By Joey Royal
I want to begin with the words of Psalm 127, which says: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”
That’s a good principle for our individual spiritual lives, and it’s a good principle for the Church as well. And the principle is simply this: We need God to act in our lives, because if God doesn’t act in our lives then all we’re left with is our own efforts. And our own efforts are important and often good, but they’re simply not enough. Our natural capacities, bent as they are by sin, can only go so far. What we need is the supernatural work of God’s grace to heal us and raise us up to love God and love others with Christian charity.
I raise that because today is the feast of Pentecost, which is often called the birthday of the Church. And at Pentecost we’re taught very clearly that the Church is utterly dependent on God’s action. You see, not only is the Church God’s idea, but it’s also God’s work through and through. Of course, Christians are active in the church (we do things), but without the work of the Holy Spirit, the Church is like a body without a soul, or like a balloon without air.
Now, a quick word about the word Pentecost. It comes from a Greek word that means “50th,” which refers to the fact that today is 50 days after Easter (not counting Sundays). And what happens on Pentecost is God brings the Easter drama to completion by leaving us with his explosive, life-giving presence. Which means that the Lord is indeed building the Church, so that all we who labor are not laboring in vain.
So this morning I want to look at that great story from Acts chapter 2.
The text opens shortly after Jesus has ascended to the Father. On Good Friday, Jesus died; on Easter, he rose from the dead; and then on Ascension Day he returns to the Father, which leaves the disciples with a huge void. They no longer have Jesus with them bodily; he is absent. But as we’ll see, that absence doesn’t last long.
Now I don’t think the disciples had any idea what was going to happen next. They had seen some amazing things, but nothing could really prepare them for this. So they’re in Jerusalem, and they’re gathered together in one place. And then suddenly, without warning, they hear what sounds like a violent, rushing wind. And this violent sound fills the whole room, and then they see fire. And the fire divides up into little fires, which come down and rest on each of their heads. And we’re told that this fire represents the Holy Spirit — the unpredictable, explosive power of God has come on them.
And immediately the disciples begin to “speak in tongues,” which means they speak in other languages, languages that they don’t know how to speak. And it was the Holy Spirit giving them power to do that.
You see, in those days (as now) Jerusalem was a very multicultural place. There were lots of people groups there, and they all spoke different languages. And so drawn by the commotion, a diverse crowd of people begins to gather around the disciples. And as the disciples are speaking, all are able to understand in their own language.
Now, believe it or not, I’ve had several people I know and trust tell me that something like this has happened to them. In each case, they were with a group of people who spoke a different language, and they were praying together, and then this person began to speak and the other people understood them in Cree or Inuktitut. And up to that point they didn’t speak Cree or Inuktitut. So it’s important to remember that the same Holy Spirit who brought about the first miracle on Pentecost is still with us and able to work miracles again.
So how did the people listening respond to this? In different ways. Some people sneered, and said “they are filled with new wine.” That’s another way of saying the disciples have gotten into the sauce. They’re drunk and babbling incoherently.
But others and genuinely intrigued by this, and so they ask a very important and very central question: “What does this mean?”
Yes, a good question. What does this mean? All this drama — wind, fire, and then the supernatural ability to speak other languages — what does this all amount to? That’s always a good question to ask when you read about miracles in the Bible, because miracles are always signs that point to something else.
Well, as it happens, the apostle Peter answers that question for us. Now that everyone is able to understand, Peter takes the opportunity to talk to them about the Gospel, the good news about Jesus. He takes them through God’s purposes throughout history, climaxing in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And at the climax of the sermon, Peter says this:
God raised up Jesus, and all of us are witnesses of that. You see, Jesus is now exalted at God’s right hand. And not only that, but now we’ve all received God’s Holy Spirit, just like he promised. And God has done this — poured out his Spirit — so that you can both see and hear.”
So what’s the point of all this? This has happened, says Peter, so that you may see and hear. Seeing and hearing are both senses — they are two of the strongest ways that we perceive what’s around us. So with Pentecost God is showing us something dramatic so that we will perceive and understand what he is doing.
Let’s take hearing, for example. God wants you to hear him. To hear him say what? I think God wants you to hear him say that he loves you, that he has plans for you to thrive and flourish, that he wants to gather you into a family with his other children (that’s what the Church is), and through that Church family to extend his love to more and more people.
And — don’t miss this — in order to show people that good news, God will overcome any barriers we put in his way. The obvious barrier in this story is language and culture. Language and culture has often been a force of division in the world, and yet here God overcomes that barrier with no difficulty at all. And that has continued: the Church today is made up of all language groups and all nations. Think even of the cultures and languages represented in this church — English, Inuktitut, Gwitchin, German, Afrikaans, Shona, Taiwanese, Chinese, Cree, Tlicho — and those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head, there are probably more.
You see, the Holy Spirit invented the idea of a multicultural society. It’s called the Church. And it’s a diverse body of people who are very different, and yet who are called by God into the common worship of the God of Jesus Christ.
But that’s not the only barrier the Holy Spirit overcomes. There is also a spiritual barrier, which goes under the broad canopy of sin. The Bible talks about sin in a variety of ways using different images. Sometimes it talks about “hardness of heart” (which is the unwillingness to let yourself be loved), or “spiritual blindness” (the inability to see the beauty of Christ), or distance or alienation from God (which speaks of a relationship which is damaged).
Whatever images we use to speak of sin, the fact is we’re talking about our self-willed destruction. This is the dark side of human nature; in our fallen state we are like drug addicts who can’t stop using, even if it means we destroy ourselves.
But, friends, God has better things in mind for us. God wants us to flourish in friendship with him, and so he sends his Holy Spirit to gather us together. And when the Holy Spirit gathers us, he also brings us to the same place: to the foot of the cross.
Because of the cross is the place where our brokenness meets God’s healing grace. The cross is where God poured out his life so that we could be made whole. So the call this morning is come and meet him in the Eucharist. The Spirit will bring you to the cross, and the Spirit will bring the presence of Christ to you once again. Bring your wounds to the one who was wounded for your transgressions, and be healed.
The Rt. Rev. Joseph (Joey) Royal is suffragan bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada’s Diocese of the Arctic.