I always wanted to be a writer. My mother would take me each day to the library in Northolt, where I grew up. We’d read and when we got home, I would always read more. There was a kind of magic in stories – I still think that there is.
My teachers at secondary school were followers of F R Leavis. They believed, as I still do, that great stories with a moral and wise basis help us to become better people. I believe that that is true.
I became a writer and what I loved, love, about it is that when it is just right, when I am on form, the words flow almost despite myself. Great writing is like great speaking – you can hear it. The key is to find your voice. And when you find your voice anything is possible. That brings us to Pentecost, and Peter and the making of the first great leaders of the Church of God –after the Ascension of Jesus”.
Peter was an unlikely candidate for being a great speaker, let alone leader. He was uneducated, a fisherman and had been prone to some major gaffes. Up on the mount of transfiguration when he would have been advised to keep quiet and take it all in, he blurted out some embarrassing nonsense – speaking to fill an awkward silence. Perhaps we have all done that. At one point he irritates Jesus with his words and he is on the end of that immortal line – get behind me Satan! Peter lacked confidence, he wanted to be liked.
Let us look at the reading – dissect it and see how the Holy Spirit takes some very unpromising material and uses it well.
The context is this. The followers have gathered together at the great festival of Pentecost and something very dramatic has happened. A rushing wind filling the room, Tongues of fire, and the disciples speaking in odd sounds which then can be interpreted and heard in different languages. But the outsiders who see the results aren’t convinced. They mock. They say that it is a result of drunkenness. What words were needed? Mockery is harder to deal with than outright hostility.
As an aside I remember a similar moment – and I’d put it down to the Holy Spirit as well. I was studying at Oxford and my tutor was Alister McGrath. He was doing a session at a church in central Oxford on Richard Dawkins – open to all. To all of our surprise, hundreds showed up. It was an electric atmosphere. At the back sat a group of undergraduates who had come to mock. They kept laughing out loud and making gestures. It was then that the gentle don, Alister, paused. He looked at them and raised his voice. ‘You may mock me, but do not mock my God!’
Let’s read carefully. It starts thus.
Peter stood up… he raised his voice.
He stood up and raised his voice. The beginning of his journey to fluency – to authority. He orders the crowd…listen to me. He has a new refreshing directness. The fluff stripped away. Of course they aren’t drunk – it is only 9am. He mocks the mockers. A razor sharp retort.
Then he quotes a source of great power – just the right insight at the right time. Joel – the prophet. So it isn’t just an opinion. Joel forecast that God would one day pour out his spirit and the young would see visions and the old dream again of what might be possible.
And then the summary. God is coming. Call on him and be saved.
To me that message is as relevant now as it was then. Of course, we moderns need some context some more questions. What is God like? How do we call on him? What is to be saved? Saved from what? But at Pentecost the Holy Spirit did something that propelled the church – he gave its leader a voice – the leader’s own authentic voice, right for the moment.
That’s surely a challenge for our church at this time. How might we articulate “God is coming, call on him”?
There are precedents for this kind of Holy Spirit intervention into the way we write, create and communicate.
Caedmon was and a monk and, rather like Peter, far from eloquent. He looked after the animals. He far preferred their company to humans. Then one night he had a dream and he found his voice as a result – his poetic voice, his creative voice. It is as though he lived out that prophetic word that Peter quotes from Joel at Pentecost – he dreamed dreams, had visions.
He became the first known English poet and he wrote in his mother tongue. His verses Bede said drew people to God. We still have fragments of them – they are very beautiful. Who would have thought that a cow herd might become a poet?
Reading the Pentecost account again, it made me yearn for a voice that can speak into our world about the joy and wonder of God. I think we need it.
Let me finish with a poem that I think sums up this ‘deep magic’.
by Denise Levertov
in Breathing the Water
All others talked as if
talk were a dance.
Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet
would break the gliding ring.
Early I learned to
close by the door:
then when the talk began
I’d wipe my
mouth and wend
unnoticed back to the barn
to be with the warm beasts,
dumb among body sounds
of the simple ones.
I’d see by a twist
of lit rush the motes
of gold moving
from shadow to shadow
slow in the wake
of deep untroubled sighs.
munched or stirred or were still. I
was at home and lonely,
both in good measure. Until
the sudden angel affrighted me––light effacing
my feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:
but the cows as before
were calm, and nothing was burning,
nothing but I, as that hand of fire
touched my lips and scorched by tongue
and pulled by voice
into the ring of the dance.
The feast of Pentecost calls you and me and all Christians to open our hearts and lives to “that
our feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying” and let that “hand of fire
touch (our) my lips” and pull us “into the ring of the dance”, the life of the Church.
That is Pentecost and the Holy Spirit of God calls us with our own visions to our own Pentecost experience.
Let’s, like those first disciples, do what Jesus told them and wait in here in our Jerusalem for “the promise of the Father”. Amen.