Scripture Readings: Acts 2:1-13
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Last Sunday, when we heard about the Ascension of Jesus, I said that the early Christians had a strong sense of the continuing presence of Christ among them. In his last conversation with his followers, Luke has the risen Christ tell them, ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift I told you about, the gift my Father promised. John [the Baptist] baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’.
In our reading for today, we hear what happened when the day arrive. On the Jewish festival of Pentecost, the Spirit arrives with power, colour and noise. Luke describes it in colourful language- a noise from the sky, tongues of fire touching each person, and an excitement that sends the believers out onto the streets to preach to people of every nation. The believers are so lively, so full of joy, so uninhibited about taking their message to the streets, that some people think they are drunk!
Like the story of the Ascension, the story of Pentecost is also trying to speak of something which seems almost beyond words. The something that happened during the weeks after the death of Jesus which completely changed his followers. For they went from a small group of bereaved, disappointed, people- people so scared that they met behind locked doors- to become a lively, confident, group of people convinced that they had a message for the world.
Today, we feel we could do with their confidence. We live in world where war drives millions from their homes, where global warming is causing catastrophe to the poorest, where religious fundamentalism causes all sorts of pain. When people come face-to-face with those problems, the response, quite often, is for people to try to lock themselves in, and to lock others out. Europe tries to lock our refugees. Some churches try to lock out people who don’t believe the right things. Like the disciples just after the death of Jesus, we are too often frightened to go into this scary world, for fear of what we might encounter.
So the Pentecost story of the first Christians being inspired to go out and speak all sorts of language is a wonderful story for us. It reminds us that the Spirit turned the church into a potentially global movement. Somehow, the Spirit of Christ carried on in the Church and drove the first Christians out into the streets, with a startling new message which they took to the whole world.
Pentecost this year lands on a weekend where we are celebrating that Christian love knows no boundaries of nationality or language. And so, on Christian Aid Week, we move out of the church and into the streets, asking people to help us help people from around the world. They may not think we are drunk, but our neighbours will see us out on the streets- or inviting them in for a coffee or a concert.
This year, Christian Aid has been highlighting the plight of very poor families in Bangladesh who are directly affected by climate change. Over five million people- about the population of Scotland- live on low-lying islands off the coast of Bangladesh, created by silt from the Bramaputra river. These are some of the poorest people in what is already a poor country. Watch this film from Christian Aid– you won’t believe how these people have to live.
Morsheda lives on one of those islands. She earns as little as 74p a day doing backbreaking manual labour. She has no savings. She shares a single-room, corrugated-iron house with her four children. And the remarkable thing about that house is that, a lot of the time, it’s a house inundated with water. Mordsheda and their family walk ankle-deep in water- inside their own house. The legs of their tables and chairs are in water. At times, the water is nearly up the level of their beds. Once, Mordsheda nearly lost her baby son, as he fell into the water when floods hit one night.
Now, we are tempted to think that climate change is not something for us to worry about. In fact, sometimes we think we’d quite like our summers to be a bit warmer. We worry that the cost of our energy might rise because the scientists tell us we need to give up our coal-fired power stations and our petrol-driven cars. But when you live in a house which is now constantly swimming in water, when all that you own, and your entire family, might be swept away by a combination of rising sea levels and increasingly erratic weather, then you’re living with the effects of climate change.
Can anything be done? Christian Aid can make life a bit more bearable. Just £250 is enough for a Christian Aid Home Safety Package, which would flood-proof Morsheda’s home by raising it seven foot on an earth plinth, keeping her family safe at last. It would also buy a goat, seeds and a wormery to help produce compost, so she could keep livestock and grow crops on the small patch of land around her home. Life would be that wee bit better, more hopeful, for Morsheda and her family. And that’s the kind of result we will see from the fundraising we will do this Christian Aid Week.
And we also need to do more. It’s about time our political leaders took seriously the climate scientists, who overwhelmingly believe that climate change has a human cause. We need to be reminding our politicians that climate change is real, that the suffering it causes is real, that the dangers are real. Climate change is certainly real for 5 million people living in coastal Bangladesh.
For we who live from the Bible, and who are celebrating Pentecost today, it is not enough to say, ‘These people live far away and are none of our business’. When the first Christians burst from their room into the streets of Jerusalem, their message was for everyone on those multicultural city streets. Regardless of their language, or where they came from the Gospel message was for them. It would be interesting to get a map and plot all those places: Parthia, Media, Elam, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia Minor, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Rome, Crete and Arabia. Your map pins would be dotted all over the Eastern Mediterranean- places where the Gospel would spread over the next few years. Places often in the news today, still, as people flee war and attempt to find safety in Europe.
Pentecost is a good reminder to us that our is an international faith- and that Christian Aid is also a fruit of the Spirit of Christ working in the world. We may belong to the Church of Scotland, but it is good to remember that we are part of a world-wide community of Christians, which now covers every continent. And Christian Aid, and other Christian agencies, remind us of how we are linked to folks whom we don’t know. And it reminds us that our neighbour, whom Christ commanded us to love, may live far away, but is still beloved by God.
There is a lot of confusion sometimes when people talk about ‘the Holy Spirit’, because some people concentrate on how it appears, in the Bible, to have supernatural effects. But I suggest a straightforward definition: the Holy Spirit is God at work in the Church today. Quite often (in fact, usually) there is nothing supernatural about that. The Bible certainly speaks of the Spirit as giving people special gifts, such as the power to heal or to work miracles. But Paul also says that the ability to preach God’s message is a gift. It seems to me that that is a gift which one has to discover, and then to develop. Preachers, like musicians, have to work hard and practice at it. A certain innate gift might be there, but we need to allow it to develop and let it bloom. We may already have a gift, but we cannot simply let it lie unused or underdeveloped.
We all of us have gifts which we need to uncover and use. Only when Christians find and use their gifts will the Church thrive and survive. And it’s very important to recall that all of us have gifts, that none of us have nothing to bring to the table. As St Paul wrote the Romans, ‘we are to use our different gifts in accordance with the grace that God has given us’.
There is a special gift which Paul mentions in that Romans passage that I think is often overlooked. Paul says that if our gift ‘is to encourage others, we should do so’. I wonder if the gift of encouragement is the forgotten gift. Too often, as we worry about the Church, as we try to keep things going in difficult times, as we get concerned for the future, we can become critical of one another. If only ‘they’ would do that! If only she hadn’t done this. If only the Church would do a more of that. Sadly, there are people within the church who always only seem to want to criticise others, for that they are doing, or for what they are not doing. I’m hearing from colleagues across the country how damaging that drip, drip of negativity is for the Church. It’s wearing us down. So perhaps the spiritual gift we really need to develop is the gift of encouraging others. Because we all need encouragement. Without it, people can’t carry on.
I used to be chaplain to a large secondary school in the East End of Glasgow. It was almost across the road from the manse, and quite often I would see the head teacher at the gate as the crowds of children left at the end of the school day. I asked him once why he did that- was it because the local shops had recently been complaining about kids pilfering as they came out of school. No, he said- he had a quite different motivation. ‘Many of these children’ he said ‘come from families where nobody is much interested in what they do at school. And nobody has ever said “Well done” to them. So I go out in the afternoon and spot the kids like that who have achieved something in school recently- a decent mark in a test, a good bit of work, a small part in the school musical, a place in the football team, an improvement in their behaviour. I see them and say to them, “Well done” about whatever it is they have done this week’. He understood the value of encouragement.
Terrible to think that some children never get a word of encouragement at home. Terrible to think that some people in the church hardly hear a word of encouragement. If we said ‘well done’ and ‘thank you’ to people for what they did do, instead of criticising what they haven’t done, that might have a supernatural effect on the Church. And there are, of course, some people who are wonderful encouragers. They keep the rest of us going. But it’s something we can all do- a spiritual gift we can all exercise.
And so the Spirit gives us gifts- allowing the Church, when it is daring- to take the Good News of Jesus to people in every language, to every nationality. Earlier in the Letter to the Romans, in the passage we heard read to us, Paul says that ‘Those who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s children’; and the Spirit doesn’t make us slaves, but stops us being afraid.
What a wonderful thought it is that we are God’s children when we are led by the Spirit. That God is our Father and Mother, and that we are God’s sons and daughters, is something which we should highly cherish. When I am asked to pray with someone in their home or in hospital, I quite often feel that the thing I would wish for that person is a sense of Christ’s presence with them. In illness, or crisis, or sadness or distress, I know how powerful it can be to feel that you are in the presence of Christ, and therefore within the circle of God’s love. The Spirit of God is the presence of God in the world. And so quite often, I will pray for the Spirit to be present in that situation. For that can help us not be slaves to our illnesses or anxieties- it is a Spirit which can help us not to be afraid.
It is deeply comforting for us to know that through the Spirit, God comes so close to us that we are God’s children. But that is not simply a comfort blanket for us. That same Spirit, who takes away fear give us hope and confidence, also gives gifts. That same Spirit will be the one who will inspire us to encourage each other, to serve, to take the message of God’s love out into the streets, to tell the good news in the language of today’s world. And at Pentecost, that same Spirit reminds us that God is not just interested in our back yard. The love of God is to go the ends of the earth, even to the flooding islands of Bangladesh.
This Pentecost, may we discover anew the power of God’s spirit at work among us. May the Spirit bring forth gifts within us, encouraging each of us, giving us the strength to serve, and enabling us to speak of God’s love to all people, whoever and wherever they are.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584