Acts 2:1-21 & John 14:8-27
I wonder if you ever watch those TV programmes or films where they have messed around with the timeline? You know the kind of thing, the film starts with a wedding and then the rest of the film is flashbacks to things that have happened in the lead up to the wedding. Through all the ups and downs of the relationship you know that there’s a happy ending, because you’ve already seen it.
Well, there is a sense in which we heard our readings in the wrong order today. In the reading from Acts we see and hear the sights and sounds of the Day of Pentecost, and then we had a flash back to an earlier scene, where we hear some of the things that happened in the lead up to that astonishing day.
In the reading we heard from John’s account of the good news, we hear Jesus making a promise and telling us something about the person who is going to be the fulfilment of that promise.
We hear Jesus as he speaks to his followers for one of the last times. They are meeting together in the days before Jesus is going to be crucified, and then raised to life. Jesus’ followers are afraid and confused. Jesus has been with them for three years, and now he is talking about leaving them.
Before he goes, he tells his followers about some of the things that are going to happen in the future. He tells them that those who have faith will do even greater things than he himself had done. (given that what Jesus has done included walking on water, raising people from the dead, healing the sick, and feeding several thousand people with a few loaves and fishes, this was a pretty big promise).
He then goes on to promise that he will not leave his followers alone. When he has returned to the Father, he will ask the Father to send someone else, the Holy Spirit.
And what does Jesus promise that the Holy Spirit will be like?
The Holy Spirit will be with them forever. The Holy Spirit will not leave or abandon Jesus’ followers. The Holy Spirit lives with and within them. The Holy Spirit is a counsellor, someone who both talks with us and also speaks up for us. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, totally trustworthy, inspiring honesty and straightforward speaking and actions. The Holy Spirit comes from the Father, in the name of the Son. Like a tripod that would fall over if it only had two legs, so our Christian lives will fall over if we try and balance it on two legs. The Holy Spirit is not an optional extra when we’re following Jesus in a life faithful to God. The Holy Spirit teaches and reminds of the things that Jesus did and taught. The Holy Spirit is our life coach, our personal trainer, the one who runs alongside us and with us through our days and nights, encouraging us and strengthening us for the race in front of us.
That is the promise that Jesus made to his first followers in the days before he died, and that is the description of the person that Jesus said would fulfil the promise.
Now we flash forward again. Through the days of Easter. The darkened sky and earthquakes of Good Friday, the day that God died. Through Saturday, the day that creation held its breath. Through Easter day, the great and glorious day of the resurrection, death beaten and Jesus raised to life. Through that exhilarating and confusing month as Jesus came and went, talked with his followers, reassured them, and sent them out. Through the day of the ascension, and Jesus’ return to the throne room of heaven, his followers returning to Jerusalem to wait. To wait for the promise to be fulfilled. To wait for the person that Jesus had promised would be sent to them. To wait. To wait. To wait.
And so we reach the scene of our second reading. The place of waiting.
And suddenly the waiting is over. The promise has been fulfilled, the person has been sent and has arrived. The Holy Spirit is here.
The sound of the great gales and the flames of fire remind us of the power of God, beyond human control and bidding, but they are not what the writer concentrates on. They are mentioned, but passed over quickly, almost as though they are not the most interesting thing that happened, not the most significant thing, not the most powerful thing. They are like the fanfare of trumpets announcing the arrival of an honoured guest.
What is most important is what the Holy Spirit actually does. The first thing that the Holy Spirit does is to fill Jesus’ followers. This is exactly what Jesus said the Holy Spirit would do. “The Holy Spirit will be in you”. The second thing that the Holy Spirit does is enable Jesus’ followers to speak.
There are two aspects to the speaking that I think we need to get hold of. The first is that the Holy Spirit enabled Jesus’ followers to speak in ways that they couldn’t speak before. The Holy Spirit gave them the ability to speak in languages that they had not learnt. Why was this? Was it as a neat party trick? Was it so that they could go on holiday and order food and understand the travel timetables? Was it so that they could pass language exams without having to do any revision?
No, none of those is the reason. But we are made to wait for what they’re saying in those new languages whilst Luke hammers home the message with this long list of places that were represented. This list is not there just to make life difficult for generations of Christians was task it is to read this passage at Pentecost celebrations. It is there to illustrate, without a doubt, that whatever is being said (and we don’t know what that is yet) is for everybody, from East, West, North and South. These words are not just for the chosen few, they are for the chosen everybody. These words, that are so important that they are the first thing that the Holy Spirit equips Jesus’ followers to speak out, are for everybody in the whole world.
What are these words? We are not told by Jesus’ followers what they are. We are told by those who heard them, “... we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" Having filled Jesus’ followers, the Holy Spirit enabled them to tell other people about the wonders of God in ways that they could understand. Not only were they able to tell people about these wonders, they were able to speak in a way that excited interest. We can tell this from the response of the people who heard, “What does this mean?".
One of Jesus’ closest friends, Peter, stands up to explain that what is happening was not only promised by Jesus but had also been promised by God, through the prophet Joel, many years previously. God had promised to pour out the Spirit on all people, and that as that happened many wonders, some physical and some spiritual would be seen. The climax of all these things, the most wonderful thing that they would all lead to, the purpose of it all, would be that, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
As we celebrate Pentecost, the fulfilment of all those promises, we continue to live in the age of the Spirit. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would not leave Jesus’ followers, and that promise has been kept. Every one of us who follows Jesus in living faithfully for God has the Holy Spirit in and with us.
Having said that, I’m not sure that I always receive all the things that the Holy Spirit has for me. This is not because the Holy Spirit is unwilling to give them to me, but because I am not ready to take them. To help us think about this, let’s go back to this picture of something being filled. For anything to be filled, there needs to be an opening. A bottle with the lid on can’t be filled. Or, even if the lid is off, if the bottle’s already got oil in it, you can’t fill it with water, not unless you are willing for the oil to be flushed out as the water pours in. And maybe a bottle’s not a very good example anyway, because they tend to be watertight and to honest, I leak, so I need to be continually filled. There’s another reason that a bottle’s not a very good example. Bottles are quite rigid. Once they’re full, you can’t get any more in. However, it is the experience of Christians through the ages that being filled with the Holy Spirit isn’t like this. We might leak, but we can also stretch. As we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit being poured into our lives, we find that we stretch and more and more pours in, and through us, to other people
Even when I do allow the Holy Spirit to fill me, I sometimes resist the thing that the Holy Spirit wants to do first. That is, to equip me to tell the wonders of God in a way that people around me can understand, and in a way that prompts them to ask what’s going on, so that they can call on the Lord and be saved. Even though I know that this is why Jesus came to earth, died and rose again. All so that everyone may be rescued from the darkness and pain of the sin and death that they are trapped in. Even though I know that it is only because of the wonders of God that I have been adopted as a child of God, and made an heir of the Kingdom. Even though I look around the world in awe at the majesty of the creative imagination and force behind it. Even though I have seen people healed and bought to a fuller life through the working of the Holy Spirit. Even though all these things I am still so slow to be ready to proclaim the wonders of God. How much do I need to be filled more and more with Holy Spirit.
In the end, Pentecost is all about proclamation with power. We have good news to tell, we are witnesses to the wonders of God. We have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. Are we going to allow that gift to fill our whole beings, to enable us to tell the wonders of God in a way that will lead to even greater works than the ones Jesus did, to more and more people coming to a saving faith that will change their lives forever?