Sermon: The radical roots of the Church at Pentecost

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Pentecost, 23rd of May, 2021

Acts 2:1-21

This week, as I thought about Pentecost and the church’s celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit, I was struck by two stories in the news. Neither of them is about Pentecost, Christianity, or the church, one of them was about another religion altogether, but both spoke to me about what it is we celebrate today, and from what it is that we are turning away.

I heard the first story on the 7 am podcast a week ago. It was based on an earlier article in The Saturday Paper and it was an interview with AFL Diversity and Inclusion Consultant Rana Hussain. Hussain was born in Melbourne to parents who had migrated from India and she fell in love with the AFL in 1999 when she was taken to a Western Bulldogs-Melbourne game, although for some reason it was the Demons she was drawn to and not the Doggies. She is Muslim, and in the interview she talked about how difficult it had been for Muslim football fans before there were prayer rooms at the MCG, when they were forced to pray in stairwells: ‘We were praying in the bowels of the MCG where there’s spilt beer and … people looking at you, and you feel really vulnerable’.

In 2012 it was announced that from then on all AFL venues would have to have multifaith prayer rooms. ‘“I remember that day,” Hussain says. “You know, as always, it was a story in the news and Jeff Kennett talked about how ridiculous it was that there was a prayer room. I just remember feeling like, ‘Oh, I wish you could understand, you love footy and we do too; it just makes it more accessible for us.’”’ Now Rana Hussain works for the AFL and as a sportswriter and broadcaster, all AFL venues have prayer rooms, and Muslims attending AFL matches don’t have to pray through spilt beer. Listening to Hussain tell her story left me with warm feelings about what it means for Melbourne to be a multicultural city.

The other ‘Pentecost’ story I saw this week was the release of a report by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) and Homelessness NSW titled Policing Public Space: The experiences of people sleeping rough. At the launch of the report the stories of rough sleepers who had been strip-searched by police in public were told:

An Aboriginal woman, ‘Monica’ reported that she had been strip searched eight times over the past three months at a railway station, without appropriate privacy measures in place. None of these searches resulted in any prohibited items being found in her possession or any charges being laid. Recounting her experience, Monica said: ‘If I’m laying down in the park and that, if I’m just laying there just enjoying it and having a cigarette, they [the police] will come up and go “What are you doing here? How long have you been here? Why are you here? Where do you live?” and then they just start strip searching.’ (p. 14)

Of the ten people who told the Report that they had been strip-searched in public, all but one identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Those were the two ‘Pentecost’ stories that struck me this week: Rana Hussein talking about Muslim footy fans being able to pray with dignity at AFL games and a woman, ‘Monica,’ being stripped-searched in public eight times over three months because she was Indigenous and homeless. The reason they both struck me as ‘Pentecost’ stories is because Pentecost is a story about God’s commitment to human diversity.

In today’s reading from the book of Acts Luke tells us that ‘the day of Pentecost had come’. Pentecost was a festival that was also known as the ‘Festival of Weeks’ because it occurred a ‘week of weeks’ (seven weeks) after Passover. Originally a harvest festival, by Jesus’ time it had become a celebration of the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Jews from all over the Mediterranean world would have come to Jerusalem to celebrate this festival, which is why we are told that there are: ‘Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs’ present in the city when the disciples start to speak.

The disciples, about ‘about one hundred and twenty people’ (Acts 1:15) are all together in one place when the Holy Spirit fills them, and they start speaking in other languages. This is not glossolalia, speaking in tongues, but multilingualism. Everyone present can hear the disciples speaking in their own first language.

There are at least two miracles here. The first is that the disciples begin to speak in these other languages, as the Spirit gives them ability. The second is that they are speaking in public at all, as the Spirit gives them courage. From staying in ‘the room upstairs’ (Acts 1:13), presumably hiding from those who had killed Jesus, the disciples suddenly take a public stand with Peter raising his voice and addressing the ‘men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem’.

The story of Pentecost contains what I think may be the funniest line in all Scripture. Many people are impressed by the disciples new-found linguistic ability, but others mock them saying, ‘They are filled with new wine’. Then Peter responds, ‘Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning’. That always makes me laugh, the idea that if it had been later in the day the explanation for the multilingualism might indeed have been alcohol, but since it is 9 am that is clearly impossible. But then Peter goes on to explain that what is happening is what was promised by the prophet Joel; the Holy Spirit has been poured out.

If you watch Doctor Who, as I do, you will have seen what happens when a new Companion discovers that the Doctor’s TARDIS acts as a universal translator. There is always a moment when the Companion is flummoxed to hear ancient Romans or aliens from a far-flung planet speaking English, only to be told that it is they, the Companion, who is speaking Latin or the alien language. That is what is happening here. The first language of Peter and the other disciples was Aramaic, but despite the crack against rustic Galilee (‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?’) enough of them would have spoken Greek to enable the group to make themselves understood. But that is not what happens. People do not hear the disciples speaking Aramaic or Greek, they hear them speaking in the hearers’ own first language, their heart language. As we know, languages do not simply enable communication. Languages shape worldviews and cultures. Languages record histories: a shared language creates a community. That people ‘from every nation under heaven’ hear the good news in their own language means that God is present in, and speaks to, every nation and community in the world as they are.

The multilingualism of Pentecost was an obvious challenge to the Roman Empire, which wanted everyone to be able to speak a single language, Greek or Latin. All other tongues, those spoken by the people Rome had conquered, were ‘barbarous’. βάρβαρος is a Greek word, created because to the Greeks all non-Greek speakers sounded as though they were simply saying, ‘bar … bar’. The Roman Empire picked up what the Greek Empire had done before it, what every single empire has done down through history, and defined ‘civilisation’ as being ‘like us’ and ‘barbarism’ as being ‘not like us’. The multilingualism of Pentecost tells us that God makes no such distinctions.

Peter, in his address to the ‘men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem’ describes another way in which Pentecost shows God’s love of diversity and refusal to limit people by their differences. As the Apostle Paul writes, in the Church: ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female’ (Galatians 3:28). As the Prophet Joel had promised, God’s Spirit was being poured out on sons and daughters, young men and old, even slaves, both men and women. Gender, age, class – none of these things matter in the Body of Christ.

The Church was at its origin and is meant to be today a community that celebrates cultural differences, rather than trying to standardise them. It is a community that is meant to show radical equality between men and women, old and young, slave and free. Sadly, like many of Christianity’s radical roots, these lessons from Pentecost are ones that the Church has had to relearn over and over again.

The early Christians in Australia thought that to share the good news of Jesus with Indigenous Australians they needed to turn them into white people. They judged their success in evangelism partly by their ability to turn those evangelised into farm workers and domestic servants. In 1840 a letter printed in the newspaper Colonist wrote of the Anglican Church Missionary Society Wellington Valley Mission:

I was greatly struck by the neat, clean and orderly appearance of all the children in attendance. While zealous missionaries labour to promote the intellectual, moral and spiritual improvement of the blacks, Mrs Watson and Mrs Gunther are no less indefatigable in attending to their personal comforts. The difficulty in performing this latter task can be duly appreciated only by those who have been accustomed to observe the slovenly and filthy habits of savages.

In order to train Indigenous children into white ways it was though necessary to separate them from their families and communities. In 1916 a missionary wrote that: ‘The young require not only isolation from the outside world, but what proved still more difficult, separation from their own people. When the latter was possible a marked difference is noted in the manners, ways and point of view, as contrasted with those who were not so fortunate’. (Bringing Them Home report, p. 74) It is painful to think of how much harm has been done in Australia because well-meaning missionaries have thought that evangelism meant making Indigenous Australians behave like whites.

The message of Pentecost is that Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs do not need to become Judean Jews to join the Church. Through the Holy Spirit God reaches out to them exactly as they are. We continue to see the same Holy Spirit acting wherever we see works of love, peace, and justice, wherever people are recognised and respected as they are. The story of Muslim AFL fans being able to pray at the MCG is a Pentecost story because it is a story of cultural diversity being embraced and celebrated. The story of ‘Monica’ is an anti-Pentecost story, because it is the story of someone being punished for being different.

At Pentecost the Holy Spirit changed the lives of both the original disciples and those to whom they preached. The fearful became brave. The despairing became hopeful. The Church was born. We are truly the descendants of that Church today when we join with the Holy Spirit in working for radical social equality and the celebration of difference. Today is our birthday. Let us celebrate who God created us to be. Amen.

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