In ‘A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ – a very useful book to have read if you happen to find yourself unexpectedly kidnapped by aliens just in the nick of time when the Earth is just about to be demolished by a Vogon Destructor fleet in order to make way for an intergalactic hyper-expressway – it’s also a very funny movie – anyway in ‘A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ the Earthling, Arthur Dent, naturally can’t understand a word anyone is saying to him even after he gets over the initial shock of finding himself on a spaceship surrounded by large and spectacularly ugly Vogons – until a fellow intergalactic hitchhiker hands him a Babel fish. Named, of course, after the
The Babel fish is one of those clever ideas that catches on in popular culture – on the Internet, for example, you can go to the search engine, Alta Vista, where you’ll find a thing called Babel fish translation – you just type in a phrase of English and select what language you want it to be translated into – for example when I typed in ‘what are these babbling Galileans on about’, and translated it into German and then back again into English to get ‘just what are these mad Galileans on?’ Which, actually, is more or less what everyone was thinking at the time, even if they didn’t say so.
You see, Luke also, in our story today from The Acts of the Apostles, comes up with the clever idea of reversing the basic idea of that much older story in the Old Testament about the
My teacher thinks Luke might be using another very old story associated with the Jewish harvest festival of Pentecost – falling fifty days after Passover this was one of the great pilgrimage festivals that gathered together Jews from all over the known world, the still-scattered remnants whose ancestors had gone into exile and never come back – people by now who spoke mutually incomprehensible languages who were at home in foreign lands and cultures but who still knew themselves to be the people of God’s promise. Pentecost had become one of the great annual festivals to celebrate the coming of the Law on Mt Sinai – where, according to one legends a flame came down from heaven and divided into 70 tongues of fire – one for each of the nations of the earth – everyone could understand what God was promising and what God required, but only Israel promised to keep the Law. So Luke, the great story-teller, has got a lot of material to work with and he weaves it together to tell the story of how, in the promise of God made real in the crucified and risen Jesus, communication is being restored. The nations of the world are being gathered in again like a great harvest – the Spirit comes as wind – a play on the Hebrew word for God’s Spirit, ruach – just like the Greek word, pneuma - that also means wind, or breath. And the Spirit also comes in tongues of fire!
Like Douglas Adams, Luke uses a bit of humour. He makes it sound a bit like the phenomenon of talking in tongues, what anthropologists call glossolalia, the symptom of religious excitement that worries St Paul so much about the Church in Corinth because of the all-too human tendency to get carried away, to mistake the unusual effects of our own excitement for the presence and the work of the Holy Spirit. Calm down,
For all Luke’s poetic licence, it’s clear something remarkable happened that first Pentecost. An excited crowd of Jews from different language groups and cultures witnessed some sort of phenomenon that transformed these witless Galilean country bumpkins - who just weeks earlier had been scattered and scared – into fearless and compelling witnesses of God’s new deal for human beings. Luke, no doubt, makes a good movie out of it, which is more or less what we do ourselves, when we dress up in red and put big vases of poinsettias behind the altar. Pentecost is a day for theatre, for celebrating the truth of the miracle even if we’re a bit hazy on the details.
So what’s the good news in this story for us, in 2006? I really think there is good news here, and it’s summed up in one of Jesus’ favourite sayings that also gets repeated at various points in ‘A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ - whenever Arthur Dent gets himself all anxious and worked up about the strangeness and unpredictability of the galaxy he turns over to the next page of the strange little book that his fellow hitchhiker has given him and reads: ‘DON’T WORRY!’.
Or, as Jesus generally puts it: ‘Don’t be afraid’.
Pentecost, the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit, marks a turning point in the life of the early Church, and it also marks a turning point in our own lives that, very appropriately, we reflect on at the end of the season of Easter. Pentecost marks the turning point for disciples who have been pretty much OK about being called and nurtured, who are pretty much OK about following Jesus and being impressed – but who are a bit iffy about being gifted and commissioned and sent. Pentecost is the feast of the Church that understands itself as the body of Christ – the body of women and men who speak Christ’s words and who live Christ’s risen life - not just because that makes us feel good or because it guarantees us a spot in heaven, but because we are faithful to our Lord’s commandment – ‘make disciples of all the nations and baptise them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit’. Pentecost is the feast of Christian maturity, a feast of the turning point for Christians who recognise that the Spirit of the risen Christ is a gift that doesn’t just redeem them personally but also challenges them to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ wherever they go. Pentecost is for Christians who know Jesus calls them to be in mission to a hurting and fragmented world - but are a bit iffy on how to go about it.
As you fly around this amazing and rather scary galaxy – or even just around
In a moment Rhys and Bree are going to be baptised, which is going to make them – just for a moment – the very newest members of God’s family. After they’ve been baptised we’re going to give them a job to do – in the words of the liturgy we’re going to say to them, ‘shine as a light in the world’. That’s the job, nothing more, nothing less, if you want to live out of the centre of God’s love. Just shine so that the whole world can see your light. The Holy Spirit is God’s promise that you will.