Pentecost Sunday 28 May 2023 – Rev Hugh Perry

I recently read a book called Resilience written by Inge Woolf whose family I got to know through photography.  The book reminded me of how important refugees have been in the development of our society. Furthermore, on rereading and reflecting on our Acts passage I was reminded that refugees were an important part of the development of the early church.  Sadly, Inge did not live long enough to complete the book and left that task to her daughter Deborah.  Very competent hands indeed.

Deborah Heart is the director of the anti-smoking group ASH and they note that she is a former lawyer, Human Rights Review Tribunal Panel member, Chair of the Consumer Advocacy Council and the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand.  She is also the former executive director of the Arbitrators’ and Mediators’ Institute of New Zealand.

I know she was also a photographer at Photography by Woolf, that was her father’s firm.  It is currently run by her brother Simon who is also a regional councillor, and Deborah is currently chair of the Government-driven independent review of electoral laws.

At a time when the world seems filled with refugees who seem to be universally rejected and despised, it is worth knowing that Deborah and Simon, who give so much to our nation, are the children of refugees.   

It does not spell it out in the book of Acts but it’s not hard to discern that refugees, persecution and slavery were very much part of the wind and fire that spread the early church throughout the known world and even beyond. 

To understand that, we first need to understand some of the metaphors that Luke and John use and the best place to start is at the beginning, Genesis 1:1and 2 tell us ‘In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters’ (Genesis 1:1-2)

The footnote in one of the Bibles I have used makes the point that ‘a wind from God’ could also be translated ‘the spirit of God’   So right at the beginning of the Bible the story begins with the action of the divine Spirit, and wind and Spirit are interchangeable.

Wind and spirit are often a creative force in the Bible.  As well as the creation story, we can remember the breath that gave life to the bones in Ezekiel’s dream.  There is also the restoring wind in the story of Noah. ‘And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided’. (Genesis 8:1b) 

That is a divine wind of new beginnings for life on earth.  As we move on through the Bible we come to the beginning of that forty year refugee journey that formed the people of God. 

‘Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.  The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left’. (Exodus 14:21-22)

The reference to wind as the creative force from God continue but the reference to that particular sea crossing is a good place to note that one of key story lines in the Gospels is ‘Jesus as the new Moses forming a new people of God.’

Not surprising therefore that as Luke begins to launch the disciples into his story of the young church in action he does so with the announcement: ‘And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. (Acts 2:2) 

Luke also wants to make it clear that the Spirit rested on each of the disciples. ‘Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them’. (Acts 2:3) The Spirit empowers them as apostles.

The other useful thing about the fire metaphor is that flames will ignite any potential fuel they touch.  The story that Luke is telling is about the church spreading through the known world like wild fire.

However, we also need to look at the Gospel reading, and alternative spirit transfer it presents. 

Luke tells us that all the disciples were in one place and goes on to describe the reaction of people around them. We can assume that they were outside in a public space with the crowds who have come to the festival of Pentecost. 

But in John’s Gospel, the disciples are locked away in a room and the risen Christ arrives and breathes the Spirit onto or into the disciples. 

This was the first appearance of the Risen Christ to the male disciples although he had previously appeared to Mary Magdalene, and she had reported to the others. 

John is a theological gospel and one of the important theological points John is making is that, in commissioning the apostles, the Risen Christ breathes the empowering and life-giving breath of God. 

Importantly for us this reading shows that a meeting with the Risen Christ can be a private meeting not just the public display of ecstasy that Luke described.

Both our readings confirm the tradition that God acts through the Spirit to equip and empower God’s people. 

That is something that we can all experience.  We may have had faith confirming spiritual moments in our lives at a particular time.  But we can also experience serendipitous moments when following a hunch or unexpected opportunity leads to something special and a new turning point in our lives.

We can all spend a lot of time working out a cunning plan, but often real progress has come when we have taken opportunities that unexpectedly presented themselves.  

The story of Archimedes discovering the principle of flotation when his bath overflowed is a case in point.  Although it is probably best to contain one’s excitement and not to rush through town clad in nothing but a towel shouting ‘Eureka’

In fact, the Pentecost fire storm story is filled with serendipitous events.  Firstly, Luke sets it at the feast of Pentecost when so many people from so many places were in Jerusalem.  Both Jews and proselytes.  Proselytes were gentiles who had studied the Jewish culture but didn’t have Jewish mothers and were probably apprehensive of the required minor surgery.  All these people were religious tourists who would go home and carry the Spirit all around the Roman Empire.  Traders, refugees, and slaves would take it even further.  In fact, tradition and archaeological evidence suggests that Thomas even took the Jesus message to India, possibly as a slave.

Whether the Spirit came to the disciples in the locked room or singled them out amongst the crowds at the festival of Pentecost the Spirit came to the disciples at ‘an opportune time’. 

In fact, the whole Jesus story happened at the best possible moment for the life changing Spirit to begin its journey throughout the world and into the future.  Travel on Roman roads was easier than it had ever been, the Roman Empire, just like the British Empire was a trading organisation so people were moving around the known world.  Furthermore, the language of trade was Greek so missionaries could make themselves understood. 

Something that is really worth remembering is that the Holy Spirit can even make the most of disaster and tragedy. 

Just seventy years after Jesus’ death the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed as Rome put down the rebellion.  Some of those who weren’t killed were taken as slaves.

Others fled as refugees to other parts of the empire.  Some of those would have been followers of Jesus and would have established emerging church communities in the towns and cities were they settled. 

The tongues as of fire did not just ignite those first apostles, they ignited lives the apostles touched and the world of that time had all the ideal conditions for the fire to spread. 

We can look at the big picture with hindsight, analyse those conditions and realise that the church spread because it came out of an established religious tradition at the right time and the right place. 

However, those involved would not have seen the big picture in the same way we can’t see the big picture in our world.  Think of the kind English woman who looked after little Inge Woolf, but also muttered with deeply ingrained prejudice ‘the trouble is you will grow up and marry a big fat Jew.’ She had no idea of the impact Inge and her children would have on the other side of the world or as Inge wrote in her book, no idea she would actually marry a delightful and talented skinny Jew.

Luke and John have both given us powerful imagery of the way the Spirit of everything those first apostles felt and learned about Jesus, became part of them. 

The imagery tells us that without knowing the outcome they opened themselves to serendipitous opportunities. Meetings on the road and making the most of disasters and forced migration.  Like us, they probably looked at events with hindsight and realised God’s Spirit was acting in their lives.  Inspired by the Spirit they wrote down some of the experiences and insights they had.  They wrote to inform and encourage others and those writings have been passed onto us.  Our scripture and our tradition bring us to the noise and excitement of a religious festival or the quiet reflection in a locked room.  Moments where we encounter the Spirit of Christ.   

Through our own Spiritual encounters, we too will feel the creative and re-creative divine breath as a burning passion to live Christ into reality in our world.