Saturday, June 11, 2011


One of my bug-bears is special effects.  In movies, I mean.  Because I think we have got so used to whizz-bang special effects, we’ve come to expect them so much and look forward to the next movie that promises special effects that are so amazing, so sensational and improbable that we’ve started to let Hollywood get away with dishing us up movies that don’t even have a proper story.  Reviewers seem to spend more time discussing the technical wizardry of a movie’s special effects than what it means or what it might be saying about modern life.  We’ve fallen for the lie that amazing car chases and explosions and animated monsters are what makes a movie special, not a strong story line and psychological tension and good acting.  Of course there’s no going back – I remember a couple of years ago trying to watch the old Charlton Heston version of Moses leading the people of Israel through the Red Sea – towering walls of water on either side and the people hurrying across the sea bed with fearful looks over their shoulders at the Egyptian chariots back on the beach – only trouble was you could actually see the line where the two strips of celluloid were glued together.  We’ve got too sophisticated to be taken in by the tricks of yesteryear.

Pentecost – Luke’s flashy lights and mirrors version of it at any rate – is big on special effects.  And, like Cecil B. de Mille, the special effects are looking a bit clunky by today’s standards.  Hollywood could do it way better.  And like special effects in movieland, these ones can get in the way of paying attention to the story.  You might have even been to a church service at Pentecost where they had red balloons or strips of crepe paper hanging from the ceiling, you might have even seen a flame font which I’m assured you can make quite easily out of naphthalene and rubbing alcohol, and no doubt you’ve been to Pentecost services where people got up and prayed or read the Bible in their own languages and even though most of the rest of us didn’t understand what the words meant we got the point.  But if we go home with our heads full of images like this and tut-tutting because the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to make a grand entrance like that any more – if all we really notice about Pentecost is the special effects then we’ve way missed the point.

So we start back at the beginning and ask ourselves what it means. 

Pentecost, as the name suggests, has got something to do with the number five – and in fact it is fifty days after – not Easter, because it isn’t a Christian festival, it’s a Jewish one – fifty days after the festival of Passover.  Where Passover is the celebration and remembering of God’s saving action in bringing the people out of slavery in Egypt, after the Charlton Heston moment, they come to Mt Sinai where Moses receives the Ten Commandments.  That’s what Pentecost celebrates, or to give it its proper Jewish name, Shavuot, the celebration of the gift of the Law.  So our Christian festival of Pentecost has got this foundation, which is the Jewish story of the liberation of God’s people – the gift of freedom, and the gift of the Law which is freedom to really live.

And the two are connected, because having been freed from slavery in Egypt, the next question is: well, now what?  Now we are free, what are we going to do?  How are we going to live?  And the Ten Commandments answer that question by giving clear, concrete descriptions of how to live as God intends: with joy and justice, service and contentment, duty and delight. At Passover we gain our freedom to live, at Shavuot we gain the knowledge of how to live well.

And the number fifty doesn’t just come from nowhere, it contains a message.  The Book of the Law takes the Sabbath observance of the fourth Commandment and drives it further – every seventh year would be a year of Sabbath rest for the land, which was to be allowed to lie fallow and rest, and after a Sabbath of Sabbath years – that is after seven times seven, the fiftieth year would be a year of Jubilee - the forgiveness of all debts; the return of all land to the original holders; and release of those who had sold themselves into slavery for the payment of debts. [1] The memory of this Jubilee Year echoes in the Jewish festival of Pentecost.

So Luke’s story of the Pentecost miracle builds on exactly the same themes.  We begin with freedom from slavery; we come to learning how to live in freedom and right relations with each other and with all creation.  Fifty days ago, in the Passover of our Lord from death to life, we were set free from slavery to false and limiting self-images, from slavery to oppressive and unjust images of one another.  Our Christian Passover celebrates that release from slavery, but we forget it too quickly – already we have forgotten the light of Easter and like the disciples fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, we meander and fall back into old patterns of self-pity and self-indulgence.  Pentecost is the celebration of the gift of the template for how to live, the Torah which the Jewish people understand as the Wisdom of God, the Holy Spirit that not only animates us, but teaches and inspires us to live the way of freedom into which we have been given entry.

But we are not just flapping canvas sails waiting listlessly for the puff of wind that is the Holy Spirit to start pushing us along.  The image in St Luke’s account of the fire of Pentecost is not about passively waiting for God’s next good thing, but about animating us to accept the vocation of being the next good thing ourselves.  In St John’s Gospel, Jesus refers to the helper, the Spirit of truth, in other words the Spirit that challenges us and prepares us to recognise and live into the truth about ourselves.  And we get some hints in the story, in what happens to the Christian community when the Spirit goes to work among them.

For a start, the visual image Luke uses is of tongues of fire, accompanied by a sound like wind.  We don’t need to take the metaphor literally to understand that we ourselves use language like this, for example when we talk about somebody who is energetic and motivated having fire in their belly, somebody who is lazy needing to have a fire lit underneath them.  This is get moving language.  Churches who are on fire for the Gospel, churches who live their vocation of proclaiming the good news they believe in, are filled with people who are passionate about what they believe and who want to share it with others because the only way the fire is going to rest on us is if we provide it with fuel and oxygen, if we fan it into life and keep it moving.  The Holy Spirit rests on us if we are prepared to live like people who are on fire.

Secondly, the languages thing.  It’s not quite the same as glossolalia, people apparently talking in languages that nobody understands.  The miracle of Pentecost is exactly the opposite, the miracle of people making sense.  People hearing themselves addressed in their own tongue, in the language they learned at their mothers’ knee – the miracle not of incomprehensibility but of comprehensibility.  And there are two implications here – the first is that the Church on which the Holy Spirit rests makes sense.  That we learn to how to speak into the lives of men and women in a way that they recognise as true and coherent, that we learn, in other words, how to talk about the truth of the gospel in a way that is actually relevant to the lives of people around us.  We learn how to translate, if you like, the truth we have discovered in the Gospel so that it makes sense to people who come here desperate to hear it.

And the second implication?  Is that everybody’s voice is heard.  As Peter says in the reading from Acts, quoting the prophet Joel, your teenagers will see visions and your old age pensioners will dream dreams, even the outcasts, the unimportant and the excluded ones amongst you will prophesy.  In a Church filled with the Holy Spirit, young people and old people, rich people and poor people, unimportant and disabled people, clever people and unintelligent people are heard because it is understood that God speaks through them.  And that by listening to one another we learn how to be God’s people.

And there is one more thing, something we didn’t hear in the reading from Acts because the lectionary writers cut it short but the very next thing that happens in the story – which is that people listened to the Gospel that the Spirit-filled apostles were preaching, and their lives were changed.  And it says, verse 42 onwards, "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts”.

Funny thing is, when people talk about reading the Bible literally, verses like this one aren’t the ones they generally quote.  Even though Jesus says it too, “if you want to be perfect, go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven – and then come, follow me”. [2]

And we make excuses, we say, well, they were simpler times.  They didn’t have inflation, back then.  They didn’t have .... well actually, they didn’t have a whole lot of things we take for granted.  But the point is, that a Church that is filled with the Holy Spirit is a Church filled with the Spirit of generosity.  A Spirit-filled Church is a Church full of people who find joy in giving because they understand that the blessings of the Holy Spirit are only blessings if they are shared.  If we understand the Holy Spirit to be about joy and exuberance and talking in different languages but fail to recognise that it is about what we do with our money and our time and our energy – then we sadly miss the point.

We might not want to be in a Spirit-filled Church.  Nobody forces us to be, whether or not we accept the gift of the Holy Spirit is totally up to us.  Most of the seven churches described in the first three chapters of the Revelation of St John were anything but Spirit-filled.  A lot of the time the Church seems to be about affirming the status quo, rather than about transformation.  We can choose to be like that.

Or we can pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit, we can talk about what it might do among us here, in Cannington, we can learn to recognise the tell-tale signs of its presence – and we can take the risk of allowing it to transform our lives together.

I tell you what, it beats red balloons.


[1] Leviticus 25.8ff

[2] Mtt 19.21