Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Why this Church? The metaphor of the mustard seed

A Sermon preached at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 16/6/19
Ezekiel 31.1-13
  In the eleventh year, in the third month, on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came to me: 2 Mortal, say to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his hordes: Whom are you like in your greatness? 3 Consider Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon, with fair branches and forest shade, and of great height, its top among the clouds. 4 The waters nourished it, the deep made it grow tall, making its rivers flow around the place it was planted, sending forth its streams to all the trees of the field. 5 So it towered high above all the trees of the field; its boughs grew large and its branches long, from abundant water in its shoots. 6 All the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs; under its branches all the animals of the field gave birth to their young; and in its shade all great nations lived. 7 It was beautiful in its greatness, in the length of its branches; for its roots went down to abundant water. 8 The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it, nor the fir trees equal its boughs; the plane trees were as nothing compared with its branches; no tree in the garden of God was like it in beauty. 9 I made it beautiful with its mass of branches, the envy of all the trees of Eden that were in the garden of God. 10 Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Because it towered high and set its top among the clouds, and its heart was proud of its height, 11 I gave it into the hand of the prince of the nations; he has dealt with it as its wickedness deserves. I have cast it out. 12 Foreigners from the most terrible of the nations have cut it down and left it. On the mountains and in all the valleys its branches have fallen, and its boughs lie broken in all the watercourses of the land; and all the peoples of the earth went away from its shade and left it. 13 On its fallen trunk settle all the birds of the air, and among its boughs lodge all the wild animals.

Psalm 104.12, 16-17
 12  By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation; they sing among the branches. 16 The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. 17 In them the birds build their nests; the stork has its home in the fir trees.

Matthew 13.31-32
He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."

The date is 587BC, and the siege of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians
            has been underway for a year.[1]

The Egyptian Pharaoh Hophra had come to the aid of the Jewish city,
            and the invading Babylonian army had temporarily withdrawn.
The people of Jerusalem, seeing the Babylonian army pulling back,
            would surely have given thanks to God for the Pharaoh’s intervention.

But the prophet Ezekiel is not so easily swayed
            by the to-and-fro of political events.
He knows that the Pharaoh of Egypt is as much an enemy to the people of God
            as the King of the Babylonians.
He knows that all empires that set themselves above the kingdom of God
            are under judgment and will ultimately fall;
and in his condemnation of such empires
            Ezekiel intriguingly includes Jerusalem itself,
                        which he says will in time have to face the consequences
                        of its own political ambitions.

So even as Pharaoh and the Egyptian army marched over the hill
            to scatter the besieging Babylonians,
Ezekiel turns the full force of his prophetic powers against the Pharaoh.

Egypt, he says, is like a tall, impressive, graceful,
            stately Lebanese Cedar tree,
towering over the other trees,
            flourishing and nourished by the waters of the Nile.

Like other empires before and since
            it saw itself as a benevolent force in the world,
offering hospitality and protection to other, lesser nations:
            which they would be wise to accept,
            if they knew what was good for them!

It had all started with Assyria a couple of centuries before,
            Assyria was the first great Middle Eastern Empire,
            and it had sacked and conquered Northern Israel 130 years earlier.

But Assyria had eventually collapsed in upon itself
            and as Assyria grew weaker, the Babylonian Empire had grown stronger.

Like the modern empires of Britain, Russia, and North America,
            the Assyrian Empire would once have seemed indispensable and unassailable.
It had thought so itself, and that was why, said Ezekiel, it had fallen
            – or rather, been felled!

It had thought it could reach up into the heaven above
            with its towering trunk and sturdy branches,
like the ancient mythological tree that stood at the centre of the world
            linking earth and heaven.

But Assyria had been felled,
            and cast into the world below, the world of death,
and what the Assyrians had already learned the hard way,
            Ezekiel proclaimed to both Egypt and Babylon.

If Israel trusts Egypt, says Ezekiel,
            it is trusting itself to a tree rotten at the roots and about to fall.

Ezekiel can see that the temptation to seek security
            in the sheltering branches of Egypt is a dangerous one.

Babylon felled Assyria, Babylon will fell Egypt,
            and then in time Babylon will itself fall.

Ezekiel’s insight is that no empire can tower over the world forever,
            they will always fall,
because dominating ambition always sows the seeds of its own demise.

Leaders of empires who think their mighty deeds of conquest in the world
            can march them to the gates of heaven
            are always doomed to disappointment.

All empires fall.

Ezekiel wants Israel of old to hear this and learn a powerful lesson,
            which is that the Kingdom of God
                        will never be established on the earth
                        by the glorious political and military progression of the people of God.

Ezekiel warns Israel that if Jerusalem sets her sights
            on becoming an empire sustained by might,
            they may win the battle but they will lose the war.

Ezekiel knows that the covenant of between God and God’s people,
            established between God and Abraham,
is to be a covenant of blessing for all nations,
            not just one nation.

And if the people of God lose sight of this,
            and start to build their own holy nation in opposition to the world,
they are making the same mistake as Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon
            because they are placing themselves in opposition to God’s intent
            of a covenant of blessing for all, not just some.

And yet, if we fast forward six centuries to the time of Jesus,
            we find Israel setting its sights
            firmly on the hope of political and military restoration.

So when Jesus is proclaimed as the messiah of Israel,
            and starts preaching the inauguration
            of the Kingdom of heaven on the earth,
he is continually heard and interpreted
            as calling for a military revolution
                        against the latest of the tall trees to arise,
                        the Empire of Rome.

Like Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon before it,
            Rome’s Empire offered to the world
            a place for the nations to find shelter and security.

‘Come, rest in my beneficent branches’,
            said the propaganda of Rome.

The Pax Romana, the peace of Rome,
            was an offer built upon the military might of the legions,
            and legitimated by the proclamations of divinity heaped upon the emperor.

This was Rome’s gift to the world,
            and the world had better accept it, and pay its taxes,
                        if it knew what was good for it.

This was the global situation at the time of Jesus
            – a new tree had arisen to tower over the world,
joining earth to the heavens by the might of its trunk
            and the strength of its branches.

And it was in this context that first century Jewish messianic expectation
            had come to focus on the hope of a coming Messiah
who would be a new King David,
            who would re-establish the political and military strength of the nation of Israel,
restoring its borders to their ancient boundaries,
            overthrowing the Roman overlords,
and creating a geographically and politically secure land
            for the people to inhabit.

This is the context into which Jesus spoke
            his deceptively simple parable of the mustard seed.

He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."

And the first thing to notice here,
            is that Jesus doesn’t describe the Kingdom of heaven as a Cedar of Lebanon.
He describes it as a mustard seed,
            which might one day become a tree.

Despite what many in Israel were hoping for,
            the kingdom Jesus proclaimed was not another empire,
                        another Cedar thrusting its way upwards in the forest,
            out-growing and out-competing other empires on its way to the top.

This isn’t some vision of future glories
            awaiting the long-oppressed people of God
            who will finally, one day, get the empire they have always longed for.

Precisely the opposite, in fact.

This is a parable which addresses an implicit question
            which must surely have loomed large in the minds of Jesus’ disciples,
the question of how to understand
            the unimpressive and unexpectedly small nature of the kingdom
that Jesus is proclaiming is already present on the earth,
            and which can already be experienced through his life and ministry.

The disciples have already heard John the Baptist proclaiming in the wilderness:

·        Matt. 3.1-2 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

And this refrain was quickly picked up by Jesus, whose first public words were:

·        Matt. 4.17  From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

At the beatitudes, Jesus had promised the Kingdom of heaven
            to those who are poor in Spirit, and to those who are persecuted:

·        Matt. 5.3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
·        Matt. 5.10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

He instructed the twelve disciples to go out into the world,
            proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom of heaven:

·        Matt. 10.7 As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.'

And the question that he addresses in this short parable of the mustard seed,
            is how it could be that what has been happening
                        in the ministry of Jesus and his disciples
            can possibly be the establishment of God’s kingdom on the earth…

You can just hear people muttering:
            “Wasn’t the kingdom supposed to be a mighty display of God’s defeat of evil,
                        and the removal of the nations afflicting Israel?”

            “I mean, sure, the miracles are nice,
                        but where is the rest of the story?
            “Where is the overthrow of Rome?
                        “The restoration of the monarchy?
            “The re-establishment of the independent nation of God’s people?”

The mustard seed story urges, warns even,
            that no-one should be put off
            by what appears unimpressive,
because that is to judge the kingdom of heaven,
            as if it were just another earthly empire.

The thing about mustard seeds,
            is that they were famous for being really tiny,
            but grow into a large plant with large leaves.

And the point Jesus is making,
            is that the large plant is already, in some way, present within the tiny seed.

There’s a technical term for this in theology,
            and it’s ‘realised eschatology’.
It’s a way of thinking about time from God’s perspective
            rather than from a human perspective.

From our point of view, time is linear.
            One thing leads to another,
                        seeds become plants, and with the passing of time, trees.

But from heaven’s perspective,
            the not-yet is also now.

The glorious end is already contained fully within the fragile now.
            The end of all things is encoded in its beginning,

It’s a shame that a scientific understanding of DNA wasn’t available to Jesus,
            because I have a suspicion it would have suited his purposes nicely here.

I can just imagine him adding another little parable:
            The kingdom of heaven is like a strand of DNA,
                        so tiny only electron microscopes can see it,
            but it gives shape to all the glories of nature,
                        from the eye to the brain, from the rose to the mighty oak.

The not-yet is also now,
            the kingdom coming is with you today.
You might not see it yet, but it’s there.

Just as the earliest discovery of DNA was done using X-ray crystallography,
            where you couldn’t see the DNA itself, just its effects,
so the kingdom is too small and insignificant to see,
            but you can trace it’s effects,
            and glimpse it’s power.

The mustard tree is already there,
            fully contained in the tiny mustard seed.
And the Kingdom of heaven is like this.
            And if you know how to look, you can trace it’s effects:

The longed for kingdom has already begun
            in the life and ministry of Jesus and his followers,
it’s there in healings and exorcisms,
                        in restorations and acts of mercy,
            it’s found in acts of inclusion and in parables of grace and forgiveness.

All these are signs of the kingdom,
            and they speak in the here-and-now
of the end result which is already contained within them:
            they speak of the truth that the kingdom of heaven
                        is for the benefit for all peoples;
            that like birds nesting in the branches of a tree,
                        so will all find their home and refuge within the kingdom of heaven;
            and that this is the final fulfilment of the covenant God established with Abraham,
                        that his children would be a blessing to all nations.

There is a very real danger to be avoided here,
            and we need to be alert to it.

For much of the last two thousand years,
            the parable of the mustard seed has been interpreted by Western Christianity
            as a legitimation of the glorious progress of the church in the world.
The deals the church has done with institutionalised power,
            from Constantine onwards,
have been understood as the growth of the kingdom of heaven
            from the tiny seed of the parochial ministry of Jesus
            to the mighty tree of the church universal.

The ‘birds of the air’ taking nest in the branches of the tree,
            have become the gentiles and pagan nations,
                        welcoming Christ as their saviour
            and joining themselves to his glorious kingdom.

In short, this parable has become a justification
            for colonialism, Christendom, and missional expansionism.

But, I hope you can see, that such an interpretation,
            is a radical distortion of the character of the kingdom
            which Jesus proclaimed.

The kingdom of heaven is not another Cedar in the forest of nations,
            it is not another empire, however Holy or Roman.

There is no mandate here for the Christian country,
            or the holy war.

Precisely the opposite, in fact.

To enter into the kingdom of heaven
            is to set aside power, status, wealth, and money.

·        Matt. 18.1-4 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" 2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

·        Matt. 19.14 Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs."

·        Matt. 19.23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.

To live as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven
            is to live the values of the beatitudes,
it is to learn to see the grace and action of God in the present,
            rather than to long for a more powerful and glorious future.

The kingdom is with us here-and-now
            through acts of love, forgiveness and justice,
and it teaches us to take the ordinary things of our world
            and see within them the mysteries of heaven,
so that the heavenly perspective informs and infuses
            the way we then live day by day.

I bet Jesus’ followers never looked at a mustard tree,
            with birds in its branches, in the same way again;
because Jesus had opened their eyes
            to the fact that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.

And I wonder how we can learn to see the kingdom of God
            in the ordinary things of our world?

Can we learn to set aside for a moment,
            our desire for success, strength, and power,
            and find the not-yet in the here-and-now?

Can we resist the lure of the Cedar Tree,
            and discover the miracle of the mustard tree?

Can we find eternity
            in each insignificant moment?

Can we learn to associate the familiar things of our world
            with the mysteries of heaven
in such a way that we will live differently
            from today onwards?

So, as we turn towards bread and wine,
            ordinary things of this world
            which are made eternal in Christ,

My invitation to you is to begin to write your own parable,
            choosing something from your world,
and finding in it the mysteries of heaven.

There’s a space on the back of your order of service
            for you to write your parable.

If you want to, please tear it off and put it in the offertory plate later,
            or to give it to me, or email it to me.

I’ll be coming back to these at our anniversary Sunday in July
            when we look at the parable of the yeast.
And I’d love for us to hear from each other,
            some parables of the kingdom of heaven.

So, what is the kingdom of heaven like, for you…?

[1] This sermon draws on the Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible p.651, and Snodgrass Parables.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Pentecost and the Ethic of the Spirit

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Pentecost - 9/6/19

Acts 2.1-21, 37-41 
Exodus 19.1-6, 16-20

Listen to this sermon here:

Today is one of those days when I get to preach on one of our stained glass windows.
            Have you ever looked at them carefully?
We used to have some postcards of them for sale in the foyer,
            but I guess they sold out…

The windows are of four New Testament preachers,
            and apart from anything else they tell us a lot
            about what this building was built for.

Imagine the old Victorian raised pulpit that used to be behind me,
            with an elevated preacher standing six feet above contradiction,
            flanked on either side by biblical preachers.

Then imagine the building full to overflowing:
            apparently in 1851 the evening service was attended by 1,711 people.
The pews were different back in those days,
            and there was an extra upper gallery,
            and they hadn’t heard of fire regulations.
But just imagine…

The only place where a preacher can stand
            to be both seen and heard is just up there:
all the sight lines point to just there,
            and if you ever fancy an experiment come back when the building is empty
            and wander around the upper platform behind me whilst speaking.
                        You’ll find that there is a perfect acoustic sweet spot, front dead centre,
                        where you could whisper and be heard throughout the auditorium.
This building is built as a preaching box.
            It is designed for the proclamation of the word.

And then when you’re up there, look over your shoulders.

Behind you we have John the Baptist preaching, and Jesus preaching,
            and Paul preaching in Athens,
and then just over my shoulder here,
            we have Peter preaching on the day of Pentecost.

The quote beneath him is from our reading for this morning, from Acts 2.14,
            ‘Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them’.

The crowd he spoke to was far in excess
            of anything this building could ever hold.

We’re told that at the end of the sermon,
            3,000 people welcomed his message and were baptised, which would seem to imply a crowd of rather more than this… In the Bloomsbury window, I counted twenty people, so I can only assume the other few thousand are standing just out of shot.

The largest crowd I’ve spoken to is about 2,000,
            down at St George’s Catholic Cathedral in Waterloo,
for the London Citizens event with Sadiq Khan which I chaired last year.

It had the benefit of being inside, with a good acoustic, and a great PA system,
            and I do find myself wondering how people could project
            to crowds of several thousand in the way described here.

But anyway, this was no ordinary sermon, it turned out,
            because there was something strange going on.

The great crowd were not all Jerusalem Jews,
            they were from the far corners of the known world.

Diaspora Jews, who had made their home in other countries,
            had returned to Jerusalem for the great feast of Pentecost,
and they heard the disciples speaking clearly in their own native languages.

Much ink has been spilled over the years
            on whether this is a miracle of hearing or a miracle of speaking.

If you have a background in the Pentecostal or Charismatic traditions of Christianity,
            you will probably have been told that the miracle at Pentecost
is an extension of a phenomena spoken of elsewhere in the New Testament,
            often known as speaking in new kinds of tongues.

Just to help us understand some of the background
            to interpreting our passage from Acts this morning,
it’s worth hearing these other biblical references…

  • Mark. 16.17-18 And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover."
  • Acts 10.45-46 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. 
  • Acts 19.6 When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied
  • 1 Cor. 12.10 to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.
  • 1 Cor. 12.30 Do all speak in tongues?
  • 1 Cor. 13.1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
  • 1 Cor. 13.8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease
  • 1 Cor. 14.5  Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy.
  • 1 Cor. 14.18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you;
  • 1 Cor. 14.22-24 Tongues, then, are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all.
  • 1 Cor. 14.39-40 So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; 40 but all things should be done decently and in order.

The question, however, is whether what happens at Pentecost
            is the same thing as ‘speaking in tongues’,
and I’m not at all sure that it is.

Speaking in tongues seems to be primarily a devotional practice,
            probably similar to meditative chanting,
which allows the person doing it to enter into an ecstatic spiritual state
            where they feel particularly close to God.

Certainly in my experience of this,
            it has been for me a way of releasing my mind
            from the very word-bound thought patterns that tend to dominate,
allowing me to speak with God ‘spirit-to-Spirit’.

In my youth, when I was hanging out around more charismatic churches,
            people would often try and work out what earthly language
                        they were miraculously speaking
            - did it sound like Italian? or Arabic? or Hebrew? or whatever…

And there were various stories circulating
            of people suddenly and miraculously speaking
            in a language they had never learned.

I’m afraid that my experience of speaking in tongues
            has led me to rather doubt these stories
                        - they always seemed to me more like an urban legend.
            You know the kind of thing,
                        ‘It happened to a friend of a friend… so it must be true.’

My suspicion is that these stories arise
            from a conflation of the devotional practice of speaking in tongues,
                        which Paul says is a sign for believers,
            with the events of Pentecost, which is clearly a sign for unbelievers.

For my money, the miracle of Pentecost in the book of Acts is a miracle of hearing.

The disciples may have been engaging in speaking in tongues
            as they were all together in one place,
            ecstatically responding to the Spirit’s presence with them.
But the ability of people from all over the known world
            to hear them in their own languages
doesn’t mean that the believers were actually speaking
            all those different languages.

I mean, apart from anything else,
            there would have been this huge logistical problem
of making sure that the Parthians were close to the disciple speaking Parthian,
            and that the Medes could hear the Mede-speaking disciple,
            and so on, and so on.

No, this is a miracle of hearing, of understanding,
            and it is making a very clear point, as biblical miracles usually do:
which is that in the new community that the Spirit is calling into being,
            people are enabled to hear and understand each other in new ways.

The barriers of division symbolised by language and geography are broken down.
            As Peter says in his sermon on the book of Joel,
            ‘God declares, I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh’.

This is the beginning of the mission
            to take the good news of Jesus to the whole world,
and the disciples will need to learn again and again
            that God is calling them to cross boundaries;
                        of language, culture, religion,
                                    purity, class, gender,
                        ethnicity, and geography.

The message of Pentecostal miracle
            is that God will not be contained in our meetings,
                        or in our communities;
            God will not be constrained by our boundaries
                        or our norms of behaviour.
            God is bigger than any attempt we might make to contain or understand.

And the biggest hurdle that these newly baptised believers
            were going to have to get to grips with pretty quickly
                        was that of ethics:
            The key question of what behaviour is acceptable, and what isn’t?

These three thousand Pentecostal converts,
            whilst they came from all over the known world, were still all Jewish.
They would all have accepted the laws of Moses
            as the basis for their behaviour,
            based on the ten commandments.

That, after all, was why there were all there in Jerusalem in the first place.
            They had come to the capital city of their culture and their religion,
                        to celebrate the great Jewish feast of Pentecost.
            Perhaps more properly known as the Festival of Weeks,
                        and these days still celebrated within Judaism as the feast of Shavuot.

The Festival of Weeks has its origins in the Old Testament,
            as the festival of the grain harvest.
It was when Jews would make an offering of the first fruits to God,
            as a symbol of the fact that whole harvest belonged to God.
  • Exodus 34.22 You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest
  • Deuteronomy 16.10 Then you shall keep the festival of weeks for the LORD your God, contributing a freewill offering in proportion to the blessing that you have received from the LORD your God.

This symbolism of the first fruits and the great harvest
            adds a layer of understanding to what is going on
                        in the Pentecost story in Acts,
            because the invitation is to understand
                        the three thousand converts in Jerusalem,
            as the first fruits of a much greater harvest of salvation
                        that would encompass all the nations of the earth.

The outward-looking nature of the events of Pentecost
            are in this way reinforced
            by their association with harvest festival of Weeks.
The Spirit will be poured out, as Peter quotes from Joel,
            on ‘all flesh’, not just on Jews in Jerusalem.

This idea of using the image of first fruits and great harvest
            to symbolise the mission of Christianity
            is certainly not unique to Acts chapter two.
You find it in Paul’s writings (Rom. 8.23, 11.16; 1 Cor. 15.20, 23; 2 Thess 2.13),
            and also, as we shall see in a few weeks, in the book of Revelation (Rev. 14.4),
                        where the believers are merely the first fruits
                        of a much greater harvest that will follow.

But there is yet another layer of meaning to be unearthed here,
            from the placing of these events at the feast of Pentecost,
            the Jewish harvest festival of weeks.

If you ask a Jewish person today
            what the feast of weeks, or Shavuot, means to them,
            they will tell you that it means two things.
Firstly, it is the thanksgiving for gift of the harvest;
            and secondly that it is the thanksgiving
            for the gift of the law of Moses.

Graphics for Shavuot online typically have
            both wheat sheaves and the two tablets of the ten commandments.

This association of Pentecost with the giving of the law
            seems to have come about during the period
                        we call ‘the intertestamental period’;
            that is the time between the end of the Old Testament and the time of Jesus.

So by the time Luke is writing the book of Acts in the first century,
            the Jews would have known that events taking place at Pentecost
                        weren’t just about the first fruits and the great harvest,
            they would have known that they were also about the giving of the law.

And once we know this,
            we can start to see elements of the way Luke tells the story
            that emphasise this parallel.

The story of Moses going up the mountain to receive the law,
            which we heard in our first reading this morning,
has thunder, lightning, a thick cloud,
            the blast of a trumpet, smoke, fire, and an earthquake.

The events of Pentecost as Luke describes
            them have a sound like the rushing of a violent wind,
                        divided tongues of fire falling on people,
            and the loud noise of people praying words
                        that come directly from the Spirit of God.

Luke is trying to draw our attention to the fact
            that the events of Pentecost find their significance
            in the giving of the law to Moses on Sinai.

And the point of this is that,
            whereas Moses had received the Jewish law from God on Mt. Sinai,
the Jews gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost
            received a new law, a new covenant,
            given through the direct action of the Holy Spirit of God.

When God gave the law to Moses on Sinai,
            it formed the basis of the covenant between God and the people of Israel: 
  • Exodus 19.5-6 ‘If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.’

When God’s gave the Spirit to the believers at Pentecost,
            it inaugurated a new covenant
            between God and all the nations of the earth.

As Peter quotes Joel, ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh’.

The diaspora Jews had come to Jerusalem
            for the harvest festival of weeks,
expecting to make their offering in the temple
            as a symbol that the whole offering belonged to God,
and to renew their commitment to the covenant
            established between God and Israel on Sinai.

What happened in the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit
            was not just a renewal, but a re-establishment of their faith.
They themselves became the first fruits
            of the great harvest of the world,
and the Torah Law of Moses
            became the law of the Spirit of God,
written not on tablets of stone
            but on their hearts.

The boundaries of their faith are blown wide open,
            as the central markers of their religious observance
            are re-interpreted for them by Peter’s sermon.

God is God not of one people, but of all peoples,
            and the law is no longer ten commandments
                        to be memorised and obeyed,
            but a spiritual ethic to be lived into being.

But it’s not just the law of Moses that finds its fulfilment at Pentecost,
            it is the covenant of God to Abraham.

The promise of God to Abraham
            was that through his offspring,
            all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 22.17-18),
and Peter picks up on this in his sermon
            when he echoes the promise to Abraham
            and reinterprets it for the Pentecostal generation.
  • Genesis 22.17-18  I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore… and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves.
  • Acts 2.38-39 "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him."

The call here is clear:
            The coming of the Spirit on the disciples at Pentecost
                        inaugurates and commissions them
                        for public ministry to the whole world.
            They are to be those who will take to all the nations
                        the good news that God is not just for one segment of humanity,
                        but rather is for all of humanity.
            All flesh can receive the Spirit of God.

Those who received the good news first,
            are merely the first fruits of the great harvest of all flesh.
The covenant between God and humans
            is no longer restricted to those
                        who obey the ten commandments of Moses,
            or to those who are descended from Abraham,
but rather the covenant between God and humans
            is now open to all people, in all places.

The great tragedy of Christian history
            is that for much of the last two thousand years,
            we have spent a vast amount of effort keeping God to ourselves.

Even our great missionary endeavours
            all too often dressed God up
            in cultural clothing of our own specification,
requiring those who converted
            to receive not just the teaching of Christ
            but also the trappings of Western culture.

All too often we have busied ourselves
            with the task of writing again the law of God,
defining which behaviour is acceptable and which is not,
            so we can know who is out and who is in.

We have exchanged the ethic of the Spirit
            for laws set in stone,
and in so doing have missed the fact
            that God has long gone on ahead of us,
                        out there into the world beyond us,
            drawing all kinds of people to himself,
                        and pouring out his Spirit again and again on all flesh.

We need a new Pentecost.
            We need a sudden dramatic realisation in our time
                        that the Spirit of Christ is already present in the world,
            working beyond us, drawing all things to God.

So this Pentecost I pray a blessing on all of us:

May the fire of the Holy Spirit grant us the spiritual gift
            of understanding those who are not like us.

May the voice of the Spirit speak to us of great harvest that is to come,
            of which we are merely the first fruits.

May the breath of the Spirit speak into our hearts the law of love,
            releasing us from the laws of stone
            that we have chiselled into our souls.