4 June, 2017

Pentecost Sunday

1 Corinthians 12:4-13

Acts 2:1-21


Think about the modern pilgrimage of Hajj where millions of Muslim pilgrims from all corners of the world converged in Mecca today. In a similar way, in our reading today from Acts, the Jewish people, who lived in different parts of the ancient world, converged in Jerusalem. They were celebrating the “Feast of the Weeks”, a Jewish festival to commemorate the giving of the Law to Moses, 50 days after the day of the Passover.[1]

Jesus’ disciples were also in the city to proclaim the Gospel. But, unlike the modern Hajj where Arabic was the dominant language that united the Muslim pilgrims, the disciples did not address the crowd in any of the dominant languages at the time. They didn’t address the crowds in Greek, which was the international language widely used in the ancient world (you may even call Greek as the English language of ancient time).

They didn’t address the crowd in Hebrew either, even though those Jewish Diaspora must have spoken and understood at least a little Hebrew. Nor did the disciples speak in what is known today as glossolalia or speaking in tongue, speaking in a heavenly language. The disciples spoke in the native languages of those diverse people who, even though were all Jewish, spoke different languages. The Spirit of God affirmed the diversity of those people who heard the gospel for the very first time.

As such, Pentecost Day was the reversal of the episode of the Tower of Babel. According to Genesis 11:1-9, God confused the language of all nations in the world so that they didn’t understand one another. As the result, they scattered to different corners of the world. On Pentecost Day, on the other hand, God affirmed the diverse backgrounds of the people who were in Jerusalem and united them.

Indeed, friends, we are all different. We all look, sound, even smell differently. We all have different stories and life experiences. But the day of Pentecost is a reminder that our differences shall not be a reason for us to separate ourselves from one another. On the contrary, our differences shall become the reason for us to try to understand one another and become closer to one another.

When he was still walking on earth, Jesus served people from all kinds of backgrounds. He didn’t choose whom he was to serve. He served the rich and the poor, Jews and non-Jews, male and female, adult and children, those who were ritually clean and those who were ritually unclean.

The early church community, like the one in the ancient city of Corinth, reflected this kind of diversity and inclusivity. People from all kinds of backgrounds: Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free people, joined the community and became one family. The ancient ‘fault-lines’ that separated people according to their racial or socio-economic backgrounds were declared null and void in the new community that God created. “All had been baptised in one body in one spirit,” said Paul in his letter to the Corinthians church that we read today (1 Corinthians 12:13). No one was above the other.

It doesn’t mean, however, that the ancient Christian communities were ‘ideal’ communities where tensions between people from different backgrounds did not exist.

As a matter of fact, the very reason Paul wrote his letter was to quell such tensions in the Corinthian church.

Those with particular functions or gifts in the church claimed their own primacy above others who had different roles or gifts. Those who spoke in tongues, or in heavenly language, believed that they were more spiritual than others who did not speak in tongues. Those who had wisdom or knowledge thought that they were smarter than others.

The Jews believed that they were part of the chosen race, while the Greeks believed that they were the most modern and civilised people on earth. The free people looked down on the slaves, while the slaves thought that they were closest to Jesus because he too came to be a ‘servant’ like them.

But Paul reminded them that the Gospel was not about them as individual believers; it was about the Spirit of God who gave each one of them a particular gift. They were all conduits of the gifts from the Holy Spirit.

The Greek word for gifts in this letter is charismata, which derives from the word charis or grace. Indeed, the gift that each believer received was given to him or her according to God’s grace, not according to individual’s merit.

So no one should ever think that he/she was better than the other. Everyone was equal because every one had received the gift from the same source.

Equality, however, does not mean uniformity. As a matter of fact, there was nothing uniform about the Christian church in Corinth. Diversity was the rule. But Paul reminded them that their diversity should not be a reason for them to fight or compete against one another. Their diversity must be the reason for them to work together as one body of Christ.

Friends, the Uniting Church is a diverse community. The former President of the Uniting Church, Prof. Andrew Dutney, once said that the only word that can adequately describe the Uniting Church is “diverse”. In his words, the Uniting Church congregations “meet, organise themselves, and are led in very diverse ways.”[2] Let’s also not forget that in 1985, the Uniting Church declared itself as a multicultural church.

But we acknowledge and nurture diversity in the church not because it is ‘chic’ or is the current trend or to be politically correct. We acknowledge and nurture diversity in the church because we want to acknowledge the Holy Spirit who works in all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds with all kinds of gifts and stories and experiences.

The early church itself had not always been diverse. There were times when the disciples thought that the Gospel was only to be proclaimed to the Jewish people; that only the Jewish people would receive God’s grace. That false assumption was shattered on the day of Pentecost when the disciples were enabled to speak in languages other than the dominant language of Hebrew. That false assumption was shattered when the disciples witnessed how the Holy Spirit baptised and called people outside of their Jewish community.

The Holy Spirit is the only reason why today we are to celebrate our diversity. The Holy Spirit moves across barriers that we create to separate ourselves from one another. The Holy Spirit ignores the labels that we put on others and ourselves. The Holy Spirit works within all kinds of people.

We are all recipients of the same Spirit of God who comes not to separate us, but to unite us. And we have the options either to ignore the Spirit, to fight against the Spirit, or to join with the Spirit, creating a new community on earth.

Toby Keva

[1] Burt, Susan and Friends (Eds.), Seasons Fusion for Congregational Life -Lent Easter 2014, New Zealand: Wood Lake Publishing Inc. (2013), p. 194.

[2] Dutney, Andrew F., A Church Like Us for Times Like This: Reflections on the National Census of UCA Congregations and Ministers, http://andrewfdutney.wordpress.com (posted on May 22, 2014).