Sunday, 8 June 2014

Pentecost: The God who speaks our language

Whoever gets to read our first reading today always draws the short straw. It is notorious for being one of  the trickiest readings in the year, with all those strange names to deal with; Parthians, Medes and Elamates, the residents of Cappadocia, Pontus, Phrygia, Pamphylia and all the rest. There’s a reward in heaven for the person who has to tackle them all. The author of the Acts of the Apostles wasn’t being sadistic by putting them in though. As you can see from the map I’ve given you, this was a way of saying that people from from every point of the compass were present in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost.  In particular these were places where there were significant ex-pat Jewish communities. Some of these communities had formed along trade routes, others had started when Jewish people had been taken into exile or forced to seek refuge abroad at times of trouble. Many of those who were part of them had essentially now become now become  Roman or Libyan or Parthian, speaking the local language, wearing local clothes, sharing in the culture of that place. The only thing that singled them out was their faith; they still followed the teachings of Judaism, and read the Jewish Scriptures, even if their understanding was coloured more than they realised by the beliefs of those around them.

But the old country has a way of drawing migrants home from time to time, and in this case it wasn’t just about nostalgia. Jewish law required people to make sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem at special times of the year. That wasn’t very practical if you lived in Rome or Parthia, but if you could, you’d try to make the odd trip now and them.  As well as those who’d been born Jewish this passage tells us that there were proselytes, converts, from those nations too, perhaps still exploring, perhaps quite committed, but coming at this faith from the outside. The Old Testament prophet Micah had spoken of a time when all nations would come streaming to Jerusalem to worship on the holy mountain. “Many nations shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord…that he may teach us his ways” (Micah 4.1), and this seemed to be what was happening.

But what did these visitors find when they arrived in Jerusalem? Even if they’d grown up as devout Jews, or studied hard to learn the customs, it was all a bit alien. They couldn’t understand the language. The food, clothes and customs were different. It should have felt like home, but it didn’t. These visitors might think they shared a faith with the Jews of Jerusalem and meant the same things by the words they used, but they’d inevitably be bringing assumptions and ideas with them from the places they’d grown up in, and the differences would probably be far more obvious than the similarities. The children and grandchildren of migrants to this country from other parts of the world often experience the same sort of cultural dissonance when they go back to where their parents call “home”. It’s not home, not really, not to them, and they can end up feeling that they don’t properly belong anywhere.

That sense of dislocation can arise for other reasons too. We don’t necessarily have to migrate geographically to feel it. People can find they’ve left behind the world of their parents because they’ve had a better education or earn much more than they did. We can simply discover we are different in some way from those we grew up among.  However it happens, it is quite common for people to feel like they have become fish out of water because their lives have changed.

That’s the experience of these visitors to Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost.   Here they are, gathered in Jerusalem, the mother city of their faith, and yet they know they are outsiders, and the locals know it too, and maybe remind them of it, looking at them strangely. What right have they to be there? They’re not proper Jews, not like them. Even the name of the feast, as it is reported in the book of Acts, emphasizes the differences they might feel. It’s called the Day of Pentecost, but that’s the Greek name for this holy day, the name these visitors would have used. Its Hebrew name is Shavuot.  Pentecost means fiftieth, Shavuot means “weeks”. In a way both say the same thing – this is a feast that takes place some time after Passover, but which name you call it marks you out as an insider or an outsider to the homeland of the faith. 

The nature of the feast might have hammered that in too. Shavuot was a feast that celebrated the first fruits of the harvest. On this day you brought to the Temple an offering of the seven sorts of produce which ripened around this time in the land of Israel; wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (Deut. 8:8) . So it was all about your ties to the land, this land, where these things grew. Did they grow in the mountains of Cappadocia or the burning deserts of Arabia? Probably not.

Luke’s story is a story about foreignness, strangeness, being an outsider, or viewing someone else as one.

That is why what happens next in the story is so significant. The apostles – those first followers of Jesus – were Israeli Jews, born in these Jewish heartlands, just as Jesus had been. They spoke Aramaic and Hebrew, as their ancestors had done. They were right at home here, in this Promised Land, where their people had lived for millennia.
Jesus had preached a message that God’s love was for all, but it was only now, after his Ascension, that his followers were starting to realise what that might mean for them. He’d left them with the task of going out into the world, the whole world, and spreading that message. But the whole world was a big place, and the people in it were a mighty strange lot. Even the ex-pat Jews who they saw around them on the streets of Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost were pretty odd, never mind the rest. To fulfil this task they would have to go way beyond their comfort zones. They’d not only have to cope with difference, they’d have to welcome it.

How were they going to find the courage to do that? Not from their own strength, plainly. As they sat in that room in Jerusalem they knew it was too much for them, just as it would be for any of us. But the good news of this story is that when God calls us, he doesn’t expect us to face the challenges of that call on our own.

These frightened followers in Jerusalem could never really describe exactly what happened next. It felt like a rushing wind, it felt like flames of fire, even though there was no wind or fire, but the long and short of it was that suddenly they knew that God, the God of heaven, the God of might and majesty and power, the God of creation, the God who had raised Christ from the dead, had swept into their lives and made his home in them. In truth he had always been with them, but this was the moment when they realised it. God was at home in them, dwelling in them.  He wasn’t stuck in the Temple, or sitting on a cloud in the distant sky. He was where they were, in that ordinary room in Jerusalem, in the ordinary lives of ordinary men and women, fishermen and tax-collectors, mothers and widows, people who’d met Jesus by chance or design and whose lives had been changed by the experience.

God was at home - in them. And if God could be at home in them, he could be at home in anyone. That was the message they proclaimed as they ran out of the room to the crowd in the streets. They didn’t think that message up for themselves. They didn’t even realise they were proclaiming it. But the words came out of their mouths, we are told, in Cappadocian and Libyan, and Parthian, and those who heard them, from Cappadocia and Libya and Parthia heard the voices not of Israeli Jews, but of people they could have met in their own homes and village squares.

For all its mystery, what happened at Pentecost conveyed a simple message to those who were there. Whoever you were and wherever you came from, your home was God’s home, your life was a place that God cared about as if it was the centre of his universe. There were no foreigners, no strangers to him. Hearing about God’s love in your own native tongue told you that he knew and loved that little bend in the river you thought was just yours, that corner of your garden where the evening sun shone through the trees. He knew and cared about that secret corner of your heart too, that memory you thought was your own private torment, those feelings that you were never going to be able to put into words. It’s not even just that he understands our national or tribal differences. Each of us has a unique personal language too, that sense of ourselves that even our nearest and dearest can often get no more than a glimpse of – but God understands it and speaks it as well as we do.

Grasping that truth can change not only our view of God and of ourselves, but our view of others as well, because once we’ve truly come to believe that God knows and loves us as we are, from the inside out, in all our uniqueness, it has to follow that he knows and loves everyone else like that too. The New Testament puts huge emphasis on breaking down the barriers that divide us, on accepting and welcoming one another as we are. That’s because those who wrote it had come to realise that if God lived in them, he lived in everyone, and could be discovered anew in everyone they met as they went out into those distant, alien lands and preached the Gospel.

But it all starts, as it did on the Day of Pentecost, with us. “Come down, O love divine/ seek thou THIS soul of MINE” we sing. Our Pentecost prayer is that we would discover the Spirit of God at home in us, in all the corners of our life, so that we can go on to discover that the whole world, and everyone in it, is his home as well.


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