The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2 is the classic text for Pentecost Sunday, and the text I began reflecting on this week as I started to prepare a sermon. As I read the text I was struck by the surprises in narrative…
- The surprising sound of blowing, violent wind, tongues of fire. (Acts 2:2)
- The various reactions of the gathered people, amazed and perplexed by what was happening around them, surprised that they could all hear what was being said in their own languages. (Acts 2:11-12)
- The surprising transformation of Peter from the impulsive, put his foot in it disciple who ran away, to preaching here with power and conviction. (Acts 2:14-36)
But this week I also noticed another surprise I hadn’t consciously noticed before, how God’s Spirit seems to transcend human divisions and labels in the narrative.
The Acts narrative highlights geographical differences…
- ‘Jews from every nation under heaven’ (Acts 2:5)
- ‘Are they not Galileans?’ (Acts 2:7)
- ‘Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs’ (Acts 2:9-11a)
The narrative also seems to highlight the distinction between Jesus followers gathered together, (Acts 2:1; this includes the disciples and others, see Acts 1:12-13), and the Jews and Jewish converts staying in Jerusalem (Acts 2:5 & 11).
As Peter begins his preaching he quotes from the Prophet Joel…
In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
Acts 2:17-18, from Joel 2:28-29. Emphasis added.
This scripture seems to highlight societal divisions of age, gender and class.
Yet God’s Spirit will be poured out on all people. The gathered crowd, no matter what their nationality, geographical origin or language, they could all understand what Jesus’ followers were saying.
Labels of age, gender, class, geography, language, nationality…descriptors that in many ways are still used to define us today, but can also divide us. There are many more labels in use in society today too…
- Employed or Unemployed…
- Teacher, accountant, shop assistant, nurse, farmer…
- Student, Apprentice…
- Child, teenager, Adult….
- Lesbian, Gay, Straight…
- single, celibate, married…
- Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist…
- Evangelical, Liberal, Fundamentalist…
- Tory, Labour, Green, UKIP, Lib Dem…
- Disabled, Depressed, mentally ill…
- Rich, poor…
To name but a few…a comprehensive list would seem almost endless…
Sometimes these labels are helpful. We use them to define ourselves, explain who we are, understand and communicate our identity. But I wonder how often we apply labels to other people in ways that are not helpful. Ways that reinforce stereotypes and personal prejudices, perhaps not even realising we are doing so.
Now I want to take that a step further…
How often does the Church apply labels to the work God’s Spirit is doing?
Do we limit our experience of God’s Spirit by our own assumptions or expectations?
In Acts 2 we seem to see a picture of God’s Spirit working outside of human labelling and division…
The Spirit, poured out on all people. (Acts 2:17)
No sub-clause – all people.
God’s Spirit is in and among all people.
Regardless of our expectations.
In the book of Numbers we read about a group of elders gathered together by Moses, who are physically overcome by the power of the Spirit. (See Numbers 11: 24-30) Two elders, Eldad and Medad, were not gathered with the others but were in the camp and they too were overcome at that moment. Joshua runs to Moses and says ‘my lord, stop them!’ (Num 11:28).
Moses seems to call Joshua out quite directly…
‘Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!’ (Num 11:29)
Reading of Joshua’s reaction reminds us that we are human, that we respond and react as human beings, that we need to be aware of our human response to the work of God’s Spirit.
This poses us with a great challenge.
What is our response to God’s Spirit?
When God’s Spirit is at work, do we recognise that and celebrate it with joy, wanting to see more?
Or do we respond with jealousy, rejection, ignorance, finding other explanations, asking if people are drunk as the crowd did. (Acts 2:13)
God’s Spirit is most certainly at work all around us.
Working outside of the barriers and boundaries, divisions and human labels that exist in society.
God’s Spirit challenges us to live in a way that celebrates and embraces all God’s Spirit is doing.
In the last 24 hours the attack in London has highlighted division in society. In the coming days as the country goes to the polls, differences in opinions, views and convictions are highlighted and can very easily become divisive.
Yet God’s Spirit is working to draw us together when others seem to be seeking to divide us and violate life. Whether we have casted our vote by post already, or not yet decided how to vote, we all hold various views and come to various conclusions, based on a variety of rationale. Whatever the result we wake up to on Friday morning (or wait up for on Thursday night!), we must guard against the result leading to further division.
As happened on that Pentecost when God’s Spirit came down like tongues of fire, we are challenged to overcome the divisiveness and prejudices of human labels – to encounter the Spirit of God, living and active, uniting us and reconciling us to God.
2 thoughts on “A message for Pentecost 2017”
Encouraging and challenging! Well done Dan.
Thank you Dan