babel in human history; in the tyranny of ancient Rome, the barbarism of the crusades, the evil of the Nazi regime and in the scourge of recent terrorism. Despite our scientific and technological advances humankind can be as divided as it was at Babel.
This is very much the case in the UK at the moment. Following the 2016 EU referendum our nation is now split down the middle on the issue of Brexit. There is disagreement between friends, within families, communities, the workplace, and even in Churches. However Brexit is resolved most of us would agree that it has been a hugely divisive issue. Some argue that it could even lead to the breaking up of our centuries old union of nations. The departure of our prime minister and the huge losses by the mainstream political parties in last month’s elections reveal a very real anger with the political elite.
Into humankind’s Babel sweeps Pentecost. It reminds us that there is an alternative to division – Christ’s way of reconciling and sacrificial love, a way made victorious by the victory of Easter’s empty tomb. The apostles gathered in Jerusalem knew its power and they went out to transfigure the world of their day. As God’s expectant people we too can know its power and speak love in any language, the message of reconciliation and sacrificial love.
One of my favourite Pentecost hymns ends with this verse,
Teach us, good Lord, to serve the needs of others,
help us to give and not to count the cost.
Unite us all, as sisters and as brothers
defeat our Babel with your Pentecost.