Sunday, 15 May 2016

Pentecost: Speaking our language

Pentecost 16 Breathing Space

The Bible has a huge amount to say about the Holy Spirit, whom we celebrate particularly today. From the moment of creation when the Spirit hovers or sweeps over the waters of chaos, to the prophets who are caught up by the Spirit of God and filled with his words, to the Spirit overshadowing Mary to fill the child in her womb, to the Spirit which descends like a dove on Jesus at the moment of his baptism, to the Spirit which is the lifeblood of the infant church, guiding them, inspiring them, driving them out into the world: the Spirit is everywhere. People may struggle to describe it, but it is life-changingly real to them.

In the story we heard from the book of Acts, the Spirit gives those who are filled with it the rather puzzling gift of speaking in tongues. Visitors from every corner of the Empire hear the message they proclaim and understand it. In fact, they don’t just understand it, they feel certain they are hearing it in their own native language. They have travelled all the way from Pamphylia or Cappadocia or Libya, expecting to feel very much like outsiders in Israel. Some are probably Jewish by origin, but have grown up elsewhere  - maybe over several generations – and whether they like it or not, they are not as much at home in the motherland as they thought they would be. Others may be complete outsiders, traders, travellers, even part of the occupying forces of Rome. What unites them is the sense that they are a long way from home. But in the midst of this alien land, they find something so familiar to them that they are transported right back to the deserts, mountains, pastures, coastlands, of the land of their birth – they hear their own language spoken like a native.

What is happening here is something we can debate endlessly, and completely fruitlessly. The author of the Acts of the Apostles isn’t presenting us with a puzzle to be explained. He is telling us a deeper truth about the God whom he follows and serves. That truth is that God is at home with us, deeply, permanently at home with us, wherever we are from, wherever we are, wherever we are going. The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. He knows it, and us, better than we can know ourselves.

In Psalm 139, the Psalmist asks “Where can I go from your Spirit, where can I flee from your presence?” Happily the answer is “nowhere”. God is there in the depths of the grave and in the heights of heaven, from the East to the West, the beginning to the end, in life and in death. In Paul’s letter to the Romans we are told that  the Spirit prays within us “with sighs too deep for words”. When we can’t think of the words to pray, when we can’t dig down into the depths of ourselves, he is already there, knowing us perfectly. It’s not just the outside world the Spirit inhabits, but all that is within us too.

The Spirit drives the church out into the world at Pentecost, giving the first Christians the courage to face the unknown as they journey to the ends of the earth. But that courage is rooted in the knowledge that God is at home in them, and they in God. For that reason, every place and every situation is home to them.

Today you may be feeling at home with yourself, at peace and at ease, or you may be feeling dislocated, alienated or restless, or carrying in your heart others who are. The good news of Pentecost is that wherever we are and whatever we face, the God who created and loves us is at home in us.

I’d like to finish with a sonnet by Malcolm Guite, written for this day.

Pentecost - a sonnet by Malcolm Guite

Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings

As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire, air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother-tongue is Love, in every nation.

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