Pentecost is coming in two weeks’ time. The name ‘Pentecost’ comes from the Greek word meaning fifty; the Day of Pentecost comes on the fiftieth day after Easter. It’s the end of the Easter Season and the climax of Eastertide—God raised Jesus from the dead and then sent the Spirit of the Risen Christ upon all believers.
Pentecost is a big day; we often call it ‘the birthday of the Church’. We’ll hear the story then, and we know it well already: the believers are gathered together, the Spirit comes upon them as wind and fire, and they speak in other languages. And some lucky reader gets to say delicious words like Phrygia and Pamphylia.
The Pentecost story shows how much we—the Church of Jesus Christ—depend upon the Spirit as we go out into the world on God’s mission. It also shows that the Spirit continues to grow more and more of the risen life of Jesus Christ within his people and among us.
I’ve mentioned an author called John V Taylor several times. In a book first published in 1972 called The Go-Between God, Bishop Taylor spoke of the Spirit and the Mission. He said:
The chief actor in the historic mission of the Christian church is the Holy Spirit. [The Spirit] is the director of the whole enterprise. The mission consists of the things that [the Spirit] is doing in the world.
The mission of God consists of the things the Spirit is doing in the world—especially the light that the Spirit is focussing on the risen Lord Jesus. The Spirit of Jesus leads, we follow. The Spirit raises us to renewed life with Jesus.
But the people of God don’t always welcome the way the Holy Spirit works. In fact, the Spirit caught the Church off-guard right back in the time of the Book of Acts. The Spirit was raising all sorts of people to new life. The Holy Spirit was intent on tearing barriers down, pulling down walls of separation, bringing people together as one in the name of the Risen Lord.
We can see this in that well-known story of the first Pentecost. When they heard the apostles speaking in other languages (Acts 2.6-7) they were ‘amazed and astonished’ and asked,
Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?
One of the greatest barriers between people is language. When human beings form groups, we tend to keep our barriers up. The Holy Spirit tears barriers down. When the Holy Spirit does that, it tends to disturb us. The wind of the Spirit isn’t always a gentle breeze. The Spirit’s new wine often bursts our wineskins.
It shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus was continually tearing barriers down between those who were ‘clean’ and those who were ‘unclean’, between the devout and the sinner, between male and female, even between Jew and Gentile. So the Spirit of Jesus carries the barrier-breaking mission of Jesus forward.
But the Church had difficulties with what the Spirit was doing, and it took them a while to ‘get it’. We see the difficulties right back in the very first chapter of the Book of Acts. The story goes that when the Ascension of Jesus was about to take place, the disciples asked him:
‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’
That’s a fair question, isn’t it? Ok Lord, you’ve conquered death and you’re alive for evermore; it must be a simple thing for you to set Israel free from the Roman oppressor. (The disciples weren’t really into breaking barriers.) So what was Jesus’ reply?
It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
This isn’t a nice story about getting the message of Jesus out to other nice people. It’s about taking the Good News to people who aren’t like us—to those we’ve erected barriers against. People we have nothing to do with. Those are the people ‘in Samaria and to the ends of the earth’. Take the Samaritans. Remember what John’s Gospel says when Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman?
Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.
The Samaritans were half-breeds, heretics, unclean. That’s why the good guy in Jesus’ parable is the Good Samaritan. No one expected it, it’d be like the Good Muslim or the Good Gay or the Good Mormon today. But the Samaritans were on God’s ‘to do’ list. Very soon, in Acts 8 we read
Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them…when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptised, both men and women.
Philip baptised these hated Samaritans purely on the basis of their faith in Jesus as Messiah! What was the world coming to?
Church head office just had to check this out. Acts 8.14 says,
Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard about that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John—the church heavies!—to them.
And yes, there were irregularities. The Samaritans hadn’t yet received the Holy Spirit. But they received the Spirit when Peter and John prayed. This age-old barrier was well and truly broken, because on their way back to Jerusalem, Peter and John ‘proclaimed the good news to many villages of the Samaritans’.
The very next thing we read is that Philip meets the Ethiopian Eunuch. This is the next barrier to fall. Remember the Eunuch from last week? He was a man of decidedly dodgy sexuality who was reading about the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. The Eunuch identified with his suffering, and was overjoyed to find that the Suffering Servant was the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. He was baptised too, and we’re told he went on his way home rejoicing.
Head office couldn’t check him out. ‘Home’ was probably what we’d call Sudan, down in Africa. There was no way of contacting him there; it was too far away, mobile phone coverage was pretty sparse in the first century, and emails didn’t work too well back then either. The Eunuch slipped through the net.
Soon, we get to the part of Acts we read today. Peter didn’t learn too well from the Samaritan experience. They may be ok, but those Gentiles were still beyond the pale. They were unclean; they didn’t circumcise their men, they wore clothes of mixed fibres (anyone here wearing polyester cotton?)—and they ate disgusting things like bacon sandwiches and prawns.
Remember the story? Peter has a vision of unclean animals descending from heaven on a sheet. He’s been brought up properly, he won’t eat them—but the heavenly voice says,
What God has called clean, you must not call unclean.
Just then, some Gentiles knock on the door and invite him to the home of Cornelius the Centurion over in Caesarea. Peter knows he has no choice. God has made the way clear: Peter must go with them.
Again, we’ve heard the story before. Peter goes to Cornelius’s house and announces his own conversion! He says to these Gentiles that he had thought unclean only the day before:
I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
Peter had been converted; Cornelius and his household were baptised, and straight away. They didn’t circumcise them first. They didn’t make them become Jews first. Barriers were broken; new life, resurrection life, came to Cornelius and to Peter.
It didn’t take long for the news to reach the other church heavies. Acts 11 begins like this:
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticised him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’
They just couldn’t believe it! So ‘Peter began to explain it to them, step by step…’ Then the church leaders saw what God was doing:
When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’
Do you see the way things went? The Church wasn’t ready for the new life, the new wine, the Spirit was pouring out. Church leaders stuck to the old ways. But their eyes were opened by the way the Spirit worked in people whom they had thought were unclean and beyond redemption. Gentiles not only came to faith, but they rapidly became leaders in the Church.
The struggle to accept Gentiles continued; you read about it in the story of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, and in Paul’s letters. Peter himself wavered; read about it in Galatians 2. One thing is crystal clear: at every point, the Spirit was working for the inclusion of the Gentiles. So much so that today we take it for granted.
Friends, it’s still happening. The question for us isn’t so much that certain groups of people cannot be part of the Church. Today, it’s more about people in public ministry. What do we do when the Spirit gives gifts for leadership in the Church? For us today, the difficult issue seems to be What response should we make when the Spirit gives homosexual people the gifts for ordained ministry? I say ‘when’, not ‘if’. I have direct experience of such people, who love Jesus and serve his people with distinction.
But you know, it’s not that long ago since we wondered whether women should be ordained. Could women be public leaders in the Uniting Church? We have answered that in the affirmative because we have seen the way the Spirit gives gifts.
It’s only a while since our Church argued over whether divorced people could exercise a public ministry. Yet the Spirit continues to give divorced people great gifts for ministry, and the Church benefits.
The Spirit-wind keeps blowing, and the Spirit keeps working, bringing people new life and pouring out new wine. We need to keep our eyes open to the way the Holy Spirit gives gifts to all sorts of people. The Spirit blows where she will. The Holy Spirit ‘shows no partiality’!
We shouldn’t think the Spirit only worked 2000 years ago to bring the new wine to the Church. The Spirit’s work continues just as it did in the early Church. If the Spirit comes upon people, even people we don’t think it should come upon, shouldn’t we join with the Church of the Book of Acts, and praise God for it?