Today we celebrate the fourth – and final – major festival of the Christian year. The Feast of Pentecost marks the end of the fifty-day Easter season, when we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit – as promised by Jesus – to the early Christian community. The story is told in that vivid and dramatic account from the Book of Acts: a violent wind, tongues of fire, intoxication and the sound of many languages. Small wonder that the reaction of those who were there was one of amazement and bewilderment.
In the more charismatic branches of Christianity – a far cry, you may reflect, from the St. John’s tradition – the Spirit may still be experienced in dramatic ways, causing people to faint, speak in strange language, and behave in unconventional ways. Now I certainly wouldn’t want to exclude the possibility that the divine presence may well be manifested in unexpected ways. Indeed, I tend to think it often is. But neither would I want the drama and emotion to obscure an aspect of Pentecost that, for me, over time, has become rather more significant, and that aspect is language.
Sometimes on this day, we read the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis, a thrilling tale which tells of languages being deliberately confused by God, so that people’s ability to communicate effectively was made impossible. In the NT account of the day of Pentecost, that is turned on its head. The presence of the Holy Spirit enabled all people, in spite of their different histories, cultures and languages to be in communication. ‘How is that we hear,’ they said, ‘each of us, in our own language?’ The Spirit of Jesus, it appears, was transcending the communication barrier.
For much of its history, in this country and elsewhere, the church held great sway over people’s lives, literally from cradle to grave. That era, though, has passed as the church’s influence has waned. Today, Britain is a very different place. People can make choices in the metaphorical marketplace of spiritual, religious, atheistic and secular philosophies. The church is no longer in a position to tell them what’s what. Now, it has to learn to be a listening church as much as a talking church, because there is a clear need for people to be understood as well as to understand. Perhaps part of the practical meaning of Pentecost is to remind the church that it needs to find ways of telling and living the Jesus story in the variety of backgrounds, philosophies and cultural languages that make up today’s society. We could, of course, go on using the language of the in-crowd, though I guess even some of us insiders struggle with that! And it doesn’t accessibly communicate the Jesus story to those who know nothing about it. It means talking the language of diversity and inclusion, where no one is left out of the dialogue – pretty much what Jesus himself did, by all accounts. And that’s where Pentecost comes in: the gift of the Spirit of Jesus, who gives us at least the potential to communicate with one another, not least with those we have traditionally found it difficult to communicate with, those – we might say – who do not ‘speak our language’. At Pentecost, the fledgling church was given a language that can bring understanding and cohesion to disparate communities. In this new environment, potential lines of communication were opened up between young and old, men and women, white and black, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, insider and outsider. The presence of the Spirit of Jesus is the source of our ability to speak the language of the ‘other’ and to comprehend what the ‘other’ is saying to us.
In a diverse and, in some ways, fragmented society, in which so many find it difficult – if not impossible – to identify with those who are different from themselves, and a society in which there is both scepticism and antipathy towards organised religion, the church finds itself with the extraordinary story of Jesus, which has a history of transforming lives. Jesus’ ongoing presence, through the Spirit, has opened up potential lines of communication, but they can only work if we are willing to listen, as well as speak. This will mean hearing the stories of others, especially those not like us, with whom we rarely even try to communicate. It has big implications for meaningful dialogue within and between different Christian traditions and denominations, and with other religions, secular philosophies, different lifestyles, diverse political views, and so on. And it means listening attentively – otherwise much may be missed or misunderstood. None of this is easy, for it demands we step outside our comfort zones. Think, for example, of the current debates between scientific rationalism/atheism, and religion. We have to engage in the contemporary dialogue with the variety of worldviews around us: since the Enlightenment, there has been no other realistic choice. This needs to be done with clarity and conviction, if we genuinely believe the Jesus way of living and loving is important and has something to offer the world, but it also demands humility. Of course, it would be far easier and more secure to stay in our boxes, do our own thing and not bother with people who don’t think like us. ‘Outside the box’ can be a risky place, for it means leaving behind the security of our own ground, and venturing into new territory without a clear map. If we dare to venture across divisions and try to enter the world of another, we might fear that our convictions might not stand up to scrutiny, that our position may be undermined, that we may not be able to hang on to our identity. Talking with strangers and learning their language is not without risk, but it is, apparently, the way of the Spirit of Jesus.
The story of Pentecost as we have received it is quite other-worldly – full of strange sounds and sights. But people discovered that as the Spirit became active among them, they could relate to each other in a new way, and they were able to have a measure of commonality and understanding between them. What could be more human than listening to the stories of others, and sharing our own stories with them? In exploring one another’s cultural language, in giving the Spirit half a chance, we might discover things about ourselves, the world, each other, and God that we never thought possible or dared imagine. Yes, God, located – rather unexpectedly – in other people with different histories and cultures, in different places, and talking different languages – actually, pretty much like that first Day of Pentecost.