Pentecost, Drunk with the Spirit.
Notes on the Sunday address by Rev Ric Holland, 4 May 2017
It’s a wonderful opportunity that I have here on Sunday mornings to confess. I’ve confessed to a few things already over the last few months. Here’s another one. The night I was thrown out of a pub, for being sober! It was a rugby club tour. We were playing a few clubs in the south of Wales. I think it was the last night when quite a few of the blokes had had a few. Not me. I hadn’t touched a drop. I knew we were playing the next morning and I, as the Captain, had game to play and a farewell speech to make. So not a drop of the demon drink had passed my lips. As the night went on some of the blokes got a bit rowdy. There was much singing and hilarity. The publican thought it was getting out of control and after several unsuccessful appeals to calm down. He called in the local constabulary. By the time they arrived most of the team had either left to go on to another hostelry or in an intoxicated way had just fallen to sleep heads on their arms on the tables. So with the publican feeling a bit embarrassed that he had falsely called out the cops, pointed at me and said “It’s him he’s the ringleader”. So stone cold sober I was escorted out of the pub explained to the reasonable young constable and walked back to where I was staying to write my speech for the following day. The following day I was greeted by the team with great acclaim as being the only one who was thrown out of the pub! I was quite definitely not ’Drunk with the spirit’.
So what are we to make of this ecstatic historic event?
There were three great Jewish festivals to which every male Jew living within 20 miles of Jerusalem was legally bound to go, The Passover, the Feast of Tabernacles and Pentecost. Pentecost means “fiftieth”. This was because it fell on the fiftieth day after the Passover. The Passover was celebrated in the middle of April. Therefore Pentecost fell at the beginning of June. By that time travelling conditions were at their best. That explains the list of countries mentioned in Acts. Never was there a more international crowd in Jerusalem than at the time of Pentecost.
The feast itself was significant in two ways.
- It had historical significance. It commemorated the Giving of the Law to Moses on Mt Sinai.
- It had agricultural significance. At Pentecost two loaves of bread were offered to God in gratitude for the safe gathering in of the harvest. It had one other unique characteristic.
The Law laid down that on that day people should not do their everyday work. So it was a public holiday and the crowds on the street would be greater than ever. There would be much merriment, even consumption of wine. It would be a truly party atmosphere.
What actually happened we really don’t know? The only record we have is in Acts and Luke in this part of Acts was not an eye witness. He tells this story as if the Disciples had suddenly acquired the gift of speaking in foreign languages. This did not happen.
- There was in the early church a phenomenon which has never completely disappeared. It was called ‘speaking in tongues’. The main passage which describes it is in 1 Corinthians 14. What happened was that someone in an ecstasy began to pour out a flood of unintelligible sounds in no proper language. It was then, as it is now in Pentecostal churches, considered to be inspired by God. Paul did not approve of it because he said that a message should be conveyed in a language that people understood. In fact he said that a stranger coming in might well think that the members of the congregation were mad (1 Corinthians 14). That precisely fits Acts chapter 2 when people speaking in tongues appeared to be drunk to someone who had never witnessed the phenomena.
- Also to speak in foreign languages was unnecessary. The crowd was made up of Jews and converts. (Gentiles who had accepted the Jewish religion and the Jewish way of life). For a crowd like that at most two languages were necessary. Almost all Jews spoke Aramaic and even if they were from a foreign land they would all have spoken the language which pretty well everybody in the then world spoke: Greek.
It seems to me that Luke, a gentile, had confused speaking in tongues with speaking a foreign language.
So what’s this Holy Spirit all about?
Well the first thing I would want to say is that it didn’t just arrive on the Day of Pentecost.
The Spirit of God has been around since time began. Genesis 1:2 “The spirit moved upon the waters” describes this in poetic and mythical terms. The Hebrew word is ruach.
All through the Old Testament the Spirit is referred to as being within and on people, the Great Prophets and Leaders of the Jewish nation.
To me of all the so called parts of the Trinity (next Week) Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the Holy Spirit is the one which the church seems to play down. It’s as though it has a grasp on Father and Son but this spirit stuff is all a bit airy-fairy particularly if one uses the term Holy Ghost, then it becomes spooky.
Yet the Spirit is the one that in my mind is the easiest to understand. It’s easy because we feel it within us.
In the 12th century St Hildegard of Bingen wrote:
“Who is the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit is a burning spirit. It kindles the heart of humankind. Like tympanum and lyre it plays them, gathering volume in the temple of the soul”
“The Holy Spirit is the life of the life of all creatures that gives existence to all form”
“The Holy Spirit resurrects and awakens everything that is”.
It is the very heart of our existence. It’s within us and all around and it’s this which empowered the early disciples to change the world. What it gave to them, it gives to us. They were rock bottom. Their world had collapsed. They had no future.
- The first thing it gave to them was courage and power. From a minus starting point they turned the world upside down at great risk to themselves. If only the Church of today could be inspired with that same Spirit of risk taking. I am saddened when I see the institution of the Church more concerned about its property, its rules and its money more than the people outside its deteriorating walls.
We can be empowered by the Spirit to take risks, to show the world we care for them more than ourselves. We can tread the same path as those early Disciples. Win some. Lose some but at least we’ll die trying.
- The second thing it gave to the disciples as it gives to us is leadership. We should be leading the charge against sexual inequality. We should be fighting for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Treaty. We should be lobbying the government for safe injecting rooms. We should be standing alongside our Muslim sisters and brothers against racism and vilification. We should be offering a warm welcome to refugees. We should be reaching out to victims of domestic violence. We should be fighting for penal restitution rather than punishment. We should be arguing for equality in education, housing, and health services. We should be demonstrating our support for the Paris climate agreement and fighting to protect our own environment by controlling carbon emissions and we should be shouting so loud that we drown out the ridiculous statement made by people like Margaret Court, Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump so that the world sees through our leadership, the power and leadership which the Spirit brings.
- The third thing which the Spirit brings is a commitment to continually search for truth. The Spirit has no time for static knowledge, for dogmatism, for certainty, for blind faith. The Disciple who went the furthest and took the most risks was the same Disciple who asked the most questions, who wanted to find out for himself, who just wasn’t so sure. ie Thomas. He travelled to India and what is now Pakistan. In North India the landscape is scattered with Churches devoted to the memory of St. Thomas.
We must forever be searching for truth, because by so doing we empower the Spirit not lock it away. That is why in our worship and in our work we must all be learning and growing. Theology. Philosophy. Science. Arts. World affairs and politics. We will continue to develop our lecture series with the like of Joseph Camilleri and we will be launching a series of conversations called City Conversations with key people in public life.
- This leads me to the fourth thing about the Spirit. And here I quote my illustrious predecessor Dr Macnab when he talks about the need to connect with people in intelligent conversation and belonging. We truly are in a disconnected world with people living a sometimes fearful, lonely and paranoid existence. This was pretty much the same in the days of the early church. There was wars and terrorism. There was a huge mix of different races struggling for survival and many facing exploitation and disadvantage. There was racism and sexual exploitation. This was the world that the disciples just walked into and started talking and sharing. They faced hostility, but the Spirit empowered them to connect.
The Spirit connects us. Let’s open ourselves to communicating with people we don’t otherwise talk with, touch or smile with. This will lead to a deeper humanity, wider caring and an informed understanding of each other. Within the next few weeks we will be opening a lounge area in the church here for any people from the church to just relax for a few minutes in the city. Call in grab a coffee and if I’m around I’ll call in from time to time just to converse and connect. I’ll be announcing that soon.
- And when we do all those things the Spirit gives us a sense of affirmation. The Disciples despite all their initial reticence and feeling of inadequacy were so confident that they were in the right place at the right time. This is the Spirit’s affirmation. I believe this of this congregation and dare I say it, I believe this for myself right now and I thank you all for that.
Empowered by the Spirit we will be courageous, we will take the lead on standing up for what is right and good. We will continue to grow our understanding and share that with those around us whose lives we will touch.
And whilst we’re doing all that we’ll have a bloody good time. WE will be joyful and we will celebrate the presence of the Spirit in this Church and in our lives.