Pentecost Whit Sunday

13 May 2016

Acts 2.1-21 or Genesis 11.1-9; Psalm 104.26-end; Romans 8.14-17; John 14.8-17 [25-27]

 

God, who as at this time taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgement in all things and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through the merits of Christ Jesus our Saviour, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

PHILIP’s request to Jesus: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (John 14.8), provides a dramatic opportunity for Jesus to explain that things are at once much more complicated and much simpler than the question suggests at face value.

On the one hand, the Father is not to be neatly separated. He lives in the Son, speaking and working through him, and the Son lives in him (John 14.10-11). On the other hand, anyone who has seen the Son has seen the Father (John 14.9). Whatever Philip means by being “satisfied” (an end to uncertainty; a longing for straightforward facts instead of mysterious allusion) is incompatible with a God who, through a dynamic relationship, constantly generates what is new and good.

The only other occasion in John’s Gospel when this word “satisfied” is used also involves Philip. It is part of his response to the crisis of having to find enough bread for thousands of people (John 6.7). The link is clearer in the Authorised Version, which uses “sufficeth” and “sufficient” to translate the Greek text. On both occasions, we see the futility of imagining limits to the generosity of God.

There was enough bread on that anxious day — so much that baskets of leftovers could be collected. Now, as Jesus prepares to leave his disciples, he wishes them to understand that God does not just give enough of himself to be going on with, but a superabundance.

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The fact that the disciples who believe in this God will be entrusted with “greater works” than the things that they have already seen performed by Jesus (John 14.12) reveals much about the surprising divine glory that expresses itself in the achievements of others.

There is a logic to the way in which Jesus develops this picture. The disciples must believe that all this is possible before the matter of empowerment and assistance is introduced. So the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, comes to those who have already learned to see through the eyes of Jesus, and not through the eyes of the world (John 14.16-17).

The Spirit, Paul tells the Christians in Rome, works in harmony with the spirit of faithful believers to acclaim God as “Abba, Father” (Romans 8.15).

Pentecost is conventionally so strongly associated with the sudden and exceptional manifestation of the Spirit that such apparently orderly behaviour as that which the Gospel reading and Paul describe may seem at odds with the narrative of Acts 2. If there is such a thing as an explicable and consistent miracle, however, this may be a distinguished example.

Some years ago, Professor David Crystal, well known as an expert in linguistics, proposed a rationale for the events of that momentous Day of Pentecost (“Why did the crowd think that St Peter was drunk? An exercise in applied sociolinguistics”, New Blackfriars, 79 (1998)).

Drawing on the phenomenon of diglossia — the existence side by side of a “high” and “low” version of a language (e.g. High and Low German), or of a formal literary language alongside a vernacular (e.g. Latin and English) — he considered the apostles and the crowds in Jerusalem.

The main languages spoken by the pilgrims would have been Greek and Aramaic. The language of the Temple and its worship would have been Hebrew, but this was not the ordinary medium of conversation: the apostles are likely to have been bilingual in Aramaic and Greek. Certainly, the fact that they were understood by their audience as speaking so that everyone heard the message in his or her “own native language” (Acts 2.8) indicates that this was not an instance of glossolalia, which would have required special interpretation, but intelligible human speech.

The shock for the crowd was hearing prophecy not in the “high” language of Hebrew, but in everyday “low” languages in which they normally communicated. Quite excusably, they concluded that Peter and his colleagues were drunk.

It was not Professor Crystal’s intention to deny the wonder of what happened, but to read it differently. He points out that the Greek New Testament uses a verb best translated “as the Holy Spirit was giving utterance to them” (Acts 2.4). This, he says, “refers to the uttering of inspired, authoritative speech”.

Suddenly, “ordinary people [were] speaking out powerfully. It is the impressive witnessing, not the language used, which was the true miracle.”

We celebrate this feast believing that the same miracle can happen again:

 

Faithful God, who fulfilled the promises of Easter by sending us your Holy Spirit and opening to every race and nation the way of life eternal: open our lips by your Spirit, that every tongue may tell of your glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

(Postcommunion prayer for Pentecost, Common Worship, CHP, 2000)

 

The Sunday’s readings columns by Rosalind Brown from the previous three-year lectionary cycle have now been published in a single volume, Fresh from the Word: A preaching companion for Sundays, holy days and festivals, years A, B & C (Canterbury Press, £19.99 (www.chbookshop.co.uk/ Church Times special offer: £15.99 when ordered from www.chbookshop.co.uk, using voucher code WORD416); 978-1-84825-853-2).

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