St Bride's: Sermons

The Go-Between God

Acts 2:1-21

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And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.

And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.

And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.

And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.

Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.

And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans?

And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?

Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia,

10 Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes,

11 Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.

12 And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this?

13 Others mocking said, These men are full of new wine.

14 But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said unto them, Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words:

15 For these are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day.

16 But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel;

17 And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams:

18 And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy:

19 And I will shew wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke:

20 The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and notable day of the Lord come:

21 And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

The Go-Between God

One of the more bizarre and challenging predicaments that I have found myself in, was the occasion on which I was in a music shop in Riga, attempting to communicate to the woman behind the counter (who spoke only Russian), that I was in urgent need of sheet music of authentic Latvian folk tunes.  It illustrated unusually well the scale and scope for potential misunderstanding, even in a relatively straightforward human interaction.

But language really is quite an extraordinary phenomenon, isn't it?  There can be few things more disabling or disorientating than finding oneself lost in a country where one cannot speak the lingo or read the signs.  Indeed, there can be infinite scope for misunderstanding even between people who share a native tongue: George Bernard Shaw famously described England and America as 'two cultures separated by a common language.

It is certainly the case that language is the most important tool that we have to facilitate communication and understanding.  Lazar Zamenhof, the man who, in the late C19 invented the language Esperanto, dreamed of developing a single world language that would unite all people.  Sadly his project failed - but I suspect we can all recognize the ideal that drove his vision.  And the insight that lay behind his dream was an ancient one.

Because of Amelie's baptism this morning, we didn't have an Old Testament reading as we normally do.  And the story that we would have heard, from the Book of Genesis is the story of the Tower of Babel, which goes something like this:

Once upon a time all the people on the earth shared the same language.  They migrated from the East to a plain in the land of Shinar, where they resolved to build for themselves a great city, with a tower with its top in the heavens.  'Let us make a name for ourselves', they said.  'Otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.'  But when the Lord God came down to see what they were up to, he was so concerned at their pride and arrogance, and at their limitless aspirations to power and great glory, that he scattered them across the face of the earth: their tower was abandoned, and from that point onwards all the languages of the world were confused, so that people could no longer understand one another.

But why do we hear that story today?  What has the tale of the Tower of Babel got to do with the feast of Pentecost?  The answer is this: if you look carefully at our reading from the Book of Acts, which describes the dramatic descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples at Pentecost, you begin to discover that what happened on that extraordinary occasion, and particularly the way in which the author of Acts tells it, in effect, put the whole of the Babel story into reverse.

Think about the contrasts between the two stories for a moment.  Firstly, in the story of the Tower of Babel, human beings set out to obtain power and glory for themselves, but God blocks their endeavours.  By contrast, in the story of Pentecost, power is granted to the disciples directly by God, through the Holy Spirit, when they were not even seeking it.

Secondly, whereas the men of Babel wanted to build a tower to make a name for themselves, the disciples at Pentecost are empowered in order to glorify the name of another - the name of the Lord.  Thirdly, those who built the tower of Babel did so out of fear that they would be scattered across the face of the earth.  By contrast, at Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit takes place precisely in order to scatter the disciples across the globe, so that they can take the good news of Christ to the ends of the earth.  Fourthly, the actions of the men of Babel were motivated by fear - whereas the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost transformed a fearful and vulnerable group of disciples into an inspired and courageous band of apostles.

And finally, and most strikingly of all, there is the very interesting question of language.  The Babel incident, we are told, caused human language to diversify, so that people could no longer understand one another, causing disunity and division.  This is gloriously reversed in the story of Pentecost, where, through the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples are empowered to speak in tongues other than their own, so that peoples of all culture and backgrounds could understand them.  Those who had formerly been separated by barriers of language and culture, are now united in hearing the Gospel of Christ.  

But the story of Pentecost is not simply a tale of empowering: it is also a story in which some of the worst aspects of human life and human nature are turned around and transformed into something wonderful, and good and life-giving.  Greed is turned into gift; pride into humility; self-serving into self-sacrifice - and that which had divided the human race after Babel, both symbolically and actually - the diversity of language - becomes a new focus for unity.

One of the best books about the Holy Spirit I have ever read, written a few decades ago, is John V. Taylor's book entitled The Go-Between God.  Taylor has a wonderful sense of the Holy Spirit as a kind of invisible 'Go-Between': a channel of connection and communication, bringing with it the power of recognition and revelation.  Taylor wrote this:

What makes a landscape or a person or an idea come to life, and become a presence towards which I surrender myself?  I recognize, I respond, I fall in love, I worship - yet it was not I who took the first step.  In every such encounter there has been an anonymous third party who makes the introduction, acts as a go-between, makes two human beings aware of each other, sets up a current of communication between them.  What is more, the invisible go-between does not simply stand between us, but is activating each of us from the inside.  Moses, approaching the burning bush is no scientific observer: the same fiery essence burns in his own heart also.  He and the thorn bush are caught and held, as it were, in the same magnetic field.

The power of the Holy Spirit can take many forms and work in many ways, sometimes extraordinary and dramatic, at other times gentle and hidden.  But the notion of the Holy Spirit as an agent of connection, a channel of communication, is a profound one.  Good communication can enable us to recognize the full humanity of a person we might otherwise have despise or mistrust; it can reverse misunderstanding; it can heal divisions.  I have heard it said that 'Your enemy is the person whose story you do not yet know' - and it is the Holy Spirit that can open up the channel of understanding that enables such a story to be told, and heard.  And when our relationships begin to change for the better, then we become different kinds of people, and our world starts to become a different kind of place.

Conversely, it is interesting to note, in our reading from Acts, that when the disciples begin speaking in tongues, it is those who fail to see and understand what is truly happening, who stand on the sidelines sneering and accusing them of drunkenness.  Those bystanders are the ones who are both unwilling and unable to see the truth that is staring them in the face.

In baptizing Amelie, and welcoming her into the family of Christ, our prayer is that her life will be touched, and graced, by the gift of the Holy Spirit: the Spirit who brings order out of chaos, but who also disturbs our own comfortable complacency; the Spirit who is there to guide and protect and defend us; the Spirit who brings us new life and new hope; the Spirit who heals divisions, and brings unity where relationships have been sundered; the Spirit of renewal; the Spirit of Truth.

And what greater gift than that could one wish for any child - or indeed, for any human being?

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