When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 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. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 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—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’
I used to have a problem with Pentecost, but it wasn't the most obvious one. For some people they have worries about people speaking in tongues. For others it's the whole thing about signs and wonders, of people being healed or having visions that went with the experience. But for me it was a more straightforward problem:
How can you have any more of what is already infinite?
It was actually my next door neighbour and godfather who posed the question to me, so godparents take note; your godchildren can be really screwed up if you ask the wrong spiritual question at the wrong time... But if I'm honest it actually became more or an issue for me as I began to encounter the more Celtic way of understanding God's presence. In that tradition we encounter God's Spirit as being present in all things. Some of you will have heard me use the word, 'panentheism', which is a Greek compound word made up of 'pan' meaning 'all things', 'en' meaning 'in' and 'theism', referring to God. So it means all things in God and God in all things. Indeed this is what we find in various scriptures such as, 'In him we live and move and have our being' from St. Paul's speech on Mars Hill in Acts. It's a known and accepted mystical side of Christian belief, that the Spirit of God pervades all things and that without the Spirit nothing could exist.
Now factor that back into my belief equation.
The Spirit of God is infinite. She is in all things and is everywhere. How, then, can the Holy Spirit come at Pentecost? How can the Holy Spirit not already be there? This philosophical difficulty only resolved itself for me recently.
Think of it like this. Since you started reading this you've taken probably a dozen or so breaths. I would wager that you weren't aware of having done so, yet if you hadn't been breathing you'd be in a poor state by now. The air is around you and it fills your lungs, and yet you have not been aware of it until now, until I mention it. Now all of you are suddenly becoming very aware of breathing. You might also be becoming aware of the smells around you. Maybe you've noticed your chest rising and falling. If so, then you might wish to consider that what you are experiencing now is akin to a mystical appreciation of panentheism, which to me is rather like sitting outside and becoming aware of the presence of God's Spirit moving through all things. It is becoming consciously aware of that which is taking place around you the whole time. The air is everywhere on the surface of this planet and the Spirit of God is everywhere present throughout creation. We don't usually take the time to be aware of her but when we make it a part of our spiritual discipline then it can be life-transforming.
Let's go back, then, to my philosophical problem. So how then can you have more of what is already wholly present? How can you have any more of that which is infinite? You can't have infinity plus one. That's still infinity.
Have you been out for a walk on a really windy day? Have you noticed that somehow it seemed as if there was more of the air than usual? Of course there wasn't, but the air was moving as if with a purpose. It had a power about it. Things were moved as a result of it. Trees were reshaped. Birds flew faster and further (and in surprising directions) because of it. It was just air, air which is always there, but now it was air that was really moving.
Or think about a church organ. Before it's switched on it's quiet, yet still full of air. But turn it on and the same air will start to move and generate a melodious sound. There isn't any more air than there was before. We haven't increased the amount of air. It's just that it's moving.
And that, I think, is what we can think of about Pentecost. The infinite Spirit of God is still pervading all of creation. But at Pentecost the Spirit is moving. And look at what is achieved. Prior to this you have a bunch of disciples locked away in an upstairs room, scared of what will happen next and in fear of their lives. It's a group who have been emboldened by being visited several times by the risen Jesus, but nevertheless they're hardly changing lives. But as soon as the Spirit comes they burst out on to the streets and, filled with the Spirit, they proclaim the good news about Jesus. The next section of the book of Acts is filled with stories about the miracles that took place and the radical lifestyle they lived in which all things were held in common and no one went without. There was a genuine transformation.
So what does it mean for us some two thousand years later? Well I think the reaction of the onlookers is really rather important in this. Exactly the same phenomenon had been observed by everyone present, people who have come to Jerusalem from countries right across the Roman empire, but they respond to it in totally different ways.
Some of the group marvel at it. 'How can this be?' they ask. They have seen something miraculous and it has raised a question for them. They are looking for an answer and many of them find it by turning to Christ. When we look for answers it indicates a willingness within us to be changed by whatever it is that we are encountering. There is a sense of, 'I am perceiving something new for the first time, something which I cannot explain. So I need to be prepared for my understanding to be changed by what I'm seeing, and recognise that this may have an impact on me.' So that's one group.
But then there are the cool kids. The ones who stand around trying to be important with that sense of, 'Yeah, right, nothing's going to rock my world.' Actually to me this seems like a position of astonishing laziness. They are looking at exactly the same thing. They are hearing a group of people who are basically uneducated country bumpkins, as far as the city sophisticates are concerned, who are nevertheless shouting about the glory of God in languages they could never have learned. This second group hear the same thing as the first group, but they do not want to be changed by it. That's really what it comes down to. They do not want to be changed by this awesome and puzzling encounter, and so they allow themselves to write it off as a bunch of drunks who started on the booze rather early today. And the weird world of our consciousness allows us to do that. If I were to start speaking in tongues in front of a congregation I know that there would be a whole bunch of different reactions. Some would be amazed and want to know more. Some would be disturbed and some would write it off as the vicar making funny noises and squibbling his words together.
And that is what the story of Pentecost does; it forces us to ask ourselves which of the various different camps would we find ourselves in. Would we be the ones who say, 'Awesome. What's going on?' Or would we say, 'Nope, I don't believe it happened then and I don't think we should dabble with it now.' Or maybe, 'Perhaps they really were drunk.'
For me this is a story of what happens when the infinite Spirit of God moves within us to energise us and propel us forwards, like feathers caught up in the wind, or like the notes being sounded by an organ at full tilt. The question is whether I want to be caught up in that, and the answer I give to that will be dependent on whether I am looking for change.
There's an interesting cartoon doing the rounds at the moment. In the first picture the speaker is addressing his audience and says, 'Who wants change?' Everyone puts their hand up. Then he asks the second question, 'So who wants to change?' And this time no hands go up.
So, do we want to risk saying, 'Come Holy Spirit'?