One of the bystanders looking at what had happened on Pentecost in Luke’s story asks “What does this mean?” Peter’s response was to quote wholesale from the OT book of Joel about the outpouring of God’s Spirit on all people just before the end of time. Of course, because we are all still here 2000 years later we know of course it wasn’t the end of time but the early church believed it was, and the outpouring of God’s Spirit was an expected precursor to the end.
What does it mean for us today?
Last week I spoke on what John had to say about oneness of being and indeed as he continued in this week’s gospel offering he is still waxing lyrical on this theme – a theme at once consoling and complicated when you try and express the experiential in words.
So you can see why the most soaring piece of theology in the whole New Testament is little known and yet the vivid picture language utilised by Luke in his story of what happened on the feast of Pentecost in around 33 AD is so well known. Because a picture paints a thousand words.
Both are saying the same thing but using different tools.
Instead of “I in you and you in me and I in them” we have instead a beautiful picture of a tongue of flame representing the Spirit of the one undivided God parting and resting on each of them there. There was a strange mutual understanding, an affinity. This is one God available direct and personal to each and everyone this happened to. It is God completely unmediated by priests, sacrifices, saints, sacred texts, or holy rituals.
This was God neat, up close and personal. Available at all times in all places.
Bypassing all intermediaries we become as Paul says in Romans 8, children of God and joint heirs with Christ. We, like Jesus have the same access to God as he did; only in the level of perception and response do we differ from him.
As you may well know a Bishop’s hat – a mitre – is that shape because it is supposed to resemble a flame of God’s Spirit on his head.
The church eventually tried to control access to God by God’s people by telling them that the Spirit could only be accessed through them, and so eventually they said that God could only be experienced through accepting the authority of the Holy catholic church, outside of which there was no true knowledge of God or salvation. The church became God’s bouncers guarding the gates of heaven , and the whole hierarchical structure of control came into being.
That is unfortunate to say the least, and the lingering idea that the church does in fact still control access to God in weaker nowadays it still persists.
I used to get comments, especially when I used to wear a clerical collar intimating that somehow I was intrinsically closer to God than they were. (This of course was before they got to know me obviously – ha ha). Although very well meant, I still get requests to “Pray for me Father” - very good in itself – but with an undercurrent that seems to suggest that my prayers are more potent than a lay person because I am ordained. Nothing could be further from the truth of Pentecost.
I am that great paradox, the anti-clerical cleric. For me to wear a collar, to me I might as well put on a mask, because what people see is not a person but the mask, a role, a representative of what many still see as an elite closer to God than others.
The Spirit of God is as free and strong as the wind. Available to all. We come together on occasions like this to focus our attention on the Holy, to unveil the presence of God in creation in a special way in our services but I’d just as soon know that you experience the same Spirit and presence of God in the countryside, or when doing the washing up, or in your neighbour as well.
Because we carry that presence around with us all the time. Here in church we try and unveil the presence of God in the world and His presence with each and every one of us. The aim is to get us to see more clearly his presence in every aspect of our lives. That for me, is the message of Pentecost.