Pentecost – A Day of Miracles
The day of Pentecost is a day of miracles! The Holy Spirit creates a disturbance. The first most obvious miracle. The one we’re most likely to notice, the one we tend to pay most attention to, is the disturbance which the Holy Spirit creates.
Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
This looks and sounds and feels like our idea of a miracle. It is spectacular. It is dramatic. And it changes the lives of those involved in ways that are outside of the normal run of cause and effect.
The analogy of breath or wind is always the first one we reach for when trying to describe the Holy Spirit. Most obviously because like the wind, the Holy Spirit is invisible, it might be audible, but is generally only recognised by its effects. Those effects can be delicate like the rippling of leaves on a tree as a breeze passes by. Or they can be devastating like the destruction wrought by tornadoes and hurricanes. Whether the effect is great of small, the Holy Spirit always creates a disturbance. Though its disturbance may not always be immediately obvious. A wind blowing in the middle of an ocean creates waves. But even a very large wave in very deep water may not be easily visible. It may only be a slight rise and fall in the surface of otherwise quite smooth and level water, which with nothing to compare it against would leave it almost undetectable. Only as the wave comes close to the coast and the water becomes shallow does the wave build in height as the water piles up and eventually the wave breaks releasing its power onto the shore.
Wherever the Holy Spirit is active there is disturbance. And disturbance makes us nervous. Reading acts 2 can make us feel quite unsettled. For many Christians, and non-Christians who are at least entertaining the notion that they might join us, the prospect of such a miracle actually taking place fills them with dismay. Quite some time ago, I read a book about the Holy Spirit in preaching. And one particular phrase and idea of the author has always stuck in my mind. He said that for the most part the Church now is “Spirit shy.” He said that a significant part of the Church is so terrified of what the Spirit might do, that they won’t allow the Spirit to do anything at all. The prospect of an event, a miracle, like that of the day of Pentecost, so disturbs them that they fail to recognise the gentle blowing of the Spirit, like a breeze, that would create a delicate transformation of their lives. But the author goes on that they are not the only ones who are Spirit shy. He says there is another group who are so determined that they want the Holy Spirit to blow through their lives like a hurricane or a tornado that they overlook the fact the Holy Spirit is already at work in them transforming them in ways they are refusing to acknowledge. There are people in Church who will only accept an event like the day of Pentecost as being the kind of miracle that they want, and miss out on almost everything miraculous which the Spirit is doing all the time and all around them
Very quickly the Holy Spirit gathers a crowd. If the first miracle of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost strikes us with dismay. The second can only fill us with longing and regret:
At this sound the crowd gathered.
Pentecost was already a festival. It is the early Harvest Festival that takes place 50 days after Passover. It is the festival which also celebrates the giving of the Law. Jerusalem is full. Pilgrims from every nation under the sun are crammed into the city. And as the Holy Spirit miraculously works its disturbance among the disciples, it also miraculously gathers a crowd to witness what is going on. To which I suspect we would be tempted to say: “If only!” We look at this part of the story wistfully, “would that it were so, here and now.” We recognise that the great challenge for God’s people here and now is getting a hearing. We are conscious that whilst the Church in this place and time is not persecuted, it is pretty comprehensively ignored. There is less and less public space where we can make our views heard. Less and less opportunity to show people who we are and what the Spirit can do. In the market place of ideas and opportunities, the sound of a rushing wind is increasingly drowned out by the clamour of other offers. The Church is so diminished in numbers, and in power and prestige, that we imagine that it would take a miracle to get people to listen to us. Perhaps what we fail to recognise is that it was ever thus. On the day of Pentecost the community of believers might have been little more than twenty people. Luke names 11 disciples, and there were a couple of more to choose from to replace Judas. There were “certain women”, Jesus’ mother and brothers. And, even if we account for some that Luke has failed to mention, that won’t take us far past 20. Certainly as a group they had neither numbers, nor power, nor prestige, nothing that could draw attention to themselves and give them a hearing in a crowded city where everyone was focused on something else. We imagine it would take a miracle to gather a significant number of people to hear what we have to say. And the truth is we’re right. It does take a miracle! But that is precisely the kind of miracle, precisely the kind of disturbance, which is on offer from the Holy Spirit.
But even if that miracle did happen. Even if we did have someone to address our message to, and lets face it we are surrounded by people who we could deliver the good news to. Even if the Holy Spirit gave us the miraculous opportunity to speak. Would we do anything about it? If the Holy Spirit causing a disturbance fills us with dismay. And seeing the Holy Spirit gather a crowd fills us with longing, with regret. What the Holy Spirit does next seems to fill us with dread:
And all of them began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. . . speaking about God’s deed of power
The Holy Spirit prompts the believers’ speech. There are some things in the life of the church which I would call “simple-but-impossible.” One in particular I mention quite often: We could double our congregation at a stroke, it’s quite simple. Everyone brings someone new with them, but impossible! We can come up with no end of reasons why it is that that can’t happen. Or even if we could bring ourselves to do that, why it wouldn’t work. It would take a miracle! This is very similar, indeed very closely related to the way which we feel about talking to others about our faith. It’s simple: all of us have some experinece of the love of God. All of us have some knowledge of the story of Jesus Christ to frame that experience. All of us have the Holy Spirit to help and to guide us. What could be simpler than sharing that with someone we know. We’re not suggesting that we should talk to strangers, though that might actually be easier. What could be simpler than sharing what we believe, what makes us who we are, with someone who we know and trust. We’re not being asked to speak up in front of a great crowd drawn together by the Holy Spirit, just to one person who is right beside us. Simple-but-impossible! Because for the most part we don’t do it. It terrifies us. We imagine a whole list of “what ifs” that might be the consequence. It reminds me of a series of adverts “Dr. Pepper” ran a few years ago, based on the idea that most people have never tried that fizzy drink. A whole range of comic catastrophes befalls people who take their first sip of Dr. Pepper. These catastrophes were followed by the tag line: “what’s the worst that could happen?” I suspect we imagine a similar range of outrageous consequences that would come to us if we ever dared to try and share our faith. Simple-but-impossible. It would take a miracle to get us to do that. Yet, guess what? Once again that is precisely the kind of miracle, precisely the kind of disturbance, that is on offer from the Holy Spirit.
Though even if we were willing to speak I wonder if something else doesn’t make us reluctant We worry that we couldn’t speak clearly enough, that our words would carry enough weight, that we couldn’t be persuasive enough, or convincing enough That even if we had someone to speak to, even if we dared to speak, that it still wouldn’t work because we would be inadequate to the task.
I think the most important miracle that takes place on the day of Pentecost is often the most overlooked We simply don’t spot the miracle that has actually taken place Members of the crowd testify to the miracle:
In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.
It is not just the Apostles speech which is miraculous. The Holy Spirit enables the listeners’ hearing . It is the listeners hearing that is miraculous as well.
I have spent a great deal of time thinking about how preaching works. Not least I have spent two sabbaticals, one researching, one trying to right up, on that question. When you get to the end of all that you could observe of the preaching event, there always seems to be a gap. There is a distance between what the preacher has said and what the listeners hear and how they respond. Also, preaching so often seems to be “successful” in spite of what a preacher did, rather than because of what the preacher did. There is something illusive and indefinable about the preaching event. The preached word hangs in the air between the preacher and the congregation, it is there for a moment but cannot be captured or recorded. Only its effects can be observed afterwards. The truth is that every time the gospel is heard there has been a miracle. A miracle of the Spirit. And it is a miracle of hearing. It is not human cleverness, or elegant language that makes sermons work. It is not our ability to speak well of our faith to anyone who will listen that makes the real difference. It is always the Holy Spirit that brings about a hearing. That doesn’t excuse human effort. No preacher should imagine they can get away without preparation and have the Holy Spirit condone and compensate their idleness. And we all should take every opportunity to deepen our understanding of the hope and faith that is in us, in order that we could put it into words or actions when the opportunity arises. No Christian can get away without simple acts of faithfulness. But the outcome of our speech or of our actions is not down to our effort. It is the Holy Spirit that makes them work. Which perhaps points us to a miracle which might be very important for us. This miracle is the one that lifts the burden of anxiety from us and sets us free to witness by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Miracles are easy to dismiss. There are always alternative explanations for what God does by the Holy Spirit. At least some of the crowd who gather around the Apostles are highly sceptical of what they are seeing and hearing:
But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
The explanations need not be as unkind as the accusation of drunkenness, though believers are always open to and subject to ridicule. Especially when they taken hold of by the Holy Spirit to act in ways that are outside of the convention. Even when that is something as modest and unspectacular as talking to people about what we believe. But more broadly there are always other explanations available. Perhaps if Pentecost occurred now we might dismiss it as an event of contagious mass hysteria. The Apostles and the crowd were caught up in a moment of heighten emotion. the Apostles passed their excited state onto a crowd, who were susceptible because of the heightened mood they were in, on pilgrimage, in a crowded city. There will always be alternative explanations, psychology or sociology or ideology. And that is as God intends it! The Holy Spirit performs miracles. But miracles do not destroy human freedom, or human responsibility. God leaves us human. Even at its most visible and most dramatic, like tongues of fire resting on the head of each person in a room, even at its most remarkable, God’s action leaves us with a choice. Do we respond, believe and act accordingly. Or do we walk away
After all the alternative explanations had been offered perhaps some of the crowd drifted away. “Nothing to see her, just some drunk men. Move on!” But evidently some remain. Perhaps that is yet another miracle. The Holy Spirit overcomes people’s prejudices and keeps them listening just long enough to hear the explanation. Keeps them listening just long enough to hear the announcement like Peter’s:
This is what was spoken of. . .
This is the time when God acts among his people. Right now is the time when God will be actively present and all manner of ways. God will be present and available to all. Now is the time in human history, and equally the moment in each human life, when God offers the opportunity to respond. So that the last and greatest miracle of all can take place: Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
Pentecost – A Day of Miracles by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.