Summary: "When the day of Pentecost came, all of them were together in one place. Suddenly, a sound like the roaring of a mighty windstorm came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw tongues like flames of fire that separated, and
Wind and Fire - the two elements of Pentecost - and a dynamic duo they are!
In my naivety I had thought until recently that these two elements were natural opposites that cancelled each other out, such as when you blow on a birthday candle and the wind puts the fire out. And then we all experienced those terrible bushfires in Victoria so recently, where wind and fire combined to generate those terrible fire-balls that hurtled down city streets at terrible speeds, consuming everything in their path.
Wind and fire are a volatile combination that can destroy people and property and tear apart entire communities and yet they can also, it seems, give birth to a community! Yes, it is Pentecost Sunday and we are celebrating today the birth of the church. The church as a worldwide community has been living and breathing now for a lot longer than any of us can remember but (believe it or not) it did have a beginning and it’s beginning was here, in the wind and fire of Pentecost.
No one was killed by that particular fiery wind so far as we know - not on that day, at any rate - but the wind and the fire of the Spirit of God certainly did cause a great deal of chaos and confusion on that day. Things happened that people found hard to explain. The disciples started behaving like crazy men, such that most people thought that they were drunk, and then they started speaking in strange tongues ‘such as the Spirit gave them utterance’, and nobody knew quite what was going on.
Such chaos might appear to be remarkably fitting for the start of an organisation that has been characterised by befuddlement and confusion ever since, and yet there was something very serious taking place at the centre of that fire. A new community was being formed, and it was being formed out of a melting pot that combined persons of every race and language and people and nation.
That’s the thing that most stands out, I think, in the way the Luke, the author of the book of Acts, tells the story of Pentecost - the almost tedious list of different nations and states that are represented in the Pentecost crowd.
The list sounds something like a roll call of the countries of the known world: “We are Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, the district of Libya near Cyrene, and visitors from Rome. We are Jews, proselytes, Cretans, and Arabs.“ Was there any Ancient Near Eastern nation that wasn’t represented?
It seems strange that the author should go into such detail as to who was there. And yet a point is being made, and it’s a point about the foundation of the church and the nature of the church - that from the very beginning, the church has always been a community that includes everybody!
Of course, technically speaking, they were all Jews - the people who made up that Pentecost crowd, even if they were Jews from a wide variety of backgrounds. And yet the way the author of our story depicts the scene, I think it is clear that he saw Pentecost as the beginning of something much larger and broader still.
The church begins with a group of Galilean Jews and then comes to incorporate Jews from every corner of the globe, and then it starts to incorporate non-Jews.
The church begins as a largely working-class phenomenon, but pretty quickly we see her engaging with people from all classes and backgrounds and from every strata of society.
The church begins by targeting faithful members of the temple community but before long she is drawing in foreign converts to Judaism, and then people who had never darkened the door of a synagogue at all.
What we see at Pentecost is the beginning of a dynamic process of exponential inclusiveness, where both the size and the scope of the Christian community continues to grow and move towards the point where Christ will be all in all!
And this isn’t just a peculiar strategy for organisational growth. From a Biblical point of view there is something of cosmic significance taking place here, and it’s the reversal of an ancient curse.
If you remember the story of the Tower of Babel (as recorded in Genesis 11) it was an account of a terrible curse that came upon all people of the earth in response to their attempt to build an enormous tower, as a testimony to their own greatness.
The sin on view was a lust for power combined with human arrogance, and the punishment was that the people were divided into different language groups so that their power would be limited.
Dividing people up has always been an effective way of limiting a people’s power, and we’ve seen any number of political regimes use the ‘divide an conquer’ strategy since. Even so, division, Biblically speaking, is always a curse, and it seems that at Pentecost God, by His Spirit, began to reverse that curse.