Out of the Ashes

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 Today is Pentecost, the day when we remember the apostles receiving the holy spirit. After this, they will spread out and share the good news everywhere. As a result, it is considered the birth of the church.  They will start in Jerusalem, during the celebration of Pentecost, a harvest festival. The city is full of Jews from all over who have come for the festival. And Luke tells this strange story about people who start to speak in languages they don’t know, with tongues of fire hovering over their heads.


There are many parts of this story that don’t make much sense. Luke tells us they are in a house when the holy spirit appears above their heads, like tongues of flame. But suddenly, there appears to be a crowd listening, and marvelling at all the different languages. And then Peter gives a speech to the crowd. But how did the crowd get into the house? How could any house have a crowd in it? The story doesn’t really make much sense if you try to visualize it. 


And that’s a clue that Luke isn’t expecting us to read this story too literally. I think he is trying to explain something that has happened which means a lot to his readers in the year 85. They know that two really important events have occurred. 


The first big event is that just 15 years before Luke writes his gospel in 85, the Jewish religion suffered a major disaster. 

In the year 70, the Romans besieged and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. 

They killed thousands of Jews, and took most of the rest prisoner, back to Rome. 


God’s spirit had dwelled in that temple, so Jews were at a loss to know how to go forward now. What did it mean to be a Jew if there was no temple left to worship in? This was their version of the Holocaust, the nightmare that came true. That was the first big event.


The second big event is that in the years before the temple came down, Christianity had spread like wildfire around the Mediterranean. The apostles who knew Jesus, plus others like Paul who didn’t, had travelled along the Roman trade routes to share the good news to towns all over the empire. By the year 85, when Luke writes his gospel, there are small groups of Christians all through what is now Turkey, Italy, France, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and North Africa. And all of this happened even though the temple was destroyed. Even though the building where God’s spirit dwelled, had been conquered and torn apart. That’s the second big event.


Luke wants to make sense of this for his readers. Christianity couldn’t have spread so quickly without God’s help. Without the help of the Holy Spirit. So, to explain this, he tells a story of how the apostles received the spirit. And to do it, he decides to retell an old story. Remember the story of the Tower of Babel? The Hebrew scriptures tells us that long ago, all human beings spoke the same language. 


They got together to build a giant tower in Babel. They wanted the tower to be so big that it would reach to heaven where God lives. 


But God sees what they are building, and fears that human hubris will lead them to do many things that will get them in trouble. So, God instructs angels to confuse their speech and scatter them around the world, each speaking different tongues. The tower is left behind, unfinished.


In today’s scripture reading, Luke remembers the birth of the Christian movement as a new version of the Tower of Babel. On this day, the disciples are in a house when suddenly a great wind appears, and tongues of fire appear above their heads. Suddenly, they are able to speak all the world’s languages, telling the story of Christ’s saving actions for all of humanity.


(Twelve people in the seats stand up, speaking these words in their languages:

 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.’ (John 13:34-35)


Stephen: It must have been quite a sound, a strange cacophony…

(the voices stop).


No one had seen or heard anything like this before. What could it mean? In Luke’s time, a building that had been used to speak with one voice to God had been destroyed by the Romans. So, Luke says, the tower of Babel has been destroyed again. And once again, the peoples have been scattered. But this time, speaking in many tongues will not be a problem. Because this time, we will all understand each other. And what we will hear, Luke says, is about God’s deeds of power. That is, the story of what Jesus has done as God, for God, with God. And this story, as it travels among the scattered people, will unite us. In a story of love, for God and each other. 


And to get that message across, Luke refers to another story in the Hebrew Scriptures. You may recall that after the Israelites escaped from Egypt, God led them through the desert for 40 years. How did they know where God was leading them? 


God appeared as a pillar of fire. (Exodus 13:22) They followed that pillar of fire wherever it moved. 


This was the same God who had appeared as a burning bush to Moses. And now, Luke tells us, that fire is not leading to one place, but has taken up residence in the disciples, who will carry that fire, that holy spirit, to the ends of the Earth. 


Luke’s account of Pentecost is a symbolic way of explaining how Christianity has been able to spread like wildfire throughout the Roman Empire. The movement’s numbers are still small, but Christians are everywhere. And in that image of the holy spirit taking up residence in the apostles, Luke is suggesting a new way of understanding the spirit. It is no longer locked up in a temple far away. Instead, human beings become the temple where it can dwell. Each of us is a home for the holy spirit. We may not be seized with a knowledge of foreign languages, but with the spirit’s help, we can act with determination and courage to do things we wouldn’t even try without it. 


And now, some 2000 years later, that fire still burns. Christians speak hundreds, even thousands of languages. But we find ourselves wondering what happens next with us. Our faith has been a source of inspiration, but also of pain. Some versions of the faith have been used to punish others, to deny their humanity, even their right to exist. We live in a world full of faiths and those of no faith. So, what do we do now? Our dream of being the faith that takes over the world is shattered, like the tower of Babel. At a time of declining church attendance, it seems impossible that we will be the sole faith the world looks to.


But we don’t have to be. The early Christians were excited about their initial successes, but they never imagined they would become the only faith. Jesus told his followers that they were to be like yeast and salt, small elements in a larger whole that can influence the whole for good, but without being the whole. We were never called to take over or conquer – that was a Roman dream of conquest that was foreign to Christ’s message. 


So how do we coexist with other faiths and people of no faith? Nostalgia is not the answer. Some Christians want to turn back the clock, to make their country great again by using legislation to bring us back to the 1950s when white Christians were in charge. But that is a willful escape from reality and will fail. Instead, we Christians are called to respond to the world as it is now, with love and hope. To look for the tongues of fire above other heads, to see where God’s spirit has appeared among other peoples, even other religions. We can learn from people like the Dalai Llama and the Tibetans. Before the Chinese invasion in 1959, Tibet was closed off from the world, the inspiration for those stories of Shangri la, the mystical kingdom in the mountains. The world knew little of Tibet or Tibetan Buddhism. But after the invasion, this tiny country’s faith and values did not disappear. Instead, they spread, like sparks from a fire, from country to country. 


Today, everyone has heard of the Dalai Llama. Few people understand the ins and outs of Tibetan Buddhism. But we do know about the Tibetan Buddhist call for love and happiness among all beings, a key teaching of their faith. 


We have seen the Dalai Lama teach how to be happy to people all over the world, co-writing books with people like Bishop Desmond Tutu. The Dalai Lama’s example suggests that for Christianity to be a benefit to the world, we don’t need people to agree with our doctrines, or even our views about Christ’s divinity. 


The message we should share is our commitment to love for everyone whom God has created. We should be proud to carry that message with us, wherever we go, and stand up for it. We should seek out and partner with allies who have reached the same conclusion, be they Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, or atheists. We should be prepared to see God’s holy fire burning above other heads, enabling us to speak and hear a common language of love, despite all our differences. There will be those who dismiss these efforts are heretical drunkenness, but we shouldn’t let that slow us down. For God calls all of us to be receptive to the spirit wherever it burns. To end the old ways of doing things, we must be ready for sons and daughters to prophesy new ways of living, for young men and women to see visions, and the old to dream dreams. Let us be open to that holy fire, in ourselves, and wherever it appears in others. Let us set the world on fire with the assurance of love and compassion for all.


And now, I would like to ask everyone to stand, to read out that text we heard in many languages earlier. I would ask that our readers also read their texts with us in their languages, too, so we may speak as one. 


 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13: 34-5)