Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
In the reading from Acts, we hear the beginning of the first Christian sermon. Not so long ago Peter had retreated to the safety of an upper room behind locked doors, his denial of Jesus still so fresh in his mind his heart would thud at the memory of it. Now he’s out on the street, among the throngs of pilgrims in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost. Where once his tongue had uttered his fear, his cowardice, his denial, now it bears witness.
His text is from the book of Joel, the prophecy that promises a time when the Spirit will be poured out on all flesh, so that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. It’s a revolutionary vision: old and young alike will see visions and dream dreams; men and women will prophesy; slaves will speak the word of God. The old order that enforced subjugation, that made women silent and slaves less than human, finds its foundations shaken by the outpouring of the Spirit.
For Peter is announcing that the time foretold by the prophet Joel has arrived. The Spirit is poured out on all flesh, beginning with the disciples gathered in prayer in the upper room who, by the gift of the Spirit, are made bold and eloquent witnesses to the crucified and risen Jesus.
And it’s Pentecost when this happens, the Jewish festival that commemorates the giving of the Law at Sinai, where the divine presence descends on the mountain in thunder and lightning and smoke, as God calls a people to be holy to him through keeping the Law. Here, in Jerusalem, is a new Pentecost: the divine presence descends on the disciples in wind and flame, as God calls a people to be holy to him through being drawn into the body of his Son.
As the book of Acts unfolds, we see the Spirit-filled disciples of Jesus acting as he did: they mix with the sort of disreputable people who occasion the scorn of the righteous; they lay their hands on the sick and find the healing power of Jesus is present through their touch; they preach and teach; they cast out demons and even raise the dead to life. What the book of Acts is describing is the ongoing presence of Jesus in the world through the Spirit’s leading of the disciples. After the Ascension, we are not dealing with an absent Saviour, shut up safely in the heavens, but with a Saviour who continues to be with us by going ahead of us, making of his disciples the place where his love and life is made visible.
And if Acts is the story of the Spirit being poured out on all flesh, it is also the story of the disciples’ struggles to keep up. Peter, who proclaims that Joel’s prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus, flip flops over whether the Gentiles should be included in the church and how much of the Jewish Law they should be required to keep. From the start, with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit comes a reaction that wants to contain and control it, to moderate its wildness and unpredictability.
For make no mistake, as Joel’s prophecy is fulfilled, the Holy Spirit rewrites everything people thought they knew about belonging and behaving. The Spirit is poured out first in Jerusalem, a city under Roman occupation, with Roman rules for ordering society. Here was an Empire that secured peace through the threat and use of violence; which required not only its people’s obedience but their worship. The Holy Spirit unsettles the imperial social order by claiming people as citizens of another kingdom, drawing them into a truer worship, reordering their lives and relationships by making them recognise and honour one another as humans made in the image of God, as brothers and sisters in Christ, across the divides of class and gender and age and status.
It’s no wonder the early Christians were called traitors. Their prior loyalty to God made them unreliable members of a society whose existence depended on maintaining the dividing walls the Spirit pulled down. The early martyrs testify to the ways that belonging to Christ reconfigured other sorts of belonging – to family and tribe and religion and nation and empire.
And this happened not because the Spirit is one of destruction, but because the Spirit is what draws us into relationship – with God and with each other. ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh’, God had said through Joel, revealing God’s desire, which is for his people to be in relationship with him. ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh’, says God, and that’s what God does, not discriminating because someone is too old or because they’re too young and inexperienced; not conforming to expectations of who should and who shouldn’t be allowed to speak based on their gender or status – indeed, making of those whose authority and very humanity was dismissed and denied the ones who would proclaim his gospel.
And as the Spirit was poured out it made people intelligible to each other: ‘each one heard them speaking in the native language of each’, says the book of Acts. Divisions based on nationality or ethnicity or language are overshadowed by the reconciling Spirit of God. As Paul writes in Romans, ‘all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God… When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.’
This is the disruptive good news of Pentecost: that through the gift of the Spirit we are made children of God. And if the Spirit works in each of us to call God ‘Abba’, Father, then the same Spirit works in each of us to call each other ‘brother, sister’, making of us a new humanity, made one in the person of Jesus Christ.
What Peter announced that Pentecost, as the Spirit propelled him out into the streets of the city, continues to be the good news announced to us. And as we hear that good news, receive it and live by it, we become witnesses in our turn, to a love and a life that transcend the borders we spend so long constructing and policing. In a world of isolationism and empires, the Holy Spirit of Pentecost summons us to deeper relationships, a deeper belonging. The Spirit opposes nativism, nationalism, and imperialism of every kind. Through our membership of the body of Christ, the Church, we are made one with people of every tribe and nation and language. The body of Christ is the polyglot witness to the reconciling love of God in the world, the place where we learn to recognise one another as gifts, as brothers and sisters, as beloved children of the same heavenly Father. Like the first disciples, often we are still rushing to keep up with the Spirit who always goes ahead of us. But like those first disciples, we will discover that as we follow the Spirit’s leading we are drawn more deeply into relationship with God and with each other. And as we learn to receive that gift, so in a world of mounting fear and suspicion and prejudice we become a gift – a place where reconciliation and friendship are made real; a place where the Spirit dwells and the life of Jesus is translated into our flesh.