Reading Acts 2:1-21
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
I live in North Kingston, not far from the entrance to Richmond Park. And I can guarantee that, as I speak, scores – if not hundreds – of lycra-clad, fitness-obsessed cyclists are whizzing round the Park – many of them with scarcely a thought for any pedestrians or even cars in their way.
Cyclists nowadays are not always noted for their adherence to the Highway Code. Most cyclists, or so it sometimes seems, will ride on the pavement (whenever it suits them) and won’t stop at a red light unless it would be positively suicidal to do so.
There may be some keen cyclists among you, so let me make it clear. I’m not claiming that all cyclists are like that.
Now, let’s imagine the following scenario:
A young boy has just learned to ride a bike. He goes to cycling proficiency classes and is told that he should never, ever go through a red light. So when he’s out on his bike, he dutifully and always stops when he comes to a red light.
But, you know how it is, the cycling classes begin to fade from his memory, he sees lots of other cyclists going through red lights and he begins to form the notion in his head that it must be perfectly alright to go through a red light. After all loads of people do it.
So one day he does just that, goes through a red light – but he’s misjudged the speed of an oncoming car and … well, fortunately, in this instance the car driver brakes just in time and no-one gets hurt.
The question I’d like to ask is, whose fault is it? The boy is only a lad, we can hardly pin the blame on him. Well, perhaps a little, but not the whole of it surely. What about all those cyclists whom he’d seen going through red lights in the weeks and months leading up to this incident? They should certainly shoulder some responsibility.
But what about the friends and relations of those cyclists who knew about, but didn’t do anything to try and stop, these particular bad habits?
What about those pedestrians – like me, for instance – who cross the road when that little man is red, if we think it will save us a few dubiously precious seconds? Aren’t those pedestrians implying that red lights are merely optional?
What about society at large, a society in which – implicitly or explicitly – we are encouraged to do what we like, when we like. Just so long, of course, as it doesn’t harm anyone else.
We are all interconnected in a myriad different ways, of which we are only dimly aware – if at all. But the interconnections are real.
And because we are all interconnected, we may be doing harm even when we don’t have the slightest inkling that we’re doing so.
It seems to me that we have to work on the assumption that everything affects everything. Actually, I don’t think it’s an assumption. I think it’s a fact.
Today we celebrate Pentecost – the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first disciples. Well, the vicar’s away today so I’m going to let you into a little secret, which you may find surprising, coming from someone wearing a dog collar. My secret is this: it has never been entirely clear to me exactly who the Holy Spirit actually is. His or her role in the Holy Trinity has sometimes seemed to me to be whatever people have wanted it to be.
Maybe that’s the point. Maybe you just can’t pin the Spirit down to one particular job. Maybe he – or she – is working everywhere and at all times and in every possible way to bring about what Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.
So, bearing in mind that perhaps we can’t pin the Spirit down, let’s have a look at that famous account of Pentecost from Acts. After all, this is the one time when the Spirit really takes centre stage.
Now, looking at this passage, it seems that the crucial point is the linguistic gift that is given by the Spirit to the disciples, so that they are enabled to speak in other languages, to communicate, to connect with others in a way that they weren’t able to before. That, at least here, seems to be the work that the Spirit does.
One of the great mythical stories in the Old Testament is that of the Tower of Babel. It describes how human beings become separated from each other by the varied and mutually incomprehensible languages that they come to speak.
I’ve sometimes found myself alone in a foreign city unable to speak the local language. It’s bad enough in Western Europe. It’s even worse further afield if all the road signs and so forth are written in a script you can’t even read.
In me at least the sense of isolation and disconnection that that ignorance of the local language can engender has actually been quite distressing. There’s nothing quite like it to produce unease and a sense of isolation in the very depth of your being. It builds a barrier between you and those around you. Barriers always bring with them negative emotions.
Making us realise our interconnectedness and breaking down barriers, it seems, is one aspect of what the Spirit is all about. The breaking down of barriers leads to the breaking down of more barriers until there are no barriers left. And when there are no barriers left – between people and people, between people and the rest of creation, between people and God – then that is the kingdom of God, that is heaven.
Coming back to that story about the young cyclist, perhaps it tells us that, not only are we interconnected, but that our interconnectedness implies mutual responsibility.
When the barriers come down, we see that we are responsible for everyone and that everyone is responsible for us. Because, in the kingdom of God, nothing and no-one will exist or could exist beyond the orbit of anyone’s concern.
Being responsible for everyone and everything, that may sound like a tall order – but not perhaps impossibly tall in an environment – as in God’s kingdom – where everyone is alert to the needs of others and acts accordingly.